Evolution and Personal Faith: How Christian University Students Resolve the Conflict, Part 2

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August 23, 2012 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Mark Winslow. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolution and Personal Faith: How Christian University Students Resolve the Conflict, Part 2
image credit: Ryan Pettey/Satellite Pictures

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. Part 1 of this series described the strong influence our study participants’ parents had in their children’s lives and belief in Young Earth Creationism. Today’s Part 2 explores the process through which participants negotiated their perceived conflict between evolution and personal faith, and the factors that contributed to their apprehension.

The Crucible of Conflict

When they entered the study site university as freshmen, many of the participants had no concept of Evolutionary Creationism and instead held to anti-evolution perspectives. Two notable exceptions are Diana and Tiffany. Diana’s father was a geologist and taught her from a young age to see evolution as valid and without contradiction to her Catholic faith. Tiffany was also unique in that she accepted non-human evolution while in high school when she discovered that evolution “didn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t create everything.” Still, Tiffany faced uncertainty about human evolution. Both Diana and Tiffany were surprised at how many of their fellow classmates in the Origins course struggled with evolution. Tiffany said, “I didn’t even realize that until I actually took that Origins course and there were kids in there . . . [where] the light bulbs were just coming on and I was like [? – quizzical, bewildered expression].”

Diana and Tiffany’s relative ease with evolution contrasted with most other participants who struggled to overcome their distrust of evolutionary ideas. The data indicate two primary sources of anxiety: participants’ apprehension about how they would defend an emerging acceptance of evolution to their parents; and participants’ awareness that the beliefs they once thought to be sacrosanct were beginning to change.

What Will My Parents Think?

Participants who accepted evolution worried about how they would be viewed by their parents. Eight participants indicated that they had experienced conflict with their parents over evolution or were too worried to broach the issue with their parents. Megan still hadn’t discussed evolution with her parents in the year since she took Origins. She said, “I’m kinda . . . scared about talking to them [about evolution].”

In contrast to Megan, five participants broached the subject of evolution with their parents and recounted the heated arguments that ensued. The parents reportedly denied evolution as a valid theory and stated that it contradicted the Bible. For example, Rachel recalled tense exchanges with her father in which they would get into arguments and “become angry.” She cited his comments, “Why are you thinking this way? We sent you off to a Christian school [and] you are learning all this liberal garbage?” Furthermore, all five participants indicated their parents viewed a literal interpretation of Genesis as a necessary condition for salvation. Rachel remarked, “I have been taught my whole life you can’t be both [a Christian and an evolutionist], that’s just not how it works.”

The emotional stress that many of these participants experienced in forming increasingly independent views about evolution in direct opposition to their parents cannot be overstated. Gail felt so pressured on the matter that she formulated her scholarly paper as a letter to her father. The genuine emotion of her plea merits quoting at length below. The title of her paper in Origins was “Dear Dad…” and the following are excerpts:

Dear Dad,
I am writing to explain to you what I have learned in my origins class this spring. . . . You and mom have always had a strong belief that God created the earth in six twenty-four hour days as outlined in Genesis one; however, probably much to your horror, this class has challenged that belief. Please keep in mind that this class never once challenged the existence of God. . . . It set out to explain how God created the earth.

Later in the paper, Gail implored her father, “Please do not question my walk with God.” She explained how theologians “consider Genesis one to be a Hebrew poem,” and that the “Bible was not written as a scientific journal.” Gail concluded her paper with,

Dad, I know this letter is probably discouraging to you – maybe someday I will be convinced otherwise, but this seems very logical and practical to me. I pray that you will not condemn me in your disappointment, but understand that it is not a contingent factor in my salvation… I pray you have at least been open to this letter and accepting of my stance.
Your Loving Daughter, Gail

Asked why she wrote the paper to her father, Gail responded, “I was . . . just trying to convince him that . . . I hadn’t gone off the deep end, [that] I wasn’t crazy.” Gail considered the paper as “a little therapy session getting everything I wanted to say to my dad out on paper and it just almost felt like I was relieving a burden.” In the two years since she completed the paper and during the time of the study, Gail still hadn’t given it to her father.

