Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Accommodating Voices for Evolution

In the following post, I lay out the evidence that the NCSE presents an explicitly accommodationist perspective and in so doing endorses theological propositions. My evidence for this installment is derived from NCSE's Voices for Evolution section, which is an online publication of a book by the same name. In the words of NCSE:

Voices for Evolution is a project of the NCSE to collect the full diversity of organizations and perspectives in support of teaching evolution in the public schools. These statements represent the consensus view of the scientific community that evolution is well-supported, and that failing to teach it is a disservice to students.
Additionally, Voices for Evolution can obtained via free download and is also available for purchase (here and here).

One thing that troubles me about this project is that substantial parts of the "Religious Organizations" section explicitly pushes an accommodationist perspective in that many scientifically/theologically questionable statements are published by NCSE alongside many perfectly accurate statements regarding evolution. I wonder why the NCSE opted to allow the explicitly religiously doctrinal perspectives into a publication designed to defend evolution?

My hypothesis is that NCSE carefully chose the most evolution-friendly statements they could find, and included them whether or not they were interspersed with statements that are explicitly religious. In any event, NCSE is on the record as having endorsed quite a few statements which are decidedly peculiar for such an organization to endorse. In particular, NCSE has endorsed:
  1. the salience of affirming statements of faith in defense of evolution;
  2. one particular theological claim (the Bible should be read as accommodating evolution) over another competing theological claim (the Bible should be read as denying evolution).
To my mind, points 1 and 2 above are both bad form for a science organization. The first point is particularly troubling as it implies that NCSE permits and even encourages the use of religious thinking in defense of science. While I'm sympathetic to the goal of point 2, I still think it is unacceptable. What business does a science organization have in promoting one theological view over another?

I find these types of statements problematic, not because they contain religion, as I have no desire to spend significant amounts of my time confronting religious organizations. Nor do I have a problem with religious organizations carving exceptions for evolution in their theology, even if I find the manner in which those exceptions are carved out to be rather peculiar. In fact, I place the blame at the feet of the NCSE, who I think should not be in the business of promoting such statements. So, to the religious, relax, when the above statements appear in church letters, bulletins, or as parts of sermons or religious conferences, I have no beef. I singled out these statements only because they are promoted by the NCSE. I have enumerated those many problematic statements beneath the fold.

Before proceeding to the quotes, I first want to make it clear that these perspectives are articulated by the religious organizations they are ascribed to, and are not drafted by NCSE. However, I also want to suggest that the very presence of these statements on NCSE's site is an explicit endorsement of them by NCSE. If I encounter any site excerpting denial of evolution from religious authorities, I certainly ascribe that point of view to the owners of that site. Indeed, unless the NCSE explicitly rejects the theology in content hosted on its site, I am just as justified as construing such hosting an endorsement of that point of view.

Without further ado, here are the excerpts. Emphasis and comments in square brackets are mine.

188 Wisconsin Clergy

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible — the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark — convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rest. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God's loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences

The universe is more mysterious than either science or religion can ever fully disclose, and the urgencies of humankind and the natural environment demand an honest interaction between the discoveries of nature, the empowerment afforded us by appropriate technology, the inherent value of the environment, and the demand that we commit ourselves to a future in which all species can flourish. We can no longer afford the stalemate of past centuries between theology and science, for this leaves nature Godless and religion worldless. When this happens, our culture, hungering after science for something to fill the void of its lost spiritual resources, is easy prey to New Age illusions wrapped in scientific-sounding language — the 'cosmic self-realization movement' and the 'wow of physics' — while our 'denatured' religion, attempting to correct social wrong and to provide meaning and support for life's journey, is incapable of making its moral claims persuasive or its spiritual comfort effective because its cognitive claims are not credible. Nor can we allow science and religion to be seen as adversaries, for they will be locked in a conflict of mutual conquest, such as "creation science" which costs religion its credibility or a philosophical stance of "scientific materialism" which costs science its innocence....

Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, Pastoral Letter


To begin with creation is a fact. The world exists. We exist. Evolution is a theory. As a theory, evolution expresses human response to the fact of creation, since existence raises questions: how did creation come to be, and why?

The question of why [ie religion] is the deeper one. It takes us into the realm of value and purpose. This urgent inquiry is expressed in human history through religion and statements of faith. Christians cherish the Bible as the source book of appropriating the point and purpose of life. We regard the Bible as the Word of God, His revelation of Himself, the meaning of His work and the place of humanity in it.

The question of how [ie science] is secondary, because human life has been lived heroically and to high purpose with the most primitive knowledge of the how of creation. Exploration of this secondary question is the work of science. Despite enormous scientific achievement, humanity continues to live with large uncertainty. Science, advancing on the question of how, will always raise as many questions as it answers. The stars of the exterior heavens beyond us and the subatomic structure of the interior deep beneath us beckon research as never before.

Religion and science are therefore distinguishable, but in some sense inseparable, because each is an enterprise, more or less, of every human being who asks why and how in dealing with existence. Religion and science interrelate as land and water, which are clearly not the same but need each other, since the land is the basin for all the waters of the earth and yet without the waters the land would be barren of the life inherent to its soil.


Episcopal Church, General Convention (2006)

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention affirm that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the ancient Creeds of the Church; and be it further,

Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith; and be it further

Resolved, That Episcopalians strongly encourage state legislatures and state and local boards of education to establish standards for science education based on the best available scientific knowledge as accepted by a consensus of the scientific community;


General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

1. Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and The Reformed Confessions.
2. Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
3. Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community.
4. Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and science educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, communities, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable scientific knowledge.

Lexington Alliance of Religious Leaders

The following ministers and religious leaders are very much concerned with and opposed to the possibility of "Scientific Creationism" being taught in the science curriculum of Fayette County Schools.

As religious leaders we share a deep faith in the God who created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and take with utmost seriousness the Biblical witness to this God who is our Creator. However, we find no incompatibility between the God of creation and a theory of evolution which uses universally verifiable data to explain the probable process by which life developed into its present form.


Roman Catholic Church (1981)

Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The sacred book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.It is therefore appropriate amidst this controversy for the United Church Board to work with members of the United Church of Christ and others to understand this issue from the perspective of our religious and educational traditions. We mean to assist persons to participate fearlessly in open inquiry, debate, and action concerning the goals of education; to understand the role of science, including an appropriate relationship between science and faith; to help develop consensus in public policy issues affecting the public school; and to support academic freedom at all levels of the educational experience.

United Church Board for Homeland Ministries


II. Affirmations

1) We testify to our belief that the historic Christian doctrine of the Creator God does not depend upon any particular account of the origins of life for its truth and validity. The effort of the creationists to change the book of Genesis into a scientific treatise dangerously obscures what we believe to be the theological purpose of Genesis, viz., to witness to the creation, meaning, and significance of the universe and of human existence under the governance of God. The assumption that the Bible contains scientific data about origins misreads a literature which emerged in a pre-scientific age.


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