Evolution Matters

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February 15, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolution Matters

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:

  1. Evangelicals are raised with a negative image of science and are thus unlikely to choose it as a career;
  2. 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.

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Ben Smith - #4517

February 15th 2010

Good article on why it is so important to get this word out! I am so glad I read Dr. Collin’s book, and have been following BioLogos since it’s inception. I consider myself lucky, because as a biology major, I fear I could have had a similar experience as E.O. Wilson had, if I hadn’t had this strong foundation in compatibility. At a college campus, I have seen both sides, people losing their faith thinking that it is inferior to science, and people denying science, thinking it is incompatible with their faith. I do my part to help spread the message that BioLogos has when I get the chance, but as you can imagine, it’s not a topic that comes up in conversation all that often. Anyway, keep up the good work!


Paul - #4524

February 15th 2010

Evolution matters simply because it is quite evidently true.


Joseph - #4525

February 15th 2010

Karl, you wrote: Evangelicals, like E. O. Wilson, who go into science lose their faith, and cease to be evangelicals.

I think sentences like this should be worded rather as, “Evangelicals, like E. O. Wilson, who go into science lose their faith, and cease to be Christians. Losing one’s faith has to do with their commitment to Christianity. A commitment to evangelicalism is, at very best, far down on the ladder.


steve martin - #4526

February 15th 2010

Hi Karl,
Good points on why it is important.  I’d like to suggest a third.  It is important because evangelicalism’s aggressive anti-evolution stand is keeping many within the science community (and those that are science literate) from even considering the claims of the gospel.  If we want to reach others for Christ, we better remove any stumbling blocks.  Our modern church’s insistence on accepting a “science” that doesn’t match the scientific evidence is probably a worse stumbling block than the early Jewish church’s insistence that new Gentile believer’s follow Jewish religious laws.


Amy B - #4527

February 15th 2010

@Josepth

How do you know that E.O. Wilson’s (and others) commitment to evangelicalism was far down on the ladder? For all you know, they struggled intensely with making sense of their faith and the strong scientific case for evolution they encountered. I know I have been in the midst of this and my faith has been central to my life since childhood. I have a degree in ministry and have done a little mission work in the past.


Gregory Arago - #4529

February 15th 2010

“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.” - K. Giberson

Yes, as long as evolution’s ‘limits’ are clearly in the picture. No Christian, Muslim or Jew should accept ‘universal evolutionism.’ I’m sure you’d agree, Dr. Giberson.

Unfortunately, such universalist ideology is sometimes a part of ‘theistic evolution’ because this view ties religion too tightly with a particular scientific theory. Is this how BioLogos differs?

I agree that it is too quick to say “Evolution is science and people need to know science.” Evolution is a part of science, yes; it is *not* science itself.

The question about E.O. Wilson is great. Does BioLogos promote Teilhard de Chardin and Dobzhansky as examples of Christians who accept and contribute to evolutionary theories?

Darwin is *not* the best Christian role model and he *did* make mistakes.

http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1662/005.071.0213


Gregory Arago - #4530

February 15th 2010

Amy B,

It seems to me that Joseph’s point is clear and important. One doesn’t cease to be ‘evangelical,’ as much as one ceases to be (a) Christian.

E.O. Wilson rejected Christianity; which ‘denomination’ of Christianity, i.e. Orthodox, Catholic or one of the very many Protestant branches, e.g. the evangelical wing, he rejected is less important.

Is it more important for you to self-identify as ‘evangelical’ or as ‘Christian’?

Struggling to make sense of one’s religious orientation or faith is certainly not exclusive to evangelical Christians.

You seem to be promoting the ideology of denominationalism. Is this why you bring up ‘mission work’?

Sincerely,
Gregory


Glen Davidson - #4531

February 15th 2010

Evolution is important to teach because it tells us why life exists in the manner that it does, and we happen to be involved with life a great deal.

I do not think that quantum mechanics and general relativity are quite as rarely encountered as the post states, either, at least if one considers some of the consequences of those ideas as being an “encounter.”  Mentions of general relativity show up in a number of high school science courses, and consequences of quantum mechanics may already appear in chemistry or physics in more advanced high school science, or at least in lower level college courses.

Regardless of that, biology concerns just about everybody, and evolution is the central theory in biology.  Newton remains perfectly good for most physics that the general population encounters, in spite of the fact that he was “wrong” in a number of his assumptions, but biology just has its one main idea of origins, with which anyone interested in biology must deal in order for things to “make sense.”

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Gregory Arago - #4532

February 15th 2010

“biology just has its one main idea of origins, with which anyone interested in biology must deal in order for things to “make sense.”” - Glen

Something must first ‘exist’ before it can ‘evolve’. Darwin recognized this. Evolution is a process of biological change. It is *not*, afaik, a theory about the origins of biological entities (e.g. life from non-life) or biological information.

I agree with you, Glen, that qm and relativity are important in many realms too. evolution is not all-powerful as a scientific theory. In human-social thought the specter of ‘relativism’ is inevitably connected linguistically with the ‘physical science’ of ‘relativity.’ is ‘truth’ merely relative to the observer?


Gregory Arago - #4542

February 15th 2010

“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?” - K . Giberson

This sociological question can be addressed in multiple ways.

Wikipedia says 26% ‘evangelicals.’ Catholics 25%. Catholics mainly accept ‘evolutionary theories.’ Maybe one question should be ‘how can evangelicals learn from Catholics?’ But I suspect that won’t be a welcome question!

