Magazine article The Christian Century

Debating Evolution: The God Who Would Intervene

Magazine article The Christian Century

Debating Evolution: The God Who Would Intervene

Article excerpt

IN THE DAYS before the Kansas School Board's August decision to strip the teaching of evolution from state science standards, the presidents of the Kansas university system issued a statement. "The simple fact is," they said, "people can believe both in God and in evolution."

Lots of Americans believe that they can do just that. Nevertheless, it's not clear how belief in a personal God--a God who creates and who answers prayers--is to be aligned with the scientific view of the cosmos as an ancient universe governed by impersonal and tightly knit laws. Debate on how God can work in an evolutionary universe is unlikely to go away, since most scientists reject the notion that God works in the world while nearly all citizens accept it.

There is some common ground among scientists and religious Americans. Forty percent of Americans hold that God "guided" evolution from simpler to more complex life forms over millions of years. Similarly, four out of ten middle-ranking scientists--a random sample we took from American Men and Women of Science (AMWS)--also believe that God "guided" evolution. These believing scientists also said in the survey that they can accept a God who answers prayers. This implies a God who intervenes in nature and the world, though we did not probe the God question further. Some of the scientists, however, were obviously concerned about how to put a personal God into the world without disrupting any chains of natural law. One biologist said, "God created the universe and principles of energy and matter, which then guided subsequent evolution," and another asserted that God only created "the conditions that allowed the process to take place."

Only about 5 percent of the natural scientists we polled--some 4,000 such professionals--think that God created humans "pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." While rare among scientists, this is the view held by nearly half of all Americans--a striking figure, considering that fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals make up only a quarter to a third of the population.

To get a further sense of the American debate on evolution, this year we surveyed deans at theological seminaries about their schools' approach to the topic. Seventy percent of academic deans at schools in the Association of Theological Schools responded. (The ATS has 237 members.) We asked them which view of natural history and human origins predominates on their campus, and gave them five options: "Theistic evolution," the belief that God works in and through the evolutionary process; "progressive creation," in which God creates at various points over millions of years; "young earth creation," according to which God created the cosmos within the past 10,000 years; or, a mixture of the first two categories or the latter two. About two-thirds of the deans indicated that their schools adhere to either theistic evolution, progressive creation or a mixture of the two--all suggesting an ancient universe. Less than a tenth of the schools supported a young-earth stance. Most of the rest of the schools--about 25 percent--mix progressive creation and young-earth creation, both having an emphasis on God's intervening acts of special creation.

Catholic schools made up the largest proportion of those at which theistic evolution dominates (50 percent). As recently as 1996 the pope stated that evolution was "more than a hypothesis," as long as one accepts that God intervenes to create the soul. Slightly over a third of the Protestant schools and nearly a fifth of the nondenominational enclaves also were thoroughly evolutionist.

Young-earth creationism dominated at less than a tenth of the Protestant outposts and a fifth of the nondenominational schools. Progressive creation is the dominant view at less than a tenth of Protestant institutions, and barely more of Catholic. Nearly a third of the Catholic schools reported a mix of theistic evolution and progressive creation. …

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