Polling shows that about 2/3 of Protestant evangelicals reject the theory of evolution, which creates a real problem for professors at Christian colleges who teach evolution. Karl Giberson, who taught physics at an evangelical college for 25 years, writes about his experiences.
For a quarter century I taught scientific theories of origins—evolution and the Big Bang Theory—under a cloud of suspicion that waxed and waned but never totally disappeared. With few exceptions, my mostly evangelical students accepted these ideas. I took informal polls indicating that most of the 50 percent of my students who rejected evolution at the beginning of my course accepted it by the end. My colleagues at other evangelical colleges report similar experiences. We were hopeful that these evangelical students would become leaders of their faith communities and gradually persuade their fellow evangelicals that evolution was not a lie from hell—which was what many of them had been taught in Sunday school. But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them.
An alarming study by the Barna group looked at the mass exodus of 20-somethings from evangelicalism and discovered that one of the major sources of discontent was the perception that “Christianity was antagonistic to science.” Anti-evolution, and general suspicion of science, has become such a significant part of the evangelical identity that many people feel compelled to choose one or the other. Many of my most talented former students no longer attend any church, and some have completely abandoned their faith traditions.
Of course, we have no need to view that study as alarming. It’s quite healthy, actually.
Those of us teaching evolution at evangelical colleges are made to feel as if we have this subversive secret we must whisper quietly in our students’ ears: “Hey, did you know that Adam and Eve were not the first humans and never even existed? And that you can still be a Christian and believe that?” Such an approach works surprisingly well, at least in persuading young people that evolution is true and compatible with their faith, as long as it occurs in the quiet intellectual confines of the classroom, where the subversive message is delivered by caring and thoughtful Christian professors.
But some professors, alarmed by the persistent gap between the evangelical community and the findings of science—the gap that drives their students out of their churches—have naively presumed to educate their larger faith communities by writing books and articles in support of scientific theories of origins such as evolution and the Big Bang. Their quiet whispers thus become loud proclamations. Influential leaders read their books and are horrified to discover that a faculty member at “their” college is spreading “lies from the pit of hell” and destroying the faith of the students. Campaigns of various sorts are mounted and pressure exerted on the college leadership to remove that dangerous professor.
That was my life for my last 15 years as a faculty member at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, after my books, articles, and lectures made me the focus of fundamentalist rage. Productive scholarship that would be highly valued at other institutions became instead a major liability. Administrators complained that I was too controversial and creating public relations problems—not because they disagreed with what I said but because I was no longer just whispering it quietly in the classroom. Youth pastors informed the admissions office at the college that they were discouraging students from attending the college because it promoted evolution. Affiliated churches withheld financial support. Donors went elsewhere with their money.
This is fairly common. My friend Howard Van Till actually faced a heresy trial by the church that controlled Calvin College, where he taught astronomy for decades, because of his support of evolution and the big bang.