In the beginning...

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Theories about the development of life are pitting science against faith, with the classroom emerging as the prime battleground. John Kelleher explains

inosaurs are a big problem for those who argue that the Bible's story of Genesis is the literal truth about how our world and human life came into being. Some creationists believe the world was made by God in 4004bc, along with all living things. However, the earliest dinosaur fossils date back 232 million years and offer seemingly categorical disproof of these cherished beliefs. How do they deal with this? By claiming dinosaurs never existed.

American creationist Partee Fleming argued in his book Is God's Bible the Greatest Murder Mystery Ever Written? (The AM Press, Tennessee, 1980) that fossils appearing to confirm the existence of dinosaurs were merely planted to test our belief and demonstrate the "wit of Jesus". And Michael Behe, an American scientist who advocates intelligent design (ID) suggests that the fossil record: "has been placed there by the designer... for artistic reasons, to show off, for some as yet undetectable practical purpose or for some unguessable reason."

Other creationists accept dinosaurs did exist, but say they were in the Garden of Eden and quite possibly aboard Noah's Ark. These beliefs inform the thinking behind the Museum of Creation, in Kentucky, US, which opens next year. It has been conceived by Australian evangelist Ken Ham. His mission is to help bring people back to the literal truth of the Bible. Ken says: "A creationist doesn't believe that God made the world as people see it today. We're saying God created the original gene pool of a pigeon kind, a dog kind and elephant kind. But one kind didn't develop into another."

In other words, man evolved from Adam and Eve, not simpler life forms. This matters because the museum opens as challenges to the scientific world-view are greater than for years. A recent poll suggests that 95 per cent of Americans profess belief in God, and 75 per cent reject evolution as an explanation for the development of life. A BBC poll earlier this year shows that nearly 50 per cent of Britons share these views. A similar poll in Russia shows that only 26 per cent of those surveyed support the theory of evolution, while 49 per cent believe God created man. Most of the world's Muslims and Hindus, together with many religious Jews also reject or seriously doubt the theory of evolution.

Science and the supernatural

Creationism calls for a literal belief in the Bible narrative. Its offspring, ID, is subtler and seeks accommodation with science. Its central tenet is that the universe and life are far too complex to have happened by chance or by evolution alone. Things as complex as the human brain or the eye must have been designed - hence there has to be a designer.

Advocates of ID deliberately shy away from claiming this designer is God and say it could be an alien intelligence. However, another key ID proponent, US mathematician and theologian William Dembski, says: "No intelligent agent who is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or the origin of life."

In other words, a supernatural entity. Most of the leading proponents of ID are evangelical Christians. Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution are their key targets, because these most directly challenge biblical accounts of our origins. They insist that the theory of evolution is unproven and that alternative ideas, such as ID, should also be taught.

Creationism and ID are part of a renewed struggle for the hearts, minds and - for the religious - the souls of mankind. The fight pits supernatural explanations against the scientific quest to understand the nature of the universe.

The modern age was shaped by the developing triumph of science and reason.

After the French Revolution, it seemed the new intellectual climate would liberate mankind from the restrictions of narrow religious beliefs. Western women, especially, have gained from the loosening of patriarchal religion's grip, with social and political freedoms still undreamed of in cultures where religion dominates.

In 1867, British poet Matthew Arnold captured the zeitgeist when, in his poem "Dover Beach", he spoke of the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith. He wrote the poem before Charles Darwin's iconoclastic book On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, but appeared to prophetise the post-religious world Darwin and other thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Karl Marx seemed to be ushering into being. It would be a world in which, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed, "God was dead".

By the middle of the 20th-century, half the world was nominally atheist.

The ongoing revolution of science and reason seemed to be overwhelming the ancient explanations offered in the Torah, the Bible and the Qur'an. Except that it hasn't turned out like that. In the new millennium, a divided, but revitalised Islam has re-emerged with its roots nourished by fundamentalism; Hinduism was never even ruffled by the Enlightenment; Russia has returned to Orthodoxy after the collapse of communism; and western Christianity, once shaken to its core, has been revitalised - especially in the US.

For instance, the key US electoral issues in 2004 were primarily faith-inspired - abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, prayer in schools. These are people who believe in God, the Devil, apocalypse and Armageddon. Increasingly, they see science as an enemy. Some political commentators characterise President Bush's administration as the closest to a theocracy possible in a western democracy.