Changing Beliefs

A second source of anxiety for participants was a developing awareness that some of their long-held beliefs were now beginning to change at the university. Many participants did not realize that a Christian could accept evolution until they arrived at the study site university.

For some participants, it was a complete shock to see a professor present evolution in the Zoology classroom. Stephanie described her evolution encounter in freshman Zoology as the “most upsetting time” in her college experience, and her “defining moment of . . . being challenged.” She recounted, “I was sitting there and she [the Zoology professor] started talking about it and I was just floored that she could believe in evolution. I was like, ‘You call yourself a Christian and you believe in evolution?!’ [her voice elevated and sounding incredulous]” Stephanie continued, “I remember walking out of that class so angry. I can still remember how angry I was.” Reflecting on her experience, Stephanie offered “disgusted” as a “good word” for how she felt.

Ashley said that learning about evolution “was a culmination of your thoughts for so many years being shattered and then you’re picking pieces here and there and adding your own.” She expressed a personal sense of shock in first learning that a Christian could accept evolution. A look of exasperation came over Ashley’s face when she reflected on that new realization her sophomore year when a guest lecturer spoke on campus about evolutionary creationism. With a laugh of incredulity, she said,

Now do you see what I mean about being blindsided or bombarded with things that for 18 or 19 years you’ve held true? I mean, to me, it’s almost like for 23 years believing that my mom and my dad are my parents and then one day, them saying, ‘No, you’re adopted.’ That’s kinda like what it was to me. Just this truth for so long and then you’re just like, ‘What?!’ That’s how out of the blue it was to me.

Stephanie’s and Ashley’s reactions of anger and shock were apparently provoked by a sudden, unacknowledged fear that a belief they had held so strongly for most of their life was suddenly overturned. As was true with many participants, Stephanie and Ashley realized for the first time that a Christian could accept evolution.

Many participants reported that the process of coming to an acceptance of evolution was journey-like and took several years. Some who learned about evolution in their freshman Zoology class didn’t resolve the issue in their minds until their junior or senior year. In many cases, the process was a slow accumulation of scientific evidence from various science courses. Many participants reported that Origins was a semester-long process of working through perceived conflicts. Ashley described her experience in the course: “There you were, a whole semester, just basically ripping your hair out about where you stand.”

Some participants mentioned they had “a-ha” moments along the journey. A few participants encountered a new perspective in a lecture or in a book, and their ideas about evolution and personal religious beliefs suddenly found greater clarity in the context of each other. However, these advances were steps along an extended journey. Many participants indicated that the process was a tug-of-war experience. They were pulled back and forth in deciding what scientific aspects to accept and how their religious beliefs would mesh with that new scientific acceptance. The comments of Ashley illustrate the struggle:

I wanted to please both sides of myself. I wanted to please the science part of me but I also wanted to be true to the faith part of me and I wanted to get right in the middle and make sure both were alright and sometimes it’s not possible.

Later in her interview, Ashley also remarked, “I felt like you’d get three steps ahead and you’d be ‘Alright’ and then five back! . . . And it was just a constant thought process . . . about where do I stand on this new issue.”

Jennifer joked about trying to find closure on human evolution saying, “When it [the Bible] says man was created instantaneously, one [evolution] says man was created over time, that was hard, but we eventually worked that one out.” Asked what she meant by “we,” Jennifer laughed and offered as an explanation, “Well me, myself, and I.” Her joke implies the internal, contentious, decision-making process to which many participants similarly alluded. Throughout many participants’ recollections was an undercurrent of anxiety in becoming aware that some of their religious beliefs were changing for the first time.

In the midst of the struggles, four factors appeared to be constructive for these participants in their acceptance of evolution. Next week, part 3 in this series focuses on those four factors.


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.

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