Back in the 1970s, when my wife Celeste was in the seventh grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx, her teacher, a Holy Cross Brother, tried to start one science class with a bang. Brandishing a textbook picture of nearly identical-looking embryos of different kinds of vertebrates--fish, amphibians, pigs, humans, and more--he announced with a flourish, "Evolution is true. Get used to it."
He didn't get the reaction he wanted. Celeste tells me she and the other kids in the class shrugged. What's the big deal? My own experience was similar. I learned about the spectacular power of Darwinian evolution at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque grade school and Bishop McDevitt high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We were told that God could make life in any way He saw fit, and if He wanted to use secondary causes like natural selection rather than some special action, well, who were we to tell Him otherwise? It arguably shows even more power, the lesson went, for God to create relatively simple matter and laws which in the fullness of time would give rise to living creatures, including men and women who could respond with a free will to His love. It sounded fine to me.
My wife's classmates, and mine, didn't know it, but our indifference to evolution was shaped by our religious upbringing. Catholics have always been rather blase about evolution. In our living room we have a copy of the 1907 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia (which Celeste rescued from the shredder at a local library's discarded book sale)--complete with the imprimatur of John Cardinal Farley of New York, and published "under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus Catholic Truth Committee." The encyclopedia carries a scholarly twenty-thousand-word article on evolution written by two Jesuits, one of whom was a professor of biology.
"What is to be thought of the theory of evolution? Is it to be rejected as unfounded and inimical to Christianity, or is it to be accepted as an established theory altogether compatible with the principles of a Christian conception of the universe?" the encyclopedia article asks. And it answers, "We must carefully distinguish between the different meanings of the words theory of evolution in order to give a clear and correct answer to this question." Distinctions abound, but the gist of the article is that Christians should be thoughtful and follow the evidence where it leads, confident that the truth of nature does not contradict the truth of God. Reading the old Encyclopedia entry reminded me of G.K. Chesterton's observations in Orthodoxy that "The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle." Unlike materialists, Christians can serenely evaluate the physical evidence. If the universe unfolded completely through the regularities of God's laws, fine. If it unfolded mostly by law but also by irregularities or special actions of some sort, that's fine too.
Unfortunately, there's a large obstacle in the path of Christians who want to exercise their freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Christians may have more freedom than materialists in deciding on the best explanation for nature, but overwhelmingly it is materialists--or practical materialists--who tell Christians the story of nature. So information about the way the universe works almost invariably passes through a rigid materialistic filter before it reaches the general public.
Although the good brother at Mount Carmel undoubtedly thought he was giving his seventh-grade students the straight dope about the evidence for evolution, the picture of vertebrate embryos he flaunted was utterly bogus. As has been widely reported in the past few years, Ernst Haeckel, the nineteenth-century embryologist and Darwin booster who first drew the embryos, took extensive liberties with the representations, apparently to make them meet evolutionary expectations more closely. The drawings were widely featured in high-school biology textbooks for most of the twentieth century.
The false drawings had the full weight of the scientific magisterium behind them, explicitly endorsed by such luminaries as Nobel laureate James Watson and Bruce Alberts, a recent president of the elite National Academy of Sciences, 90 percent of whose self-selected members are avowed materialists. Watson, Alberts, or others of that company surely could have discovered the drawings' doubtful provenance if they'd cared to. Yet there's no reason to think the scientific elite was actively conspiring to mislead the public about evidence for evolution. Rather, the embryos drawn by Haeckel were what materialists expected Darwinian evolution to show.
Of course, the problem isn't usually fake evidence being passed off as fact. But when the evidence vouched for by experts is skewed or pre-filtered through an alien philosophy, in what sense is a Christian free to follow the evidence of nature...