Darwin and supporters of evolution

Evolution is a bugbear for religious believers. Charles Darwin's theories, developed after his long voyage of exploration aboard HMS Beagle, were finally published 20 years later, in 1859, in On the Origin of Species.

Darwin argued that all organisms, including humans, were the end result of a long, slow process of evolution from forms far more primitive. The book provoked great controversy as its ideas were seen to challenge religious ideas about creation, the nature of God, humans and our relationship to God.

This furore deepened in 1871 when he published The Descent Of Man, which said human beings had evolved like all other animals and were descended from apes. Darwin is still hated by many. A founding father of American creationism, civil engineer Henry M Morris, says the theory of evolution is: "Part of Satan's strategy to destroy faith in God."

However, evoking evil is not the sole preserve of militant believers.

Professor Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and the greatest contemporary populariser of evolutionary theory, is also probably science's most outspoken critic of religion, which he sees as a virus of the mind. In his recent Channel 4 television series The Root Of All Evil he fulminated against its influence through history.

Some who support Dawkins's arguments see his vehemence as counterproductive. US philosopher Michael Ruse says it is important to distinguish between evolutionary theory, which is purely science, and evolutionism, which claims to have made religion obsolete. Just as religion cannot prove the existence of God, neither can science categorically disprove it.

Ruse describes Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett, another staunch Darwinian, as: "Absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design. Neither are willing to study Christianity seriously to engage with the ideas. It is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim Christianity is simply a force for evil."

Dennett's new book, Breaking The Spell (Allen Lane, 2006), is a call for science to study the mechanics of religion, which is vital for our troubled age. However, such research could further anger many believers unlikely to welcome claims by evolutionary psychologists, for instance, that belief in God is an evolutionary accident or a necessary adaptive strategy for early humanity.

This isn't a new thought. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan: "Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion."

History is littered with extinct religions that succumbed to the march of reason. Who now worship's Zeus, Odin or the bloody pantheon of Aztec gods? But the world's major monotheistic faiths have proved more resilient and adaptive to changing times. They thrive, together with a contemporary fascination for New Age therapies, amid the divisive ruminations of postmodernist relativism and a deepening public distrust of science.

Religion in education

Globally, religions have the young in their sights. Impressionable youth has always been the easiest to recruit to causes, from politicised Islamic fundamentalism to the Evangelical movement. Education is a central battleground - a conflict reaching around the globe that's epitomised in the murder of teachers in Afghanistan for educating girls, struggles over science teaching in the West and controversial suggestions that atheism should become part of Britain's national curriculum.

In the US, religion in schools is a constitutional issue because its First Amendment provides for a rigid separation of Church and State. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, it was intended to erect "a wall of separation between Church and State". The country's founding fathers were men of great religious conviction, but they sought to ensure no particular faith or sect could become dominant.

US states have challenged the First Amendment ever since the constitution took effect in 1789. The most celebrated legal fight was the Scopes Monkey Trial, in 1925, when Tennessee teacher, John Scopes, was convicted of breaking the law forbidding the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment, of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals".

The prosecution case provoked such public ridicule that it was widely felt that, though science had lost this battle, the eventual success of its challenge to the biblical version of creation seemed inevitable. And so it seemed until now, with repeated new efforts by individual US states to breach this constitutional wall of separation.

One legacy of the Scopes trial has been a feeling among many Christian Americans that evolution inevitably equates with opposition to religious belief. In 1999, Kansas approved the teaching of Genesis as a scientific alternative to Darwin. That was later overturned.

"Teaching the controversy"

Now the main fight is over ID. School boards and legislatures in at least 16 US states are debating how to teach students about the origins of life.

Some school boards have succeeded in having labels placed on biology textbooks branding evolution variously as "a controversial story" and "a theory, not a fact". Advocates of ID demand it be taught alongside evolution in the science curriculum. They call it "teaching the controversy."

However, in a celebrated decision at the end of last year, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that ID is: "A religious view, a mere re-labelling of creationism, and not a scientific theory" and it was barred from the science classroom. It was a battle won, but the war continues on an ever-widening front.

Evolution has never gained wide acceptance in the Muslim world. The Turkish Islamic writer Mustafa Akyol says: "If there is a clash in the 21st century, it should not be between Islam and the West, but between theism and materialism."

