Religions, like all living things, evolve

When Rick Perry and the millions of others who resist the concept of evolution, they not only resist science in … Continued

When Rick Perry and the millions of others who resist the concept of evolution, they not only resist science in potentially dangerous ways, they disown a fundamental truth about the faith they follow. That truth? That religions evolve, and acknowledging that they do so does not weaken the claim that they are the true and eternal will of God, as many believers claim about their chosen tradition. In fact, the adaptability of each of the world’s great traditions has proven to be a central feature of their durability.

Had early Christians, for example, not allowed for the evolution of their initial expectations regarding Jesus and his presumed imminent return, then no church would have been established and there would be no Christians today, merely the descendants of those whose redemptive hopes had been crushed almost two thousand years ago. An evolved i.e. adapted for survivability, understanding of God’s plan allowed a tradition to flourish without experiencing loss of integrity or connection to its origins. If that isn’t evolution, what is?

Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are here today because of similar adaptive evolutionary capacity. In their cases, the ability to access and continually refresh rich legal traditions has been central to each tradition’s ability to survive significant changes in the circumstances of the faithful in each tradition. In neither case however, did the adaptive process disrupt the faithful’s connection to God and their understanding of the eternality of God’s word. In fact, especially for Jews, it was those who refused to participate in the process that vanished.

God’s word, whatever that may include given the tradition one follows, is rendered eternal and eternally present through evolutionary processes which are, in many ways, similar to those which many fundamentalists reject when it comes to explaining how the world came to be and how it continues to move forward. It’s a shame, that in the name of faith, they cannot see that they are denying one of the engines of their own tradition’s success. It is an even greater shame that they have so little faith in God and in the infinite meaning of God’s word, that they constrain their understanding of it to such a narrow range of possible meaning.

Of course, none of this matters when it comes to what should be taught in America’s science classrooms. The answer to that is clear, and the answer is science. I have no problem with exposing kids to creationism or intelligent design, as long as it is in a history class or one which describes contemporary political debates, but to teach either in a science class is dangerously misleading.

Science does not simply seek data which confirms that which it already believes, as both creationism and intelligent design do. Science is based on a process of testing and inquiry, one which celebrates determining when old views are false. The truths of science are mutable and their value is based not on their eternality, but upon their testability and utility. Not until Gov. Perry and his supporters take that approach to their understanding of how the world came to be, can we even entertain the possibility of teaching what they want in science classes. And even then, certainly not as the equal alternative to evolution which they deem appropriate.

While evolution is a theory, that is not a term of denigration or diminution as creationists and intelligent design followers would have us believe. It is simply a term which marries precisely the kind of intellectual humility absent among fundamentalists, with the fact that after much exploration and testing, it is the best possible way to account for the physical process of how the world we live in came to exist.

Evolution is a theory in the sense that it cannot be physically proven, not in the sense that it is simply the chosen orienting principle of some people’s lives. While the latter could also be called a theory, assuming the two are equal would be like allowing a Pastor holding a Doctor of Divinity degree to perform neurosurgery simply because he too is called “Doctor”!

As a person of faith I believe that we need both kinds of Doctors, but not to perform the same tasks. In failing to make that distinction, we run the risk of endangering both the minds and the spirits of our nation’s schoolchildren, and any leader who cannot make that distinction is not fit to lead this nation.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • Angus4

    Rabbi Hirschfield should bone up on Monod, the French scientist who set the perimeters for scientific investigation. He instructed all scientist to disavow PURPOSE as an active ingredient in the world, and science has obeyed him.

    Rick Perry and the people he speaks for do not disparage the theory of evolution; they accept that things, including plants and animals, have evolved and still evolve, but they think there is a purpose behind such evolution, a non-secular purpose that Monod and his scientist followers will not admit or even consider as a possibility.

    That is their complaint about intelligent design: it suggests their is a purpose for the development of evolution — not a specific purpose, any purpose. Non-purpose is a matter of religion with them. Excluding intelligent design from a class supposedly teaching children why they exist, but presenting only scientific evolution, is preferring one religion over another.

    It is antagonistic to the original scientific ideal of unfettered competition in search of the truth. The Rabbi’s condemnation of intelligent design in the same classroom with evolution is without consideration of the ideological commitment of evolutionists. Unless he is ready to disavow purpose as an an activating agent in nature, he should revise his conclusion.

