What Do Most Christians Really Believe About Evolution?

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July 15, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Dr. Joel W. Martin. 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.

What Do Most Christians Really Believe About Evolution?

You’d think we would know the answer to that question by now. The issue is hardly new, and it seems like we’ve been discussing it for more than 100 years. Which, actually, we have, given that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection was first published in 1859, to immediate outcries of both admiration and consternation. In fact, it’s been 85 years this month since the first legal case was aired in Dayton, Tennessee, convicting substitute teacher John Scopes of the heinous crime of teaching evolution in a public school setting. So we’ve had plenty of time to learn where everyone stands on the issue of creationism and evolution, plenty of time to explore the complexities and nuances of the relationship between faith and science.

But we live in a world that hungers for simple answers to complex problems. We Americans in particular seldom take the time to come to our own conclusions on complicated matters; we often defer to others to tell us what to do, how to feel, what to believe, how to think. I’m as guilty as anyone else here.

Rather than following a complicated regimen of exercise and diet, we look for a pill to help us lose weight. Rather than reading the president’s health plan, we want someone to summarize for us what’s wrong (or right) with it. Rather than studying the political landscape in detail, we rely on talk shows to find out how we should vote. Instead of increasing our science literacy, we adopt someone else’s take on cloning, or global warming, or the Gulf oil spill, or evolution. And there is no shortage of persons eager to step in to do just that, to distill the world’s major issues into simplistic terms.

Unfortunately, the result is that we sometimes hear, either from the pulpit, on the campaign trail, or in the classroom, that (1) scientists as a group are atheistic, or that (2) Christians as a whole reject (or should reject) evolution. Neither is true, of course. But what do most scientists believe, and what do most Christians believe?

Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and General Editor of Science magazine, recently addressed what scientists believe (see Leshner’s June 15 article in the Huffington Post, repeated the next day in the On Faith blog of the Washington Post).

Leshner’s comments were based on the results of an in-depth survey of nearly 1,700 leading U.S. scientists conducted by Rice University’s Elaine Ecklund. Among other findings of Ecklund’s survey, Leshner noted that “half of the top 1,700 U.S. scientists described themselves as religious.”

Even some of the scientists who described themselves as atheistic or agnostic in her survey also identified themselves as “spiritual.” And in follow-up interviews, very few (only 5 of 275) scientists described themselves as actively opposing religion. So scientists are not uniformly atheistic and are not, as a group, opposed to religion. In fact, it appears, based on the Ecklund survey, that the majority of scientists have at least some spiritual leanings. To Leshner, and indeed to most scientists, this finding comes as no surprise. There is nothing inherently anti-religious about science, despite a few comments to the contrary from both creationist and atheist camps.

But what about the other question: What do Christians really believe about evolution?

That question might be slightly harder to answer. Although it is relatively easy to determine whether or not someone is a scientist, it can be quite difficult to get a handle on who is, and who is not, a Christian. For example, according to one website, there are more than 40 definitions of the word Christian available.

It’s also hard to find accurate estimates of the numbers of Christians, as some groups do not keep membership statistics, and some groups have no national or international headquarters that keep such data. And it can be difficult to figure out what Christians, or their organizations or spokespersons, believe about science in general and evolution in particular; “how to deal with modern science” is not usually seen as one of the most pressing issues facing religious organizations today. But as a proxy, we can at least survey the major U.S. Christian denominations and see what they have to say about the topic.

As part of my recent book on science and faith written for Christian teens, teachers, and study groups (The Prism and the Rainbow, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), that’s what I did. I searched for statements about science, and particularly on evolutionary biology, from a fairly large number of the better-known Christian groups in the U.S.

The results might be surprising to those who see the world, or wish to see it, in simple black and white terms. Catholics and many Protestant Christian groups (e.g. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans (ELCA), United Church of Christ, and others) have statements of faith that show absolutely no problem with evolution. Some even have strong statements attesting to how an understanding of modern evolutionary biology even enriches their faith.

One example is this statement from the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church: “We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.” A similar sentiment was expressed by the Presbyterian Church USA during their 214th General Assembly (2002, Columbus, Ohio) in a statement that “Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator” (Resolution Item 09-08, 2, p. 495).

Additionally, the Episcopal Church passed the following resolution during their 75th General Convention in 2006: “Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith…” (Resolution A129: Affirm Creation and Evolution).

Admittedly a blunt tool, my informal survey, based largely on statements from denominational leaders or from the official web sites of these groups, serves to show us that many of the major Christian denominations in the U.S. accept evolution. Furthermore, many see evolution as an enhancement of their faith, a further demonstration and confirmation of what they believe.

For those who have seen the strength of the scientific evidence for evolution, and who believe that they are called by God to explore His creation, this result should be hardly surprising. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that believers are to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, and mind. In doing so, the practice of science inevitably brings them face-to-face with the reality of the creative process of evolution, revealed abundantly throughout nature. The strength of the scientific evidence convinces us that evolution, like gravity, is real. And just as is the case with gravity, it does not in any way threaten our faith.

