Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Beginning

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."--Genesis 1.1
"The tree of Eternity has its roots in heaven above and its branches reach down to earth. It is Brahman, pure Spirit, who in truth is called the Immortal. All the worlds rest on that Spirit and beyond him can no one go....The whole universe comes from him and his life burns through all things."--The Upanishads
"And your God is the One God: there is no deity save Him, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace. Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth...there are messages indeed for people who use their reason."--The Qur'an, Al-Baqarah 163-4

As the passages above indicate, throughout human history the question of the origin of the universe--and of the human life that contemplates it--has been a religious one. In the foundational past, even when scientists have turned their attention to the matter, they have seen the question of origins in a religious light, which is why Aristotle's first proof for the existence of God turns on his observation from physics that all movement has a cause.

In modern times, however, things in this area, as in so much else, have changed. It certainly feels as if in the past several decades not a year passes in the United States without some controversy surrounding the teaching of creationism in the public schools. Whether it arises from choices of textbooks in the Texas schools or passage of a referendum on the matter in Kansas or Pennsylvania, this controversy is as common--and its participants' opinions as predictable--springtime windstorms in the nation's heartland.

The common opinions, however, tend to recur because they never provide consensus, and they do not provide consensus because they tend to obscure the real issuse at stake. From the traditional prespective, the real issue is that the teaching of evolution as fact is a threat. Darwin knew this back in the 1850s before he even published Origin of the Species. His wife was a devout Anglican, and Darwin knew that since evolution ultimately was incompatible with traditional religious faith his book would cause an estrangement. If one amputates God's creative hand, the limb becomes useless; gangrene eventually sets in, and before you know it, God, as Nietzsche put it in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is dead. To be sure, we do have among us our counterparts of the cheery Victorian optimists who saw, or pretended to see, no conflict between science and faith, but the problem is that the faith that never conflicts with science is not the faith that most people live by. Most Christians tend to believe in a personal God Who has intervened to create history and intervenes in history to create salvation; they do not believe in a philosophical abstraction that can, with care, be defined in terms that allows Him to coexist with the creative energies of natural selection.

It is therefore simply the case that when a parent has educated a child to believe in a God Who has created the world, the teaching of evolution as a fact in the schools is a provocation. Whether or not evolution is true, it tends to conflict with what millions of good religious people of various backgrounds teach their children. Another was of putting this is that the teaching of evolution in the schools allows the schools to enter into an area that has always been religious. To teach evolution is to teach that God did not create the world in six days; to say that is to render a religious opinion. If we must not mix politics and religion, then the schools much not teach religion, but teaching about humans origins is to teach religion. Teaching chemistry is not, since no signifcant religious group denies the existence of chemistry, any more than religious people of good faith would object to the teaching of, say, cell biology. But to teach students that life evolved is to teach them that the Bible, the Qur'an, the Upanishads are wrong, or at least that they must not be taken literally in the passages where they speak of God creating man.

TMH does not wish to be clever: we realize that it's paradoxical to say that the teaching of science is really the teaching of religion, but that is in fact true. It is also true that when a child has been raised to believe what the Declaration of Independence says--that man is created by God--the teaching of evolution will begin to raise religious doubts in his mind. And the schools are not supposed to raise religious doubt. When Bill Maher sneers at the ignorance of creationists, he does so not because he is offended at a possible violation of church and state in Oklahoma: he does so because he does not believe creation to be intellectually credible and he does not want people to believe that they were created by God. He smells a threat, which is just what good religious people smell when faced with the possiblity that their children will be taught that evolution is a fact.

The only real solution to this problem then is not to teach evolution in the public schools because to do so is essentially to assert that the religious statements quoted above either are simply not true or are not true in the sense in which many believers understand them. And this claim by the proponents of evolution is a religious claim. And religion, so they tell us, has no place in the schools. The other possibility, however, is to say that we will allow religious discussion of origins in the schools, in which case we must give equal time to both the evolutionist and the proponent of creation. However, what we must not do is to teach religion but slyly call it science so that one religious point of view gets heard while the other does not. Such passive aggression causes resentment--precisely the resentment that fuels these regular eruptions over the role of creation and evolution in our public schools.

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