How I Lost My Christian Faith While Writing a Book on Evolution

This is a guest post by Ed Suominen.

As an engineer who spent forty years as a fundamentalist Christian, I pretty much ignored the problem of human origins and evolution.

The science of radio waves and electronics was very real for me, but so was Genesis: My wife and I had eleven children as a result of following God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. So whenever I came across some article about a million-year-old fossil or the dreaded word “evolution,” I would hastily skip over it.

My upbringing had put up defenses against Darwin, but he managed to sneak into my life anyhow, through my engineering work. It started when I was trying to find an exact combination of values to make things work optimally for a particular engineering problem. Little did I know that the new software tool I came across would put me on the road to rejecting Creationism, walking away from fundamentalism, and finally losing my Christian faith entirely while writing a book about “theistic evolution.”

What I saw working right there on the screen in front of me was evolution by simulated natural selection. You set up an artificial chromosome with each digital “gene” determining a parameter for some widget you want to design. Then you created a population of individual widgets by running simulations with different sets of randomly chosen parameters, and had the widgets “mate” with each other. You repeated this process over many successive generations, throwing in some mutations along the way. Those widgets that worked best in your simulation had the best shot at having “children” in the next generation.

At this point, I couldn’t deny that evolution had some truth to it. That set off a cascade of questions about my beliefs, ultimately leading me to research and write Evolving out of Eden (Tellectual Press, March 2013) with Robert M. Price, a biblical scholar and now-atheist theologian. Dr. Price’s podcasts and books helped me deal with the realization that my church was wrong about Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and all the dogma based on it. He agreed with my proposal to write a book about evolution and the ways that science-savvy theologians have been trying to patch things up.

Disproving Christianity was not our original plan. Bob has long been happy to engage with Christian theology despite not believing in it. I was clinging to the last shreds of belief, no longer in my odd little sect of Lutheranism, but perhaps some form of Christianity or at least theism. If we found a plausible way of reconciling things, then we would have been happy to say so.

But that’s not how it worked out.

As we say right up front in the book, “It appears that the whole apologetical enterprise has once again run aground and that it is not going to be easy, probably not even possible, to secure a safety zone for one’s faith or one’s God.” Despite making light of some heavy topics and amply criticizing “the dead end at which attempts to reconcile faith and science seem to have arrived” (p. 12), ours is not another gleeful atheist book. We know how much comfort people obtain from the transcendent promises of their religion, as well as its accompanying social benefits.

We also understand the motivation to find a way of dealing with genetics without losing Genesis in the process, or Jesus for that matter. “We’ve both done our time in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, warding off the cognitive dissonance that arises with the realization of so much error in the founding text of one’s cherished faith. As the yawning abyss of apostasy looms closer, one desperately alternates between stomping on the intellectual brakes and searching for an as-yet hidden way out” (p. 129).

But, after examining all of the issues (all the ones we’ve heard or thought of, anyhow) in 340 pages, we have concluded there is no way out. “There is no getting around it; the idyll and innocence of Eden are gone forever from Christian theology” (p. 310). I saw this when peering outside the safety of church society and “healthy” reading materials to glean some awareness of the many theological problems lurking in the tall grass of science. That’s the fate of any fundamentalist who dares to look that way for long:

He may recognize himself (and Jesus!) as an evolved primate, and Original Sin as an absurd doctrine built on unscientific sand. The very rationale of the atonement collapses, along with all those “sins” his pastor carries on about, which come to look like natural, even healthy traits that allowed his ancestors to replicate and eventually produce him. The God of all Creation he once praised while musing over every tree and sunset goes quiet and cold, fading into an impersonal set of laws and forces that forms life out of randomness shaped by countless acts of suffering and death. (p. 311)

The view outside Eden is quite different from what I was used to! Yes, the reality of our evolutionary origins and the randomness of it all seems a bit harsh after a lifetime of sweet doctrinal offerings plucked from low-hanging Bible passages. But it is amazing and inspiring in its own way, too:

Think of it! Undirected, random variation rises upward from the mindless froth at the floor of an indeterminate universe and percolates through the screen of selection. That filter — natural and sexual selection — is a roulette wheel of replication probability whose numbers are determined by physical constraints and the products of previous evolution. It’s all chance and necessity, as far back as we can see. No deity compatible with evolutionary science is triggering the mutations, spinning the wheel, or determining the odds. (pp. 315-16)

This isn’t something I wanted to accept when I first started furtively peeking at evolution books in the Natural Sciences section of the bookstore, looking over my shoulder to see if anybody from church was around. I was raised a fundamentalist and spent four decades living as one; I’m still not ready to call myself an atheist. But after co-authoring this book, I just can’t see where there’s any room for a god.

***

Edwin Suominen is the co-author of Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution (Tellectual Press, March 2013), available in paperback, Kindle, and Nook. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington (1995), where his senior project wound up being the subject of fourteen U.S. patents, among several others he holds. He has retired from practice as a registered patent agent to write books rather than patents.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X