Richard Beck wrote a post today (read: at least a week ago) giving his thoughts on his visit to Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, and overall it was good. I enjoy Beck’s writing, and I find his theological ponderings highly accessible.
Beck brings up one point that rankles: he doesn’t see why there can’t be any middle ground in the Creation vs. Evolution debate. Here’s Beck:
Listen, I know there are complex issues here and slippery slopes to avoid. But to allow zero middle ground here is crazy. There are many very smart and honest Christians who will be persuaded by the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth and the evolution of the species. To force these Christians to make a choice or to simply force them out is not a good long-term strategy. The better way forward is to extend the right-hand of fellowship to everyone, agree to disagree, and keep the conversation energized. I don’t mind sharp theological disagreement so long as we share the Eucharist as brothers and sisters afterwards.
I get that Beck’s primarily addressing creationists, suggesting to them that maybe they shouldn’t automatically excommunicate any Christians who happen to disagree with them (on that point I fully agree with him; few things make me quite as angry as Christians telling other Christians that they can’t be Christians anymore). Where I think Beck’s steering wrong is the suggestion that it’s okay to disagree on this issue. I see his theological point, but I think that he’s making the mistake of putting a bad theology above a scientific certainty.
See, the problem with this kind of language is that while it’s directed at creationists regarding their attitude toward evolution, the sentiment is easily turned around by saying that Christians who acknowledge evolution should also be willing to agree to disagree with creationists. It’s just a theological difference, right?
Well, no. It’s not just a theological difference; it’s a difference of whether or not you accept scientific data. The fact that this mistrust of science is founded in a theology doesn’t excuse the fact that it leads to a perspective which actively works to undermine how we understand the universe. Mistrust in evolutionary theory leads to general mistrust in science, which helps to exacerbate problems like human-accelerated climate change and the restriction of necessary medical rights (make no mistake about it, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to grant Hobby Lobby a religious exemption on birth control coverage had the same theological bent behind it; we objectively know that those forms of birth control don’t cause abortions, but the Court let a bad theology trump scientific fact).
The agreement to disagree on this point is not harmless, and does not simply allow for energetic debate. It actively cultivates a culture of ignorance, and it needs to stop.
Beck mentions in his post that accepting an evolutionary model creates theological difficulties with the doctrine of the Imago Dei. If we’re part of a system built on natural selection, what makes humanity special? It’s not a simple question to answer while acknowledging an evolutionary model, but it can be answered (I don’t necessarily think that the answer has to be that humanity is, in fact, special either). Besides that, I think that the Imago Dei gets plenty of disrespect in creationist theologies too (see, again, the disdain for science that leads to ignoring facts that actually improve the quality of human life).
Look, this is not a rant about how science trumps religion. Accepting evolution doesn’t lead you on an inevitable path towards atheism, and practicing a faith (any faith) doesn’t mean you have to ignore observable reality. I think either extreme is an unsatisfying one (that’s just my personal feeling; if you feel comfortable without faith, then you’ll hear no complaints from me; if you feel comfortable without science, then we need to have some serious talks about why your theology is harming you and the people around you). What it’s a rant about is suggesting that all theologies are created equal when they can lead to real harm to real people. If we’re talking about Christian theology, I think it’s fair to ask that the first qualifier for any acceptable doctrine be that it upholds the Greatest Commandment:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Creationism fails that test.