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May 7, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Ideas Which Evolve

“Sometimes I’d look at a monkey or something and be like ‘hey, they do kind of look like humans’”

 

“Then I’d think… I’ve learned all these other things, which mean that for me, that can’t be true.”

 

Alex is a creationist. He believes in a young earth—that is, that the Bible encompasses all of time, which would mean that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

 

Alex studies software engineering, and is hesitant to speak openly about his beliefs. “It’s becoming less acceptable to even mention anything else apart from evolution.” If certain classmates knew what he really believed, he reckons he’d be “ridiculed.”

 

So, did we come from monkeys? ^On the Origin of Species^ was published 160 years ago, and although Darwinian principles have been thoroughly accepted into the biological sciences, there’s a whole spectrum of responses among people of faith.

 

Until the conversations leading up to this article, I had forgotten that not all of us take evolution for granted. Though I’m a Christian, I, like many creationists, love learning about science and the intricacies it reveals about the world. This isn’t the case for everyone. I’ve learned a lot about logic, rationality, and faith in the last few weeks, and how it leads people to diverse conclusions.

 

This ranges from those who think that if God created the universe, God could have created evolution to fill it; those who believe that evolution happened, or could happen for micro-organisms or plants (but not animals and people); those who believe that evolution in general could have happened, but not in the case of humans (who were specially created by God); and those, like Alex, who straight-out reject the notion of evolution.

 

All of these views developed out of, and in reaction to, the teachings of both faith and science. In this way, evolution is an effective flashpoint for examining the broader implications of how faith and science interact.

 

According to Say It, an online research panel run by a survey company, 45% of New Zealanders believe in evolution unreservedly, 23% believe in creationism, 26% believe in evolution guided by God, and 6% are unsure. Creationists—and believers in general—are closer than you might think.

 

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Geoff Chambers, an Alumnus Scholar at Vic’s School of Biological Sciences, reminds me, repeatedly, that to be against evolution is “not really a very rational position”. He is fine with people having a faith and has taught many people of faith. But where they intersect, things get messy. “There is no dialogue between science and religion because science cannot deal with the ideas of religion; it can’t comment on it.”

 

Matthias Loong, a staff worker at Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship (TSCF), a nation-wide non-denominational association of Christian students, has degrees in both Physics and Theology. As we speak, he asks lots of rhetorical questions. It seems to be his way of understanding the world. “How can you use one system to disprove another?” he asks of the neo-athiests (like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins), who assiduously emphasise how science disproves God.

 

But Loong isn’t out to get into ideological arguments; he’s happy to meet people where they’re at. “Am I happy for Young Earth Creationists to hold their position? Of course. Do I doubt that God could create everything as exactly outlined in Genesis 1 and 2? No, if he wanted to he could have.” However, he personally is “comfortable with God being intimately involved in that process [of evolution].”

 

But there’s an important distinction: “Evolution is a scientific hypothesis. If you elevate it to worldview status, that is dangerous.”—a.k.a., evolution explains part of the world, but is not a replacement for wonder and respect in a Creator.

 

For people of faith who accept evolution, or at least part of evolution, this is a crucial point. Mohammed Alshaboti, who is a computer networking postgrad from Yemen and a Muslim, tells me that, “If I believe that everything is random and [those who are] stronger should evolve and the other [people] should be neglected, it goes against […] human nature.” If evolution is the governing principle, with the ‘survival of the fittest’ becoming an ideology as well as a mechanism, why would anyone be kind or generous?

 

This is a question larger than evolution. I don’t have answers for him—but it seems to me that it takes courage to be an atheist, too; to do good and seek wonder without a bigger framework of motivation and explanation. Most atheists aren’t killing the weak in society to make the human race stronger—those people are called eugenicists, and are largely condemned by the modern world.

 

In conversations about evolution, the question of worldview often comes up. Alex shows me an illustration in a book he has called “The ULTIMATE PROOF of Creation”, which claims to teach its readers how to defend creation from evolutionists. In the book, there’s an illustration of two people wearing glasses: one wears ‘evolution glasses’ and one wears ‘Bible glasses’. These glasses affect their ability to understand the world; everything is a little distorted.

 

“[Evolutionists and Creationists] are looking at the same facts,” Alex tells me. “Some things are inherent, like the beauty of the night sky [and] with the specifics of how things happened, it still has to be informed by those amazing wonderful facts.” He understands where evolutionists are coming from, even if they are spreading a “false doctrine” which attempts to remove God from the narrative.

 

It’s easy to think of faith and science as opposites, but Loong says that that’s a trap. The enshrining of curiosity, exploration, and certainty in the Bible itself makes him “confident” that he can “hold both science and faith, hold hands with them.”

