How To Talk to Family About Evolution

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We are fortunate that Bill Nye’s upcoming debate with creationist, Ken Ham, did not take place before the Christmas holidays. Why? Well, many of us celebrate the holidays with family – the one unit of human society whose solidarity transcends the tribalism of everyday life. We sit and eat next to an uncle or a sister with whom we disagree on a great many things. Avoidance, rather than engagement of, ongoing political, societal, and religious issues is very often the best way to enjoy that time, a time many of us have traveled so far to cherish.

So when it comes to evolutionary theory and the family members we love dearly, but disagree with, the concern increasingly becomes “How do I relate to people for whom I have great love, but also great differences?”

The question balloons when evolution is demonized from the pulpit, caricatured in the small group, and misrepresented in the classroom. We who accept evolution as God’s method for creation find ourselves biting our tongues all too often in these encounters, sometimes more than once in the same encounter. And then there are the times we don’t bite our tongue – from a frustrated sigh, to a snide remark, and all the way to a full-blown argument. Either way, discussions involving evolution are not easy to have in the American religious landscape, much less around the family dinner table.

For many of us, the evidence for evolution is just too compelling to ignore. Yet, upon accepting evolutionary theory as a more settled explanation of origins, it can be difficult to look back on the teachers, friends, and family who taught us otherwise without shades of contempt. What do we do when our communities of origin, which gave us so much life and spiritual direction, cease to inspire our trust on basic issues of science and faith? Richard Rohr’s Second Half to Life approach has been instrumental in helping many to resist the temptation of reverse antagonism towards the communities that we emerged from. James Fowler’s seven stages of faith and human becoming have helped many navigate the path of maturation and how to graciously engage those we have come to disagree with but with whom we are still intimately entwined – family, life-long friends, ministry partners, spouses, etc.

Evolutionary theory is not just an explanation of human origins, but is also a new epistemological paradigm – a way of thinking about reality. Examples of this abound: Robert Bellah’s latest great work, Religion in Human Evolution, set out to find the origins of religion in biological and cultural evolution. Robert Gnuse, in his book, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, argues that punctuated equilibria, (a theory in evolutionary biology which posits that change occurs not steadily, but in brief episodes after long periods of stasis) can also be used to explain cultural evolution, historical development, and more specifically the religious development of Israel’s faith in the ancient Near East. Evolutionary theory, for Gnuse, has moved from the biotic realm to the abiotic, and for many it is offering answers beyond its original biological scope. (345)

One of the difficulties with adopting a new way of thinking is the rupture that occurs in moving from one paradigm to another. Many times, when that transition has been made, we tend to look back on our forebears with pride, disdain, or just plain frustration. But because accepting evolutionary theory for the first time does require us to reconsider and reframe other aspects of our cultural and spiritual beliefs, we must be more caring about the way we interact with those who remain in disagreement with us. As much as we might want evolution to be about accepting the evidence alone, it is about so much more. For many of us, we needed to look not only at the evidence, but also at the walls of our paradigm, before deciding to step outside them.

Jim Carrey, acting the role of Truman Burbank in the 1998 hit film, The Truman Show, deserved our compassion, not our disdain. His life, lived in front of billions yet without his knowledge, wasn’t something that we as viewers felt a need to castigate or make fun of. Rather, when Truman finally found out that he was living in a fabricated world with walls, he found his way out. Each of us watching him step through to the outside world expelled a sigh of relief. The catch was, he had to discover this other world for himself. Immediately, we could all think of someone who is living a similar sheltered life – and yet none of us thought of ourselves as the ones being sheltered.

In the same way, we like, Truman Burbank, encounter times in our life when we realize the need to let go of a paradigm that had previously given us meaning, identity and belonging. While we may recognize new benefits that come with the needed change, we can struggle to look back with charity on the benefits our previous community provided us. While Truman had been deceived his whole life, that is rarely the case with those who have historically rejected evolutionary theory. Most times, they believe that by opposing evolution, members of their community are benefitted. While that perspective can no longer be accepted by those of us who have embraced evolutionary theory, there are still benefits we can be thankful for as we look back. As such, our own evolution can provide us with charitable gratitude for where we’ve arrived as well as where we’ve come from.

Evolutionary theory is a paradigm of thought and action. It calls us to compassion, not castigation, to being compelling, not to being correct, to being faithful, not to fighting. So when we share our newfound convictions regarding evolution with Christians who don’t accept this direction, we must remember we are talking to family, not just friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc.

It also tells us that we may have more walls to breach even as we peer back on those we’ve already breached. For those who are compelled by the evidence of evolutionary theory, we should also be compelled by the ethics of human development. We need to not only emerge from communities who may now struggle to trust us, but to also be people whose ethics have evolved such that we embrace those communities with charity. We do that with our family by being compelling, being compassionate, being faithful and embracing the challenge of new paradigms rather than fearing them. And God willing the evidence will do the rest.

“Would to God that all the party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot, and that we might all agree to sit down together as humble loving disciples, at the feet of our common master, to hear his word, to imbibe his Spirit, and to transcribe his life in our own!” —Charles Wesley in Wilber T. Dayton, “Infallibility, Wesley and British Wesleyanism,” in Inerrancy and the Church, ed. John D. Hannah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 244 as quoted in Kenton Sparks, God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Scholarship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 374.



About the Author

Steven M. Smith

Steven M. Smith earned a B.S. degree in Geology/Chemistry from Olivet Nazarene University in 1981 and an M.S. degree in Geology (specializing in Exploration Geochemistry) from the Colorado School of Mines in 1985. He has worked as a Mineral Exploration Geochemist and Environmental Geochemist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado since 1982. This work has included mineral resource assessments of U.S. National Forests, BLM Wilderness Areas, and Indian Reservations; research in new geochemical exploration methodologies; and geochemical studies on the impact of mineral deposits and mining in the environment. Steve’s projects have involved fieldwork in remote mountains and wild places from Alaska to Mexico and from Virginia to California. Currently, Steve is the Project Chief for the USGS National Geochemical Database. Steve has served 21 years as the NMI president in his local church and currently serves as Worship Leader.

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