Religion and Science: No Fight Club Here

Charles Darwin and God are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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Guest blogger Richard B. Katskee is assistant legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

Since serving as one of the lawyers for the parents in the intelligent-design trial in Dover, Pa., I regularly receive invitations to give public talks on creationism and science education. Whether I'm speaking to science organizations, law-school faculties, church congregations, high school classes, or community groups, someone invariably asks, "What is it about evolution that gets people so riled up?"

Everyone wants to know why so many people with no other interest in science care so passionately about what's being taught in ninth-grade biology. They wonder how Charles Darwin—a 19th-century Englishman—became the bogeyman of the religious right in 21st-century America.

When you look closely at what the folks in the intelligent-design movement have to say, it turns out that what drives them is the same concern that motivated their creationist forbears going all the way back to the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925. And that aim isn't to improve science education.

What underlies the fervent opposition to evolutionary science is a religious view—usually some form of biblical literalism or a fear that religion is being pushed aside by science. Some fundamentalists refuse to believe that the Bible may be allegorical in parts; they refuse to accept that it is a rich, sometimes-confusing guide to discovering deep spiritual truths. To them, the Bible is a history and science textbook, plain and simple. They maintain that the Bible must be literally true, down to the smallest jot and tittle, because if not, then it is all just a big lie. And if that were the case, then God wouldn't exist; there would be no moral absolutes, no way to tell right from wrong, and no basis for morality.

Now, here's the rub: Evolution is, according to this view, inconsistent with the existence of God because it causes a few headaches for biblical literalism. So it's God or Darwin; you can't have both. From there it follows that we'd better be sure that our kids learn about God—or at least not about Darwin. And it isn't enough for me to worry about my own children; I have to worry about yours, too. Because if our kids learn about evolution in high school, they will end up having no moral code to live by. It's Lord of the Flies all over again.

That is a classic false dichotomy. Most people of faith don't think that the question of God's existence turns on what some archaeology graduate student uncovers with the next shovelful of sand. And most people don't worry that their neighbor might kill them in their sleep if the Earth is more than 6,000 years old. The Bible and On the Origin of Species both offer insights about the world and our place in it. Religion and science can work together, as partners—but only if we don't force them to be at war with each other.