Evolution and Personal Faith: How Christian University Students Resolve the Conflict, Part 1
As students across the country begin another academic year, nearly all of them will receive some kind of science education, and many will experience tension between what they have been taught about God's creation in church or at home, and what they are likely to find in science textbooks and hear from their instructors. How should that tension be addressed? How might it be resolved? What resources does the Church have (and still need) to equip our young people to honor the truth God has revealed in both his Word and his world, and to share in the work of his Kingdom?
Today we continue to look at those questions from several perspectives and approaches and in multiple educational settings with the first of a four-part series on how Christian biology-related majors at a mid-Western Christian liberal arts university reconciled evolution and their personal religious beliefs. Here in part 1, Dr. Mark Winslow lays out the methodology of the study he and his colleagues conducted and describes the influence parents had on study participants’ beliefs about evolution and creationism. In subsequent posts tomorrow and next week, he describes how students negotiated their perceived conflicts, as well as what factors led to their acceptance of evolution.
Framing the Problem
I have to ask God to give me patience to not hate the men who cause me and my dad to argue about origins. I think that if they could just realize that science is not out to destroy God then maybe they would give it a chance.
Rachel spoke these words as she reflected on her relationship with her father and the strain she felt about her own acceptance of evolution. Rachel had grown up as a pastor’s kid firmly entrenched in Young Earth Creationism. When she enrolled in a Zoology course at a Christian college as a Pre-Med major, it was the first time she had encountered the notion that a person could accept evolution and remain a vibrant Christian – her professor was a testament to that reality. Through her experiences at the university, Rachel eventually came to accept cosmological, geological, and biological evolution as valid in understanding the long history of the universe and life on Earth. However, her acceptance of evolution was an extended journey marked by conflict resolution and apprehension.
Rachel’s account of her struggle with evolution resonates with the stories told by many participants in a qualitative research case study designed to explore how Christian biology-related majors at a mid-Western Christian liberal arts university reconciled evolution and their personal religious beliefs. Their individual stories and the common themes that emerged from research data are the focus of this three-part series.
This first part of the series provides a backdrop for the reader to see this crucible of conflict from the participants’ perspectives – using their words to convey the struggle and anxiety of encountering evolution in juxtaposition to their faith. The second part of the article explores the participants’ negotiation of their perceived conflict between evolution and their personal faith. The third and final part of the series discusses the factors in the participants coming to an acceptance of evolution and addresses the question, “What, then, are the ramifications for college educators and those who seek to mentor young people in reconciling science and faith?”
The 15 participants in the case study were senior biology-related majors (biology, biology-chemistry, or biological science education) and recent graduates (within the last two years) who majored in a biology-related science, and had completed an upper-level biology course on evolution entitled Origins. While a diversity of approaches exists in addressing evolution issues at Christian universities, no aspect of the study site suggested that it was atypical of higher education institutions committed to the teaching of evolution in non-opposition to religious belief. Or to put it positively, the college is typical of other Christian institutions where evolution is taught as being compatible with faith.
Data were collected for the study from December 2006 to August 2007, utilizing a dual interview design. The first interview investigated the participants’ worldview using Fowler’s (1981) structural-developmental theory of “stages of faith” which describe the cognitive rationale and affective response in shaping one’s world. The second interview was conducted approximately a week following the first interview and explored participants’ perceived conflicts between evolution and personal religious beliefs. Additional data came in the form of the Evolution Attitudes Survey (Ingram & Nelson, 2006); descriptive field notes of the Origins course in Spring 2007; a “scholarly paper” that participants wrote in the Origins class that integrated course content with their own worldview; and participant feedback on interview transcripts and researcher-written descriptive personal portraits that described their views of creationism and evolution. The data was coded, and through multiple readings and refinement of codes, patterns evident within the data suggested common themes in the experiences of the students.
This article series is not a formal presentation of the study (see Winslow, 2008 and Winslow, Staver, & Scharmann, 2011), but seeks to tell a story from the participants’ perspectives to help the reader better understand their experiences in reconciling science and faith.
Participants’ Views of Creationism and Evolution
Table 1 summarizes participants’ childhood beliefs, including the sources for those beliefs, and their views on creationism and evolution at the time of the study. As the data show, most of the participants were raised during childhood to believe in Young Earth Creationism.
Many participants reported that their strong creationist and anti-evolution beliefs were due to their parents’ influence during childhood. Eight participants voiced that one or both parents expressed a strong belief in creationism throughout the participants’ childhood and expected participants to hold similar beliefs. For example, Nicole stated, “My family was . . . very much of the Genesis is the golden rule. God created the earth in seven days. That’s how it happened, no questions asked. If you asked questions, . . . you were thinking too hard about it.”
Asked about where she acquired her negative view of evolution before enrolling at the study site university, Rachel recalled hearing her parents’ conversations, such as, “Darwin is a tool of the devil and . . . he’s led so many people astray from God and that’s just terrible and don’t get sucked into that because it’s the devil working through him.” Rachel added, “I’d be kinda listening in” and soon enough, she found herself saying to her high school friends, “Oh yeah, I can’t believe these evolutionist liberals.” She added, “Those two words always went together – liberal and evolutionist!”
