Over the years I've attended scores of scientific conferences, representing most disciplines, and I've never heard two scientists argue over whether evolution is theory or fact. They debate some of the finer points, like the forces that drive evolution, but Darwinism is accepted as fact. Some of them have even seen evolution occur in their laboratories through the study of animals that go through many generations in a short period of time.
Most of the argument against evolution, of course, is based on religious teachings, not science. There is a serious conflict here, and I suspect it is the root of the problem. I recently heard a local pastor tell his television audience that evolution is "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people."
The debate has deteriorated into a mudslinging contest in which both sides will lose. Time magazine published a wonderful debate in its Nov. 13th issue between atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins. Both are thoughtful scholars who have pioneered their fields, and who have spent a lot of time wondering about the meaning of it all.
Dawkins argues that evolution provides an alternative answer to the question of how we got to where we are. We have the answers now, he says, so we don't need to use God as an explanation.
Collins argues that he can be a good scientist and still believe in both evolution and God, because God must have set the rules and started the ball rolling, using evolution as a tool.
It's a wonderful debate, exploring both sides, but midway through it focuses on fundamentalist Christians who argue that evolution is contrary to scripture, and thus cannot be true.
"Why bother with these clowns?" Dawkins asks.
Collins shoots back that "we don't do a service to dialogue between science and faith to characterize sincere people by calling them names."
There's much more to the debate than that brief exchange, but I think it sums up what's so wrong with the current confrontation between science and religion.
Christians who don't accept evolution are clowns?
Scientists are taking part in a great hoax?
As a science writer who once studied for the ministry, I can tell you firsthand that embracing evolution can be difficult. Dawkins is right in suggesting that evolution answers questions that were once left to God, and it does provide an alternative explanation for the origin of life, and even purpose and morality.
So it's no mystery to me why at least some Christians may feel intimidated by it.
But it doesn't scare a man like Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He believes in both.
"I am still able to accept and embrace the possibility that there are answers that science isn't able to provide about the natural world -- the questions about why instead of the questions about how," Collins says in the debate.
Both men are smart and forceful, and couldn't be more in disagreement. Maybe there isn't an answer.
But this much is clear. There is a huge gap between those who embrace scientific findings, and those who see science as a threat that is in conflict with beliefs they hold dear. The loser, I fear, will be science. And for that we will pay dearly.