It’s true that the single largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, appears to be adamantly opposed to understanding evolution, based on statements by its president, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (“There is no way for God to intervene in the process and for it to remain natural”). Baptists are not alone, of course. Strong anti-evolution statements also can be found in statements from the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland), the Seventh Day Adventists, and other more fundamentalist-leaning groups (see the Appendix in The Prism and the Rainbow). But despite its size, the Southern Baptists are actually outnumbered by the combined memberships of denominations that are accepting of evolution.

Perhaps a more surprising result from the survey is the indication that, although this is far from proven, those persons with a deeper, stronger education in theology – not science, but theology – are the ones most likely to understand and accept evolution as part of their faith. One example of this was the 1998 survey of the Presbyterian Church USA, where the statement “evolutionary theory is compatible with the idea of God as Creator” was agreed to by only 61% of the general membership but by 85% of the pastors. This seems to imply that although many church leaders tend to accept evolution, this acceptance does not seem to trickle down to the members of their congregations.

How common might this be? That is, how many pastors are actually accepting of evolution but are reluctant to reveal that fact to their congregation? If this situation is as widespread as I believe it to be, it would be very understandable. In their willingness and eagerness to open their arms and hearts to all who seek God, it is unlikely that the topic of biological evolution would ever be raised, either by the pastor or by someone seeking his/her advice and counsel. But maybe it’s time. After 150 years, that seems appropriate.


Dr. Joel W. Martin is Curator of Crustacea and Chief of the Division of Invertebrate Studies at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California and at UCLA. His research interests include the morphology, natural history, and evolutionary relationships of crabs, lobsters, shrimps, and their many relatives. His research has benefitted from more than 20 grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation, and he is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Martin is also an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, where he works with the high school youth ministry.


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John - #22859

July 21st 2010

Gregory:
“I wonder what you meant in #22696 by using the term ‘Christianists’?”

I mean those tribalists who emphasize the label “Christian” while rejecting Christ’s actual teachings. Theologically, when Jesus and Paul conflict or Jesus and the OT conflict, they choose Paul and the OT. I’m not saying that anyone here is necessarily one.

“Don’t fellow believers in Christianity usually refer to brothers and sisters as ‘Christians’?”

Yes.

“But as a congregationalist, you don’t count as one of these, right?”

RIght.

“p.s. yes, i know a fair bit about Sokal and the ‘hoax,’ which is likely what you’re referring to. Does discussion of him or it belong in this thread?”

You were asserting that the social sciences have things to say about science that scientists aren’t equipped to comprehend, were you not?
“Dr. Joel Martin has no training to express an educated opinion @ ‘evolutionism’ …” and “Dr. Martin has probably never read ..., has little knowledge of the arguments between anthropologists about ‘evolutionism’ in the first quarter of the 20th century. Why should I afford *any* value to his views @ ideology or ‘evolutionism’ in particular?”


Rich - #22860

July 21st 2010

John:

If you have a criticism of Meyer’s book, you should be stating it rather than dancing around it.  State what you take to be Meyer’s argument, and state what you take to be the defective parts of the argument.  Otherwise, grant what thousands of readers have already perceived—that Meyer has written a thoughtful book about the practical and theoretical difficulties of origin-of-life research and the nature of theorizing in the historical sciences.

But do this on another thread, not the one we are on, since it would be off-topic here.

I’m much more interested in hearing how you, as a Congregationalist “Christianist”, put together your Christian faith and Darwinian evolution.  After all, the theme of the thread is “what do Christians believe about evolution?”  Why not add your views to the statistics already gathered?


Rich - #22861

July 21st 2010

Ooops, I see that my posting overlapped with another one.  So John doesn’t call himself a “Christianist”.  He just calls himself a Christian.  Or maybe just a Congregationalist.  Either way, his views on evolution in light of his personal theology would be interesting.


John - #22862

July 21st 2010

Rich wrote:
“If you have a criticism of Meyer’s book, you should be stating it rather than dancing around it.  State what you take to be Meyer’s argument, and state what you take to be the defective parts of the argument.”

No, Rich, science is not some prissy high-school debate. It’s about producing new evidence. Why don’t you quit your job and produce some?

“…Meyer has written a thoughtful book about the practical and theoretical difficulties of origin-of-life research and the nature of theorizing in the historical sciences.”

Nice false dichotomy there! Is “A protein called peptidyl transferase…” a thoughtful statement?

“But do this on another thread, not the one we are on, since it would be off-topic here.”

Then you should direct your rage to Gregory, who brought up Meyer on THIS thread.

I’m much more interested in hearing how you, as a Congregationalist “Christianist”, put together your Christian faith and Darwinian evolution.”