Other participants remarked that they simply assimilated creationist beliefs from what they heard in church. Six participants perceived that their parents believed in creationism, but primarily because creationism was part of the participants’ upbringing in the church. In other words, parents’ expression of their belief in creationism was less pronounced than in the other eight cases. For example, Ashley noted,
"I’m pretty safe in saying from the time I was born until high school senior year, the first chapter of Genesis was literal. That’s just how I was raised. . . . Nothing was ever questioned." Ashley clarified, “Not that they [my parents] said everything in the Bible is word for word true, . . . but no one ever said the opposite, that it wasn’t literal. So I just assumed that it was.”
Other factors, such as church, friends, siblings, and spouses were construed by participants as relatively moderate influences in their lives. For example, when participants expressed apprehension in their encounters with evolution, not a single participant expressed anxiety about the response of their church or pastor. Instead, most were worried about the reaction of their parents.
For many participants, the anti-evolution sentiments they heard in childhood continued while learning evolution at the study site university. Several participants asserted that their parents expressed displeasure that their daughter or son was learning evolution at a Christian university. For example, Jennifer stated that whenever her parents spoke of “evolution stuff,” they would pejoratively append, “and that’s not right.” In high school, Jennifer thought of evolution as “kind of a theory. . . . It was just something . . . good for the scientists, but that’s not what happened.” She recalled in her junior AP Biology class that the teacher announced, “Well, I teach evolution as a theory, not as a scientific explanation.” Jennifer laughed as she recounted, “My mom was real happy that I was having her for my teacher.” However, when Jennifer took the Origins course at the study site university, she began to share her new ideas about evolution with her parents. She recalled they became increasingly “apprehensive about things.” Jennifer could tell by their body language and, as she described,
[the] kind of looks they give me whenever I’m like, “Well, what about this [evidence for evolution]?” Because I get real kind of built up about things like this . . . and I’m like, “But this is what I learned in college” [shouting as she says this] and I bring my papers home and I’m like, “Look at this” [pounding the table] and they’re like a little skeptical. . . . You kind of see it in their eyes and they furrow their brow and stuff like that.
Jennifer enjoyed a strong relationship with her parents and despite the pressure she encountered from her parents regarding evolution, she said, “I’ve come to respect their opinions about certain things a lot more. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that maybe they’re not always right in every single thing. . . . It’s okay for me to think differently than them.” As reflected in the last column of Table 1, Jennifer was among the thirteen participants who—at the time of the study—affirmed that God created through evolution in contrast to their childhood beliefs.
Two noticeable exceptions are Ashley and David. David espoused a traditional, Young Earth Creationist view. Ashley’s views were a hybrid model of Old Earth Creationism and Evolutionary Creationism perspectives. Having come from a strong creationist background, Ashley adapted her views while in college to assert that God specially intervened to create an initial line of ten thousand species through which evolution took over to result in the diversity of life on earth. Item 1 in the Evolution Attitudes Survey stated, “Over billions of years all plants and animals on Earth descended from a common ancestor.” David strongly disagreed and Ashley disagreed with this statement. Nine participants agreed and four participants were undecided.
Most participants also accepted human evolution as evidenced from their interview statements, scholarly papers, and survey data. Five items in the Evolution Attitudes Survey dealt directly with human evolution. Marking “strongly disagree” or “disagree” on these statements would indicate an acceptance of human evolution. Fourteen participants demonstrated an acceptance of human evolution from their survey results. David was the lone exception. Eight participants either “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” on all five items while the remaining participants marked disagree with only one or two “undecideds” on the five survey items.
The results from the survey show a clear trend in 14 participants’ acceptance of human evolution despite a relatively mixed response to Item 1, which said, “Over billions of years all plants and animals on Earth descended from a common ancestor.” For instance, Ashley disagreed with evolution from a common ancestor, but she disagreed with every statement that rejected human evolution. Similarly, all four participants who were undecided on evolution from a common ancestor indicated by their survey responses that they accepted human evolution.
Participants saw ample evidence for human evolution in the Origins course both in textbook and lecture materials. Accepting human evolution may require less scientific inference in the minds of the participants than the linking of all living things to a single ancestor billions of years ago. Many participants expressed that human evolution was part of the larger story of evolution. When asked if humans evolved, Gail said, “For evolution to make sense in my head, we have to have had a common ancestor. If I understand evolution correctly, there has to be some ultimate beginning, which would be a link for all of us.”
The transition from Young Earth Creationism to Evolutionary Creationism for most of the participants was not an easy one. As we’ll see in the next part of this article, that journey was marked by apprehension and a process of conflict resolution.
Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Ingram, E. L., & Nelson, C. E. (2006). Relationship between achievement and students’ acceptance of evolution or creation in an upper-level evolution course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(1), 7-24.
Winslow, M. W. (2008). Evolution and personal religious belief: Christian biology-related majors' search for reconciliation at a Christian university. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3310836). Available at the Kansas State Research Exchange Web site: http://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/handle/2097/710
. Winslow, M. W., Staver, J. R., & Scharmann, L. C. (2011). Evolution and personal religious belief: Christian university biology-related majors' search for reconciliation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(9), 1026-1049.
Mark Winslow is the Dean of the College of Natural, Social, and Health Sciences at Southern Nazarene University (SNU) in Bethany, OK. He earned a B.S. from Greenville College, an M.S. from the University of Kansas, and his Ph.D. from Kansas State University. Previously, he taught physics and science education at the college level for 18 years. His research interests include understanding how college students accommodate evolution and religious beliefs; and working with undergraduates in developing pedagogical techniques and learning resources for physics and astronomy. Winslow grew up in Taiwan as a missionary kid. He’s married with three children.