  • Sajanas

    Why should a scientific theory compete in the classroom? The real reason ID people push themselves on the education system is because there is no scientific, testable merit to their ideas, which are just rebranded creationism (to the extent that early versions of ID textbooks show errors where they replaced “creationism” with “intelligent design”). What it is, at its core, is censorship of science, and religious propaganda given a more PC friendly name.

  • Angus4

    I do not disagree that for some people intelligent design is a subterfuge for smuggling God into the science classroom, but it need not be and ought not be, at least not a specific Christian God or Allah. But excluding the possiblity of there being ANY purpose (to whatever it is attributed) for the existence for the world and nature requires an article of faith. That is why science should be challenged — just as any dogmatic, unproved assertion should be. And the absence of purpose has not been proved, nor can it be. And if something is not succeptible to DIS-PROOF if it is wrong it is not science.

  • thedudediogenes

    What is god’s word, and how can anyone claim to know it, given the view that a given religion’s changing is often/usually a good thing?

  • thedxman

    “Evolution is a theory in the sense that it cannot be physically proven, not in the sense that it is simply the chosen orienting principle of some people’s lives.”
    No. Evolution is a fact and there is a theory which explains how it happened, and this theory has been proven to fully explain the fact that has been observerd. Gravity is also a fact and it has a theory which explains how it affects objects on planets. This has also been proven and the theory fully predicts the behaviour of objects with mass. These are not orienting principles, these are facts about ourselves and our environment that we have to accept and aknowledge, or we are just fairy-tale pretending about everything.

  • thedxman

    Plus there is also the issue that you completely ignored. Religions have evolved, yes. But in a completely different sense than say organisms or science. Science when it evolves, comes to more and more accurate results, more precise models of the universe. Nature when it evolves, hits on more and more efficient ways of surviving, of effectually procreating. Religion as it has evolved has completely diluted its original messages. Religious evolution is a decomposition of religion. There are no religious tennets where its evolution has made these more accurate – they have been rejected, expunged, discarded. The evolution of religions has moved them forward only by being able to reject one absurd dogma after another, and come to grips with the fact that supernatural claims have always been swamped by realistic ones.

  • thedxman

    OH don’t bring antisemitic jew-speak into it. Purpose exists. It is a man-made construct. People need to create and find purposes in their lives, to exist and flourish. Applying such anthropomorphisms to the world we live in is human, but absurd.

  • thedxman

    Just to explain: I don’t exclude purpose from life in general, just aknowledge that it is (just as gods are) man-made.
    And evolution is not a dogmatic, unproved assertion, but rather a proven, evidence-based, generally understood reality. I fail to see why Angus4 equates science with such. Evolution IS easily susceptible to disproof. Show me a fossil rabbit in the pre-cambrian. That’s all it takes to disprove it.

  • RickK101

    Actually, Angus, the early natural philosophers – Greek, Arab, European – were almost all believers in God and believed that God in some way influenced the natural world. It was only after centuries of utter failure of the divine/supernatural to explain ANYTHING that science gradually focused only on natural explanations.

    Aristotle believed God moved the heavens. Newton believed God directly set the planets in motion. Copernicus refused to publish his conclusion that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe because of his discomfort with the idea. Darwin didn’t want to admit that nature, not God, created the species.

    Science didn’t start out with a naturalistic, materialistic assumption. Scientists were dragged to that position, kicking and screaming, by the relentless and irresistible weight of facts and evidence.

    That’s why science is a fundamentally more honest way of knowing than religion. Science admits its mistakes, learns from them, and follows the evidence to truths that cannot be taken away. Religion lasts as long as the believer doesn’t change his mind, then it vanishes without a trace.

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” — Philip K. Dick

  • Sajanas

    And again, why would you put the argument in the classroom? Its up to the ID people to prove their theory. Evolution is tremendously well supported… if ID actually had something they’d show it. You should really read the judges opinion from the ID case in Dover back in 2005 (?). They didn’t just make a bad case, they made a horrible, useless, easily countered case, and there was plenty of evidence that the local people who tried to introduce ID were committing some light fraud. So, why should you put that into science classes as part of the debate is beyond me.

  • Sajanas

    One only has to look as far as the ability for Christians to overlook that Jesus predicted the end of the world within his own time. That claim got the back burner real quick.