Paul Cottle
A Catholic scientist frames a national debate.
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There is no issue more visible and emotional in the field of science education today than evolution, and no state where the issue has been more hotly debated than Florida. For much of the last year, a committee of educators and scientists worked with officials from the state’s Department of Education to hammer out new standards for science education. Their decision to designate evolution one of the “big ideas” in the state’s science curriculum was opposed by groups like the Florida Family Policy Council and conservative lawmakers who objected to the teaching of evolution in the classroom. In the end a compromise was reached, and new standards were passed requiring the teaching of evolution, but the wording of the law was changed to call it a “scientific theory” (see sidebar for details).

I was a member of the standards committee. At the outset, we spent little time worrying about the potential controversy over the teaching of evolution. Instead, our goal was to apply the results of recent research on how children learn science to the state science education standards. Yet when we made public a draft of the new standards in October 2007, it quickly became clear that the debate over teaching evolution would dominate the process.

I am an “evolutionist,” as the opponents of evolution education would say. More to the point, I am a naturalistic scientist in that I believe that my mission as a scientist is to explain scientific observations within the framework of the laws of nature. Yet I am also a Christian, and as such I do not reject the supernatural. I believe in Christ’s resurrection.

The Debate in Florida

The debate over evolution education in Florida was rancorous and presented particular ethical dilemmas for me. For one, a majority of my fellow Christians were on the opposite side of the argument from me—indeed, most Americans are. As an evolution education advocate, I am on the same side as many atheists, including militant “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, who see evolution education as an opportunity to beat back religion in our society. As a result, I found that I was self-consciously vetting my own statements—both public and private—to make sure I was not denying my faith. I made several brief public professions of my faith during prepared statements, including during my talk before the State Board of Education on Feb. 19 and in an op-ed piece published by The Tallahassee Democrat. I was not alone: many of the other Christians on the standards committee also made their faith known during public meetings and to the media. Members of the public who followed the debate learned that there were several church officers and Sunday school teachers among the advocates of evolution education.

Unfortunately, I was in the minority among Catholics in my defense of evolution. It came as no surprise that according to a St. Petersburg Times poll published this February, a few days before the State Board of Education vote, 91 percent of evangelicals in Florida oppose evolution education. Yet that same poll reported that 79 percent of Catholics also took the anti-evolution education position. This is particularly disappointing given the church’s well-established position in favor of the teaching of evolution. David M. Byers, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Science and Human Values from 1984 to 2003, noted this stunning separation between the beliefs of the American faithful and church teaching in an article in America (“Religion and Science in Dialogue,” 2/7/05). He said that the Catholic Church “properly recognizes evolutionary theory as firmly grounded in fact,” but noted that the church’s “educational leadership has been very slow to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics pick up from prominent elements in contemporary culture.”

The fact that my opponents in the evolution education debate were almost exclusively my brothers and sisters in the Christian faith imposed certain responsibilities. To quote one of several scriptural injunctions on this topic, “So then, as often as we have the chance, we should do good to everyone, and especially to those who belong to our family in the faith” (Gal 6:10). This meant that my comments—both private and public—had to remain civil at a minimum, and respectful whenever possible. My working assumption was that my opponents were acting on the basis of their deepest convictions, even though there seemed to be a few cynical opportunists on both sides of the debate. Overall my evangelical opponents displayed both a deep commitment to their cause and a basic decency. One of the first people to congratulate me after my talk to the State Board of Education was John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and a fervent opponent of evolution education. Only moments before I spoke, Stemberger had loudly warned the board that thousands of evangelical parents would withdraw their children from the public schools if the proposed standards on evolution were adopted.

In the end, the religious dimensions of the debate made it impossible to craft a resolution that satisfied everyone. Many Christians who were not committed to “young earth creationism” were attracted by the ideas of the intelligent design movement, which holds “that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection,” according to the New World Encyclopedia, quoted on the Web site of the Discovery Institute, a well-funded think tank formed to support the movement.

Intelligent Design

Some Catholics in Florida are among those intrigued by the notion of intelligent design. In the weeks following the board of education vote, I heard homilies by two priests who, in addressing the nature and meaning of God’s creation, acknowledged that parishioners held a variety of beliefs about the origin and development of life. But they did not mention the church’s acceptance of modern evolutionary biology. Meanwhile, as of this writing, no Catholic priests in Florida have signed a public letter endorsing the teaching of evolution in public schools, an initiative known as the Clergy Letter Project that has drawn 11,000 signatures nationwide.

