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Evolution and the Presbyterian Church (USA): Not Quite the Relationship It Could Be

When people believe that being religious means that some scientific concepts can't be discussed or accepted, damage is done to both religion and science.
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In late June, members of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) looked into the future of the religion and science debate and blinked. Instead of positively reshaping a manufactured debate that hasn't accomplished anything positive for anyone, they opted to ignore the reality of the situation and responded with platitudes demonstrating just how far we still have to go before even mainstream religions are able to fully embrace science.

The opportunity arose because Reverend John Shuck, the pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., presented a resolution asking that the General Assembly endorse the work of The Clergy Letter Project and set aside the second Sunday in February as Evolution Sunday. The Clergy Letter Project is comprised of more than 15,000 clergy members and scientists who recognize that the teaching of evolution need not threaten deeply held religious beliefs. The concept of Evolution Sunday arises from The Clergy Letter Project's celebration of Evolution Weekend each year. On the Sunday closest to the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday congregations representing a multitude of faiths from all over the world explore the compatibility of religion and science.

Reverend Shuck and his congregation have long been supporters of The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend. As he explains it, a group in his congregation "meets monthly and explores the intersection of science and faith. Three members of the group created this resolution. Each is a science educator and has devoted his or her life to science education."

In his articulate presentation, Reverend Shuck explained why the resolution was so very important.

"This resolution is not about science in general, which the Presbyterian Church has affirmed. This resolution is specifically focused on evolution. It is evolution where these scientists face the struggle with churches and popular culture in regards to teaching evolution in our institutions of learning. Evolution is where the cultural battle rages. That is the place where the church is being asked to help."

By adopting Reverend Shuck's resolution, the Presbyterian Church (USA) would certainly not have been breaking new theological ground. Indeed, the United Methodist Church endorsed The Clergy Letter Project in 2008. Similarly, the Southeast Florida Diocese of the Episcopal Church offered its endorsement that same year and the Southwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America endorsed The Clergy Letter Project the following year. Nonetheless, an endorsement would have made a strong statement about the compatibility of faith and science.

As Reverend Shuck explained it, adopting the resolution would have sent two critical messages:

"The first is to communicate to the Presbyterian Church and to bear witness to the larger culture that faith and evolution are not incompatible and that evolution should be taught in the public schools not as one theory among many but as a foundational scientific truth.

The second intent is to communicate to our scientists and to our students of science that the church supports them in the struggle to educate the public in matters of science, and in particular, evolution. One does not have to set aside one's faith to accept evolution and one does not have to leave aside what they learn from science, and in particular, evolution, to grow in faith."

But members of the Committee on Theological Issues, Institutions and Christian Education voted overwhelmingly (47-2) against the proposal. Although discussion was brief, there seemed to be two reasons for the negative vote. First, there was concern about designating one particular Sunday for this purpose, thinking that it would detract from the solemnity associated with a church service. Second, there was concern that the entire topic was simply too controversial. The latter view was best expressed by the person who said, "I have people in my family who believe in evolution and those who don't. Why add fuel to the fire?"

In many ways, these two concerns are not independent of one another. When people believe that being religious means that some scientific concepts can't be discussed or accepted, damage is done to both religion and science. Under such circumstances, the teaching of science can be inappropriately influenced by misguided religious belief. At the same time, many thoughtful individuals will stay away from congregations that pit science against religion.

Let me again turn to Reverend Shuck to cogently make this point, a point that has been made by many clergy members who have opted to celebrate Evolution Weekend.

"Next to Easter, Evolution Sunday is the biggest Sunday of the year in our congregation. People come to our church because of Evolution Sunday. People who have been alienated from church because of its negative attitudes toward evolution have found a home with us. Through lectures, sermons, worship, and outings we worship God and celebrate in a sacred celebration what we are learning about our natural world. The scientific theory of evolution through the mechanism of natural selection has transformed the way we understand our natural world."

Yes, the members of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had a chance to make a powerful statement about the intersection of religion and science. By taking the easy route, by ignoring the issue, they've endorsed the status quo and made no progress toward respecting science while honoring faith.

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