Archive for Thursday, October 27, 2005

Balancing religion, evolution science

October 27, 2005


I believe in intelligent design, and I want it taught to my children. But in Sunday School, not in science class. Intelligent design is an ancient religious idea. Despite the current confusion and controversy, modern evolutionary science has given it rich, new meaning.

In 1802 an English clergyman, William Paley, summed up intelligent design in a book titled "Natural Theology." The study of living organisms, he said, is like finding a watch on the ground. We can immediately tell that the watch was designed as a whole. Studying nature was a religious duty for Natural Theologians because they thought the beauty, complexity, and perfection of life's design proved the benevolence and perfection of the Creator. Charles Darwin was attracted to Natural Theology, but his data and critical mind led to a theory that lacked a clear role for an omnipotent, loving God and was not what Natural Theologians had hoped to find.

Today the scientific evidence of evolutionary change in animals and plants is overwhelming and has spawned many new fields which are the foundations of the bioscience industry we hope to develop in Kansas. We know with forensic certainty that biological evolution is a fact and that all the diverse forms of life on Earth are related. You cannot accept the guilt of Wichita's BTK killer, established in part with DNA evidence, and also deny the reality of evolution; it is the same science.

Most philosophical objections to "Darwinism" have been eliminated, also. Scientists in virtually all disciplines today have moved way beyond the constraints of the 19th century mechanistic world view which posed such a problem for Natural Theologians. For most Christians, the evidence of evolution is a welcome demonstration that we are all special in the eyes of God and have a place in a much older and larger family than once realized. Many biological scientists today marvel at the complexity of the genome and diversity of life, and they personally embrace a new kind of natural theology which accepts evolution on its scientific merits, but regards the process itself as being, in some sense, designed by a creator.

Today's critics of evolutionary theory have raised our awareness that the teaching of evolution should be balanced with serious discussions of its perceived religious implications. Ideas about our origins profoundly influence how we live our lives, and modern scientific discoveries raise the same deep questions that have stimulated philosophers, mystics, clerics, and saints for millennia. Teaching these topics to children is a burden that must be now taken up by religious educators, not science teachers.

The new "Explore Evolution" exhibit, soon to open at the Kansas University Museum of Natural History, will provide an excellent opportunity for religious educators to begin learning what contemporary evolutionary science is really all about. I urge clergy, Christian education leaders, and instructors of all religious denominations to come to the exhibit. They can freely discuss the theological and moral implications of what they've learned.

John Lillard Burch is a Lawrence bioscience investor, a board member for the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center and leader of adult Christian education at Plymouth Congregational Church.


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