Evolution vs. Creation:
A faith-based perspective for the uninitiated
An individual in the community sent me an electronic message complaining from the tyranny of falsehood and the helplessness of pious believers under the unwavering assault of evil. Instantaneously, the adrenaline rushed in my veins, my heart rate increased, my breathing hastened , my eye pupils constricted and all of my senses braced for bad news from Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, or even here in America. However, the message was an even more surprising slap in the face when I read about the incident that “hit the people of faith where it hurts”. The person complained from the fact that the theory of evolution has spread “beyond control” in the academic world and that most biologists around the world subscribed to this theory as if it were a “divine religion”. The person also emphatically included his prescription to the “prevalent illness”, which advocated for an unequivocal, relentless and unyielding support of the religious right in America in its crusade against the “liberal heresy” of evolution, and to support the introduction of the so called “Intelligent Design” in the schools’ biology curriculum, as a possible alternative to evolution!
The fact that I was so accustomed to receiving messages that overflow with absurdity didn’t shield me from feelings of dismay.
This whole unfortunate correspondence brought to the surface an intellectual struggle that has been occupying my mind for quite some time. As a Muslim, and more importantly as an Imam, which side should I take in the evolution-creation divide? When people in my community ask how I feel about the theory of evolution- when their children are taught in schools that we are the descendants of apes, in a way that effectively, or so it is argued, does away with the concept of God- how should I respond? The question becomes even more pressing, when the same people ask me if I would support teaching creationism, or the so called intelligent design theory, to our children.
Every time those questions cross my tired mind, the same scary answer springs out: I could never support teaching pseudo science to our children! It is repugnant to even consider allowing the presentation of any opinion in the biology classrooms that was not crystallized through a scholarly empirical effort and research from credible authorities on the subject matter. It’s not cogent to force the arenas of objective science to accommodate futile debates on divinity. It makes no sense to attempt to use religion to validate science, or to use science to prove the existence of God!
As an imam, I always thought that I would naturally be inclined to side with conservatives in this debate: reject evolution and support any attempt to minimize its influence on people’s minds. To my surprise, I gradually found myself inclined to support evolution, until another plausible theory is presented by the academic community that can potentially shake its foundations.
The big commotion that was caused by rightwing conservatives in America is, in my opinion, a reflection of the state of confusion that many American Christians suffer from. With the increasing body of literature pointing out to inconsistencies in the Bible, many Christians feel defensive about their faith and what evolution could do to undermine it. Its no surprise that many people of faith consider evolution to be the one scientific theory that can plummet the concept of God to a pit hole that has no bottom!
As a Muslim, I feel differently about this.
This unwarranted upheaval about evolution is a byproduct of a fruitless and unnecessary attempt to dim the important line of discrepancy between religion and science. Science is a human-made institution that aims at describing and explaining natural phenomena and to provide knowledge-based answers to questions about gravity, celestial motions, human physiology, fossil records, etc. Religion, on the other hand, is- or at least considered by its followers to be- a divine institution and a belief system, that God has sent to humanity so mankind could identify with and adhere to a path that ultimately leads to the creator. Science is based on research and evidence, religion is based on faith. Science is ever-changing and unstable, religion is- or at least is supposed to be- stable and timeless.
For me science is simply a language. Any language has an alphabet, and a set of rules. The language of science is empirical evidence, observation and research. And just like any other language, science is limited in its abilities and reach. Its has a specific scope and mandate. Science doesn’t endeavor to accomplish any objectives of its own, nor does it attempt to establish or validate a clear way to prove the existence of God. Its simply an instrument, an often useful one, that is limited in its resources and restricted in its effect. Science is bound by the material resources and the technological advancements that are available to humans, in a certain temporal or spatial dimension. What used to be accepted science a 1000 years ago, is now considered fairytales, and what is considered science today may eventually be rendered obsolete.
Take for example the theory that the earth is the center of the universe. This “scientific” theory dominated the world of men from the time of Ptolemy to the time of Copernicus, when it was shattered to pieces. In other words, for about 1500 years most humans adamantly believed that earth was the center of, not the solar system, not the galaxy, but the entire universe. Moreover, the church in Europe adopted this premise, and deemed it religion and conformed people, often violently, to subscribe to it. Copernicus offered a “scientific” evidence that led the Ptolemaic view down the drain, and presented his groundbreaking -but still wrong- theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.
200 years after Copernicus, Galileo provided an alternative theory that, again, unsettled the dust of ignorance and conformity in Europe, and contended that the Sun is the center of a rather smaller realm called the solar system, which constitutes, together with millions of other solar systems, what we often call the universe.
