Shuck and Jive

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can Presbyterians Embrace Evolution?

Linda LaScola is co-author with Daniel Dennett of Caught in the Pulpit:  Leaving Belief Behind.  

This book is about the study they conducted with clergy who are no longer believers.   She will be on an upcoming broadcast of Religion For Life to talk about this book which is the result of a series of interviews with clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.   

She also helped to create the Clergy Project, an on-line discussion for clergy who no longer believe in the doctrines of their churches.

She invited me to make a post on the blog Rational Doubt about my resolution to the General Assembly regarding Evolution Sunday.   I am cross posting it here.


I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).    I am happy to be one. Even as I have been quite public that I do not hold supernatural beliefs, the church hasn’t defrocked me. It is a thoughtful denomination.  It is ahead of many other denominations on social justice questions.  It is not opposed to higher criticism of the Bible.  It is not anti-evolution.

It does not however embrace evolutionary science or higher criticism of the Bible.   In my view, it tolerates these academic fields and covers them over with a thick theological veil.    For instance evolution must be addressed (if can be addressed at all) in terms of “God” and “Creation.”   The Bible – no matter what criticism is leveled at it – still is “God’s Word.”

In the meantime, anti-scientific attitudes are creating a serious social problem.  My denomination has historically been a leader in promoting public education and responding positively to social ills.   It should be a no-brainer for the PCUSA to say “yes” clearly and unequivocally to evolution at every General Assembly and “no” to creationism in all of its guises.  The last time the PCUSA addressed evolution was in 2002.   They made this statement:
The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stated that it 
  • Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. 
  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator. 
  • Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community. 
  • Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and scientific educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable knowledge.
It is certainly time for an upgrade especially as our culture is besieged by anti-scientific views.   Mainline churches can assist science educators by adding their voice and influence for science, especially evolution –  as this is where the cultural battle rages.    We need to do this publically and repeatedly.

My resolution to ask the denomination to endorse The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday was solidly trounced by the Theological Issues Committee, 47-2. I wrote about it here  and here. Why did it fail? There were objections to adding a day to the church calendar.  Perhaps if it had come from two concurring presbyteries rather than just me, it would have had more weight.  Fine.  Many reasons have been offered for my resolution’s defeat that I find to be red herrings.   If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.    Nevertheless if any perceived errors were fixed and folks with nuanced political finesse were to submit something similar again, it might get a better showing.   I’ll choose to remain hopeful.     Why is evolution not on our church’s agenda?

What I find distressing is that the most amazing and foundational scientific discovery has gone not only unheralded but also mostly unacknowledged by my beloved Presbyterians.  I get the message that evolution is just not our business.  The problem is the theological veil.  It seems that my denomination feels that it must figure out the evolution problem theologically before it can endorse evolution.    Because church theologians cannot reconcile a scientific process that needs no supernatural design, creation, intrusion or purpose with theological notions of agency, they have nothing to say.    The best they can come up with is this statement:
  • Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
I’ll let the reader muse over that.    The bottom line is that the church needs to embrace evolution at every opportunity.   As it does so, it can encourage creativity regarding meaning and human flourishing.    Endorse reality first then explore possible meanings.    Embrace evolution now and do the theology in response to this foundational truth.     As we might suspect, once we embrace the world that science is showing us, our theological doctrines will by necessity change.    That is what the church fears and resists.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful and I remain engaged.   Over 15,000 clergy have signed the Clergy Letter.   That is a sign of hope.   Many creative congregations such as the one I presently serve embrace our grand evolutionary and cosmic story in worship and practice. My hope for my denomination is that it will tear down the theological veil that keeps it from confronting reality. As the veil is removed, we will be able to see our natural world as it is and then use the religious skills we have honed over the centuries to help humanity celebrate and care for Earth with poetry, song, liturgy and community.


  1. John I am confused by your comments on the values to be obtained by "embracing evolution" including "explore possible meanings" and "encourage creativity regarding meaning". I suggest you read or reread some of Dawkins work. I find Dawkins to be the most candid in describing the universe according to pure evolutionary theory. "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Houseman put it 'For Nature, heartless witless Nature will neither care nor know' DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to it's music" Dawkins will tell you the search for possible meaning will be short when you fully embrace evolution. There is none.

  2. I like Dawkins. I agree the universe does not come with a ready-made meaning. We have to decide for ourselves what we make of it. We can decide to make meaning based on reality or fantasy. I invite us to look at reality.

  3. John, I would respectfully suggest you miss Dawkins point. He's not saying the universe doesn't come with a "ready-made meaning". He's saying there is "no meaning". I know you have talked with Dennett and have a coauthor coming up. He similarly states the "Universe starts out without any meaning there really is no point to it" That is reality according to Dawkins and Dennett when you fully embrace evolution which means any meaning you attach to it is fantasy.

  4. Not sure I get the difference except that "readymade" may be redundant. I suggest that meaning is a human activity. What else could it be? In a theistic universe, the "god" makes the meaning. This is what Christian theism has been promoting. I have found it wanting. I suggest we made the god in an attempt to make life meaningful. For me, science has rendered this pre-modern universe and meaning less than interesting. Evolution is far more interesting even as the responsibility for making meaningful lives amidst it is ours.

  5. The difficulty I have with your position is it's lack of coherence.
    We agree that the proponents of evolution or at least Dawkins and Dennett state that there is no meaning or purpose to the universe, "there really is no point to it" Accepting that there is no purpose to life you would seek to find purpose in life. The answers aren't very satisfying. Dennett says "What could be more important than things that matter most to us" Recognizing the problems with that a leading atheist wrote "We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that really rational persons unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn't decide here. The picture I have pointed for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality" The 20th century proved that. Christianity gives me a coherent worldview and morality that recognizes the sacredness of life not dancing to blind pitiless indifferent DNA but with the Lord of the Dance.

  6. If inventing gods or believing in gods invented by others helps you to make moral decisions, then go ahead.