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February 20, 2011: “Darwin Day: Has Religion Evolved?”

Novelist Peter deVries once said, in his book, Let Me Count the Ways: “If you want my final opinion on the mystery of life and all that, I can give it you in a nutshell. The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.”

“Which is it, is man one of God’s blunders or is God one of man’s?” – Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844-1900)

        Scientist Luther Burbank: 'Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also, should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope and the spectroscope or any other instrument of precision which may in the future be invented, constructed or used for the discovery of truth."

        Darwin wrote: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars."

        Did you know that Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day- February 12, 1809? Or that there is a movement to make Darwin's birthday a holiday? Or that the majority of Americans still don't believe in evolution? Or that Darwin held off for more than 20 years publishing his world and religion changing book on evolution, because he was afraid he might be accused of killing God and destroying Christianity?

Or that he started Cambridge to study for the Anglican clergy, even though his family had been dissenting Unitarians. Or that when he started his famous voyage on the Beagle, he still believed literally in the Bible, but by the time he returned he was an agnostic?

        Darwin's book in the middle of the 19th century effectively changed Christianity and science in a way that led to a split between the two which has never been healed by many.  After all, as far back as 1650, Archbishop James Usher of Armagh, Ireland added up all the begats and generations mentioned in the Christian Bible and came up with the true creation story that God created the world on Sunday October 21, at 9:00 AM in 4004 BC. If the 18th century was a time of Enlightenment, the 19th century was a time of evolution, a revolution for traditional Christianity.

        Harvard zoologist, Ernst Mayr, said, (before inclusive language would have changed the word, man to humankind, perhaps) 'Darwin developed a new view of humanity and, in turn, a new anthropocentrism. Of all of Darwin's proposals, the one his contemporaries found most difficult to accept was that the theory of common descent applied to Man. For theologians and philosophers alike, Man was a creature above and apart from other living beings. Aristotle, Descartes and Kant agreed on this sentiment, no matter how else their thinking diverged. But biologists Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel revealed through rigorous comparative anatomical study that humans and living apes clearly had common ancestry, an assessment that has never again been seriously questioned in science. The application of the theory of common descent to Man deprived man of his former unique position.'

        Indeed, Darwin has been accused of killing God, but evidently a large number of people didn't get the memo and still think God exists, the problem being of course, what we mean by that seemingly simple three letter word which is actually one of the most mysterious and sacred of names. More people today believe in God than believe in Darwin, or at least his discoveries and theories. We don't have to choose sides because it doesn't have to be an 'either/or' situation; I will argue for a 'both/and' choice. One MIGHT realistically argue that he changed the literal way of thinking about God and creation, and it is still primarily those who interpret their scriptures literally that still have problems with Darwin as well as much of science.

        In the first stanza of the hymn we sang says, the poet William Herbert Carruth (1859-1924) writes:

A fire-mist and a planet, A crystal and a cell,
A jelly-fish and a saurian, And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty And a face turned from the clod, —
Some call it Evolution, And others call it God.

        I think that many religions and culture's creation stories are myths, not lies, but metaphorical ways of commonly talking about the mystery of the beginning, and yes, even evolution, over long periods of time. 

Whether we call the creator God or Spider Woman as some Native American myths do, we as human beings have a deep-seated need to think of nature in anthropomorphic terms, that is human terms, even though on the one hand most religions talk of the mystery of God, prevent idolatry or even the uttering of the holy name.

        Indeed, Darwin himself writes: "I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects,' he wrote, 'yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion."

        Religion does not need to be threatened by science or visa versa if one can be truly free thinking, open minded, even spiritually minded, if you'll pardon the apparent paradox of that term.

        Mayr writes further, 'Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causation's. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically. It no longer requires God as creator or designer (although one is certainly still free to believe in God even if one accepts evolution). Darwin pointed out that creation, as described in the Bible and the origin accounts of other cultures, was contradicted by almost any aspect of the natural world. Every aspect of the "wonderful design" so admired by the natural theologians could be explained by natural selection.  ... Eliminating God from science made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this day.'

        Of course, Darwin didn't 'eliminate God,' he could have been said to contradict the literal, fundamentalist view of God, but shall we give them rights to the name or even the sacred power of Love?

        In 1974, Lewis Thomas wrote in The Lives of a Cell that the function of humans is communication.: "We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind, so compulsively and with such speed that the brains of mankind often appear, functionally, to be undergoing fusion....Or perhaps we are only at the beginning of learning to use the system, with almost all our evolution as a species still ahead of us. Maybe the thoughts we generate today and flick around from mind to mind...are the primitive precursors of more complicated, polymerized structures that will come later, analogous to the prokaryotic cells that drifted through shallow pools in the early days of biological evolution. 