This reluctance to take a public stand on evolution is not limited to Catholics in Florida. In June, I was stunned when Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a devout Catholic and holder of a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University, voiced his support during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools. It is clear that despite Byers’s urging, the Catholic Church in the United States has not fully addressed the widely held misconceptions regarding church teaching on evolution.

In Florida, as elsewhere, the evolution education debate featured strongly worded volleys between vocal minorities at both extremes, between those who see the scientific clarity of evolution and religious conservatives who claim that evolution promotes moral decay. (If that sounds a little strong, consider this quote from the Truth Project, an educational initiative of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family: “Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy.”)

The Discovery Institute has framed the evolution education debate as a struggle over academic freedom—in particular the freedom of teachers to challenge and even disregard the naturalistic approach to science and to argue that the existence of unanswered scientific questions on the origin and development of life provides proof of the existence of God. Politically, it seems prudent for supporters of evolution education to frame a competing vision for teaching science in public schools, one that appeals to many parents and voters in the vast middle ground. These include individuals (and many Catholics) who are neither committed to an anti-evolution position nor convinced by arguments for evolution.

Even though this group does not have strong opinions on evolution, I think they would endorse an educational approach that focuses on two principles: tolerance for students from a variety of backgrounds, including religious backgrounds; and the accountability of teachers and administrators for their adherence to state educational standards and their performance in helping their students learn science. Such a vision of the science classroom might provide a potent moral and political antidote to the dubious assertion that academic freedom should apply to the teaching of science in the K-12 classrooms.

Educating Catholics

Catholics not convinced by this argument might consider the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who recently called the debate over evolution “an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.” Catholics in Florida can also look to the guidance of their bishops. In February, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando published an op-ed piece in The Orlando Sentinel endorsing the teaching of evolution while at the same time rejecting the notion that “evolution requires a materialistic or an atheistic understanding of the human person or of the entire universe.” “The Catholic Church does not have to reject the theory of evolution in order to affirm our belief in our Creator,” Bishop Wenski concluded. “As Catholics, we can affirm an understanding of evolution that is open to the full truth about the human person and about the world.”

Still, the task of educating Catholics on this issue remains a tricky one, not least because it could threaten the strong partnership the church has forged with evangelical groups to advance pro-life causes. (One need only recall the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo in Florida to remember how powerful the partnership between Catholics and evangelicals can be.) Indeed, when during one of my prepared statements I read a quotation from a church source defending the teaching of evolution, my evangelical opponents expressed great surprise that the church held a position different from theirs.

Evolution education is a national issue, with heated debates taking place in legislatures and state education departments all over the country. The Catholic Church in the United States has an opportunity to lead the nation to a resolution of this matter by educating its own followers about the church’s embrace of modern science. They can also point out to their Christian brothers and sisters, as Bishop Wenski did, that the teaching of evolution need not go hand in hand with a materialistic atheism.

As a physicist and a Christian, I have learned that faith and science need not be antithetical, that a deeper understanding of the natural world can inspire awe at the workings of God’s creation. Yet I have come to this understanding by working within the intellectual framework widely accepted by the scientific community, a framework that includes the tenets of evolution. This framework should also guide the teaching of young people, in Florida and elsewhere. The Catholic Church and its partners in the faith have no reason to fear the results.

Paul Cottle is a professor of physics at Florida State University and a member of the committee appointed by the Florida Department of Education to draft new science standards for the state’s primary and secondary public schools.

