Will Evangelicals Ever Learn to Embrace Evolution?

Will Evangelicals Ever Learn to Embrace Evolution? March 13, 2015

shutterstock_157595678In the late summer of 2012, I was teaching a 7th grade World History class when I ran into a snag at the very beginning of the school year.  Our state educational standards called for me to briefly discuss how scientists determine the dates of early human communities as well as how they trace “early hominid evolution in Africa from the Australopithecines to Homo erectus.”  Now, there was no way I was going to stand up in front of a room full of twelve-year-olds and utter the words “homo” and “erectus,” but I still taught the material.  I barely made it into the lesson, however, because as soon as I said something about 10,00o year-old civilizations, hands shot up around the room.

One student whose father was a principal at another school in my district challenged the date in our text and said that the world was no older than 6,000 years old.  I asked him how he knew that and he said, “Because that’s what it says in the Bible.”  I happen to have a master’s degree in biblical studies, so I issued a carefully-worded warning against using the Bible in ways it wasn’t designed to be used, namely as a science textbook.  I reminded the class that we were going to be following the state curriculum, and then I moved on.  The exchange itself probably lasted all of 60 seconds but I heard about it for the next two weeks because the mother of another one of the students began emailing and calling the school, threatening to sue us for–get this–failing to maintain the separation of church and state.

My principal called me into her office several times over the course of those two weeks because the mother would not leave the school alone.  The irate parent wanted something to be done about this and my administrator assured her that it would be handled.  She instructed me to avoid the topic of evolution in the future and I simply replied that it shouldn’t come up again because it was only relevant to the first couple of chapters in our textbook anyway.  That wasn’t the last of my problems with that school district, but let’s save that saga for another day.

A Church Unwilling to Change

Evangelical Christians have not yet gotten the memo that scientists are no longer debating the topic of common ancestry nor the age of the earth.  That ship sailed a long time ago.  The study of human origins has come a long way from the days of Darwin and the earliest discoveries of fossils in the ground.  Nowadays the study of the human genome reads like a detailed travel diary, telling us the story of where our species has been and how it got to be where it is today.  Multiple lines of scientific investigation have each corroborated the same conclusions–biology, geology, anthropology, history, paleontology, epidemiology, anatomy and physiology, not to mention astronomy, physics, chemistry, and pretty much every other field of science that has anything to say about either the age of the planet or of the human species.  But the evangelical church lags behind in accepting any of this and along with it nearly half of all Americans.  We’ve even got a U.S. congressman openly admitting that he believes evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” and that guy is a high ranking member of the House science subcommittee! Are you kidding me? What can be done about this?

As an expatriate of Evangelicalism my first response is that’s not my problem.  That’s somebody else’s problem to solve.  But that’s not the full extent of my feelings on the matter.  I’m still an educator by profession, and I’m also a concerned citizen of a country that at times seems determined to dial back nearly every instance of social and scientific progress until we can get things back to the way they were in the good ol’ 19th century.  On top of that I am the father of four daughters who still attend an evangelical church that subtly (or not so subtly) communicates that science is something you should keep a wary eye on because it’s a threat to the faith anytime it’s not being done by the right people–their people.  So on the one hand, as an atheist I’m watching the church’s hand-wringing over this topic with bemused detachment; but on the other, I’m an invested person who wants to see my country and my surrounding culture catching up with the rest of the world and finally accepting that common ancestry is the way we got to where we are today.  So again I ask, what can be done?  Who can help with a task like this?

That’s where Biologos and the John Templeton Foundation come in.  Both of those organizations aim to pull the evangelical church forward into the 21st century by any means necessary, and the latter is spending astounding amounts of money to help facilitate that transition. This month in fact, Patheos is featuring a series of articles highlighting their work on multiple fronts. They are funding studies, conferences, and curriculum development within universities and research institutions all over the world.  The scope and size of what they’re doing is frankly mind-boggling. These organizations grasp the idea that people who understand that science isn’t a left-wing conspiracy nor is it a nefarious satanic plot to undermine the kingdom of God must figure out how to use the language of faith to repackage the relevant science so that it doesn’t conflict with the core doctrines of their particular traditions.  That’s a tall order because evangelical theology hinges on a certain kind of approach to reading the Bible which militates against accommodating the discoveries of science, particularly those which pertain to the origins of the species.

Religions, Too, Must Evolve

Simply put, the Bible appears to tell one story about where we came from while science tells another. The folks at Biologos would insist that’s not the case, but to hear Jesus and Paul talk about it, the more literal interpretation is the right way to read it. The founders of the Christian faith speak as if there were literally only two humans in the beginning, Adam and Eve. But modern genetics has roundly dismissed that as a possibility.  Historically the church has not always felt bound to follow the same approach as its originators, so this doesn’t necessarily present a problem in and of itself.  The problem is that over time evangelicals have made this an identity marker, and they’re prepared to battle to the death over these interpretations, even if it means having to fight off the rest of Christendom. Their whole system of thought hinges on maintaining this approach. Large segments of the Christian faith have decided to accept the findings of modern science and rework their understanding of the Bible and theology around those discoveries, but the fundamentalists (of both the overt and the closeted kind) refuse to budge.