 

Mohammed echoes this view. He feels that the Qu’ran calls him to learn more about the world, and that “it’s a sort of worshipping”.

 

Eva Nisa, a Religious Studies lecturer who specialises in Islam, says that as Islam doesn’t have hierarchical systems in the same way as the Christian church, there is no definitive stance on evolution within Islam. Evolution took a long time to permeate the Islamic world; there wasn’t a full translation of ^On the Origin of Species^ into Arabic until 1964. There’s a rich Islamic tradition of scientific and mathematical research, including some thinkers who expressed ideas “which might be considered as parts of the pre-modern theory of evolution and were not seen as a threat to their religion.”

 

However, for the most part, discussions about evolution in the Muslim world have been similar to Christians. Nisa says, “the discussion of evolution in the Muslim world has often been partnered with Darwinism or atheism and a purely materialistic approach, which has led many to issue the judgment that it is heresy, and hence, needs to be avoided or even denied.”

 

But the discussion is, and always has been, diverse. She walks me through several Qu’ranic verses, like, “Who makes most excellent everything that He creates. Thus, He begins the creation of man out of clay” (Qu’ran 32:7), which has been understood literally by anti-evolutionists, and figuratively by other thinkers, who say that a “most excellent” creation can use the principles of the environment it has been placed in.

 

Mohammed was very reluctant to learn about evolution, as he had a friend who started studying evolution and eventually stopped believing in God. However, after doing some of his own research, he has decided that he has no issue with evolution in general, but while he “can believe in evolution for other [species], … if it is explaining that human beings are evolved from something else, it contradicts something from the verse in the Qu’ran, goes against the fundamentals.”

 

Education around evolution varies greatly. Alex only learned about the details of evolution in his early teens, as he was homeschooled. He watched documentaries about evolution on the Hope Channel (a Christian Freeview channel) and researched independently. “There are answers for my doubts,” he told me, and he continues to see evolution as false.

 

Mohammed only started to learn about evolution after he left Yemen. Nisa said that evolution is open for discussion in Muslim countries “except some countries at certain historical stages, such as Pakistan, in particular, during General Zia ul-Haq’s regime, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Oman and Sudan.” Mohammed’s experience echoes this.

 

Benjamin Klapaukh, a Jewish student at Vic, isn’t as concerned with the nitty-gritty of creation. He knows of no contradiction between his faith and the account of creation in Genesis. It’s important to remember, he says, that “the Old Testament is not a history book. The point of it is more to give direction and guidance and live an ethical life.”

 

The ‘genre’ of holy books is a crucial detail in questions of evolution. How literally should religious texts be taken? Matthias Loong found these questions useful as he developed his response to Genesis. “Is it a science textbook? Is it a poem, is it a historical narrative? If you can answer that question you can move forward.” To Loong the crucial detail in Genesis 1 and 2 is not ^how God created all the living creatures of the world, but ^that God chose to create those creatures. And God considered them good.

 

Mohammed says that “some people think that the Qu’ran is a scientific book. [But the] Qu’ran is mostly showing people how to increase their peace and lead a good life.” If details in the Qu’ran are confirmed by science, that’s wonderful, but science is not the essence of the Qu’ran.

 

Ultimately, the question of evolution and science is a question of rationality. Perhaps these discussions are so fraught because it’s a hard thing to have your way of thinking challenged. “People really value their rationality,” Chambers said. “If you want to get in a fight with someone, demonstrate they’re not rational.” He characterises this conflict as a difference between the constant—pardon my pun—evolution of scientific ideas as new research emerges, opposed to the fixedness of faith.

 

All of the people of faith I talked to put it differently, telling me that their interest in science was informed by their faith, by an invitation to learn more about a world made by God. But science could not be everything. “Science is great when you put it in its place, but there’s more knowledge out there than science,” Loong told me.  

 

If the place for science, at least for the people I spoke to, is to remind them to keep asking questions about God’s involvement in this wild universe, then maybe those who privilege scientific views should remember to acknowledge the role of faith as well.

 

What would it take for the conflict over evolution and creation to end? Alex has one answer: “People would have to start believing in God again,” instead of replacing faith with evolution and other scientific principles. Chambers suggests that people of faith who want to reconcile God and evolution have to “evolve their God” to recognise God as a human creation. Matthias, Benjamin, and others don’t see a conflict between evolution and their faith.  

 

Ideas evolve. Maybe people have as well. Whether it was through processes of God, evolution, or both, we are able to ask and answer questions as big as this.

 

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