Editor’s Note: Upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, I wondered how anyone seeing it could possibly believe in creationism instead of evolution. There is nothing in information provided at the national parks that gives any credence to creationism. Instead, everything points to millions of years of evolution at work — in the water, the rocks and the ancient peoples. I looked at the happy hikers around me, wondering if any of them could possibly believe in creationism, and was tempted to ask, but didn’t. I was afraid their answers would ruin my vacation and ruin my opinion of them. It reminds me of a column in the New York Times I just read, in which the journalist, Frank Bruni, muses on his reluctance to find out if his friends and relatives are Trump supporters. He worries that such knowledge could ruin relationships. He’s right, but purposely not trying to influence people you care about could prove disastrous to the country. I’d say the same holds for evolution. We have a responsibility to set people straight and the following essay, first posted on Jim Mulholland’s blog, is a step in that direction. It is reprinted with his permission.
By Jim Mulholland
According to a recent Pew poll, three out of every ten US adults continue to reject the theory of evolution. This same poll found 65% of evangelical Christians believe God created humans in their present form approximately 10,000 years ago. All of this despite polling that found 98% of scientists think evolution the best explanation of human origins. As someone who was once an evangelical Christian, none of this surprises me. What does surprise me is how often I see non-religious people arguing about evolution with religious folk.
The first mistake many make in arguing with religious people about evolution is in thinking the discussion is about facts – carbon dating, genetic mapping, and geological evidence. For many religious folk, the issue is one of faith and not fact. They have been taught to believe in a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation stories and to abandon such an interpretation would be an act of faithlessness. For them, having 98% of the scientists supportive of evolution is irrelevant. The Bible clearly says “The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.” (I Cor. 3:19) Rejecting evolution, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is a sign of their loyalty.
The second mistake many non-religious people make is in thinking religious people don’t understand evolution. While creationists may claim they’re not related to a monkey, it isn’t the biology of evolution they find so disturbing. They understand and often accept the basic principles of natural selection. Most of them acknowledge micro-evolution as an explanation for the many types of dogs or the different kinds of plants. What they dispute is the application of evolutionary principles to humanity. Humans are special, chosen, elected and the children of God. We are the crown of creation, created in the very image of God. Even if evolution were true, we are the exception to the evolutionary rule.
This leads naturally to the third misunderstanding in most debates about evolution. What is being debated is not geological history or biological process, but the meaning of life. Is existence random or is there some vast cosmic plan? Most religious people reject evolution – whether they acknowledge it or not – because of what it implies about the universe. It argues for a universe where Earth and humanity are not special. Our existence is the result of random variables and not divine desire. The future is not in God’s hands. The universe does not care if humanity survives and thrives. It is this underlying assumption of evolution that inspires its passionate rejection by many religious people. Such a universe frightens them and people often hate what they fear.
I am nearly certain that, if astronomers were to announce tomorrow that a comet was hurtling toward the earth, such a circumstance would lead to a massive revival of religious fervor across our planet. Millions would flood churches, temples and mosques to plead for the intervention of the divine. Many religious leaders would suggest the comet was a sign of divine displeasure, punishment for believing in things like evolution. And, if the comet crashed into our planet and resulted in the eventual extinction of humanity, most of our last recordings would not acknowledge this extinction as proof of the randomness of the universe. Many would insist even our extinction must have meaning.
This is why evolution is so threatening to many religious people. Evolution calls into question a central assertion of most religion – we are special, created and protected by the divine. Evolution pulls the curtain away and exposes the mechanisms that move the universe, mechanisms that are simple, random and often brutal. It is this brutal reality many resist.
Let’s be clear. Any honest appraisal of life suggests we aren’t special or protected. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Disease strikes the young and old, the kind and the cruel. Tsunamis kill indiscriminately. Politics and economics rather than religious faithfulness determine human power and affluence. Is it any wonder that those who would ignore all these daily reminders of the universe’s obvious apathy would also reject the most logical explanation for this evidence? Indeed, this unwillingness to accept the randomness of life shouldn’t surprise us. Our resistance to this reality of life was an evolutionary development with considerable utility and persistence.
Accepting the randomness of life is an act of courage. Until very recently, humans had little ability to alter their environment. The world was a hostile place. Humans were powerless. The religious mindset evolved to counter the despair and discouragement of this self-awareness. For generations, a belief in god brought considerable comfort in a world where life was so fragile. It made sense as a belief system and as a response to the randomness of life. Leaving behind an explanation which worked for our ancestors isn’t easy; even when it is antiquated.
Fortunately, we live in a world where humans have more and more power to control their destiny. In the near future, we may have the ability to destroy the random comet before it destroys us. For the first time in human history, we are altering genetic code. So much of what we once ascribed to god’s hand, is now in ours. Though there will always be some things beyond our control, accepting and addressing the randomness of life is an important evolutionary step. Those who do so are more likely to survive and thrive.
**Editor’s Question** What luck have you had talking to friends and family about evolution – or Trump?
Jim Mulholland spent twenty-five years as a pastor. He wrote several best selling Christian books and spoke nationally. In 2008, he resigned when his faith faltered. After several years of transition, Jim published the book Leaving Your Religion and began writing a blog on becoming post-religious. You can read more of Jim’s story and reflections at LeavingYourReligion.com.
>>Photo credits: By The original uploader was TimVickers at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2785168