Evangelical Parallel Universes
99 percent of professional biologists think humans evolved, but half of white Evangelicals think scientists are generally in disagreement about evolution. What explains this discrepancy?
Before You Read
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I grew up in the 80s. One summer then, I was on a crew of three high school kids who washed and waxed all the school buses for our school corporation. One of the guys had a jam box (remember those?) playing all day long tuned to the Top 40 station in our area. So now when one of my local radio stations has their “All 80s weekend” music playing, I can’t help amazing my kids (that’s not the term they’d use) by singing along to every song that comes on. I often say about 80s pop music, “It’s not good music, but it’s my music.”
That’s only partly true, though, as there was a parallel universe of music in the 80s that was also my music: Christian rock music. And we Christian kids were strongly encouraged to stay away from “secular” music—remember, that was the era of backward masking that contained subliminal messages contrary to Christian values. So I belonged to a Christian cassette tape club and listened to a lot of White Heart, Petra, and Mylon LeFevre, as well as some of the less mainstream “alternative” Christian music my friends and I would hear at the Cornerstone Music Festival each summer (like my still-to-this-day-favorite-band-of-all-time, The Choir).
Some of these bands (though certainly not all of them) were composed of talented musicians who were able to copy the music of the secular world and replace the lyrics with what were thought to be Christian-friendly versions. Petra even had some backward masking on their song “Judas’ Kiss” that said, “Why you looking for the devil when you should be looking to the Lord?”. My friends and I thought it was awesome that they were taking the methods of the secular music business and transforming them with their positive message.
Aside from the times like my summer of bus washing, where we were forced to be in the “world”, Christian kids like me were encouraged to stay in the parallel universe of Christian music. I completely understand the motivation of the adults to keep us in that universe, as it reinforced the things we were taught in church and youth group. But the problem with a parallel universe is that it becomes very ingrown and insulated from the rest of the world. Things start to make sense there that wouldn’t stand half-a-chance of being seen as reasonable in a broader context. Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I’ll dig up some of my old music on Spotify, and usually I’m disappointed with the quality of music.
You might see where I’m going with this. There are a few scientists (and I mean very few, relatively speaking, as we’ll see in a bit) who copy some of the methods of secular scientists and spin the “lyrics” in a way that is more faith-friendly (at least according to them). This has created a parallel universe of science within evangelicalism, that is hugely ingrown and insulated. The result is a version of science that is a pale imitation of what goes on in the vast majority of research institutions in the world. And that version is accepted as a legitimate contender in the marketplace of ideas.
We’ve referred before to the Pew Survey on Americans’ attitudes about science. I’ve been digging a little deeper into some of the results, and I think this shows the parallel universe phenomenon in stark relief. Here is question #18 from the survey that was asked to some 2000 American adults:
Q.18 From what you’ve heard or read, do scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time, or do they not generally agree about this?
29% of Americans answered that question negatively. That is to say, 29% of Americans think that scientists do not generally agree on human evolution. But then when you limit that to regular church-goers (defined as those self-reporting that they attend church at least weekly), that number goes up to 39%. And then when you confine the results even further to white Evangelicals, the number is 49%. Remember, this is not asking whether you yourself accept evolution, but rather whether you think scientists generally accept it. Half of American white Evangelicals believe that scientists do not generally agree that humans have evolved. The problem is that such a belief has no basis in reality.
When Pew asked the same question (Do you believe humans have evolved over time?) to the scientists themselves, 98% said yes. And when that number is restricted to scientists with a PhD in biological or medical fields, that moves to 99%. So half of us Evangelicals think there is not much agreement among scientists about evolution, but the scientists are just about as unanimous as you can get about it.
Evolution-denying groups often make a big deal about all of us using the same facts but just interpreting them differently depending on our presuppositions. This polling data seems to show an instance where the presuppositions result in a denial of facts. It is remarkable to me that this illusion of scientific controversy can be maintained among followers of the Truth. We do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in Christ when we allow it to be perpetuated. Of course truth is not determined by popular vote, but it ought at least to give us pause when 99% of the people who know a certain field the best accept the broad strokes of the theory of evolution. Yes, they disagree over some of the particulars of the mechanisms by which it happened, but not that it did happen (including the common ancestry of humans with the other life on the planet).
There is room to disagree with evolution on theological grounds—that’s a field where experts really are divided on the topic (though of course we think their theologizing ought to consider God’s book of Nature as well). But don’t go invoking science to call evolution into question. Or at least be up-front and honest enough to say, “I know that 99% of the trained professionals in this discipline disagree with me, but it is my considered opinion that they are all wrong.” I’m not suggesting this will persuade all Christians to accept the science of evolution, but it might help in getting us to live in the same universe.
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Charles Foster | Inhabit the World