Evolution and Personal Faith: How Christian University Students Resolve the Conflict, Part 4
Holding Fast to the Bible
In the first three parts of this series, I described the factors that help Christian biology-related majors come to an acceptance of the truth of evolution while navigating the sometimes-incongruous messages they receive from two different sets of trusted older adults: their parents and believing university faculty. But just as important as how these students come to believe in evolution is how this new belief affects their continued lives of following Christ.
Our study’s findings have two messages for Evangelicals who are interested in better understanding how such students reconcile evolution and personal religious beliefs: first, the findings demonstrate that those who accept evolution can remain committed to their religious beliefs. In this study, an acceptance of evolution did not diminish participants’ view of God or the importance they placed on the Bible. Second, many believing biology-related majors seek wholeness and coherence in their lives by endeavoring to be true to both science and their religious beliefs. Each of these is discussed below.
Many proponents of Young Earth Creationism claim that societal acceptance of evolution leads to a moral breakdown of society (e.g., MacArthur, 2001; H. M. Morris, 1976). Ham (1999) claims that “evolutionary/long-age ideas totally undermine” the foundations of Christianity and lead students to seeing the Bible as “just an outdated religious book” (p. 27).
Theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism—the notion that God created through evolution—is also subject to these assertions of evolution’s inescapable dangers. Gitt (1995) warns, “The doctrines of creation and evolution are so strongly divergent that reconciliation is totally impossible. Theistic evolutionists attempt to integrate the two doctrines, however such syncretism reduces the message of the Bible to insignificance” (p. 51). Many participants in this study reported that their parents echoed similar declarations.
Contrary to these claims, however, the acceptance of evolution by participants in this study did not lead to a rejection of the Bible or a loss of personal religious beliefs. Instead, many participants said that their understanding and acceptance of evolution gave them a greater appreciation for God as Creator. For example, Megan wrote in her Origins scholarly paper as a junior, “At some point, I have to decide whether these ideas change my relationship with and/or my view of God. So far, God is still my Creator and my Savior, the One who is in charge of everything and that is all that really matters.”
When she was interviewed as part of this study a year later, Megan acknowledged that God could have created according to the Genesis account, but then rhetorically asked, “Why couldn’t He also do it this way [through evolution]?” She added, “There’s a lot more evidence to back up this claim [evolution]. . . . I just kinda realized maybe God could do it this way too and that just made Him even more powerful.”
Heather noted, “I see God through science, but it’s . . . understanding creation and understanding what He has done [that] makes God come alive.” Other students echoed these themes: Brittany said, “I didn’t think of God not being in it [evolution]. It made me think more of God in it. It made me think God is this amazing – how can He make such amazing creatures?!” In his Origins scholarly paper, entitled “Evolution: A Beautiful Way to Understand God,” Michael wrote,
Understanding these scientific theories give [sic] us a special way to see God. Learning scientifically about these areas only allows for a better understanding of God and His vast power in the amazing way He has created this universe.
No student expressed a disregard for the Bible. Instead, many noted that they had learned to approach the Bible with revised interpretive tools. John described his interpretive lens as “understanding how the Bible was written, and the purpose that it was written, and the audience that it was written to, and . . . their cultural understanding of science in their day.” Negotiating Genesis 1 and 2 as non-literal did not reduce participants’ respect for the Bible. Instead, many participants noted that the Bible was not meant to be a scientific textbook. Rather, the Genesis creation story, as Michael explained, “tells us why God created us, . . . why He wants us to live in relationship with Him and things like that. It tells us characteristics about God and things of that nature.”
Two Windows on Creation
Interestingly, our study’s findings contrast with others that explored university students’ attitudes on evolution in very different cultural contexts. Dagher and BouJaoude (1997) studied Lebanese Christian and Muslim biology majors, and Brem et al. (2003) conducted a survey of 135 university students at a major, public university in the Western United States. While these studies are discussed at more length elsewhere (Winslow 2008), it can be said that the attitudes about evolution in those settings was much more mixed—something that further underlines the importance of the Christian role-models discussed earlier in this series for helping students (even non-Christians) see the compatibility of evolution and Christian faith.
In our study, only one student rejected evolution. David vigorously defended Young Earth Creationism and used Intelligent Design arguments to dispute evolutionary theory. He also denounced evolution for what he perceived as its moral debasement and corrupting influence on societal values. In contrast, fourteen participants did not attach negative implications to evolutionary theory. Those who accepted evolution affirmed God’s role in the creation process while reiterating their own teleological purpose. They supported evolution as a practical mechanism for the creation of new species and rejected any association with a negative view of theodicy.
Clearly, then, Christian biology-related majors at a Christian university who accept evolution can persist in an abiding belief in God, a commitment to the Bible, a dedication to the Christian life, and a positive view of teleology and theodicy. Moreover, many of these students seek wholeness and coherence in their lives by endeavoring to be true to both science and their religious beliefs.
This sentiment is a rejection of two other possibilities: a creationist conflation of science and religion, and a complete isolation between science and religion. Indeed, most participants in this study recognized that creationism was an improper conflation of science and religion, and understood that altering science to fit a Biblical account of creation was a violation of scientific principles. Ignoring the overwhelming evidence for evolution was not an option for those students who were developing scientific habits of mind.