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Dr. Frank P. Polanowski | 9/25/2008 - 4:40pm
It is my fervent hope that one of these days, my scientific colleagues will become aware of the difference between the term "evolution" and the term "natural selection". The former is the term for a process, the later is the term for the "theory" which is currenty the accepted explanation for the "fact"!
Peter Milward SJ | 9/25/2008 - 5:55am
So much has been said about the pros and cons of teaching evolution in schools, and yet this latest contribution of Paul Cottle leaves much more to be said. He is so convinced that he, as a scientist, is right and that his opponents, both creationists and intelligent designers, are wrong, and consequently that only the scientific theory of evolution merits to be taught in schools. What he fails to realize is that there are three ways to be duly distinguished, each of which has its own validity, not only his own way of science, but also the way of philosophy, which may be seen as including the five ways of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the way of faith, which recognizes the account of creation as told in the Bible with due respect had to the authorial intention. Now insofar as he is teaching science, he is welcome to keep to the way of science, while not rejecting the other two ways, which may be taught in classes of philosophy and/or religion. But what neither he nor any educational committee nor any judge, no nor the Supreme Court, is welcome to do is to impose the theory of evolution, however well supported by the facts - as Pope Benedict XVI may have admitted in his private capacity - on all teachers in American schools, any more than they may impose (say) the Whig interpretation of English history on all teachers of history.
John | 9/18/2008 - 4:50pm
As a near life-long resident of Florida, I find myself doubly embarrassed. For one, we are arguing about the teaching of evolution in our schools, trying to find the right euphemism so as to run it past the most people. For another, we have a new voting scandal--in Palm Beach County once again--proving that eight years and much thought and money have not been sufficient to determine a reliable voting method. I believe we would make more progress if we would simplify the issue of evolution. Forget semantics and talk about what everyone can understand. Anyone whose health history includes more than an occasional cold will understand that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. That is, on occasion, front-page news.The bacteria adapt themselves to antibiotics, necessitating the development of new ones. Not only that, the bacteria can pass this information on to other bacteria. Whether one believes in God or not, this is a simple fact that we all should know. This is evolution--and that's all evolution is. The guiding principle is this: what works, survives. That's pretty simple, and anyone can understand. If the religious say that God set it up that way, that's fine, and why should we argue? For the non-religious,it really doesn't matter why this is true, so again, what's to argue about? We should all step back, take a deep breath and save ourselves for other topics. The meaning of "lipstick on a pig" comes to mind.
Frederick Miller | 9/12/2008 - 1:18pm
My understanding of Intelligent Design would be that God in his creation of the Cosmos provided for natural selection. After all we are speaking of billions of years, not the comparatively meager number accounted for in the Bible. From what we humans have so far discovered or discerned there is so much more than our own solar system to be understood. And no matter how far back the human mind is able to reach it is still a pittance compared to our Lord's omnipotent abilities. That is why I really don't see a problem in the reconciliation of whatever discoveries we have made or will make about natural selection with the infinite powers of our creator to have made all this possible. As to the future of human beings my feeling is that we may well be the instruments of our own successors in the vastness of our Lord's time and space.
E.Patrick Mosman | 9/12/2008 - 1:09pm
Why is " To teach creationism, or even intelligent design, is, at this point, to teach religion," any more a 'teaching of religion' than to teach the theory of the "Big Bang", or the factual laws of gravity or thermodynamics or the laws of physics which govern the existence of the universe.In an earlier post "If the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics can openly raise the issue of why constants and the laws of nature are 'just so'" why can't the theory of evolution be studied, discussed and debated scientifically without reference to religion? Dogmatic thinking seems to be on the side of the evolutionists.
Alan Moreton | 9/12/2008 - 9:18am
Well written! But, why must our society be hamstrung by a chimeral, obscurrantist debates? The subjects of real Scientific investigation and true Theology fit together hand in glove. If we are to truly search and seek truth - the ultimate and real truth - we must engage both areas at the deepest possible levels of understanding - and in all subjects. We owe it to our children, their children and all succeeding generations. Good, sound, education must be offered and allowed in order to encourage study at the highest levels and to learn deeply from both. Our current society is far too superficial (on all sides of debates) and entirely misses deeper meanings and points. Respectfully; I am a Professional Engineer, once agnostic, always a skeptic - but life-long (age 61) grounded in all things mathematical and scientific. Now, by privilege and Grace, an "assured" Christian (Wesley's "Aldersgate" / Paul's "Damascus Road"). In a life-changing experience in February 2000, Christ revealed Himself as the foundation and author not only of "His Word" - but also of all my (our) understanding and accumulated scientific knowledge; and more. Sincerely, to those who are uncomfortable with the perceived findings of science, please be patient - go study and learn more. To those of the scientific community who are afraid of perceived encroachment of religion - please also be patient - seek deeper meaning and basis for your life's values and decisions. To all, seek truth - Real Truth!
