Faith and Reason in Cobb County, Georgia

“There is no scientific controversy over the validity of the evolutionary explanation of plant and animal diversity, which is the grand unifying concept of modern biology. Although some religious organizations insist that there is…. It is not controversial, and no serious or reliable scientific criticism of the validity of evolution has yet been presented.” Thus begins the amicus curiae brief submitted by several organizations in support of the plaintiff in Selman v. Cobb County School District, scheduled to be heard tomorrow by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The case is just one of the ongoing battles in the larger culture war between proponents of “Intelligent Design” and those who see the teaching of biblical creationism in public schools as an intrusion of religious belief into scientific curricula. The Cobb County School Board had acquiesced to the demands of some parents to have a “warning label” sticker placed inside school biology text books stating that “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” What the label actually demonstrates is the school board’s inability to use a dictionary. While it is true that evolution is a “theory,” the label’s understanding of the term is incorrect. It is incorrect to say a scientific theory is “not a fact.” What the school board defines is a hypothesis, not a theory. A hypothesis is a guess, something that is not yet demonstrated to be factually true. Scientific theories, conversely, are well-tested, demonstrated and systematic ways of explaining a whole bunch of observed facts and data. They are precisely the “unifying concepts” the amicus brief refers to.

This, however, is a side issue. What is most troubling about this larger war and not merely this skirmish in Georgia, is that in the worldview of Intelligent Design proponents, there is no room for both faith and reason. Reason, intellectual pursuit, and the fruits of human inquiry are totally subsumed under the banner of faith and belief in a Creator God.

Let me be clear: I believe in such a Creator God. I believe that behind all creation is an all-loving, all-knowing, all-caring, all-powerful Being whom we call God and who is the ultimate Author of existence itself. I also believe that this God gave men and women the gifts of thought and reason, gifts we use every day to understand our world and live our lives as best we can. In this worldview, faith and reason are both ways of accessing Truth, and the truths of the various disciplines of human knowledge cannot contradict each other. If there is an apparent contradiction, this simply is a reflection of the limits to our understanding and an indication that we must learn more.

The perspective where faith and reason complement one another is not possible for those who take a fundamentalist, literal approach to the Bible. To fundamentalists, faith and reason are at odds with each other. Because Christian fundamentalism posits that the various texts of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures literally come from the mouth of God, knowledge obtained from reason must give way to what is “known” by faith. Understanding the texts of scripture literally, fundamentalists appear to have an unquestioned faith that is clear, sturdy and strong. In reality, often such an unquestioned, unexamined faith is just the opposite. A faith that has never allowed itself to be questioned or challenged is more easily abandoned when personal experience brings into doubt something that has been accepted and “known by faith.”

Fortunately, inherent in true Christianity is the seed of fundamentalism’s undoing. One of the basic tenets of Christianity is that the human person rises above the rest of creation, over which God gave men and women authority, and that the human person is a thinking, rational being with the gifts of intelligence and free will. It is precisely through the exercise of these gifts that Darwin and his heirs have discovered the truths of evolution. Hopefully, it is also these same gifts that will help the judges of the 11th Circuit uphold the lower court’s ruling to have the Cobb County warning labels removed.

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