Evolution and faith at the dinner table

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The outcomes of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the USA have seen plenty of families being divided along political lines, but it’s worth remembering that science too can create schisms around the dinner table – and probably no topic is more divisive in this regard than evolution.

Climate change, vaccination, and nuclear power are all charged topics, but the granddaddy of them all when it comes to raising temperatures is Charles Darwin’s magnum opus – which makes an ironclad case for not only evolution but also for natural selection as its operating mechanism.

To Richard Dawkins and his ilk, that’s the end of the discussion – evolution is a fact, and you’re a fool if you don’t accept it. But while the first part of that sentiment may be true, the second certainly is not. Accepting and endorsing the truth of evolution when you’ve been raised from birth to believe something else is not the same as changing your brand of cornflakes.

In fact, in many cases it can involve a personal crisis that cuts – or even overwhelms – a person’s entire sense of self, not to mention jeopardises their relationships with their family and possibly also the wider community in which they were raised. In such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that people struggle, and struggle terribly, with their rational and religious beliefs when they are seemingly brought into conflict.

Kurt Wise, director of the Creation Research Center at Truett McConnell University and equipped with a PhD in geology from Harvard, has spoken eloquently of his own inability to reconcile the two strands of science (specifically evolution) and scripture, and has gone as far as to say “if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate” – which gives a sense of what he’d have to walk away from.

Steve M Smith too has written movingly of his own inability to find common cause between his training in geology and his earlier young-Earth beliefs; in his case he ultimately turned away from young-Earth creationism, but not his faith as a whole.

People often forget that Darwin too travelled this path, and the sympathetic, careful, respectful, and humble tone in his writing (traits not often displayed by either his champions or his critics over the years) could be read as a reflection of his own understanding of spiritual crisis. One senses when reading On the Origin of Species that Darwin is aware not only of the implications of his book, but also of the potentially terrible cost that it imposes on some of its readers.

And if that cost is estrangement from your own blood and your own community, it’s not difficult to see how it might be easier to reject, if not recoil from, making the leap. Climate change (fact: it’s happening) doesn’t cut at the nature of who we are and is – to put it facetiously – a question of what’s going on with the weather; vaccination (fact: it’s necessary) concerns are at heart an understandable but misplaced fear of harm coming to our own children, but evolution is the one that changes the whole way in which a person views the world around them.

Right now, we live in an era when science and technology are permeating our daily existence to an unprecedented extent, and will increasingly continue to do so. Stem cells, tissue engineering, and gene therapy are all applications that are poised to come of age, and which will undoubtedly trigger their own set of moral and possibly also religious concerns. More will follow.

In such a time, and especially so when technology can be harnessed to create echo chambers and facilitate the ghettoisation of the mental landscape – it’s easier than ever to retreat away from uncomfortable truths and surround yourself with like-minded people – it’s important to realise what the scientific community is asking of individuals is not always easy to deliver.

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