Maureen Garvey | 9/11/2008 - 8:24pm
I learned a great deal from reading both the original article and the comments. I was very surprised to learn that many Catholics do not subscribe to the theory of evolution. No, it is not fact, but until another theory comes along that explains what we know as well as it does, logic and reason dictate that science classes teach it. To teach creationism, or even intelligent design, is, at this point, to teach religion, and our public schools do not and should not teach religion. I am a Catholic who has never even imagined that rational people had a problem reconciling evolution and a belief in God. Now I understand that many people, evangelical Christians, atheists, and Catholics, have exactly that problem. I hope that thoughtful articles such as this one can bring better understanding to both sides, and I agree that the Church has an opportunity to take the lead in these discussions.
E.Patrick Mosman | 9/11/2008 - 12:03pm
"If I could prove Darwin wrong I’d leave everything to pursue it!" can only be tested by trying to prove it not by being certain of the answer before beginning.That is the scientific way. Perhaps Professor Fynman can provide an incentive to begin thinking and working "outside the box". The random events in evolution do pose a philosophical problem as how can something be both random and directed?" is more than a philosophical problem as it challenges the very cornerstones of evolution 'rare accidents', 'lucky improvements', 'random events', and natural selection. Such obviously nonscientific reasoning which cannot be proven or even challenged is confronted by Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize for Physics) in his book "Six Easy Pieces" . The Introduction reads in part -- "Physics is linked to other sciences while leaving no doubt about which is the fundamental discipline......Right at the beginning of "Six Easy Pieces" we learn how all physics is rooted in the notion of law -- the existence of an ordered universe that can be understood by the application of rational reasoning. However the laws of physics are not transparent to us in our direct observation of nature....." In the opening chapter Feynman writes "Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics." (Emphasis - Feynman). Feynman devotes the entire Chapter 3 to "The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences." More time is spent on the physics / biology relationship than any other science concluding in the last paragraph "Certainly no subject or field is making more progress on so many fronts as biology at the present moment, and if we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jiggling and wriggling of atoms." (Emphasis - Feynman). Feynman does not undercut evolution as a hypothesis. But he makes it clear that the existence of science of biology, as do all other sciences-stand on the laws of physics -- the constants of the universe.
Fernan | 9/11/2008 - 10:17am
As a Catholic, and a Catholic educated biologist, I cannot understand the antievolutionist position of so many fellow Catholics. Nothing makes sense in biology without evolution. Evolution is as brute a fact as any that nature present us. The theory of evolution attempts to explain how it happened, and as a theory, it is constantly challenged and refined within science. If I could prove Darwin wrong I’d leave everything to pursue it!
Joseph Ulicki | 9/9/2008 - 8:07pm
The author, Paul Cottle, wrote: "I am on the same side as many atheists, ... As a result, I found that I was self-consciously vetting my own statements—both public and private—to make sure I was not denying my faith." Some Catholic faith statements include: - Genesis does not contain purified myths. (Pontifical Biblical Commission 1909) - Genesis contains real history— it gives an account of things that really happened. (Pius XII) . . . - Evolution must not be taught as fact, but instead the pros and cons of evolution must be taught. (Pius XII, Humani Generis) Partial quote from: What does the Catholic Church Teach about Origins? http://www.kolbecenter.org/church_teaches.htm
Larry Fafarman | 9/9/2008 - 11:18am
Fr. Jack Feehily posted on September 6, 2008 at 8:54 PM -- --" . . . . most every believer with half a mind knows that many people -- including scientists -- have cited Darwin's theory as a justification for dismissing God as neither a designer nor a creator. I didn't notice in the article how Dr. Cottle proposes to reconcile this fact."-- That's because he's a hypocrite -- he pretends to be sympathetic towards people who are opposed to the dogmatic teaching of evolution, then gives them the shaft. Did anyone on the standards committee oppose that outrageous statement that "evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology"? That statement simply isn't true -- there are lots of things in biology that can be studied without considering the origins of species or biological traits.
E. Patrick Mosman | 9/9/2008 - 11:07am
