What Do Most Christians Really Believe About Evolution?
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.
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.