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Kansas Citizens for Science / MAINstream Coalition

July 11 program, "Intelligent Design: Is it Science?"
Johnson County Community College

GIST OF OPENING COMMENTS, followed by additional comments
Vern Barnet
copyright, 2001, Kansas City, MO

     I began my high school career as an advocate for creationism. I carried both Protestant and Catholic Bibles to class to "witness to Christ" to my fellow students. I ran for student council on the slogan, "Vote for Vernon -- and things will be turnin' -- God's way." Specifically, I proposed to abolish the wicked noon-hour movies and dances which recreated the students after lunch. I was overwhelmingly defeated.

     But I knew God would defeat Darwin, so while peering through the microscope at paramecia, I told my lab partner that God created the universe just as described in Genesis, despite what our text book said. And I told the teacher he was wrong.

     I read stuff that debunked Darwin. But even then I could see that "creation science," a claim that Darwinian theory is unsupported by evidence, wasn't scientific. What kept me to the true faith was belief in literal word of God. That was all the evidence I needed to know that "atheistic" scientists were wrong.

     I didn't need anyone to protect me from exposure, any more than I did when I refused to play the "Can Can" in orchestra because it was sinful music. My teachers treated me with respect even as they taught evolution and Offenbach.

    On a standardized test I used asterisks and answered the questions according to the evil theory, but at the bottom of the sheet I added, "I mark answers according to the godless theory of evolution because I want a good grade, but I do not believe evolution because it contradicts what God says." My teacher later told me I had the highest score in the city, and I felt very smug.

     In my junior year I read Tom Paine’s Age of Reason and looked at the Bible as I never had before. After agonizing with logic and evidence, I lost my faith.

     The summer after high school, 1960, as I was experimenting in my chemistry lab, on the radio I heard a review of The Phenomenon of Man by the Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The book envisions a God working through nature. Amazed that the talk was by a minister, a few months later I was in his Sunday School basement, teaching third graders "How Miracles Abound," a way of looking at science with awe but without the God who created the world in six literal days. Upstairs was a plaque with the image of Newton Mann, a minister of the church who had been the first American clergyman to embrace the Theory of Evolution.

    The seminary I attended at the University of Chicago had established "The Institute for Advanced Studies of Religion and Science" where I encountered distinguished theologians and scientists who deepened my appreciation for both faith and the scientific method. While evolution was only one of many topics, I found the processes described by science so awesome that it is easy to understand why so many people see them as the workings of "God."

     Most faiths easily incorporate evolutionary theory into their pictures of our cosmic situation. In some traditions, it would be blasphemous to regard the human as the product of special creation, and some would consider the notion of "intelligent design" absurd. Most of us find it easy to see God performing the miracle of creation by employing the processes of evolution.

     To me, the story of evolution from Big Bang to quark to atom to molecule to cell to creature to society within a changing environment is awesome. Learning about mitochondria is as inspiring to me as studying scripture. While science cannot answer the question, "Why is there anything at all?" science, and specifically the perspective of evolution, can deepen our sense of ineffable mystery and enrich our spiritual life.


1. Is the universe the result of intelligent design? Religions of the world approach this question differently.

     An East African tribe believes that God's good wishes were interfered with by his half-witted brother, which explains the turmoil in the world. In an American Indian version, God oversees the creation of land from water but cannot figure out how to make mountains. He sends a bee to eavesdrop on a trickster who rehearses the instructions to himself as he muses about God's stupidity.

     In many religions, from ancient Greek stories to those of India, creation arises from desire rather than intelligence. One Egyptian myth explains the world as the result of the first deity's masturbation.

    The story in the first chapter of Genesis repeats the order of creation of the much earlier Mesopotamian Enuma Elish myth which concludes with the gods resting and celebrating their work. But in the Mesopotamian account creation is the result of conflict between the gods, rather than singular intelligence. This divine disorder produces flawed human beings.

     Classical Christianity, on the other hand, assigns human defects not to the Creator but to Adam's willful disobedience, told in Genesis 2, parts of which parallel another early Mesopotamian text, the Epic of Gilgamesh. While in Genesis 6 God regrets his creation, many theologians teach that from the beginning God foresaw the Fall and prepared for the world's redemption.

     In the Enuma Elish, darkness envelops the primordial deep, personified by Tiamat. Tehom, the Hebrew word for what the darkness envelops, is a linguistic relative.

    The subsequent events in the Enuma Elish are light emanating from the gods, the creation of the firmament, then dry land, then luminaries, then humans. The gods rested. This order of creation is echoed in Gen. 1:1 to Gen. 2:3.

     Some later theologians decided that God created the world from nothing, but the Genesis story tells of a God who creates the heaven and the earth out of watery chaos.

     The second creation story, in Gen. 2 and 3, varies from the first and appears to have been written as much as 500 years earlier. Animals are created before humans in Gen. 1, but animals are created after Adam in Gen. 2. The word for God in Gen. 2 is Yahweh, while in Gen. 1 it is Elohim. While Elohim seems to be a spirit, Yahweh, like the talking serpent, is more human-like.

     Blaming a woman for trouble, the serpent and improvising a way to cover nakedness are three details that can be traced to  the Epic of Gilgamesh. The great theme they share is the loss of immortality and the wisdom gained by the loss.

     The Gospel of John contains a third way of talking about creation, transforming language similar to the much older Egyptian Book of the Dead.

      Buddhists, Taoists and others avoid or minimize creation stories because they understand the world as an ongoing process which has no beginning. The world was not planned so much as it evolved.

2. If we were to teach "Intelligent Design" in the high school, we would also need to teach these other religious perspectives.

     The awesome beauty of the Grand Canyon, the complexity of the human eye, the moral sense each person carries may seem strong arguments for intelligent design. But they all have compelling natural explanations. And the disasters of tornado and flood, the fragility of the skin and the spine, the pages of history filled with greed, oppression and war are arguments against "Intelligent Design," as is Genesis Six, when God decides he made a mistake in creating all flesh.

     The doctrine of original sin says that the turmoil within human relationships arises from disobedience to the Creator's command. But it does not explain why, for example, the universe was designed in such a way that many animals eat by eating others, sometimes ferociously, inflicting pain, tearing the body of the victim apart. The amount of suffering in the food chain is so staggering it is difficult to honor.

     Would it not have been more intelligent to design a universe with life given necessary nutrients, say, from deposits in the soil, or dissolved in accessible pond water?

     Such questions are not easy, but they would inevitably arise from a thoughtful examination of "Intelligent Design," especially since "Intelligent Design" offers only misunderstandings of evolution based upon a transparent theological motive. While I passionately believe such theological questions should be explored, I do not believe the science classroom is the place for them.

3. The Theory of Evolution is not consistent with a God who made the universe in six 24-hour days, or with a serpent who talks to Eve, or with a Savior, the Lamb of God, a divine Ovis aries, who bleats. Religious stories and images are metaphors, ways of talking about the Infinite, which is much too big for any words to capture. Literal interpretations distract us from the profound spiritual messages of these stories and images.

     Our thinking is influenced by our language. We use nouns and think that things are separate from one another, when the world is actually an ongoing process with everything interrelated. Our language tricks us into thinking of God is a "Supreme Being," when other languages are more congenial to relationships, conditions, and processes. If we think of God as the Creative Process, active today as in the past, then evolution is completely consistent with, and supports and enhances, a sublime spiritual perspective.