Einstein's theories on gravity, space/time and Hawkin's Big Bang theory are stilll being examined, debated and challenged. Even Hawkin has developed a mathematical model that eliminates his 'Big Bang". Evolution is still a 'theory' yet it is has been elevated and taught as a scientific fact and its proponents deny others the scientific right to challenge or debate its theoretical basis. Fossilized remains are explained basis ideas propagated by the believers in this 'theory' while brooking no dissent. Recent finds of alligator like fossils with front flippers said to be turning into legs and primitive lungs is said to be proof of an evolution 'theory' that land reptiles came from the sea. Could it have been the reverse, a very large egg laying land creature evolving into water based reptile? Or even a reptilian occurrence of a thalidomide type incident causing deformities and the end of the line for that particular branch. One can even imagine archeologists 100 million years in the future finding a remains of 1960s thalidomide children and adults and theorizing about the origins of man based on their deformities as many were born with flipper like appendages. How do challengers of 'evolution theory' respond to a 'science' based on the cornerstones of 'chance' and 'randomness' as neither are falsifiable a "hallmark of science"? The one query that evolutionists apparently will not contemplate is'why?'. Why did Darwin's finches only develop different beaks in millions of years,or less, and did not evolve into wingless shellfish or fish eaters, food sources which were more abundant? Why did alligators and tortoises stop evolving hundreds of millions of years ago? Insects embedded in amber show that they have been around millions of years without evolving. Is there start-stop evolutionary gene and if so why? Why hasn't it been found? Perhaps it is beacuse if one follows the 'why' one will eventually reach the answer, Thomas Aquinas's "uncaused cause".
PAUL COTTLE DR | 9/9/2008 - 7:53am
Many of the comments offered here have concerned the science and theology of evolution rather than the issue of evolution education that I addressed in my piece. I’ll offer a brief list of books I’ve read myself that people interested in the science and theology might find interesting. On the science, I recommend the two books by Kenneth Miller, who is on the biology faculty at Brown University and is Catholic as well: “Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul” (2008) and his earlier book, “Finding Darwin’s God” (2000). Miller is well known for his public appearances concerning this topic, including a 1997 appearance on the TV show “Firing Line” and his testimony in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. The first part of “Only a Theory” deals directly with the concept of “irreducible complexity” introduced by Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who is both an advocate for Intelligent Design and a Catholic. At the suggestion of several members of my own parish, I read two books that deal with Catholic teaching on evolution and creation theology. One is “Chance or Purpose?: Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith” by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, which is a follow-up to his widely misunderstood 2005 opinion piece in the New York Times. The other was “Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo,” an account of Pope Benedict’s 2006 “Schulerkrers” meeting with his former students. I had the pleasure of meeting with a small group of my fellow parishioners to learn from them about these books. I am embarrassed to admit that I have not read any books by John Haught, who is so prominent in the Catholic theology of evolution. Can anyone (perhaps even Dr. Haught himself) recommend one of Dr. Haught’s books to me? Perhaps one that is accessible even to someone like me who is at best a novice in theology? I would like to offer a response to one of the commenters, Father Feehily: Your parishioners are up to the challenge of understanding that evolutionary science addresses how God chose to create life, and not whether he created life. The science should not be dismissed because some misuse it as a weapon to attack religious faith and the idea of moral responsibility. The Catholic Church will not be able to successfully engage the rest of society in the great ethical debates regarding the sanctity of life unless we all agree on what empirical science tells us and what its limits are (I must attribute this argument to Rev. Byers). Your parishioners will not be able to meaningfully participate in these discussions unless they have an understanding of evolutionary science and understand that Catholic teaching provides a solid foundation for understanding the role of science in their understanding of God’s kingdom. Your parishioners can handle the truth – I urge you to give it to them.
Joseph Ulicki | 9/8/2008 - 10:48pm
In regard to what is taught to our children, the following is a quote from Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis: Evolution must not be taught as fact, but instead the pros and cons of evolution must be taught. Also noteworthy is a partial quote from: The oath which each pope is required to take... ( Part 2, Page 2, 9th paragraph from bottom of page 2) "I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, . . . to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; . . . I swear to God Almighty and Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep . . . whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared. . . . I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I. Quoted from: http://www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/dialogs/church/larson-part2-2.htm Creation, not evolution, has been the Traditional teaching of the Catholic Church for nearly 2,000 years. An interesting article in this regard is: What does the Catholic Church Teach about Origins? http://www.kolbecenter.org/church_teaches.htm (Partial quote) - Genesis does not contain purified myths. (Pontifical Biblical Commission 1909[1]) - Genesis contains real history— it gives an account of things that really happened. (Pius XII) . . . - All the Fathers who wrote on the subject believed that the Creation days were no longer than 24-hour-days. (Consensus of the Fathers of the Church) - The work of Creation was finished by the close of Day Six,...