On Feb. 11, 2007, Christians will gather in churches across America to celebrate a very special Sunday. What is the purpose — to raise money for missionary work? To ponder the escalated war in Iraq and pray for peace? To celebrate the birthday of a saint? Nope.
Well, actually, no to the first two suggestions and kind-of-but-not-really to the third. Congregants won’t focus on missions or peace this Sunday; instead, they will celebrate a birthday. And while the individual can hardly be considered a saint, he did attend seminary and went on to have an unprecedented impact on the Church. That individual is Charles Darwin.
Though Darwin’s birthday is actually Feb. 12, the 11th is close enough for these Christian congregants. Indeed, Darwin’s birthday is really just a convenient date to celebrate a “holiday” with a broader focus: Evolution Sunday. Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, initiated this holiday in 2006, with over 450 participating churches.
“I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith,” Zimmerman said.
On Evolution Sunday, churchgoers will hear sermons asserting that science and religion are fully compatible and that one can be a faithful Christian without rejecting the theory of evolution.
While the Bible is clear in stating that God created the world, many Christians assert that it is not clear exactly how God did it. Those advocating creationism or intelligent design insist on a literal reading of the first two chapters of Genesis, leading them to believe in the spontaneous, supernatural creation of life. Those Christians advocating evolution prefer an allegorical reading of these chapters, where the creation story is used as a vehicle to convey more important theological truths: that God created the world, that celestial bodies are not gods, and so on. This allows them to believe that God created biological life via the process of evolution, a process which, itself, was designed by God. This belief goes by the moniker “theistic evolution.”
The idea for Evolution Sunday was sparked in 2004, when a Wisconsin school board passed policies discouraging the teaching of evolution. Zimmerman responded to the decision — which he saw as a deliberate “embrace of scientific ignorance” — by writing a statement to the school board in support of evolution and asking local clergy to sign it. The response was overwhelming — over 200 clergy signed. After Zimmerman broadened the statement to address all school boards and made it available across the nation, 10,000 more religious leaders gave their support. Signatories included seminary presidents, Christian philosophers, denominational leaders and bishops, from such diverse sects as Episcopalianism, the United Church of Christ, Baptism and Roman Catholicism. Apparently, Zimmerman’s concerns struck chords within many.
As a trained biologist and aspiring theologian, I find this encouraging. For too long, society has been dominated by an either-or approach to science and religion that pits each realm of inquiry against the other. This results, on the one hand, in Christian fundamentalists who retain religion and discard science — or more specifically, attempt to validate their approach to the Bible with pseudoscience such as intelligent design. On the other hand, the conflict is fueled by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, who retain science and discard religion, asserting that the latter is “just bad science” and likening it to a brain virus that should be eradicated.
Neither approach is satisfactory. If fundamentalists affirm that God inspired the Bible and created the universe, they have no reason to eschew quality science for the sake of preserving one approach to the Bible. Both science and biblical study concern themselves with God’s revelation, and though humans can misunderstand one or the other, if they are Christians, they should have faith that the truths revealed by each discipline cannot ultimately be in conflict. And since Dawkins acknowledges that science is the study of the physical world, he has little basis for the claim that religion, centered largely on metaphysical propositions, is “just bad science.”
While Evolution Sunday may help dissipate this warring attitude, its impact on the Church may not be entirely benign. In telling congregants to embrace the theory of evolution, the event perpetuates the same herd mentality it is designed to combat. Rather than learning to transcend their peculiar subcultures and critically engage ideas themselves, Christians will learn to assimilate another opinion because an authority tells them to. It’s hard to see how this is a substantial improvement from the previous state of affairs, in which Christians were taught to accept the opposition proposition, that evolution is not true, just as uncritically.
Jonathan Dudley is a student at the Divinity School and a molecular oncology researcher at Yale School of Medicine.