Ancient civilizations used to believe that when a storm or a flood or an earthquake destroyed a village, it meant the gods (or one god in particular) were angry with that village. They would consult their holy men to discern what they had done to provoke the calamity, and he would prescribe the correct penitential path for the community (hint: it usually involved giving something up which benefited the holy man). As one of the Old Testament prophets once asked, “When disaster comes to a city, has not Yahweh caused it?” The seafarers who threw Jonah from their boat did so because they shared the belief that gods make storms and that they send them to punish someone for doing something wrong. Today because of modern science we understand that storms are caused by the collision of high pressure and low pressure atmospheric systems without any discernible correlation to the activities of the villagers below. We also understand that tectonic plates move beneath us in ways which cause volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and even tsunamis. You’ll be hard pressed to find any well-educated, civilized folks still denying the basic principles of either meteorology or tectonic plate theory.
Another quirk of the ancients was that they would devise clever poetic stories to explain in the most simplistic terms the origins of the many diverse species of living things around them. One story told of how snakes went from walking on legs to slithering on their bellies because they disobeyed a deity. Another told of the same god fashioning humans out of handfuls of dirt before he had even begun to create vegetation. Thanks again to modern science, today we have a much more detailed understanding of how the human species developed and evolved from other species of the animal kingdom. Our understanding of the variability of genes and the advantages of environmental adaptation have given us a great deal of useful knowledge about how to treat diseases and perhaps to improve the quality of our own lives. But curiously enough, despite the many developments of the biological sciences, a significant portion of the population of the United States rejects the basic principles of the very same sciences from which they derive so much benefit.
According to Gallup, slightly more Americans now believe in Creationism over evolution than did 30 years ago (and by that they mean a “young Earth,” literal six-day creation). About half of all Americans believe that whatever the Bible says about the origin of the species and of the planet must be accepted regardless of what the almost universal scientific consensus teaches us (the handful of detractors are all, coincidentally, evangelicals and fundamentalists). This is amazing, especially since over those same 30 years we’ve moved far beyond simply collecting and analyzing fossils and geological layers to mapping the human genome and cross-referencing it with a broad spectrum of other animal DNA. Whatever reservations about common ancestry we had fifty or a hundred years ago have pretty much melted under the bright light of ongoing research. But public opinion in the U.S. hasn’t budged, except for a slight increase in evolutionary denial. Why is this? Why have American Christians pushed back so hard on the basic principles of this scientific discipline? And why haven’t they pushed back like this on others?
Adam Lee made an excellent point about this: Christians should be objecting to the basic principles of meteorology and tectonic theory because they both attempt to explain the mechanics of global happenings without referencing any deities. They should be outraged! And what about germ theory, or the theory of gravity? Why do they push back against the theory of evolution, which has become the most basic organizing principle of the life sciences, and not all the others? You won’t find Christians developing competing models of meteorology and weather prediction giving sufficient credit to God. In fact, most of them will probably check the weather forecast this evening before making their plans for the next day, but the weather man will likely say nothing at all about Yahweh in his forecast. How could they even listen to him? The Bible says nothing about high pressure and low pressure systems; it says Yahweh makes storms himself. Why hasn’t a more biblically faithful version of meteorology grown up? And why don’t half of all Americans subscribe to it?
This wouldn’t be the first time science and religion clashed with one another. Galileo famously incurred the wrath of the Christian holy men in 1633 by agreeing with Copernicus that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and that we are just another planet circling the Sun. The leaders of the Church wouldn’t stand for such blasphemy, knowing full well that the Bible says the Earth rests on foundations and “does not move” (see here, here, here, and here). This was a matter of biblical faithfulness and Galileo was ordered to publicly recant his findings at the threat of torture. Because of his heretical views,* he lived out the remaining nine years of his life under house arrest. Incidentally, the Church later officially pardoned him posthumously in 1992. Evidently it can sometimes take a religion 360 years to publicly admit a mistake.