Although Galileo was imprisoned and was later confined to house arrest, the shock waves of intellectual openness were not to be contained. Along came Newton and his new theory of physics that astonished his contemporaries. Newtonian physics held the status of undisputed science until Einstein introduced more convincing theories and discredited some of what Newton stood for. Now the scientific community is eagerly waiting for someone to refute Einstein and to bring another theoretical perspective on reality to the fore.
Science, it seems, is a language of temporary abilities, only useful within certain temporal and spatial limitations, designed to describe a “relative” truth, where the potential validity of that description is bound by what humanity has achieved in terms of technological progress, and in terms of the availability of more reliable tools and instruments.
One clarification is warranted in this context however. The assertion that science is a “temporary” form of expression doesn’t imply the “volatility” of scientific endeavors. The scientific method is not futile. The fact that what humanity held for years to be science proved in later years to be an absolute fallacy shouldn’t deter people from utilizing the practical applications of science and putting those applications to work to better the human experience. Without that “science”, humanity wouldn’t have benefited from amazing applications like electricity, the internal combustion engine, or television. The point that is being made here is that the relative nature of science should never allow people, particularly scientists, to succumb to an inevitable feeling that what they have been given from limited resources and incomplete knowledge is enough to provide the means to create an overarching, all-encompassing theory that could potentially explain the “absolute” truth of the universe.
A virus is perhaps considered the smallest form of living existence, so far as we know at least. If a virus is compared to a bacterium, one realizes how relatively enormous the bacterium is. As a matter of fact, one bacterium could hold billions of viruses. Consequently, a fungus could hold billions of bacteria, and the back of an ant holds millions of fungi. Since one ant could hold on its back billions and billions of smaller forms of existence, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to contend that an ant is essentially a realm of existence, or a “universe” for a great many forms of life. With the same token, if an ant is compared to larger insects; when insects are compared to higher forms of life such as reptiles, and when all this is compared to humans, the picture becomes gradually clear. That “life” as we know it, exists in layers, or realms, where the inhabitants of each layer could potentially be unaware of the existence of other layers, and the very possible chance that life could potentially exist in such layers.
This train of thought becomes even more interesting when we move out of “our” realm and start thinking of how small our planet is compared to the solar system, and how small the solar system is compared to the galaxy, and how small our galaxy is compared to other galaxies, and so forth. Once this idea sinks in, one comes to realize that it is utterly arrogant to think for a moment that with the limited tools and resources we possess as humans -considering that we all live in one layer of existence- we would be able to draft a “universal” theory that explains the absolute truth of the universe. How can we explain something if we are not even sure of its existence? A human attempt to claim that “science” is stable enough of an institution to provide an absolute understanding of what the universe is about, sounds to me like a virus claiming it was given a clear understanding of what rocket science is about!
What does all this have anything to do with the evolution-creation debate? Well, the point I try to make here is that it would be regrettable for a person of faith to abandon his or her belief in God simply because a “temporary” scientific hypothesis posed a challenge to that belief. Even if another hypothesis was presented to validate one’s faith, it will soon be followed by another that will undermine it. One’s faith cannot be dependent on the tumultuous and competitive nature of scientific endeavours, swinging from one extreme to the other at the mercy of circumstances. What makes me a man of faith? a deep conviction that this universe not only cannot function without a creator, but that it actually needs one. This conviction stems from the deep corners of my heart and from my intimate connection with the scriptures. It is enabled through my acts of worship, and is reinforced through feeling the presence of God in my life. It is driven by my intellectual need, not to answer just questions of how, but questions of why. None of this has anything to do with science, theories and postulates. My faith is mine, and it makes sense to me not because science says so.
This is not to suggest that evolution as a theory of science will be disproved one day either. It is not for me to say. All I’m suggesting here is that the progress of human intellectual capacity is inevitable, and with it more technological advancements will empower us to look at the world differently, uncover new realities and see things in a different light. At some point in the future, near or far, evolution will either be replaced or complemented by another scientific postulate that will make more sense. This is unavoidable, and it is with that in mind that I call upon people of faith to refrain from allowing themselves to get defensive as a result of a theory of science. Do not let the ever-changing nature of science shake your foundations, and do not allow it to distort your perceptions of God. To the scientific community I say: tone down the rhetoric, show more humility and acknowledge the inherent precariousness of your endeavors. Help us learn more about the world, and let the people of faith make it livable!
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