The Express-Times, June 20, 2003
By JOHN A. ZUKOWSKI, The Express-Times
It’s been 150 years since Charles Darwin published his first book on evolution.
It’s been nearly 80 years since the famous “monkey trial” in Tennessee where biology teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in public schools.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the teaching of evolution can’t be banned in classrooms.
However, the conflict between religion and evolution continues.
That clash flared up in Bangor recently.
One school board member objected to the purchase of a biology textbook because of the book’s presentation on evolution.
“I think it should emphasize that evolution is a theory so it does not become dogma and is not presented as a scientific fact when it is not,” says Bangor School Board member Olav Sandes.
Sandes says he has difficulty reconciling evolution with Christianity.
“I have a hard time understanding the special relationship humans have with God if we evolve and weren’t created,” he says. “Maybe there is evolution in other species, but I have a very hard time explaining that unique relationship with God if there is human evolution.”
Sandes isn’t alone.
Despite what scientists say is overwhelming scientific evidence, nearly half of Americans don’t believe in evolution, according to a Gallup poll.
Forty-five percent say humans were created as is, 37 percent say humans evolved with God’s help, and 12 percent say humans evolved without God’s help, the poll stated.
Part of the reason may be some people believe evolution is incompatible with the account of creation in the Book of Genesis.
“Evolution is a fairy tale for people who don’t want to believe in the Bible,” says the Rev. James Sipes of the First Baptist Church of Belvidere. “People who are teaching evolution are teaching a lie. If you study DNA or look at the laws of thermodynamics you know that somebody knowledgeable had to put it together.”
In recent years, the conflict between evolution and religion seems to have escalated:
• During the past few weeks, Bangor Area Board of Education members squabbled over the selection of two textbooks a board member said overemphasized evolution as a fact and not a theory.
• In a recent Express-Times story, local school district representatives from Easton, Phillipsburg and Bethlehem said they taught evolution as a “theory” and not as scientific fact.
• In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education eliminated questions about evolution from their standardized tests. (Although that was reinstated two years later.)
• In the 1980s, a retired construction worker in Gilbert, Monroe County, Pa., was thrown out of his home for not paying school taxes because evolution was taught in the Pleasant Valley School District.
• After the Columbine shootings, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas (now House Majority leader), attributed the shootings to a moral decline in society, which included teaching evolution in schools.
“Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup,” DeLay said.
And some people were even reluctant to talk for this story.
One local evolution expert did not want to be interviewed for fear of reprisals from religious groups. The publisher of a textbook the Bangor school board argued over (Benjamin/Cummings Publishers of San Francisco) didn’t return phone calls.
Some local Christian pastors also said they preferred not to talk about evolution. Others said they left it up to congregation members to come to their own conclusions about evolution.
However, many of the world’s religions and several Christian denominations say they believe in evolution.
Most Muslims and followers of Eastern religions either accept evolution or do not see it as a belief that threatens their belief in God. The majority of Jews also do not see evolution and the Bible as incompatible, one local rabbi says.
“It can be said that Jews have never taken a real literal interpretation of the Bible,” says Rabbi Evan Jaffe of the Jewish Community Center in Flemington. “For example, you can say that God creating the world in a day does not have to mean a literal day or that God can set evolution in motion. The Bible is not a scientific document and it never purported to be that. It’s a document of faith.”
Evolution is even accepted by some major Christian denominations.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII said evolution deserved serious examination because he saw a distinction between body and soul. The origins of the body didn’t matter as much as the origin of the soul, which he said came from God. In 1996, Pope John Paul II officially decreed evolution was compatible with Catholicism.
“We teach that the human is formed when God breathes the soul into the human form,” says Marianne Whelan, assistant superintendent of elementary education for the Allentown Catholic Diocese. “That is the beginning of life and that is what is important.”
Many mainline Protestant churches also teach that evolution is compatible with Christianity. Governing bodies of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran churches have issued statements saying evolution and Christianity are compatible.
“I think evolution and a belief in God are completely compatible,” says the Rev. Alfred Ruggiero of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pen Argyl. “Regardless of how I was formed, I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I think a relationship with God is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whatever our beginnings are.”
Some pastors warn against strict literal interpretation of the creation story in the Bible.
“You don’t go to the Bible for scientific facts, you go there for truth,” Ruggiero says. “God created the world and that’s the truth. However that story is told, it doesn’t necessarily affect that truth. I can certainly believe that God created the world, but I believe that God chose to do it through the evolutionary process.”
Since the publication of Darwin’s books “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man,” some religious groups, particularly in the United States, have attacked evolution.
There was even a well-known story that Darwin recanted his theory about evolution on his death bed. It was started by an Anglican evangelist named Lady Hope who claimed to have visited Darwin when he was seriously ill. Many years after Darwin’s death, she told an American audience that Darwin told her he regretted publishing his work on evolution.
Several members of Darwin’s family denied Lady Hope ever visited Darwin and said Darwin never recanted his work on evolution. However, Lady Hope’s story was published in several religious publications and is still posted on numerous creationist Web sites.
Many years after Darwin’s books, for some people Darwinism has become a war between the integrity of science and the sanctity of the Bible. On one side are some religious believers trying to poke any kind of hole possible in Darwin’s theory. On the other side are scientists who see evolution as an unassailable truth.
And the debate may not become any more subdued.
But some people want that debate.
“I hope that the talk over the textbook raised the consciousness of people in the Lehigh Valley to look at evolution,” Sandes says. “It’s important that we get a dialogue going about the tendency of some people in academia to present evolution as fact. If any good can come out of this, it’s that evolution is not a fact, and that it is a theory, and it is flawed.”