November 24, 2009
At Virginia Commonwealth University, one group celebrated the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of Species" with free copies of the breakthrough book. But the student giveaway wasn't sponsored by any campus atheist group or scientific society. Each person handing out the books touting the theory of evolution was an evangelical Christian.
"Aw, man, it's about time someone actually did this!" one VCU student said as he took the book.
"Make sure you read the forward," street preacher Nathan Magnusen told him.
Less than an hour later, all 1,000 copies of the book had found their way into students' backpacks. Across the country, other evangelical groups replicated the event at colleges such as UCLA, Duke and the University of Virginia.
At the end of the day, 170,000 copies of Charles Darwin's evolution handbook had been handed out - each one of them by evangelical Christians.
Touted as a 150th anniversary edition, the free copy came with an ironic introduction - a forward from evangelist Ray Comfort. Inside, he presented the theory of evolution's holes, the alternative of intelligent design and the Gospel message. The 50-page forward was printed in a larger text size than the 250 pages of "Origins," begging for students' attention with old newspaper articles and prints.
The alternative sparked a flurry of reactions among campus atheist groups across the country, some of whom threatened to burn the books. Even Richard Dawkins, a renowned atheist and biologist, condemned the forward. He encouraged students to take the book and rip out the introduction.
Ultimately, organizers secretly moved up the date to avoid hecklers.
At VCU, where organizers followed the giveaway with open air preaching, most students didn't catch the introduction's cheeky approach.
"It was interesting because there were people who were obviously Christians," Magnusen said. "They saw ‘Origin of Species' with a picture of Darwin on the front and they were like, ‘No, no, I don't want that.'" When he tried to show them the book's secret, "some of them didn't even want to talk about it," he said.
Other students thumbed through the book and quickly realized the unique nature of Comfort's introduction. Still, no introductions went into the trash.
Magnusen said, "It was kind of interesting that some people were like, ‘We appreciate that you're presenting both sides.' We didn't really expect that reaction."
As students milled around the courtyard, only few stopped to talk to Magnusen and his group. Far more started conversations with their friends, quizzing each other about world religions and trying to remember the definition of "atheist." A few pulled out their copies of "Origins" and took a surreptitious look at the forward.
That's enough for Magnussen. He doesn't expect people to accept his preaching as readily as they took the books.
"They may hate what you're saying, but you know what they're doing?" he asked. "They're talking about God. So how is that a bad thing?"
Comfort wrote the introduction in the same spirit, presenting an alternative viewpoint for people to consider in the very book that popularized evolutionary theory.
"Charles Darwin said that both perspectives should be given, and we are giving both in a 50-page Introduction. Like Darwin, we want people to read the two points of view and make up their own minds," Comfort wrote on the Living Waters website.
"There have been more than 140 different editions of On the Origin of Species and many have had Introductions. Mine simply gives an alternative," he said.
Katherine Britton, Crosswalk.com's News & Culture editor, keeps a pulse on current events and issues impacting Christians around the world. Follow her on twitter @kpbritton.