Evangelicals tend to have the lowest level of education of American Christians. So it isn’t just how to accept evolution or make peace with science, but rather, how to raise the level of education among evangelicals generally.

The conversation changes when speaking of Christians, who are well represented in science. One must explain why so very few evolutionary biologists are religious, in contrast with say, physicists, astronomers, engineers or doctors.

To ask evangelical Christians to embrace the least religious science is a stretch!


Joseph - #4545

February 15th 2010

@Amy

Gregroy #4530 has rightly understood and articulated my concerns.


Amy B - #4549

February 15th 2010

@Joseph,
I misunderstood you, I apologize.


RBH - #4595

February 16th 2010

Gregory wrote

E.O. Wilson rejected Christianity; which ‘denomination’ of Christianity, i.e. Orthodox, Catholic or one of the very many Protestant branches, e.g. the evangelical wing, he rejected is less important.

On the contrary, it is because contemporary evangelical Christianity makes rejection of evolution a pillar of its belief system and what amounts to a test of faith that people like E. O. Wilson come to reject it.  From a BioLogos POV that’s the issue.  I myself, an atheist and non-accommodationist, think BioLogos is fighting a futile battle, but that’s a different topic.


Unapologetic Catholic - #4649

February 16th 2010

“To ask evangelical Christians to embrace the least religious science is a stretch!”

Why is it a strecth to ask people to embrace the truth?


Bob R. - #4666

February 16th 2010

Evolution is important because it is the modern day equivalent of the Copernican view of the universe which challenged the prevailing presuppositions and hermeneutics of the Church that were eventually found wanting. So the sun doesn’t circle the earth, so what? Not a big deal to us moderns, but it was to those who first confronted the issue. That;s where we are in the current controversy.

We need to ask ourselves why we are so dependent on Richard Dawkins & company to be the stimulus to theological integrity? Why are we forced to pursue theological truth by those who think the God we worship was invented by Dr. Seuss?


Gregory Arago - #4704

February 17th 2010

Hello again RBH,

You wrote:
“contemporary evangelical Christianity makes rejection of evolution a pillar of its belief system”

What about F. Collins and K. Giberson, D. Falk, G. Glover, D. Lamoureux, et al.? Do you consider them to be outside of the evangelical Christian mainstream simply *because* they accept evolutionary biology? If so, it may be that it is your stereotyping of ‘evangelical Christianity’ rather than what some of the leading evangelicals-who-are-scientists believe that is misleading.

It may also be that BioLogos’s efforts are anything but futile. Maybe you think this only because they contradict your viewpoint that Christians cannot accept a limited type of ‘evolution’ and continue to do ‘good science’ while being persons of faith in a transcendent (rather than only immanent) God.

What theists of all stripes accept is a world that is not ‘spirit-less’ or simply understandable using the ideology of scientific naturalism. Like you, RBH, I find the typology of ‘metaphysical naturalism’ vs. ‘methodological naturalism’ a fruitless, weak philosophical one.

Multiple (small ‘d’) designers, yes!


Dan Baright - #4730

February 17th 2010

Your opening graphic is witness to the same difficulty I find with my 1979 copy of Darwin’s ORIGINS.  Not only is the sales and marketing campaign regards Evolution often out of sink with rigorous mathematical, quantum-physical, and biochemical reality and with peer-reviewed science – the sales pitch is also out of sink with your own concepts. 

The graphic of four hominids clearly implies, not common descent, but rather descent of man from ape.  With the non-rigorous thinking the graphic typifies and as we have seen over the decades since Darwin, is it any wonder that serious origins workers are often forced to find some other paradigm?  As I see it, the science of origins emanating from Evolutionism has been theory driven.  A more rigorous science would, I should think, be evidence driven with due consideration given alternative, more likely, naturalistic explanations.


Giles Hayward - #4947

February 20th 2010

HI

This isn’t related to the article, more to the comments! I want to say how amazing is it to see a discussion that doesn’t end up with people swearing at each other! Everytime I see a youtube video about something Christian, you get Christians and non-Christians swearing and name-calling, but this is great!!! :-D

Especially Amy, Gregory and Joseph! I have never seen anyone apologise!

So thank you for keeping this a place where it feels safe to comment…

Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”


Peter - #7183

March 19th 2010

The only way to reduce conflict between the theory of evolution and Christian faith is to impose social consequences upon those anti-religious atheists who use the theory to attack Christian faith. 

About 9 years ago I began debating with atheists online about religious issues, particularly God’s existence.  Their two favorite arguments against theism were the theory of evolution and the argument from evil.  I did not have much exposure to the theory of evolution before communicating with them.  It was anti-religious atheists, not my pastor and not my parents, who taught me that the theory is opposed to theism.  Of course, the first evolutionists to pit the theory against theism was Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species.  Supporters of the theory of evolution need to start blaming members of their own group for the lack of acceptance of the theory amongst the religious.


Peter - #7184

March 19th 2010

Gregory Arago said, “I agree that it is too quick to say “Evolution is science and people need to know science.” Evolution is a part of science, yes; it is *not* science itself.”

Response:  I am glad that you realize this.  I wish everyone would realize this.  After all, if the theory evolution is science, then to for a person to say that they are willing to abandon acceptance of the theory is to say they are willing to abandon science.  Many supporters of the theory don’t understand that science will go on even if we don’t have the theory of evolution.


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