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Church offers classes on science of evolution

In Kansas, where teaching evolution is contested, Unitarian Universalist church makes sure people know the facts.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Shawnee Mission evolution banner

The Rev. Thom Belote, minister of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kans., stands behind a banner advertising the church’s three-session course in evolution. (Donald E. Skinner)

If religious conservatives can try to bring religion into the science classroom, can religious liberals bring science into the church?

Absolutely, says the Rev. Thom Belote of the 255-member Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kans. Tired of seemingly never hearing anything positive about evolution from local churches in a state wracked by evolution controversy, Belote got an idea: Why not teach a course on evolution at his church? Belote shared the idea with a member, Dale Trott, who is manager of environmental studies for a large engineering firm. Trott, who has a master’s degree in biology, ran with it.

He lined up three experts on evolution, arranged some publicity, had some street-side banners made, and on three Thursday nights in April the church opened its doors to people who wanted to learn about evolution. Attendance ranged from 65 to 80 people. The speakers included a former university biology department chair and a member of the Kansas Science Standards Writing Committee.

Trott said he organized the series because he’s learned over the years that most people, even though they may support evolution, don’t have a good understanding of it. “I thought this would help people know more about the science behind it,” he said. “A lot of people have never had a biology class, or didn’t learn about evolution, or learned about it a long time ago.”

Belote said the classes were not in response to any anti-evolution activities by other churches but were inspired by the controversy the Kansas State Board of Education has created in recent years as it has changed its policies about teaching evolution and “creation science.”

In 1999 the Board, with a majority who supported creationism or intelligent design, ruled that instruction about evolution, the age of the earth, and the origin of the universe was permitted but not mandatory in high schools, and that those topics would not appear on state standardized tests. The Board reversed this decision in 2001 after some conservatives were voted out. Another election reversed the balance of power again and in November 2005 the board voted to allow biology students to hear presentations critical of evolution classes and to allow teaching of intelligent design.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, a liberal religious denomination with more than 1,000 member congregations of which the Shawnee Mission church is one, has consistently supported the division of church and state. Starting in 1963, it has passed more than seven resolutions supporting this issue at General Assembly, its annual business meeting.

Another reason for holding the classes, Belote said, was to draw attention to the church and to UU values. The church took out ads, and a reporter from an alternative weekly came to the second session.

Belote estimated that of the 80 people at the second session, about 50 were church members, 10 were presenters or their friends and family members, and 20 were members of the public.

“A few of the latter said they’d come back on a Sunday,” said Belote. “I see this class as a service to the community, just like a class on household finance. And it identifies us as a place where people can intelligently engage with the issues of the day. Already, when I’ve been out in the community I’ve heard a couple of people refer to us as ‘that church that teaches evolution.’ Is that the way I’d prefer that we were known? No, but it’s not a bad way either.

“Many people just assume that church is a place where you can’t reconcile science with faith,” he added. “The best way to answer that is to say, hey, as a church we welcome scientific teaching. We’re going to be the place in the religious community where science is not attacked, but celebrated.”

He said a couple of church board members were initially concerned that the classes might make the church a target. “I think we got two or three calls from people who said they’d pray for us,” Belote said, “and a half dozen calls from people who thought it was really cool that we were doing this and it made them feel good as they drove down the street and saw our signs.”

At the second session, a couple of people who asked questions suggesting that they believed in “creation science” engaged in cordial conversation with the instructor. Trott said that one of them invited him to lunch to continue the conversation and that he may go. “I want to show him that we’re regular people,” Trott said. “I’m glad they came. I was a little afraid we’d just be preaching to the choir.”

The course concluded with a Saturday tour of the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History in Lawrence.

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