The Missionary Supposition

Is evolution a religion?  Are its teachers missionaries?

That has long been the accusation by some conservative religious folks.  The godfather of today’s young-earth creationist movement, Henry Morris, insists that it is.

Given that history, it is with trepidation and full humility that I’ve argued recently in the pages of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education that evolution educators might learn something from religious missionaries.

I want to be as clear as I can about this: I do not think that evolution is a religion.  I do not think evolution educators should consider it their job to “convert” young people to an evolutionary worldview.

But I do think evolution educators have been plagued historically by an attitude that creationism is simply an absence of something, a lack of knowledge about evolution.  To be sure, thoughtful evolution educators have long avoided that trap.  The folks at the National Center for Science Education, for instance, have made a strong case that we need to understand creationism if we want better evolution education. 

The attitude of many evolution educators throughout history, however, has been that creationists must simply not know enough about evolution.  Once creationists hear the truth, according to this line of thinking, they will hop on board the evolution train.

Ironically, that understanding of creationism and evolution teeters perilously close to the attitude among many early religious missionaries.  The Bible, many Protestant missionaries believed, contained such powerful, supernatural power that it would be instantly embraced by heathens worldwide.  All missionaries had to do was spread the Word.  Indeed, this faith in the transformative power of Gospel text remains strong among groups such as the Gideons and the American Bible Society.

But most religious missionaries these days understand that conversion needs more than just the Gospel.  Many conservative Protestant missionaries insist that the home cultures of local groups must be studied thoroughly and lovingly by would-be Bible missionaries.  Without that sort of preparation, real missionaries insist, evangelization is a waste of time, and may even be what one missionary writer called “evangelical toxic waste.”

What do I suggest?  I argue in my RNCSE essay that evolution educators need to spend more time understanding creationism.  If we really want to teach evolution in the United States, we need to do more than just spread the word.  We need to spend time learning about the cultures that refuse to believe evolutionary theory.

We need to study history, anthropology, and religion in addition to biology, geology, and genetics.  Awkward as it might be to admit, one “-ology” that evolution educators have ignored to their peril is missiology.


Leave a comment


  1. Donna

     /  November 24, 2013

    On the bottom of page 4 you mention creationism being a hostile belief system. What all do you mean by it being hostile?

    • Donna,
      By “hostile,” I meant that those who believe in various types of creationism often view evolutionary science as a theological threat. If children believe in evolutionary science, some creationists contend, those children may begin to veer away from religious faith and into a materialistic view of the universe, one in which humanity was not created by a loving God but rather evolved from single-celled organisms without an ultimate purpose. Therefore, some creationist parents teach their children to view evolution as a threat, just the way I teach my kid to view strangers as potential threats. Kids from those environments might certainly feel hostility toward evolutionary ideas.
      That’s all I meant. Many young creationists are not simply unaware of evolutionary ideas. Rather, they have been taught–in various ways, to be sure–that “evolution” represents a vital danger. Unlike my younger self, who had no such hostility toward evolutionary ideas, some kids enter classrooms, museums, etc. with a notion that “evolution”=damnation.


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