So, Do You Believe in Evolution?
“So, do you believe in evolution?” I get this question all the time. I get it from my students, from the parents of my students, from my friends and from my colleagues. I’m tempted to respond (and to be honest, sometimes I have) “No, I believe in Jesus and I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but I don’t even ask myself whether I “believe” in evolution – that’s just not a sensible question.” For me, the phrase “believe in” is very similar to the phrase “to have faith in”, and I don’t think of evolutionary theory as something that one can or should “have faith in.” However, what my glib response misses is the very real dynamic that some people have had their faith shaken by assumptions about evolutionary theory. So in my better moments, I try not to be glib, and I try to really explain how I have come to reconcile my beliefs as a Christian with my understanding of evolutionary theory.
Where I usually end up (after a long dialogue) is with these two simple (but I think profound) propositions: 1) God did it. And 2) I really don’t know how. But how have I arrived at such a position of enlightenment (and what do I really “believe” about evolution?)? To answer these questions I need to provide a brief sketch of my faith journey and my intellectual/academic journey which have generally run on parallel tracks throughout my life.
The first time I remember probing a matter of Science-Faith integration was when I was about six years old. I asked my mom “If Adam and Eve were the only people God made – who did Adam and Eve’s sons marry (not their sisters, right? – YUCK!)?” My mom couldn’t answer my question, and I still haven’t answered it to my satisfaction. However, I survived this intellectual crisis as a youngster by applying my two previously mentioned propositions. God certainly was the one who created the human race, but apparently, having such faith didn’t also require having all the answers. After all, my mom seemed to believe the biblical story even though she couldn’t explain everything.
The next significant step in my faith journey happened while I was in college. Although I considered myself a Christian, my faith really didn’t impact the way I lived, let alone how I thought about intellectual matters. Then two things happened that forever changed my approach to faith. First, a traveling evangelist appeared on campus. I don’t remember his name or his denomination, but he asked me a question that got me thinking: “If you died tonight, do you know with certainty where you would spend eternity?” For various reasons, my life was in a state that made me receptive to that question. He also directed another question to me and my friend Tom, both biology majors: “How can you believe in that evolution stuff? Can’t you see that God’s the Creator, and not some random process called evolution?”
I remember this question for two reasons. First, because even though the evolutionary explanation made sense to me, I didn’t let this apparent conflict prevent me from taking a step of faith. Second, because I perceived that this conflict did make it harder for my friend Tom to take that same step of faith. Tom was a hard-core biologist and his reaction was very negative. The way he saw it, to become a Christian meant that he would have to “turn off his brain” – and when it came to biology, there was no way that he’d do that. I lost touch with Tom after college, so I don’t know how things ended up for him, but it causes me great sadness to think that he may have missed out on life in Christ because he was confronted with what I believe was an unnecessary choice.
The second thing that shaped my faith during college was that I was befriended by a group of students from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. These folks were Christians and they definitely didn’t keep their religion separate from the rest of their lives. They actually read the Bible and tried to apply it to their lives. And instead of asking me how I could believe in “that evolution stuff,” they welcomed me into their lives and showed me love. The traveling evangelist got me thinking about my eternal destination, and these folks modeled a way that I wanted to live my life here and now. The result was that I dedicated my life to God.
When I entered graduate school I continued to nurture my new commitment to God by attending a “Bible Church,” meeting with other Christians in small groups, and reading books and articles about Christian faith. It was a time of wonderful spiritual growth for me, but also a time of some spiritual/intellectual confusion. When it came to understanding how my chosen profession, biology, related to my faith, I got a lot of mixed and/or negative messages. Thankfully, God provided Chuck, a mentor who helped me to understand some of the complexities of relating science and faith. Chuck taught me that both science and theology are human endeavors, and therefore, both are sometimes flawed – and this can lead to apparent conflicts. But he also explained that the subjects of those two disciplines, the created order and the Scripture, are both works of God and should therefore ultimately be compatible.
After graduate school I needed a job. I applied for positions at various institutions and I received invitations for four interviews; one was at Wheaton College. Though I’d known nothing of Wheaton during my early years, I’d come to hear quite a bit about it since entering the world of “Evangelicalism”. It was (so I was told) “the Harvard of the Christian Colleges”. Though I was rather intimidated about the interview, and I was fairly sure that I didn’t have the necessary credentials, I ended up getting the job!
When I look back on my interview this seems to have occurred despite the lack of sophistication in some of my responses. My response to one question specifically stands out in my mind. An administrator asked me how I accounted for the many physiological similarities between humans and other primates. My response was based on something that I’d read in a tract about evolution. I asked this administrator if he knew that the creator of the VW beetle and the Porsche roadster were one and the same person (Mr. Porsche of course) and that he had used components from the VW to make the first Porsche. The administrator didn’t know that bit of trivia, but he saw the connection between my story and his question, and this bit of hand-waving was enough to get me off the hot seat. (This illustration was actually more compelling in those days, but as I’ll mention below, insights from the genome projects make it less compelling now.) From that day on, I’ve continued to learn and teach, and then learn some more, about biology, and about the connections between science and faith.
