ATLANTA – After a lifetime in the church, the Rev. William L. Rhines Jr. lately has started to question one of the Bible's fundamental teachings, that God created man. It's an especially touchy topic in his Wilmington, Del., congregation, where generations of black worshippers have leaned on faith to endure the indignities of racism.
But as the world marks the 200th birthday of evolution theorist Charles Darwin on Thursday, Rhines figures its time for even the most conservative congregations to come to terms with science.
"We're becoming more middle class, upper middle class, so we have more free time ... to ponder these eternal issues," said Rhines, who will encourage a discussion at Ezion-Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church.
Hundreds of churches this week will revisit the question of whether man evolved from lower order species or was created whole by a higher being as part of Evolution Weekend.
Participation through sermons, Sunday school lessons and even evolution dances has expanded into 974 congregations across the country, more than doubling since the weekend began in 2006, said founder Michael Zimmerman, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Organizers said the churches include a growing number of conservative groups, among them black and Muslim groups typically linked to more traditional views.
Participants say they're not abandoning the Bible's story of Adam and Eve. Rather, they want to blend theories in a way that helps today's faithful reconcile their modern world with Biblical teachings.
"We have to give God a lot more credit than we give him now — we need to give him the benefit of the doubt that his word includes evolution," said Mike Ghouse, president of the World Muslim Congress, a Dallas-based union of 3,000 Muslims that hosted its first ever Evolution Weekend discussion Friday.
The evolution vs. creation debate has simmered for at least the last 150 years since Darwin's "On the Origin of Species." That volume first suggested populations evolve over generations through a process of natural selection.
Zimmerman argues the faithful can accept parts of creationism — the notion that a higher being created man whole — and evolution.
"Faith is related to one's belief system ... science, on the other hand, is in a different domain," said the Rev. Gerald Kersey, who planned a Sunday school lesson and discussion of Darwin's theories at Avondale Estates First Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta.
He blamed religious intolerance for causing many faithful to feel they must choose between science and the Bible.
"I'm presenting the idea that science or evolution is compatible with faith," he said.
Still, many Americans believe that God created man. A 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life found 63 percent of Americans believed humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being.
That percentage is especially high among the nation's black churchgoers, who have been taught for generations to cope with everything from slavery to Jim Crow by using the Bible's teachings, Rhines said.
"We don't want to tamper with what grandma taught us — we've come this far by faith," Rhines said.
At one of the nation's oldest black churches, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., the Rev. Thurmond Tillman doesn't oppose evolution.
But he argued black Americans have other social issues to address, and the faithful should focus on uniting mankind — not dividing his origins.
"What we're judged on his how we first relate with Him," Tillman said. "And the test of how we relate with Him is how we relate with one another."