Still, while most recognized science and religion as separate and unique ways of knowing, they asserted that science and religion could and should interact in positive ways. In other words, science and religion were not completely isolated. Jennifer espoused such a position, claiming that science and religion are like two separate windows through which to view the world. What is observed through the science window is distinct from what is observed through the religion window because, as Jennifer noted, “religion is for the why and . . . what’s the purpose, . . . whereas science is the what and the how it works.” She also noted, “If you are looking at it [the world through these windows] to ask the correct questions, they might give you an answer that forms to create one big answer that complements with itself.”
In summary, these students asserted that science and religion are separate but positively interacting, and claimed that as long as a person maintained proper boundaries in their application of science and religion, conflicts between the two could be resolved.
On the other hand, many students expressed frustration that a proper view of the domains of science and religion was sorely lacking in the Evangelical community, as evidenced by what they heard from their parents and in their churches. Brittany was disappointed by those in the church who led her to believe in childhood that “Darwin’s bad, Darwin’s evil, evolution did not happen, there is no way, God did everything.” She added, “I guess that was . . . [my] biggest problem – thinking they were just telling me things that they didn’t know why they said it.” Michael voiced similar feelings:
I don’t know why the church is so scared of this stuff. . . . I think they’re getting better definitely, but there’s still people out there that just make up stuff because they’re scared that it’s going to change something – that the truth will change something. It . . . really frustrates me when growing up, . . . you pretty much get the idea of evolution is wrong and . . . the evidence they [scientists] make up is false.
Again, an Evangelical Christian may allege that this study’s participants are misguided in their understanding of the separate domains of science and religion and claim instead that religion always trumps science, that scientific findings are always subservient to Biblical explanations (e.g., Lubenow, 1978) and therefore, evolution is invalid. This type of thinking is what many participants lamented: antievolution dogma so rigid as to disallow the possibility that evolution may be God’s mechanism for creation.
Lives of Reconciliation
Finally, some critics of evolution might allege that the students who accepted it are not “real” Christians. However, the data show that they remained committed to their religious beliefs and to a Christian way of living, including Bible reading, praying, and attending church. Many sought to assure their parents that they hadn’t “gone off the deep end” in accepting evolution, as Gail described it. Gail said she wasn’t trying to convince her parents to accept evolution, but rather to have them understand her perspective. She expressed relief when she reported, “We [my father and I] have both come to an understanding and acceptance of each other’s opinions and . . . that doesn’t have to change our relationship, and that we can still respect each other even though we don’t agree on this . . . one topic.”
But the testimony of Rachel offers perhaps the most striking example of those who accepted evolution with a continued commitment to their Christian way of life, in stark contrast to the opinions of naysayers who would cast doubt on that possibility. In her interviews, Rachel shared about heated arguments with her father, a pastor in the same denomination as the study site university. Asked why her father was so concerned about her views on evolution, Rachel reflected,
I think he’s really concerned about my spiritual life and he wants me to stay on track with God and so I kinda tried to tell him you know, “I’m there and I’m walking and I’m praying and reading the Bible so it hasn’t affected me,” but it’s still, I think it’s hard for him to get out of that mindset. I think he’s afraid that it will kinda push me away from God instead of getting closer to Him.
While Rachel was home for the summer, her father placed some literature in their church foyer, which Rachel described as “little pamphlets on why evolution is stupid.” She finished the story,
I was like, “Dad, don’t put that in the church” and he was like, “Why not? I think it’s good that people know about it, know that evolution is wrong,” and I said, “No Dad, because people have different viewpoints and I don’t think just because a person is a[n] evolutionist doesn’t mean they aren’t a Christian.”
Rachel smiled as she recounted, “He took them down after a few Sundays. I was pleased.” She never asked him why. During her interview, Rachel indicated she was ready to stop arguing with her father about evolution and let him see how a Christian could accept evolution. She explained,
I’m just . . . taking a step back and letting him see how I’m walking through my Christian life and then maybe later on, he will be like, “Hey, are you still an evolutionist? Do you still believe that?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I still do both.”
Taking all the insights from this study together, it seems clear that if Evangelicalism is to remain relevant to—at the very least—Christian university students who understand science and religion as separate but positively interacting domains (e.g., those students described in the National Academy of Sciences study from 2008), then evangelical churches must more consistently provide role models for young people to see that science and religion, when properly understood, are not in conflict.
Perhaps more importantly for the life of the church, it is critical that Christian young people also see role models for seeking reconciliation between Christians who hold to different views. And while more study needs to be done in how such role models might also impact students at secular universities, it may be that messages of compatibility coming from evangelicals and other Christians will be a key in helping non-believing science students see Christian faith as a viable and attractive path for their lives, too.
Brem, S. K., Ranney, M., & Schindel, J. (2003). Perceived consequences of evolution: College students perceive negative personal and social impact in evolutionary theory. Science Education, 87(2), 181-206.
Dagher, Z. R., & BouJaoude, S. (1997). Scientific views and religious beliefs of college students: The case of biological evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(5), 429-445.
Gitt, W. (1995). 10 dangers of theistic evolution. Creation, 17(4), 49–51.
Ham, K. A. (1999). Evangelism for a new millennium. Creation, 21(2), 25–27.
Lubenow, M. L. (1978, November). Does proper interpretation of scripture require a recent creation? (Part II) [Electronic version], Impact, 65. Retrieved August 3, 2006, from http://www.icr.org/article/148
MacArthur, J. (2001). The battle for the beginning: The Bible on creation and the fall of Adam. Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group.
Morris, H. M. (1976). The Genesis record: A scientific and devotional commentary on the book of beginnings. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
National Academy of Sciences. (2008). Science, evolution, and creationism. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
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
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.