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After 150 years, evolution debate continues among people of faith
Dennis Sadowski
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, February 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—When scientists, theologians and philosophers gather March 3-7 in Rome for a Vatican-sponsored congress marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's theory on evolution, they hope to help Catholic Church officials better understand some of the current thought and research related to evolutionary biology.
"The program is to reorient the conversation between the Catholic Church and modern natural science, to get a new kind of conversation going," explained Phillip Sloan, professor of liberal studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and a congress planner.
"It's establishing a dialogue on science and theology because of the great challenges that modern sciences are presenting to traditional theological understanding," he said.
Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture under its Science, Technology and the Ontological Quest project, the University of Notre Dame and several of Rome's pontifical universities, the gathering of international scholars and Vatican officials is one of a series of events surrounding the publication of Darwin's landmark work.
Darwin's theory, which several popes have accepted as compatible with Catholic teaching, remains a contentious topic in the United States. The arguments have focused on whether the Genesis story of creation should hold the same stature as evolution in the classroom.
The discussion has taken on an added dimension with the growing movement to promote intelligent design, which accepts that life has evolved over the eons but that because it is so complex its development has been guided by a supreme being or intelligent agent, which some identify as God.
Sloan said that how society sees evolution has been shaped by the popular media, which omits any role for God in creation. Without God somewhere in the equation, it becomes a lot easier for people of faith to reject Darwin's premise about the existence of life.
A Gallup Poll released Feb. 12, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, showed that 39 percent of Americans accept evolutionary theory while 25 percent do not. Another 36 percent of respondents had no opinion.
Popes Pius XII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI in particular have expressed interest in biological evolution. Pope Pius XII wrote in a 1950 encyclical that there was no conflict between evolution and faith, as long as there were certain firm points of faith where no concession can be made.
More than half a century later Pope John Paul II cited the encyclical in offering firm support for Darwin's work, telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that "new knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis."
Despite such public support, Catholics have a shallow understanding of the issues that Darwin's theory raises, Sloan explained in announcing the congress in September 2008.
Sloan told Catholic News Service the conference will be a step toward helping interject Catholics into the discussion, but with a focus on the nature of human existence.
People of faith do not have to be backed into a corner, forced to choose one or the other, leading Catholic proponents of evolution told CNS.
Martinez Hewlett, professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona, said Christians, and Catholics in particular, would benefit from greater education about evolution and faith. He suggested such efforts should not just be focused in classrooms but from pulpits as well.
Hewlett, a lay Dominican who teaches courses on science and religion at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., accepts the science of biological evolution because "it is good science" and offers the best explanation for the observations about how life developed on earth.
"Science by itself doesn't say anything about our spiritual nature, about us as children of God. We need to help folks understand that the evolutionary model is a very rich paradigm that gives us all of our biology, and implicitly our medicine, with all of the things it can do for us. However the science of evolution doesn't contain any of the anti-religious things that some people claim," Hewlett explained.
Biologist Kenneth Miller, a leading science educator at Brown University in Rhode Island and a popular lecturer, holds firm to the theory of evolution as explaining how life, including complex life, developed on earth. As a lifelong Catholic, Miller said his faith and his profession hardly are contradictory.
"Look at what evolution tells us," he said. "We live on a planet and in a universe where the very laws of nature are remarkably hospitable to the emergence of new life. We as human beings are part of that natural fabric.
"Evolution is a way to understand the wisdom of the creative power of God. God is a lot more clever than we generally give him credit for," he said.
And Sandra Yocum, chairwoman of the religious studies department at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, said understanding evolution "helps us with our understanding of who God is, to understand that God is more mysterious than we recognize."
While Darwinian evolution has its shortcomings, it remains the most plausible theory of how the world got to where it is today in the mind of Miller's friend, John F. Haught, senior fellow in science and religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.
Haught, who has written several books on theology and evolution, told CNS that some objections to evolution remain because many of its supporters have adopted a materialistic view of the world. That view holds that matter -- nothing more -- is all there is in the world.
Rather, Haught outlined a view of creation that is much more dynamic, in which he describes God as being "more interested in adventure" than in "maintaining the status quo," leading to the creation of beauty, diversity and enjoyment.
"Evolution occurs because God wants to maximize freedom," Haught said. "Any universe that gives rise to free beings like ourselves, it has to be something other than perfectly designed. Everything would be fixed in its place forever; no wiggle room, no freedom, no future, no room for hope, no room for action, no room for the emergence of virtue, no room for religious aspiration."
Many religious fundamentalists adhere to the creation story in Genesis and believe God created the world and humans in their present form 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. A second premise, known as intelligent design, has emerged over the last three decades. While its critics maintain that intelligent design is a repackaged version of creationism, its supporters say it has its foundation in science.
Leading intelligent design promoter Michael J. Behe, a Catholic and a biochemist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, told CNS that life is too complex to have evolved on its own.
"Darwin's theory works great if you've got some system working well already and can improve it by some excruciatingly tiny steps," Behe said. "I think evolution is guided or set up or rigged somehow to produce what it has produced.
"Intelligent design is not a religious conclusion; it's an empirical conclusion," he explained. "We didn't expect this machinery in the cell and we didn't expect the foundation of life to be so complicated. Now that it is, we have to come up with the best explanation for it."
Behe is among a small number of scientists who support intelligent design and as a result has been pushed to the margins of modern scientific research.
On the other side of the argument, a growing number of scientists are using evolutionary theory to justify no belief in God whatsoever. One of the most vocal has been author Richard Dawkins, a British scientist whose best-selling books have challenged anyone who believes that God has any role in creation whatsoever.
Just as he defends evolution from its opponents, Miller, the Brown University biologist, often is called upon to defend his belief in God. Nonbelieving and agnostic colleagues point to examples of pain and suffering in the world as evidence that there is no God. But he turns their argument around by saying if suffering did not exist humans would be living in a perfect world.
"You are asking for a world where no one ever gets sick and to live in a padded room where you can never hurt yourself and no one can ever hurt you," he answers the skeptics. "There would be no opportunity to display courage, cure disease, solve social ills. In short, your idea is that if there were a God we'd already be living in heaven."
Notre Dame's Sloan said that the Rome congress will hardly end the debate over evolution, but instead will reflect upon current scientific understanding of Darwin's theory. Sloan said one question remains: How can we accept evolutionary theory and also defend the fundamental differences between human beings and the natural world?

"What's needed is a new kind of dialogue," he explained, "in which Christianity and Catholicism is quite willing to accept the input of the natural sciences but also add to it the remarkable nature of the human being."

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