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Happy belated birthday, Darwin

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In case you missed it, Sunday was the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin. In hundreds of churches across the nation fides et ratio-minded Christians gathered in a spirited, if frustrated, attempt to remind the rest of America that sound science and religion cannot be enemies (unless, of course, you claim that the creator is a liar) and that Reason is traditionally another name for Christ. As one Atlanta pastor told her listeners, “A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.”

It is a startling – or perhaps troubling – fact that approximately half of all Americans will not accept the plausible and foundational principle of evolution by natural selection, no matter what argument or proof is given for it. Those rejecting this principle, though they generally give many rather childish and ignorant excuses for their reluctance – once the words monkey, skull or dinosaur have been used, you know that the argument has been lost – nonetheless float comfortably in their sea of outright contradiction merely because their opposition is religious in origin.

We should, I suppose, be grateful that this type of bizarre attitude is presently only with regard to evolution in the present day. Certainly if the attitude were, for example, to take hold in the arena of public health, it would be appropriate to panic.

You have probably figured out by now that I take a very dim view of scriptural literalism, which happens to be one of the causes of this particular problem. Augustine of Hippo was reading Genesis as a metaphor by the fourth century. His predecessors had already taken major steps toward developing a system for weeding out inconsistent passages, which today allows us to write away Paul’s misogyny and Joshua’s genocide and to locate in the Bible the kernel of complementary ideas that have become Christianity. This flexible, and almost unique, attitude toward its holy books, together with an early embrace of science, is perhaps the single greatest strength of the Christian religion. In this context, I regard scriptural literalism as unthinking at best and religious suicide at worst.

I draw your attention to the issue of evolution in America because it is indicative of the growth of a particularly nasty type of though in the modern world. This type of thought, which goes by many names, but is often referred to (somewhat confusingly) as fundamentalism, manifests itself broadly as the notion that classical Western liberalism, free speech, gender equality, specific scientific truths and/or religious tolerance, are incompatible with the tenants of a given religion and that they should consequently be eradicated.

There are both Christian and Islamic fundamentalists in the world today (whom some people have recently taken to calling Christanists and Islamists, respectively.) Each of these groups speaks with increasing strength, political power and occasionally violence. If only for this fact, the rise of fundamentalism in our world should be troubling to many.

Keeping in mind the historical Catholic understanding of the union of faith and reason, of science and theology and of the tradition of liberalism granted to empirical enquiry (Galileo being very much an anomaly), we should also realize that fundamentalist assumptions are antithetical to the core of Christian tradition that gave rise to Notre Dame. Therefore, Notre Dame must, if it is not to be self-contradictory, be an opposition force to these assumptions.

To put it another way, the very purpose of a Catholic university is to stand as living proof that the ideals of Western scholarship, freedom and science are not incompatible with an orthodox world view, but that they two are wholly complementary. Further, the very purpose of an American Catholic university is to show, not only that the principle of Western scholarship can be married to orthodoxy, but that the principle of American liberalism, republicanism, democracy and equality can be as well.

At its very best, Notre Dame is a living model for the rest of the world, in particular those places and peoples infected with fundamentalism, that reason, freedom, equality and orthodoxy can coexist without pain, contradiction or compromise to any of them, and that, in truth, all of them are the better for this mixture. To fail to be this example to the fundamentalists, to in any way compromise the principles that glue us together in the Western tradition, is to failure in the mission of the University.

The world is watching, because Notre Dame is a unique mixture in the modern world and has a the difficult task of walking the lines others avoid because they lack the tradition, the desire or the courage to do so. It is a task that we must not fail at, because fundamentalist thought, and its rejection of our foundation, is rising, and the cost of failure – I fear – would be great.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. Comments should be e-mailed to comments@tidewaterblues.com. More of his opinions can be found at www.tidewa terblues.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.