(Vatican Council I) - St. Peter and Christ Himself in the New Testament confirmed the global Flood of Noah. It covered all the then high mountains and destroyed all land dwelling creatures except eight human beings and all kinds of non-human creatures aboard the Ark (Unam Sanctam, 1302) - The historical existence of Noah's Ark is regarded as most important in typology, as central to Redemption. (1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent) . . . - Evolution must not be taught as fact, but instead the pros and cons of evolution must be taught. (Pius XII, Humani Generis) . . . What Does Cutting-Edge Science Teach about Origins? . . . - Molecules-to-man evolutionary theory violates the second law of thermodynamics by positing spontaneous increases in order through random interactions of matter. . . . - Matter from explosions does not condense to form objects like galaxies. . . . - Molecules-to-man evolutionism violates the Law of Biogenesis: Life does not come from non-life. - The specific complexity of genetic information in the genome does not increase spontaneously. Therefore, there is no natural process whereby reptiles can turn into birds, land mammals into whales, or chimpanzees into human beings. On-line at: http://www.kolbecenter.org/church_teaches.htm From: Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation Defending Genesis from a Traditional Catholic Perspective www.KolbeCenter.org See also: Genesis 1-11 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis1-11;&version=31;
Rafael Sanguinetti | 9/8/2008 - 8:02pm
God creates the Universe under a set of rules: the laws of physics, evolution, etc. At a certain point in history, God picks one of the living beings and gives it a soul. The soul allows this being to know God and be different from the rest of the living creatures. Evolution now is in our own hands, what are we going to do with it?
CF - Florida | 9/8/2008 - 4:44pm
Great article...The problem of teaching religion as science keeps cropping up here in Florida among fundamentalists. Even my own mother thinks that the Catholic Church rejects evolution science. There is an excellent debate on YouTube - in German with English subtitles - between Christian biophysicist Cees Dekker and atheist philosopher Herman Philipse discussing the existence of God the creator and the creation stories in Genesis. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Xwe4n-Tb4c
David A. Johnson, Ph.D. | 9/8/2008 - 2:33pm
As both a scientist and a Christian I appreciated Paul Cottle's essay. However, there are several important theological aspects of the debate he and other Christian appologists for evolution seems to ignore: 1) A basic tenent of evolution is that species and life itself came into being through purely natural processes without any supernatural intervention. If this is so, then what foundation does God have for a relationship with human beings or any other living thing? 2) If God is not the creator of humanity, then what is basis for the coming of Christ to save humanity from sins that are the consequence of "natural" selection as opposed to sins against the Creator's law? 3) If God is not the creator of humanity, what is the basis for Catholics, Christians or any faith group to give God praise, loyalty or obedience?
Larry Fafarman | 9/7/2008 - 8:44am
There are extremists on both sides -- those who want evolution to be taught dogmatically and those who want creationism to be taught dogmatically. Unfortunately, only the pro-evolution extremists now have the ears of the established news media and the courts. I have yet to see an editorial in the established news media advocating a balanced approach to teaching evolution in the public schools, and three court decisions banned evolution disclaimer statements in the public schools even though only evolution was actually taught.
Fr. Jack Feehily | 9/6/2008 - 8:54pm
I applaud Dr. Cottle for his endeavors in Florida on behalf of the teaching of evolutionary theory in that State's schools. But I am empathetic with many of those who opposed this practice. I am reminded of my first seminary scripture class way back in 1966 when I and my classmates were scandalized by the professor's assertion that many of the biblical events we had come to understand as historical facts were actually "myths" and "metaphors". While most of us made the neccesary emotional adjustments as we progressed in our studies, some never did recover from the impact of modern biblical criticism. While Popes may wish to dismiss any problem with the acceptance of the broad brush strokes of Darwin's "theory", they can't possibly speak for rank and file Catholics who hear the following when evolutionary theory is espoused: God did not create everything out of nothing; and human beings are not soul-filled creatures who descended from our first parents but just another species of the apes from which we evolved. Evangelicals and Catholics alike have less trouble believing in a God through whose intelligence and providence all things came to be. I believe that faith can be reconciled with natural selection, but most every believer with half a mind knows that many people--including scientists--have cited Darwin's theory as a justification for dismissing God as neither a designer nor a creator. I didn't notice in the article how Dr. Cottle proposes to reconcile this fact.
daisy swadesh | 9/6/2008 - 3:22pm