Which means they will soon die out. Or at least some of them will.  See, religions behave very much like organisms, and as we’re learning about all other things which reproduce and fight for their own survival, they must adapt to their changing environment or else they will not make it into the next generation.  The Christian faith has already reinvented itself more times than I can count.  I’ve said many times before that, not only is there no such thing as True Christianity™, I’m fairly convinced there never really was.  I think the Christian faith was always a diverse collection of competing traditions even from the very beginning.  I know that’s not how most Christians see it today because they’re convinced that a supernatural force guided and directed them to The Right Way of Thinking from the beginning.  I personally see little evidence of that, but I suppose that’s what you get when you ask an atheist what he thinks about Christian origins.

Our knowledge base about the development of the species grows exponentially every decade, and I’m pretty sure we’ve already reached the tipping point after which everyone who refuses to accept this will look really foolish.  As Donny Miller is credited with saying, “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”  Evangelicals have worked hard to insulate their people from exposure to outside ideas, but the prevalence of the internet is making this harder and harder to manage.  Ignoring modern science requires a more concerted effort now than it did before.  Some will find a way to do it, and many have already spawned their own epistemic bubbles and alternate realities to live inside of via their own insular social media enclaves.  But as time goes on, those who deny common ancestry and “deep time” are beginning to look more and more like the Flat Earth Society.

What Will They Do With Adam and Eve?

They key sticking point for most evangelicals is that the biblical notions of sin and grace have always hinged on the existence of two historical individuals: Adam and Jesus.  Thanks to the apostle Paul, Christian theology teaches that “sin entered the world through one man,” Adam. It then goes on to assert that righteousness entered the world through Jesus, calling him “the second Adam.”  It stresses that nobody escapes the condemnation of being born a descendant of Adam because guilt and blame are both imputed and imparted to us all by virtue of our relationship to our purported ancestor.  Similarly, it asserts that anyone who wants to become righteous must find it through a proper relationship to the second Adam, who is Jesus, by whom righteousness is then both imputed and imparted to those rightly related to him. Paul explicitly connects these two figures, drawing parallels between their significance for the Christian salvation story.

Do you see why the parallels would matter especially to Protestants, who try their hardest to “be biblical?”  Catholics have never been as obsessed with Pauline theology as Protestants, and they’ve always been cool with people adding to the righteousness bank of Jesus through their own good deeds and prayers and what have you.  They even pray to saints of the past because they believe the good works of people throughout history contribute to a kind of collective account of righteousness.  But Protestants abhor this kind of thinking. Following the lead of Martin Luther, they stick more closely to Paul’s language of requiring that the “alien righteousness” of Jesus be communicated to his followers through faith or through the sacraments or whatever (magic!).

The point is that since they believe that everything good has to come through one guy, everything bad must have come to us through one guy as well.  Paul himself made those parallels and every theological tradition which sticks closely to his language feels pressure to see Adam as a single, historical individual.  Modern genetics research tells us there never was one single progenitor of the human race–there were at least a couple thousand of them.  But if you jettison the belief in one historical Adam as the source of all that went wrong, that significantly weakens Paul’s insistence that it is through only one man that all things can be made right. It also reorients how you read the Bible in general, and it opens a huge can of worms about the historicity of so many other details in the book.  Like I said, the entire evangelical worldview would fall apart.  That’s why they can’t do it.

But some are trying, godblessum.  Some are positing that maybe God slowly developed the human race over millions of years but then picked a specific hominid descendant to be the first “official human.”  Honestly that seems pretty forced and arbitrary to me, but what else is new?  Others just choose to view the story of Adam and Eve as mythology, a story meant to teach us all something about ourselves but not be taken too literally because, come on, a talking snake and a tree that makes you realize you’re naked?  Clearly these aren’t meant to be seen as historical events.  In retrospect it’s amazing to me that everyone didn’t just settle on that viewpoint centuries ago.  But intelligence is compartmental and religion in particular can do funny things with your thought processes.

In the end it doesn’t really  matter which reworking of Adam and Eve will win out.  What I’m fairly certain of is that somehow it will happen. It will because it must. They don’t really have a choice.  Churches will have to evolve on this matter or they will die by virtue of complete irrelevance.  The ones who cling to the old literalism will take their views with them to the grave.  Perhaps like the snake handlers some of them will keep an alternate reality alive among networks of tiny churches scattered across the Appalachian foothills or in the deepest pine forests of rural Mississippi and Alabama. But the rest of the world will move on and the churches that find a way to make the Bible fit with modern science will make it into the next generation.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, as they say.  It’s somebody else’s problem.  Except it’s kind of my problem, too, because I live among evangelicals and I want them to get with the program.  Part of me would be fine with churches clinging to their old dogmas until they work themselves into complete irrelevance.  But their stubborn resistance to so many basic principles of science is beginning to hold us back as a country.  I want people to wake up and join the 21st century, so I find my self rooting for the ones who are trying to make them see that it’s time to rethink the things they believe.  The ones who don’t won’t be leaving their mark on future generations.


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