Friday, February 11, 2011

Welcome to Evolution Weekend

I am a proud, if not particularly active, member of The Clergy Letter Project, a collection of clergy, from various religions and faith traditions, who support the teaching of evolution in schools, and more generally, a rationalist approach to religion. Once a year, they declare an “Evolution Weekend,” and this year, this is the weekend. No big fanfare—just a chance for interested clergy to talk a little bit about the intersection of faith and science in general, and evolution in particular.

This is the kind of thing which requires a book, rather than a blog post, but let me try and do it a little bit of justice in a short space.

I believe in evolution.

Most of you who know me, know this already. But just in case, let me be clear. I don't mean this as one of those sermonic tricks, where I tell you that I believe in evolution, but after 15 minutes you realize that I don't really believe it. No—I really do. I believe the universe was created billions of years ago with the Big Bang. I believe that human beings evolved on Earth from other, more primitive lifeforms. I don't believe that it was, in any real way, guided by a Supernatural Being. Nope—when it comes to questions about how we got here, I turn to science books, not to the Torah.

If you open up almost any dictionary, and look up the word “faith,” you'll almost certainly find that the first or second definition says something like “belief that is not based on proof.” But, the Hebrew word which we usually translate as “faith,” is “emunah.” And emunah doesn't really have anything to do with believing facts which can't be proven. It's got more to do with relationship. In Judaism, saying “I believe in God” doesn't mean that I assert certain facts about God. It's closer to what I mean if I were to say “I believe in you.” It means I trust you; I have an ongoing relationship with you which informs my behavior.

The important point is that Judaism doesn't ever ask us to believe a fact which is otherwise disprovable. We are never called on to reject rationality, or evidence, and to "take it on faith." I'll admit to still being a bit confounded by those who do. There are some incredibly smart, thoughtful, learned people who apply one set of standards to almost every fact they encounter in life, but apply an entirely different standard to facts proposed by their religion. If I were to tell you that I believed, truly believed, that Abraham Lincoln was the first President of the United States, then you'd probably think I was crazy. It is demonstrably false. But, if I tell you that I believe that the world was created around 6000 years ago, with all of our current life-forms existing essentially as they are today, it would mark me as pious.

Well, I am pious. I am deeply religious, and committed to my religious life. But, I simply don't subscribe to that kind of piety. I don't believe that it does us any good to ignore our God-given intellect and rationality. I don't believe that a faith which requires me to believe something with part of my being, which is denied by another part, is a very strong faith.

A few years ago, I read City of God by E.L. Doctorow. In it, I found one of my all-time favorite quotes:

I take the position that true faith…cannot discard the intellect. It cannot answer the intellect with a patronizing smile. I look for parity here. I will not claim that your access to the numinous is a delusion if you will not tell me that my intellect is irrelevant.

I believe that evolution is true. I believe in God. And I believe that trying to serve your soul at the expense of your mind can only do harm to both.

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