Thank you Prof. Cottle for your excellent article and your efforts to work with both sides on the issue of evolution. The Catholic Church has spoken in favor of evolution but hasn't explained it adequately from the Church's position. It would be of further help if the Church explained it in a way that could be accepted by non-Catholics, non-Christians and even non-believers. Some suggestions on this: 1. Evolution doesn't explain how the material universe began. It addresses speciation--the evolution of species of living organisms. 2. Order is found throughout the material universe at every level--from subatomic particles to galaxies, from the inanimate to living creatures. It is an order that is "biased" towards life. (And for believers it is an order that is biased toward relationship--and love). In other words, it is anything but random and chaotic. 3, As an ex-atheist I was astounded when I read the first chapter of Genesis, because the order of Creation it describes so closely parallels what science has found. How could people 3,000 years ago have had such intuitive insight?! First the heavens and the earth were created (the material and spiritual worlds), and then ordered in progression, a step at a time--Light (energy)...plants before fish and birds...the higher animals, and last of all humans. (I've written a more complete list, but it's not at hand). For my atheist friends I describe God this way: There is a Higher Power of Good that orders the universe. It is biased towards life and love. (and for Christians--It's at the very core of everything; it knows my heart even better than I do, but it is not me. It is beyond me, within). Daisy Swadesh
Harriet Villalpando | 9/6/2008 - 1:22pm
I am the CRE for my parish's RCIA program and because I teach adults, I also help train our Catechists. It is always a shock to the adults that the Catholic Church does not oppose the teaching of evolution. This is just one example of how by dividing the country by "believers" and "non-believers" and the "them" and "us" ideology, the evangelicals are forcing their beliefs onto the culture of "believers". The Church in America is in great need for Adult Education in the Faith. Our diocese requires at least 6 hours of preperation for the parents of children receiving the Sacraments of Initiation. My parish requires even more. I use the theology sessions of the Echoes of Faith series. The Catholic Church in America needs to re-invest in Catholic education...and not just for those that can afford it or its teachings will continue to be eroded not only by the humanists, but by other Christians.
Jim Lein | 9/5/2008 - 8:44pm
I'm surprised so many Catholics took an anti-evolution stand in the poll. The last two (or more) Popes have had no problem with evolution. I first studied it in detail at St John's University (Minnesota) in 1960. The Benedictines -- and I -- had no problem with it. In fact, I had one of those "of course" insight experiences. Reading Teilhard de Chardin helped me incorporate it into my Catholic beliefs. And over the years I've had many meditative insights that have been inspired in part by evolutionary knowledge. If anything, evolution is pro-life.
E. Patrick Mosman | 9/5/2008 - 8:25pm
It seems that evolution, meaning that change takes place as a result of environmental conditions, self-preservation or other factors in an existing entity be it animal, plant, fish or any other living thing is according to some a matter of 'chance', 'lucky improvements' or 'rare accident' Of course evolution does not answer St Thomas Aquinas's 'uncaused cause'. When Einstein announced that "God does not play dice with the universe" did that make his "Theory of Relativity" a religious based theory and one that should not be taught in public schools? Einstein never objected that his theory was subjected to study and criticism from members of the scientific community, he welcomed it. That is the role of science to inquire, to question and to seek assurance that any new scientific discovery or proposed theory can stand the test of reasoned and learned discussion, debate and criticism through argumentation and a peer review process. In the middle ages, the Catholic Church was the supreme judge of science and held that the earth was the center of the universe, the sun revolved around the earth. Those scientists who had developed real data, Galileo and Copernicus for example, to show that the sun was the center were silenced but it did not stop them and others from pursuing and publishing scientific truths. While on vacation in Europe several years ago I read an article in the International Herald Tribune by Dr. Dennett entitled 'Show Me the Science" a challenge to ID but his defense of evolution was anything but scientific. I jotted down the following which I sent to Dr. Dennett. "When terms such as, "All it takes is a rare accident" and "these lucky improvements", are offered as the explanation for and in defense of evolution theory it makes this chemical engineer, who has never given much thought to the childish squabble between die hard evolutionists and die hard intelligent design advocates, begin to take an interest. In the first place I cannot imagine an engineering, chemistry, physics or any science or math professor accepting a doctoral thesis in which 'accident' or 'luck' are used as the proof or justification of the subject matter. In the real world of science there are constants and laws of nature and they are as described in the following quote as 'just so' and these constants and laws govern the universe and all that is in it. Quote: "Why are the constants and laws of nature just so , and not different? For example, why is the speed of light not faster than it is? Why are electrons so much lighter than the protons they orbit in atoms? If fundamental laws and constants were even slightly different from what is observed, then life as we know it would not exist. (For example, atoms would be less stable, or stars and planets would not form.)" End of Quote . Source: Universe