For Rutledge, science and religion are complementary

The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Circular Congregational Church

When the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge ascends the pulpit on Sunday, his sermon will discuss two subjects largely considered at odds with one another: science and religion.

Nearly six in 10 adults in the United States believe science is incompatible with faith, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. Protestants and Catholics, in particular, are more likely than non-believers to eschew Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution.

But for Rutledge, a devout Christian and pastor of the progressive Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street, no such tension exists. At the conclusion of the College of Charleston’s 16th annual Darwin Week, Rutledge will make the case before his congregation Sunday that science and religion are complimentary, rather than contradictory.

“The more we learn from science, the deeper our senses of reverence, wonder and awe become,” Rutledge said. “If you walk on the beach by the ocean or if you look at the stars and see the constellations, people have always felt that sense of reverence and all science is doing is telling us more about it.”

The 44-year-old pastor, known outside of his church for his social justice streak and community activism, completed his doctoral work in religious naturalism, a religious philosophy, commonly associated with writers like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, grounded in science and reason.

“I don’t take the Bible literally, but I take it seriously,” Rutledge said. “When we talk at church, we talk about sources of our faith. Biblical literature is one source. So is reason, so is lived human experience and so is religious and cultural tradition.”

“The Bible is full of all kinds of literature,” he added, “but it’s not a science textbook.”

Two years ago, Rutledge, along with a bevy of South Carolina scientists and teachers, testified before the state Board of Education to defend keeping religious views out of science classrooms. At the time, Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican and member of Education Oversight Committee, was making national headlines for opposing the teaching of natural selection in the new state science education standards.

In a letter to The Post and Courier, Rutledge and his wife, Sara Keckler Rutledge, a physics teacher at Wando High School, argued that children should be free to make their own religious choices and without imposition from their teachers.

“We owe it to them to ensure that they receive the instruction they need to compete with any students in the world,” they wrote. “This begins by teaching them the complete body of scientific knowledge.”

The state Board of Education ultimately rejected Fair’s proposal to teach students “the controversy” pitting creationists against scientists, and reached a compromise with the Education Oversight Committee, agreeing to keep the 2005 standards on evolution instruction intact.

College of Charleston biology professor and Darwin Week founder Rob Dillon hailed the compromise as a victory.

“We fought to a draw,” said Dillion, who launched Darwin Week in 2001 in response to the debates roiling Columbia every time the state’s science education standards were up for review. “It’s amazing how high the stakes are.”

Dillion, a proud Presbyterian, describes Darwin Week as a kind of “outreach effort” to dispel the religious controversies surrounding evolutionary science. The annual series convenes experts in both science and religion. Rutledge has participated in the event, timed around Darwin’s birthday on Feb. 12, since heeding the call to join Circular Congregational Church in 2012.

Learning about evolution, Rutledge said, has only enhanced his Christian ethic.

“You can be ethical, moral and religious person and also deeply informed by the sciences. To me, that also deepens the ethic because if we really are related to everything else, then we have a responsibility to everything else, not just ourselves,” Rutledge said. “To me that’s vital; that’s compelling.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.