A defining moment in my career at Wheaton came early in my tenure when I thought that I would lose my job because of what I “believed” (or rather, because of what I was uncertain of) regarding evolution. That moment came when a new president, Duane Litfin, took the helm of Wheaton College. Dr. Litfin took his new responsibilities seriously, and he wanted to ensure that Wheaton was still holding Scripture in a place of high authority. Among other things, he wanted to know what the Wheaton science faculty believed about evolution. After a series of discussions with the science faculty, Dr. Litfin concluded that there were a range of possible options regarding beliefs about human origins and that some of these were not compatible with Wheaton’s statement of faith. At one end of the spectrum (highly compatible with the statement of faith) was a view that completely rejected evolution as having played any role in human origins; at the other extreme (incompatible with the statement of faith) was a view that rejected that the biblical description of human origins is in any way factual. I found myself somewhere in the middle. I honestly couldn’t say that I knew with certainty how God created humans, and that view was also deemed incompatible with the statement of faith. My tenuous situation continued for some time, but eventually Dr. Litfin softened his position and allowed for the possibility that a faculty member could be uncertain about exactly how God did it.
The events at Wheaton described above occurred in the early 1990s, and in today’s world, the 1990s are ancient history. This is certainly true with regard to debates about human origins. Two developments have occurred since then that have dramatically changed the landscape. First, the “genome projects” have highlighted the incredible genetic similarity that exists between humans and other organisms. And second, the rise of the “New Atheists” (authors like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris) has revived the notion that science and faith are at war and that science is winning.
The primary result of the genome projects is that it is not as easy to explain away the similarities between humans and other organisms as it once was. For example, it is no longer simply a question of physiological similarities between humans and chimps, but also a question of striking genetic sequence identities. My old analogy of using parts from one car to build another becomes meaningless now that we know that at least 95% of the (genetic) parts are identical. With such a huge number of identical parts, the situation seems more similar to a car-maker bringing out a new model of last year’s version than making two separate cars. Furthermore, many of the genetic similarities occur in genes that no longer appear to function because of mutations, and which have been interpreted as relics of evolution by mainstream science.
The impact of the New Atheists is revealed most poignantly to me in a few recent conversations I’ve had with students. These students say that they’ve lost their faith because they can no longer accept both the findings of science (which they regard as true) and the claims of religion. Whether these students cite the influence of individuals like Dawkins or not (and some do), clearly the arguments of such writers have become part of the cultural milieu in which they find themselves. While these writers are persuasive, what many readers fail to see is that they misuse the authority of science (the study of the natural world) to claim that belief in the supernatural is irrational. I feel similarly about these students as I do about my college friend Tom. It breaks my heart to think that they have been confronted with a false choice and for this reason have abandoned their faith.
So where does all this leave me and what, after all, do I believe about evolution? My primary response is to repeat my two basic propositions: 1) God did it. And 2) I really don’t know how. Though these two phrases are brief and simple, they summarize several key ideas that shape my faith and my thinking.
The first is the idea of Faith – God did it. I believe this proposition not because science has demonstrated it, but because I have faith. What I see in the world around me can lead me to faith, but no finding of science can ever demonstrate to me that my faith is justified… that is exactly why it’s called faith.
A second idea that undergirds my two propositions is that theology and science are two different but equally valid ways of understanding the world. As human inventions both sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions and sometimes to apparent conflicts. However, since both theology (the study of Scripture) and science (the study of the Creation) focus on different works of God, the ultimate answers found by both should be compatible.
Finally, the two propositions suggest specific roles for the Church in its interaction with science and particularly with the theory of evolution. The primary role of the Church is to glorify God. A significant way to do this is to recognize and recount what he has done in Creation. Another role of the Church is to care for God’s creation, which requires an understanding of it. Both of these roles suggest that Christians should embrace the sciences as a way of doing God’s will. A third role of the Church is to reconcile people to God – and though it’s less obvious, an embracing of science is needed here too.
While I have known of many people who have been driven away from the Church by controversies related to evolution, I do not personally know of anyone who has embraced Christianity primarily because they were persuaded to reject evolution. While evolutionary theory can be used to support an atheistic explanation for how the world came to be, it does not require that perspective. Why should rejection of evolutionary theory be considered a litmus test for Christian faith? It is time for Christians to agree about what we “believe” about evolution – not that we would agree about how God did it (that will never happen!) but we should agree that evolution is an acceptable option.