Forum, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics can openly raise the issue of why constants and the laws of nature are 'just so' and not attribute it to a 'rare accident' or 'lucky improvement' then why are biologists and philosophers so adamant in their refusal to discuss openly that there may be constants and laws of nature that made the universe and all that is in it what it is today. Anyone who is prepared to speak on, champion, teach biology or any science course that covers evolution should be prepared to answer a basic question, where from and why the first extremely complex but elegantly simple double helix DNA molecule. Was DNA an accident of the 'Big Bang' as evolutionists apparently believe? Or do evolutionist believe that it was 'luck' or 'chance' that brought a bunch of A, T, C, G, building blocks together for a game of Double Twister and the rules of the game like choosing a shape, choosing partners, how to react to other substances and to change were determined by accident or luck thereby bringing every form of life on earth into
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 9/5/2008 - 6:58pm
Here's some thought on Professor Paul Cottle's "Teaching Evolution" with which I fully agree. The trouble is when I start thinking,I find myself all over the map - that's why I hate to think! Not really. So here's my contributing response for whatever its worth, a kind of theological transfusion into Darwin's bloodstream! Creator God is a perfectly consistent Being, predictable in principle in all he says and does. If this is true, is it possible that natural evolution is related to the intrinsic processional nature of the Triune God, wherein from all eternity without beginning or end, the Divine Persons proceed one from the other in independent unity, prototyping natural creation in its evolutionary procession, one thing proceeding from another with a big bang, all potential already there just in need of time and proper conditions under which to flower? Like the evolutionary process called "birth." Also, is it possible when it comes to the question of Intelligent Design, did God, fully aware of the final result grant evolution the freedom to zig-zag at will, eventually coming up with a "finished product" intended by the Creator. In other words is it possible to link the teaching of evolution and intelligent design into a single process, with freedom to produce entities subject to change towards a final result intended by the creator in the long run? I say "Yes!" But of course there's much more that needs to be said, but too long for here. To conclude I lean on the wisdom of one of my heroes, the great, holy, Jesuit priest-palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who, speaking of evolution in its multi-faceted outcomes said, God makes things make themselves." That's a pretty succinct binding of the evolution vesus intelligent design conflicts into a single package, so what's the problem? Simplistic? Maybe!
Ron Good, Professor Emeritus, LSU & FSU | 9/5/2008 - 3:24pm
I applaud Paul's thoughtful remarks and support nearly all of what he says in "Teaching Evolution." As a fellow member of the Florida Standards Committee, I can verify the facts Paul presents regarding the development of the new science standards. One matter of opinion on which we may disagree is the assertion that faith and science need not be antithetical. As a Catholic believer Paul supports the assertion while as a freethinker I see a problem where children are concerned. In much religious teaching (some say indoctrination) children are taught to believe rather than question the doctrine handed to them. Unlike science, where an inquiring attitude or habit of mind is encouraged, most religious teaching fails to encourage inquiry, and in some cases it is considered a sin to question the word of God or his helpers. It is in this sense that I disagree with the assertion that faith and science need not be antithetical. One of the difficulties in discussions concerning religion is the widely varying definitions of religion and God. Given Albert Einstein's definition of God as the beauty of nature, including nature's laws, the assertion that science and religious faith need not be antithetical is far less of a problem. However, few believers want such a limited, impersonal God. Overall, I agree that Paul's position, as outlined in "Teaching Evolution," is a pragmatic one that is more likely to be supported by most citizens than my own position.
Gerry Meisels | 9/5/2008 - 12:01pm
Dr. Cottle makes a powerful and well-reasoned argument. I am a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and have a firm belief in god and his mighty hand in my life, but I see no conflict between faith in god and evolution. The fervor of the extreme religious right and a few other adherents of creationism/intelligent design creates an artificial and divisive debate that is bound to be resolved in favor of evolution some time in the future. All that will do is weaken the religious side of the only important issue: that God exists. Similar debates raged hundreds of years ago when Galileo proposed the heliocentric view of the world. Then also, the religious establishment felt threatened because the proposal seemed at odds with literal interpretations of some isolated parts of scripture. I am very proud of the Catholic Church for having learned from that debate and now taken the enlightened stance that there is no conflict between evolution, its own teachings, and faith more generally. To rephrase that a little, there is no conflict between reason and faith. God gave us the ability to reason as one of the talents and Christ told us that we should use our talents, all of them. So where is the conflict? It is just an artificial creation of insecure people. Three cheers and all my prayers for Paul Cottle!