Why bother with evolution when it just upsets everyone?
Does evolution matter? Why do so many people care about it? Is it really a big deal if most of the citizens of the United States and Turkey reject it? Is it really worth the heroic effort it takes to keep Darwin in the public schools? Why not have the janitor take Darwin out to the recycling bin and replace him in the classroom with more Newton, or Einstein, or even Mark Twain?
BioLogos seeks to promote harmony between science and faith, but the main part of that project is helping Christians see their way clear to accepting evolution. Why is this important?
People often ask me why it matters so much what they think of evolution. At Christian colleges evolution is controversial and there are always concerned constituents fretting about what students are learning. Many parents don’t even want their kids to learn about it—evolution is like pornography, not to be trifled with under any circumstances and certainly not something to be “integrated” with the Christian faith.
The quick—too quick—answer to the question of why evolution is important is that “Evolution is science and people need to know science.” This is certainly true but it misses the point. There are many fascinating and important ideas in science and we can’t teach all of them. Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are central, fundamental ideas in physics that explain much of our world. But few students encounter them along the way and yet nobody frets too much about that. Pollsters never inquire about how many Americans accept the odd conclusions of these theories—that space is curved and electrons seem to have free will. Nobody sues to keep them out of the public schools and there are no organizations devoted to either promoting or attacking them.
I was recently in conversation with some of America’s leading pastors who expressed their concerns on this issue. The evolution controversy, for the most part, simply doesn’t come up in their ministries. (What parent worries more about Darwin’s theory than their daughter’s boyfriend?). Most parishioners probably think evolution is false, but mainly they just don’t need to think about evolution at all. Why should a pastor engage a topic that seems irrelevant when it will certainly lead to controversy?
Despite these perspectives I think evolution is far more important than most Christians appreciate. The reason why it may seem like a back burner topic is that the people with the questions have left the church and taken their questions elsewhere. If they, and their questions were still in the church then their voices would be heard and the issue would seem more pressing.
Most evangelicals grow up believing that evolution is a “creation story for atheists.” This is exactly what Kirk Cameron told students on college campuses in mid-November when he and Ray Comfort were handing out their doctored version of The Origin of Species. This is the message preached by several influential organizations—Answers in Genesis, The Institute for Creation Research, Creation Science Evangelism, and even some of leaders of the Intelligent Design movement. This message, if taken seriously, is disastrous for people raised in the church. Take E.O. Wilson, for example, arguably the most important scientist of the last half-century. Wilson was raised a Southern Baptist and was quite devout as a child. But he was taught that his faith and evolution were incompatible. He went off to study biology at the University of Alabama and learned, to his surprise, that the evidence for evolution was compelling and, like virtually all serious biologists, he accepted it. This, of course, meant he had to reject the Christian faith of his childhood. If he were still in the church his pastor would be fully aware of how important it is to address the issue of evolution. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if E. O. Wilson were still among the group that call themselves Christians, especially considering that Time magazine ranked him one of the most influential people of the 20th century?
Anecdotes like this are abundant but, unfortunately, no data exists as to how common Wilson’s “deconversion” experience is. There is data, however, that hints that it might be very common. Evangelical Protestants make up at least 28% of the general population in the United States but they represent only 4% of the scientific community. What happened to the other 24% of the evangelicals along the way? There are most likely two explanations, both of which are concerning:
- Evangelicals are raised with a negative image of science and are thus unlikely to choose it as a career;
- Evangelicals, like E. O. Wilson, who go into science lose their faith, and cease to be evangelicals.
For either of these reasons, evolution deserves more attention than it is getting. If evangelicalism wants a place at the cultural table, it needs to make peace with science, including evolution, so that its young people are excited to go off and study the world created by the God they were raised to worship. And, when they learn that the biologists are right about evolution, that revelation needs to fit comfortably within their Christian worldview.
This is why we should care about evolution.
(Readers interested in the data in this blog, which comes from a recent Pew survey, can find it here.)
Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.