He argues that Muslim students throughout the West should question science teachers and pursue the study of ID. "Hundreds of verses in the Qur'an call people to examine the natural world and see in it the evidence of god.

Great Islamic scholars, like Ghazali, wrote large volumes about design in animals, plants and the human body. What intelligent design theorists do today is to refine the same argument with the findings of modern science.

In short, intelligent design is not alien to Islam. It is very much our cause and we should do everything we can to support it."

By contrast, modern Judaism, while affirming God as the creator, largely accepts the theory of evolution and agrees with the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides's argument that, "What the Torah writes about the account of creation is not to be taken literally".

Until now, Britain has not seen the sort of bitter controversy experienced in the US, despite anger over the promotion of faith schools and anxieties about the teaching of creationist views in Emmanuel School, Gateshead, an academy sponsored by the Christian millionaire Sir Peter Vardy. However, the recent revelation that creationism could be discussed in A-level biology classes has rekindled the debate. Predictably condemned by scientists, it has also been denounced by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Most Reverend Bruce Cameron, the leader of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Age-old arguments

If creationism appeals to those who largely reject science, ID seeks to accommodate itself as an alternative scientific theory. Proponents of ID look for evidence of "signs of intelligence" - physical properties of objects which they say necessitate design rather than chance.

Design has long been an argument that God exists. Plato suggested that order in the world is the work of a divine craftsman and, in the 13th century, St Thomas Aquinas argued that since we live in a world that isn't chaotic, this is evidence of a design. By the 18th century, Isaac Newton saw his scientific theories as confirming the existence of God. In 1713, in an addendum to the second edition of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he wrote: "This most elegant system of the sun, planets and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being."

ID's advocates argue that some of the latest theories in modern physics actually support their ideas. One is the anthropic principle - a sort of cosmic big brother of ID - which suggests the universe was uniquely fine-tuned for the emergence of life. The existence of carbon-based life, including humans, in the universe is contingent on several independent variables. Were any of these to have taken a slightly different value, such life could not exist.

The British physicist turned theologian, Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne, says the anthropic principle is persuasive. "Looking at the fine-tuning of the constants of nature, what could possibly explain that other than the existence of a foresighted, intelligent God?"

Is there a common ground?

So amid this furore are science and religion ultimately incompatible? Not necessarily. The polarities are between seeking to understand via scientific inquiry or turning back to the comforts of faith. Nearly 15 years ago, the late Pope John Paul II expressed optimism for co-existence when he said science and religion formed: "Two realms of knowledge, which are not foreign to each other. They have points of contact."

His optimism was echoed by US evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould. In his book Rocks Of Ages - Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine Books, 2002), he wrote: "People of good will wish to see science and religion at peace. I do not see how they can be unified, or even synthesised under any common scheme of explanation or analysis, but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict."

This wish for harmony is not new. In the late 19th-century the Jewish thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: "If natural selection were to prove correct, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of 'adaptation and heredity,' in order to bring forth, out of what seemed to be chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today."

John Kelleher is a writer and filmmaker. He is a 2006 Cambridge Templeton Fellow in Science and Religion


Did God create man is his own likeness or was it the other way around? Did life on Earth evolve from simple organisms or from a group of species, including the first humans - Adam and Eve - placed in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of creation by God?

* Creationists accept the biblical account as absolute truth and dismiss the theory of evolution. They dispute scientific evidence, that life is an evolutionary process, with more successful and sophisticated organisms, including humans, evolving from other simpler forms.

* Creationism has a younger sibling more accommodating to the hard evidence of scientific research - intelligent design. It accepts the evolutionary account of life on Earth in many key ways. However, advocates of ID argue that the very complexity of such things as the human eye or the brain cannot have been the chance of randomness, but present evidence of a creative intelligence in the universe. ID's advocates deny this is necessarily the Christian God, but rather that it is an intelligent entity.

* Evolution is a biological scientific theory about how life developed. It's the process by which novel traits arise and are passed on from one generation to the next. Over vast tracts of time it explains the emergence of new species and the diversity of the biological world.

Species are related to each other through common descent and are the products of evolution over billions of years.

The Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, says: "Evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the development of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species."

The scientific theory of evolution doesn't try to offer answers to such theological or philosophical questions as "Why is there something instead of nothing?" or "Does God exist?".

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