Supporters of Evolution Theory Show Their Religious Stripes

By Sean Cavanagh — August 30, 2005 7 min read
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Scientists, teachers, and others who defend the teaching of evolution in public school science classes have grown accustomed to countering accusations that acceptance of the theory disavows religious faith.

Now, an increasing number of grassroots organizations are trying to fight that perception with renewed vigor, and in so doing, cultivate rank-and-file support for the theory of life’s origins advanced by Charles Darwin nearly 150 years ago.

In states such as Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, advocates from various backgrounds are making a stronger push to convince the public, as well as state and local decisionmakers, that support for evolution is not inconsistent with belief in God.

Origins of Controversy

At least 78 challenges to the teaching of evolution have occurred so far in individual classrooms, state legislatures, and state and local school boards in 2005, according to one advocacy group’s estimate. Those controversies have emerged in 31 different states. Among them:


The state board of education is considering a rewrite of the state science standards to include more criticism of evolution. A draft document has been put out for external review; the board could take a final vote on the standards in October or November.


The Dover Area school district last year approved a new biology curriculum that says students “will be made aware of gaps/problems in [Charles] Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” The American Civil Liberties Union and several residents have filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to halt the policy. A trial is scheduled to begin in late September.


A federal judge ruled in January that biology-textbook stickers labeling evolution “a theory, not a fact,” in the Cobb County public schools are unconstitutional and must be removed. The judge found that the stickers wrongly implied that evolution is only an “opinion” or “hunch,” rather than a well-established theory.


A state lawmaker and a chapter of a national conservative organization, the Eagle Forum, are considering promoting a bill in the next legislative session that would allow intelligent design to be taught in the state’s schools.

SOURCE: Education Week; National Center for Science Education

Some of those efforts are playing out in places roiled by attempts to encourage greater criticism of evolution, or introduce students to alternative views such as “intelligent design,” the controversial belief that life, including human development, might have been directed by a master designer.

Many defenders of evolution have long emphasized that the established theory can easily mesh with religious convictions. “Facts and faith both have the power to improve people’s lives,” wrote Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, in an April 11 letter to members of the Kansas state board of education. The board is considering changes to state standards to encourage more criticism of evolution.

But proponents of evolution say an even more organized effort to carry that message is emerging—a message they believe will resonate with parents, students, and the public at large.

Such undertakings emerge as 31 states over the past year have seen challenges to evolution—many unsuccessful—in individual classrooms, local or state school boards, and legislatures, according to the National Center for Science Education, in Oakland, Calif., which opposes attempts to weaken the teaching of that theory.

“Repeatedly, what we hear is that it’s a fight between scientists and religious leaders,” said Michael Zimmerman, a biology professor and dean at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “People believe you have to choose. Now you have a group in the middle saying you don’t have to choose.”

Last year, Mr. Zimmerman helped write a letter, signed by nearly 200 clergy members in Wisconsin, saying that evolution is a “foundational scientific truth,” which could “comfortably coexist” with religious belief. That letter was sent to school board members in Grantsburg, Wis., who had approved a policy encouraging criticism of evolution in their district’s curriculum. The letter asked those officials to reaffirm evolution’s importance in science classes.

Petitions and Campaigns

Since then, Mr. Zimmerman’s letter, which is on the Internet, has been circulated to religious leaders across the country, collecting more than 7,000 signatures. His goal is to record 10,000 signatures nationwide, at which point he hopes to initiate a public-awareness campaign about the letter’s message.

A similar point is being made by a group of political candidates in Dover, Pa., where the school board last year mandated that students be made aware of such views as intelligent design alongside evolution in biology classes. In response, an organization called Dover CARES is supporting seven challengers who oppose the policy. The Dover CARES group says intelligent-design theory should be allowed in the 3,600-student district’s social studies or comparative religion classes, but not in biology lessons. (“Dover, Pa., Board Race Takes Intelligent Design to Voters,” June 15, 2005.)

The group’s Web site,, notes religion’s importance to society, and in offering candidates’ biographies, points out the church activities of three of them—as a choir member, a church building-committee member, and the director of a vacation Bible school.

Warren Eshbach, a retired minister in the Church of the Brethren and a founder of Dover CARES, said the group has not made an official decision to emphasize the religious backgrounds of its candidates. But he acknowledged a hope that making those affiliations known might defeat accusations of anti-religious bias.

“I don’t believe the first two chapters of Genesis were meant to be scientific textbooks for the 21st century,” said Mr. Eshbach, who is not a candidate.

It is unclear whether that message will take hold. The group’s Web site says that in response to attacks from opponents, it is making it known that its acronym stands for Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies, not “citizens against religious education in schools.”

Darwin’s God?

Most scientists believe natural and supernatural explanations can and should be evaluated independently. And many religious faiths and Christian denominations have reconciled acceptance of evolution with belief in God, a stance that is sometimes known as theistic evolution.

“Understanding evolution and its description of the processes that gave rise to the modern world is an important part of knowing and appreciating God,” wrote Kenneth R. Miller, a prominent biologist and textbook author, in his 1999 book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.

“As a scientist and a Christian, that is exactly what I believe,” wrote Mr. Miller, a Roman Catholic. “True knowledge comes only from a combination of faith and reason.”

But other religious groups, such as Christian fundamentalists, who interpret the Bible more literally, say acceptance of evolution—the general belief, accepted by the vast majority of scientists, that humans and other species evolve over time through natural selection and random mutation—implies that life is purposeless.

“There is a conflict,” said John H. Calvert, the managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, in Shawnee Mission, Kan. Mr. Calvert believes that scientists and other supporters of evolution are now focusing on their religious faith, after wrongly assuming they could convince the public of evolution’s validity by citing their professional credentials.

“It’s a political strategy,” he argued, “that’s designed to keep a constituency that presently supports evolution.”

Connie Morris, a Kansas state school board member who supports including more criticism of evolution in her state’s science standards, published a newsletter for her constituents earlier this year describing the theory as “an age-old fairytale,” and accused some critics of harboring “anti-God contempt and arrogance.”

But Ms. Morris, in a recent interview, said some scientists were wrongly accusing her and others of trying to inject religion into science, when she simply favors allowing more criticism of evolution. Defenders of the theory of evolution who are reasserting their religious convictions, she said, are missing the point.

“What’s relevant here is science,” she said. “You want to be able to analyze evolution with all its flaws and all its strengths.”

Cardinal Weighs In

Many supporters of evolution said they were disappointed by recent comments of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna, Austria, who appeared to back away from what some observers had seen as his church’s earlier acceptance of the scientific theory. The late Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.”

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true,” the cardinal wrote in a July 7 New York Times opinion piece, “but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not.”

That opinion frustrated Harry E. McDonald, a former high school biology teacher who is the president of Kansas Citizens for Science. Throughout Kansas’ public hearings on evolution in May, Mr. McDonald’s organization countered critics of evolution not just by presenting scientific data, but by handing out doctrinal statements from various religious groups supporting the theory.

Those materials included the letter from members of the Wisconsin clergy.

Evolution’s critics “take their views out to basically an uneducated scientific populace and say, ‘You have to choose between science and faith,’ ” Mr. McDonald said. The public tends to respond by saying, “ ‘Well, if there’s a conflict, we choose God.’ Our point is, you can be people of faith. … There’s not an inherent contradiction.”


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