Enough time has passed for people to comfortably admit that it was silly to use the Bible the way the Church did in 1633. “Those passages are poetry,” people will insist today, “and they shouldn’t be evaluated without taking that into consideration.” Yes, that’s exactly right. You shouldn’t use the Bible like a science textbook. If you do, you will end up embarrassed. But the same people who admit this about heliocentrism refuse to apply the same reasoning to the common ancestry of the species. They insist that gradual mutation and genetic variation cannot be the mechanism that produced the rich biodiversity we see around us today. The Bible says nothing about common ancestry or natural selection. Therefore these ideas must be rejected, and to agree with them is to violate the clear teaching of divine revelation. Once again, it’s a matter of biblical faithfulness. In response to this threat, Christians developed an entirely separate branch of science called “creation science” complete with their own publishing organizations and separate research journals. They have to create their own publishers because the rest of the scientific community rips their work to shreds every time they submit an article. There’s so much I’d like to say about all this, but time doesn’t permit, so I’ll just get to my point and let you read and think further.
Christians accept secular meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry, and (most of) the rest but then reject the most basic premises of our biological development because this time they touch on something central to their theology. Whenever science does a better job of explaining how things work than the Bible does, they acquiesce and assimilate this new knowledge by saying, “Ah, so that’s how God does it!” They do not feel the need to pit the Bible against modern science as long as their belief system can morph and accommodate this new paradigm, and as long as they can still feel their deity can take credit for what’s going on. But with the creation story versus evolution, there are two major problems: 1) Common ancestry redefines what it means to be human, and it suggests we are more similar to animals than the Bible portrays, and 2) Without a literal Adam and Eve, the Christian redemptive story falls apart (or at least requires a radical reworking for which most theologians feel ill-prepared).
Mark Driscoll succinctly summarizes the literalist’s reasons for rejecting common ancestry (side note: If you ever want to know what I believe about pretty much anything, just find the opposite of whatever this man says, and that will pretty much nail it). The short answer is that the Bible interprets itself in a literalistic way (never mind the circularity of that assumption). Jesus seems to refer to Adam and Eve as if they were real, historical people (although some would point out that their historicity was not the subject he was addressing, nor did he even name the couple in his reference). He also speaks of the flood of Noah as if it were a real, historical thing, and references Abel as if he were a real person as well. The genealogy of Jesus even traces his lineage back to Adam as if he were an historical figure. But perhaps most crucially of all, as Driscoll points out, the apostle Paul makes use of the story of Adam to sketch out one of the most fundamental explanations of redemption in the New Testament. Paul uses Adam as the backdrop against which he portrays the saving work of Jesus in the crucifixion. To contradict the Bible’s story of human origins is to call into question the basic assumptions of Jesus and Paul, without whom there would be no Christianity at all.
Now I said most theologians feel ill-prepared to rework their faith so radically as to re-conceptualize it without a literal historical ancestral couple. But that doesn’t mean they are not giving it a shot. The people at Biologos.org are giving it the ol’ college try, and I never hesitate to direct my Christian friends there if they want to see what it looks like when evangelicals finally accept the basic tenets of common ancestry. Along with them, writers like Peter Enns and Francis Collins both write from a theistic evolutionary position and I would highly recommend their books to any Christian wanting to honestly wrestle with these things. Among their ranks, you will find a wide variety of opinion concerning how random or “stochastic” the evolutionary process really is (my perception is that the facts lead entirely in that direction) and therefore how “involved” in the process a deity necessarily must be. But that topic will have to wait for another time :)
What Christians do with the facts which science uncovers is up to them. I feel I must warn them, however: If your faith is so rigid in its dogmatic assertions and assumptions that you cannot accommodate the rapidly growing knowledge base which modern science is providing us, you will soon find your numbers diminishing with equal rapidity. Many have argued that we are already seeing that very phenomenon. Churches are hemorrhaging members by the thousands every year, and the only ones which are growing are doing so by absorbing the memberships of the smaller, dying churches. Those megachurches (often boasting of multiple campuses) are having to rely on more and more technologically advanced bells and whistles to keep people entertained, and the reinvention of the faith to fit a new generation necessitates that they avoid topics like these as often as possible. But they cannot keep that up forever. A new version of Christianity will have to take root which accommodates the discoveries of modern science, so that one day we will look back on this blog post with amazement that we were still discussing it in the 21st century. Personally, I’m already amazed. As a secular humanist, my heart would not be broken if evangelical churches fail to make this shift and therefore die away. But I am a student of history, and I know better. Religion always finds a way to adapt and…ahem…evolve to survive into the next generation. That’s just the way it is.
* I originally wrote that Galileo refused to recant his views about heliocentrism, but I remembered incorrectly. Many thanks to Collin for pointing out my mistake.