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Believing vs. Knowing: Faith’s Role in the Evolution Debate
Lee J. Suttner

The Holy Scriptures tell us how to go to
heaven, not how the heavens go.

-St. Augustine

To this day, nearly six decades later, I have memories of my parish priest’s occasional visits to religion classes in the early grades of my school, St. Mary’s, in rural eastern Wisconsin. Those moments that I remember most vividly were when he came to warn us about a distinguished and supposedly all-knowing college professor someday attempting to convince us to accept the evil and atheistic idea that we had evolved from lower animals. As he predicted, I did go on to have many such encounters. Ironically and to my continuing amusement, as a geology professor (albeit not very distinguished and certainly not all-knowing), I am now the cause of such encounters.

Perhaps because I was raised in a strong faith-based environment, I possess a unique appreciation for the critical need to prevent turning the evolution-versus-creationism/intelligent design debate into one of anti-religion versus religion. It is a lose-lose argument for both sides and will simply widen the destructive wedge separating believers, nonbelievers and the agnostics in between. Belief in evolution does not preclude belief in God. But belief is the key word. Fully understanding the concept of belief is fundamental to arguments for keeping creationism and its clever smokescreen, intelligent design (as my father used to say, giving a slow horse a new name doesn’t make it run faster), out of the science classrooms of all of our schools, not just the public ones.

Believing something to be true because of faith and knowing that something is true because of empirical testing are fundamentally distinct. For many people, faith is a wonderful gift, permitting them to believe whatever they want about a natural phenomenon; it does not, however, permit them to know the phenomenon. For example, faith permits some people to believe that an almighty being — God — created them in his image. But faith cannot permit them to know, to empirically prove, that humans instead did not create God in their image, as those without faith often choose to believe. Not recognizing the difference between believing and knowing prevents constructive and intellectually honest debate over faith-based teaching in the science classroom.

Scientific theories expressing what we think to be true at any given time about something as complex as evolution derive from the scientific method, a process in which testing is a fundamental ingredient; it has nothing to do with faith or reliance on some higher faith authority that tells us what to believe as truth. Believing instead of knowing something to be true can lead people to potentially dangerous acts, seemingly justified by their faith.

Religion and especially the concept of an almighty force or forces in nature appeal to many people because they supply easy-to-understand answers to questions that lack easy-to-provide testable answers — for example, how did it all begin and how will it all end? These questions have been around since humans first experienced volcanism, earthquakes and all sorts of other natural processes that were unexplainable within their existing framework of knowledge.

Scientists thrive on unanswered questions. Without puzzles to solve, they would have no careers. But those people who have not had a sound foundation in the process of scientific discovery cannot comfortably live with the unknown. These same individuals become dangerously disruptive to science education when they demand that their faith-based answers to these questions share equal status in science classrooms with empirically testable theories.

In spite of claims by the intelligent designers, no reputable scientist can call on the existence of an almighty guiding force to explain the incredible complexity and order of evolution just because of a lack of total understanding of this complexity and order right now. This notion is no different than creating a god of fire to explain volcanoes, as done millennia ago. Full and open pursuit of scientific truth abruptly ends in our schools when faith is invoked in this way.

For example, we do not now know all the details of genesis. Perhaps space/time is infinite with no boundaries, as Stephen Hawking suggests — we just don’t know, regardless of what those with faith in a creator would like for the faithless to believe. But scientists do not throw up their arms in despair and appeal to a higher being for an answer. (In their own lives, they may make a personal choice to use the beauty and complexity of something like evolution to strengthen their belief in an almighty being, which is perfectly acceptable, but should have nothing to do with their advancement of scientific knowledge in the minds of others.) Thousands of years of knowledge accumulation attest to the fact that with time, answers to even the most difficult questions about nature as we know them today may be discovered.

It seems that fundamentalists, and now more and more mainstream religious people, fear the teaching of evolution in the absence of creationism/intelligent design because they lack sufficient confidence and faith in the existence and power of their deity to be manifest without empirical proof. They believe that if their deity is taken out of the physical mechanism of genesis, belief in its existence among children in our schools will be threatened — how sad, selfish and shortsighted.

All people who feel that way should read Christianity and the Age of the Earth, written by geologist, evangelist and self-proclaimed “creationist” Davis A. Young. He presents cogent arguments that Christian evangelism will be significantly hindered by creationists’ attempts to defend their faith by falsely interpreting geologic evidence and thus arguing error on behalf of faith.


Suttner is the Emeritus Robert Shrock Professor of Geological Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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