Later, when the time is right, there may be fusion and symbiosis among the bits, and then we will see eukaryotic thought, metazoans of thought, huge interliving coral shoals of thought. The mechanism is there [n.b.: in the human brain], and there is no doubt that it is already capable of functioning…We are simultaneously participants and bystanders, which is a puzzling role to play. As participants, we have no choice in the matter; this is what we do as a species.”

Thomas makes an observation very similar to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis: ‘I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell.’

        Darwin was a profound influence on Emerson and one can even see the beginnings of what we now call, 'Nature-centered religion,' which is the 2nd most popular belief, it seems, when we do belief surveys. Some also call it 'Naturalistic Theism,' or a kind of God in or as Nature.

In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, Darwin clearly saw religion and “moral qualities” as being important evolved human social characteristics. Darwin’s frequent pairing of “Belief in God” and religion with topics on superstitions and fetishism throughout the book can also be interpreted as indicating how much truth he assigned to the former.

        Indeed, many Christians, as well as Jews find no discrepancy in believing in their religion's God, and science, especially evolution. In the movement towards Darwin celebrations, there are now various festivals and workshops on Darwin and religious evolution.

One last weekend, was called, ‘Thank God for Evolution: Conversations at the Leading Edge of Faith/A Weekend With Reverend Michael Dowd at the Unity Church in Omaha. Liberal Christian minister Michael Dowd, who has spoken here before, is author of Thank God for Evolution and the very recent The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity, a monumental project interviewing and broadcast- ing via the internet dialogues

with over thirty leaders on the cutting edge of science and religion. Participants include renowned theologians, pastors, nobel laureates, and Templeton prize-winners, all of whom exemplify, in word and deed, that christian faith can be strengthened and enriched by a science- honoring, evolutionary view of the world.

‘Eric Elnes, Senior Pastor at Countryside Community Church UCC in Omaha and a participant in every Evolution Weekend event, has some interesting news about how you may participate in Countryside’s Evolution Weekend: ‘We’ll be streaming a conversation with Michael Dowd, author of the book, Thank God for Evolution (among others), live over the internet on Evolution Weekend as part of a new venture we’re doing at Countryside Church called Darkwood Brew. Darkwood Brew streams from a coffeehouse setting here in Omaha where folks who are physically present interact with people from all over the world who are looking for a more open, intellectually-honest form of Christianity. It’s a unique experience that mixes modern technology, world-class jazz, biblical scholarship, arts, and ancient contemplative practices in a mix we call Pneuma Divina. We’ve only been streaming Darkwood Brew since November and already it has caught the attention of MTV, who sent a crew out in December. February 13th’s episode of Darkwood Brew will feature a dialog between me and Michael Dowd. Immediately following Darkwood Brew, Dowd will be taking questions live over the internet.’

        Talk about how religion has evolved! Go to for more details!

        But listen to Philip Johnson, the creator of the idea of 'Intelligent' Design, who admits his real agenda is to push the conservative, literal interpretation of Christianity.

        "The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the nonexistence of God.  From there people are introduced to the truth of the Bible and then the question of sin and finally introduced to Jesus."

        The radical Episcopal feminist, Lesbian theologian and author, Carter Hayward, writes in her book, Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right, which I have been devouring just recently, 'Christians are called more than anything to be faithful, not "right."  Faithful not to religious systems or creeds; faithful not to particular saviors or institutions; and faithful certainly not to any tradition or custom that requires us to cast out or punish those who seem to us heretical, or wrong, in their beliefs or in their nonviolent customs and  behavior. Even when confronted, as we are constantly, with violence around us and among us, Christians are called-yes, beckoned by the Power of Love in history-to seek nonviolent ways of responding, so as to call forth the very best in even the very worst of our brothers and sisters. This "revolutionary patience" with one another is in keeping with how much we ourselves yearn.

        Through his teaching, healing, and prophetic resistance to state-sponsored and religious-based legalism that disregarded human need, Jesus reflected the incarnate (embodied) Spirit of One who was not then, and is not ever, contained solely in one human life or religion or historical event or moment. God was JESUS' relational power, more specifically his power for forging right (mutual) relation in which Jesus himself and those around him were empowered to be more fully who they were called to be. We today are also empowered by this same mutual relation.

