Required Reading: Who’s Afraid of Evolution?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.  I started this blog when I discovered many of my secular, liberal friends and family shared my ignorance about the complexities of life in Fundamentalist America.  One academic acquaintance once asked me regarding young-earth creationists, “What’s wrong with these people?”  She didn’t mean to be patronizing, but she dismissed a huge group of Americans with one sarcastic comment.

As we’ve noted here before, American creationists embrace a wide variety of beliefs.  Calling oneself a “creationist” doesn’t necessarily mean one believes in a six-thousand-year-old planet, or a literal six-day creation.  But it might.

Venema. Image source: Trinity Western University

Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University recently shared some of his experiences teaching evolution at an evangelical Protestant university.  Writing on The BioLogos Forum, Venema discusses the thrill he experiences when he shares his evidence for evolution with his evangelical students.  As he describes, some of his students resist accepting the evidence.  Even when they do recognize the power of chromosomal similarities, students still reach individual conclusions about how this science impacts their faiths.

Venema’s reflections demonstrate the complexities of creationism within the borders of Fundamentalist America.  We outsiders must be careful not to lapse too glibly into a simple evolution/creation binary.

As Venema relates,

“For me personally, the most difficult circumstances to watch are students who feel torn between the evidence and their faith. In some cases these are extremely bright students, who easily see the strength of the evidence, but feel the need to remain unengaged and uncommitted because they fear a backlash from their churches, or (especially) their parents.  While an evangelical university can be a wonderful, safe environment for students to explore these issues, that environment doesn’t follow them home. These struggles are painful to watch, and I’ve spent more than a few hours in prayer for students facing them.”

This experience is different at an evangelical university than it would likely be at a mainstream school.  For starters, the assumptions about students’ home lives would not be the same.  No matter how caring and sympathetic a professor might be at a mainstream college, he or she would not likely assume that evolution would cause such struggles for his or her students.

Students who learn about evolution at my institution, for example, would do so under the auspices of David Sloan Wilson’s EVoS program.  This is a wonderful and powerful academic experience for undergraduates.  But the students in the program generally assume that anyone who does not embrace the science of evolution is trapped somehow in a bizarre and archaic subculture.  My chat about the intellectual culture of creationism with a group of bright and talented students in the EVoS demonstrated the intense secular bias of the program.  (You can listen to a podcast of that conversation here.)

As Venema continues, at an evangelical college, the situation is vastly different.  Many students come from churches and families in which the word “evolution” has long been associated with every sort of rank sin.  At Venema’s school, for instance,

“evolution matters. That intensity of student engagement is invigorating, and the students feel it too. Regardless of where students ultimately decide to “land” on the issue, many report that they enjoyed the process – the exchange of ideas, the discussions and debates, and the new understandings gained.”

So who’s afraid of evolution?  Many of my secular friends and family would likely assume that students at evangelical colleges are taught simply to hate and fear the truths of modern science.  As Venema shares, the real experience is a much more complicated thing.

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