I’m a Christian, as I place Jesus’s teachings above anything in the OT or from Paul. Genesis is poetry and metaphor.

So why would you claim that we Behe bashers have zero training/experience, if you are a Christian and you didn’t believe that?


Rich - #22866

July 21st 2010

John:

I made no claim about your training or experience in particular.  I made a general statement that there seemed to be a lot of people on the internet who were exaggerating their scientific knowledge and/or formal training, and it seems that you took it to apply to you.  But I was making a statistical generalization, not speaking of any individual in particular.

I find it unlikely that the hundreds of bloggers and commenters who daily and pseudonymously bash ID people on the internet have reached Behe’s level of training in biochemistry, Dembski’s in probability theory, Meyer’s in the philosophy of science, Sternberg’s in evolutionary biology, Denton’s in medical genetics, etc.  Yet that doesn’t stop them from fulminating angrily and saying what lousy scientists and charlatans all these guys are.

I have no idea what sort of scientific training you have.  Your manner of debate, however, is not the manner that I was brought up to associate with highly educated people, including scientists.  I expect, from Ph.D.s, more open-mindedness, the willingness to occasionally grant a point, and less sarcasm.  Also, you tend to speak in pop cliches.  How many times have you used “high-school debate” so far?


Gregory - #22870

July 21st 2010

“Your manner of debate, however, is not the manner that I was brought up to associate with highly educated people, including scientists.” - Rich

John, please take it with a grain of salt. I agree with Rich on this. I do not appreciate some of your words and accusations.

For example, Martin Rizley is *not* an ID supporter and yet you call him an IDC without hesitation.

Perhaps a measure of Christian grace could help lower the tone and add to the quality of the discussions?

“Then you should direct your rage to Gregory, who brought up Meyer on THIS thread.” - John

I’d admit my mistake if I had brought up Meyer in a thread having nothing to do with him. But it appears HornSpiel is the first to have mentioned him in this thread and that you discussed him here before I did.

Like Rich, I’d be interested to here you explain what you, as a Christian and/or congregationalist, really believe about evolution. Will you indulge us?

p.s. you don’t have to in my view discuss ‘Darwinian evolution,’ as Rich asks, because there are other ‘varieties of evolution’ as well, which could be implied in the title of this thread. But what are your views of eVo, other than ID(C) bashing?


John - #22887

July 22nd 2010

“For example, Martin Rizley is *not* an ID supporter and yet you call him an IDC without hesitation.

He’s not a creationist?

“Perhaps a measure of Christian grace could help lower the tone and add to the quality of the discussions?”

Perhaps, but then I’m probing for a measure of Christian faith and not finding any.

“I’d admit my mistake if I had brought up Meyer in a thread having nothing to do with him.”

But it wasn’t a mistake. It’s perfectly appropriate when assessing what Christians believe. So do you believe Meyer?

“Will you indulge us?”

I began to do so. Will you indulge me wrt Meyer, since Rich apparently has little faith in him? Then I’ll be glad to indulge you some more.

“p.s. you don’t have to in my view discuss ‘Darwinian evolution,’ as Rich asks, because there are other ‘varieties of evolution’ as well, which could be implied in the title of this thread.”

Good point, as much of what I’ve personally witnessed is non-Darwinian.

What amazes me is that I’ve done far more to test Dembski’s and Behe’s hypotheses (i.e., their assumptions falsely presented as fact) then either of them have in the course of pursuing completely different goals!


Roger A. Sawtelle - #22926

July 22nd 2010

The first problem that I see with this debate is that it is NOT science vs theology, but modernism vs postmodernism.  The reason why it has lasted so long without any real resolution is because both modernism and postmodernism have strong points and serious weaknesses.  It is not a question as to whether the glass is half empty or half full, but why it is not completely full.

Evolution as the process of change is fully compatible with Christianity, which is based on change from the old to the new.  On the other hand change is not compatible with philosophy which is based on absolute Being.  Evolution undermines the philosophical basis of our culture and faith.  Until this is addressed the isue cannot be resolved.

There is accumulating evidence that evolution does not correspond the way Darwin described it.  He did not foresee symbiosis as an important engine if not the engine for change.  Darwinists like Dawkins reject symbiosis because it threatens their postmodern world view.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #22927

July 22nd 2010

Those who want to improve the science of evolution need to explore the roles of symbiosis and adaption as opposed to conflict and chance in evolution.  The world is ready for a scientific revolution in that science.  Also check out the new theory of niche construction.

Also we need to develope a new intellectual basis for philosophy, science, and theology to take the place of traditional Greek thought


concerned mother - #53195

March 4th 2011

OK my 15 year old son is learning about evaluation in school and wishes to opt- out of this curriculum due to the teacher asking everyone if they really think GOD took a magical wand and made everyone now the school wants me to write a letter on why they should let him opt-out of this curriculum….i need help because my son is young and we believe very differently but i dont want to force my beliefs on him….HELP!!!


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