        Each and every one of us ---whatever our religious, non-religious, or anti-religious identity today-lives in God. I mean by this that we are all relatives, spiritual kin, bound by a power moving among us that  transcends any one time, place, or name.'

        Heyward's Christianity has certainly evolved, and so has our Unitarian Universalism which grew or evolved out of the Christianity of the Pilgrim forebears as well as the Puritans of Massachusetts, in reaction to the religious 'Great Awakening of the 18th century.' I'm not claiming that we have the only way, but that for most of us we come here, not only to be in religious relationship with each other, but also our deeper selves, and the transforming power of love which or who some also use the name God.  We are not a creedal church but a covenanted beloved community; how we treat each other as well as the world is part of our religion and more important than what we SAY we believe. What we DO is religious, and as the Quakers say the service starts after church is over.

        I look for science writers who are also spiritual and who move me spiritually as well; they are as scripture to me, and the world's religious scripture can also be inspirational as well; think of the deep and profound wisdom of the ancient writers whose words were so incredible, it was claimed they came from God! If we think of God as part of the evolutionary process, as part or as nature her or itself, we can see that, as the Unitarian forebears taught, we must keep the power of reason in all our interpretations of the Bible as well as other scripture.

        Both Jesus and Buddha, for instance, were so spiritually evolved that they tried to speak to their institutional religions, Jesus to Temple Judaism and Buddha to Hinduism, and both somehow evolved into new religions! Mohammed spoke to a culture widely diverse to unite a people. Lao Tzu and Confucius were two different approaches to Eastern Wisdom that still influence Chinese Customs today! I find a common sacredness in the work of religions when they are in right relationship with each other and the world, even as we can see the perversion and terrible harm with what I will call negative religion has caused.

        There is always a difference between the praxis, or practice of a religion and its historical doctrines, always an evolution despite the institutional resistance to change.  One of the evolution web sites has a great picture of the two stylized fish we sometime see on cars in opposition to one another. One says 'Darwin' inside, the other 'Jesus'. But they are kissing!

        We gather because we feel the need for a religious, or perhaps we want to call it spiritual and for some intellectual, meaning, but I will call it simply what William James called it more than a century ago, 'Varieties of  religious experience' that we might find here together in an open minded and open hearted search for meaning and social justice, for peace and especially for love.  Thank God for Darwin. Thank you for who you are who come here in beloved community and cocreates this sacred place and time. Come all you who are heavy landed and put down your burden, and be blessed, be blessed. You are loved here.

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios


Notes from LATE NIGHT THOUGHTS ON LISTENING TO MAHLER’S NINTH SYMPHONY by Lewis Thomas Seven Wonders…..My Number Three Wonder is oncideres, a species of beetle encountered by a pathologist friend of mine who lives in Houston and has a lot of mimosa trees in his backyard. This beetle is not new, but it qualifies as a Modern Wonder because of the exceedingly modern questions raised for evolutionary biologists about the three consecutive things on the mind of the female of the species. Her first thought is for a mimosa tree, which she finds and climbs, ignoring all other kinds of trees in the vicinity. Her second thought is for the laying of eggs, which she does by crawling out on a limb, cutting a longitudinal slit with her mandible and depositing her eggs beneath the slit. Her third and last though concerns the welfare of her offspring; beetle larvae cannot survive in live wood, so she backs up a foot or so and cuts a neat circular girdle all around the limb, through the bark and down into the cambium. It takes her eight hours to finish this cabinetwork. Then she leaves and where she goes I do not know. The limb dies from the girdling, falls to the ground in the next breeze, the larvae feed and grow into the next generation, and the questions lie there unanswered. How on earth did these three linked thoughts in her mind evolve together in evolution? How could any one of the three become fixed as beetle behavior by itself, without the other two? What are the odds favoring three totally separate bits of behavior liking a particular tree, cutting a slit for eggs, and then girdling the limb happening together by random chance among a beetle’s genes? Does this smart beetle know what she is doing?

And how did the mimosa tree enter the picture in its evolution? Left to themselves, unpruned, mimosa trees have a life expectancy of twenty-five to thirty years. Pruned each year, which is what the beetle’s girdling labor accomplishes, the tree can flourish for a century. The mimosa-beetle relationship is an elegant example of symbiotic partnership, a phenomenon now recognized as pervasive in nature. It is good for us to have around on our intellectual mantelpiece such creatures as this insect and its friend the tree, for they keep reminding us how little we know about nature.