Teaching Evolution to Christians

Young Christians don’t know much about evolution.  As a result, they are either turning away from the faith or embracing a distorted hellfire theology.

That’s the diagnosis, anyway, from two academics at Bryan College.  Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner describe the problem of teaching evolution to young people who have spent their youth in Christian schools, nervous public schools, or Christian homeschools.  Eisenback, an entomologist, and Turner, an Old-Testament scholar, offer a new curriculum that promises to teach real evolutionary science without pushing students away from the faith or into bad theology.

As the authors describe, too many of their Christian students have faulty understandings of evolution.  As they put it,

If they were taught anything about evolution, students were often told that evolution is a component of an atheistic philosophy that aims to disprove God and undermine the authority of Scripture. For many, evolution was not a substantial component of their education; instead, more time and effort was spent on anti-evolution arguments. When these students are confronted with the evidence for evolution from multiple scientific disciplines, they are often shocked by the scope of evidence and react by wondering if their faith is still legitimate. They have often been taught that a Christian who holds a high view of Scripture rejects evolution, and Christians are obligated to interpret Genesis in a particular way. When they learn about evolution in a college biology classroom, they may feel their faith threatened or called in to question.

As a result, Eisenback and Turner explain, students often reject their home faith in toto or they hold their faith tighter and learn to feel suspicious toward mainstream science.  Whether they go to school in Christian schools that use curricula such as the Apologia series, or they go to pusillanimous public schools that tend to downplay evolutionary science, too many Christian students get only a distorted echo of real science, Eisenback and Turner point out.

Their solution?  A BioLogos-funded curriculum that will teach evolutionary science thoroughly and respectfully, yet do so in a profoundly Christian context.  Their curriculum will begin not with a primordial soup, but with the Old Testament.  It will include a broad range of ideas about life’s origins.  As Eisenback and Turner put it, they hope students will recognize the false dichotomy too often given between “atheistic evolution and young earth creationism.”

Will it work?  Will this curriculum help overcome the decades-long tension between evolution education and conservative evangelical belief?  Will students at Christian schools learn evolution better?  Will their faith be more durable when they encounter the compelling claims of mainstream science?

I wish Eisenback and Turner all the best.  As someone who hopes to see more and better evolution education in all kinds of schools, I strongly support efforts to bring good science into households that have, IMHO, been misled into believing that their faith won’t allow them to trust mainstream science.  But I can’t help but raise a couple of issues.

First, as many ILYBYGTH readers have taught me, there are intellectual and logical stumbling blocks to this approach.  In this as in many contentious issues, it ends up being simply dishonest at some point to mumble through some central concepts in the hope that “we can all just get along.”  For many evangelical Protestants, one such stumbling block is apparently the historicity of Adam & Eve.  Science demands a large genetic pool of original ancestors.  Many readings of the Bible demand an historical first pair.  Without that first pair and a real historical original sin, there is no need for salvation from Jesus, I’m told.  More than the age of the earth or the historicity of a global flood, this issue of sin and salvation are non-negotiable for many religious people.  How will this curriculum handle this stubborn intellectual conflict?

Second, though I do not know much about evangelical theology or genetics, I do know a thing or two about classroom teaching.  As an historian, I have seen, time after time, laments that America’s young people are not learning X or Y.  In most cases, the jeremiads about the state of student knowledge are followed up with grandiose plans to fix standards or textbooks.  Today’s huffapaloo about the Common Core Learning Standards, for instance, is based on deeply held assumptions that those standards are the most important way to fix or wound schooling, depending on one’s perspective.  But standards, textbooks, and curricula are not the most important determinant of learning.

As a teacher, I’ve learned to be skeptical about curricular panaceas.  I taught middle school and high school for ten years.  I’ve taught in a state university now for almost seven.  In all these teaching contexts, I’ve seen students go through identical curricula with wildly different results.  In other words, curricula/textbooks/syllabi/standards can be great, or they can be terrible, but either way, they will not determine student learning.  Don’t get me wrong: all other things being equal, good textbooks/standards/curricula are better than bad ones.  But good teachers, devoted parents, interested and engaged students…these are the things that make learning go on.  Without them, the best curricula are not going to produce great learning.  With them, bad curricula won’t get in the way.

Finally, we must also ask the $64,000 question: What about students in public schools?  They make up a vast majority of students.  Eisenback’s and Turner’s frankly theological curriculum could never be used in public schools without making a joke of the US Constitution.  But can there be a way to reach public-school students with evolutionary science when they live in communities that look askance at such things?

I’ll say it again: I hope Eisenback’s and Turner’s curriculum project takes off.  I hope students in Christian schools and Christian homeschools use their materials to see that questions of evolution are more complex than a stark choice between Darwin & hell on one side, and Jesus & bad science on the other.  But as Eisenback and Turner themselves would likely be the first to agree, these ambitions come with important roadblocks that must be overcome.

 

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18 Comments

  1. As far as a historical Adam, Christians that hold with Augustinian original sin need that. That view of original sin is the currently dominant one, but it’s far from the only interpretation. Most of the early church saw Genesis as mythological or metaphorical- writers like Iraneus have entire books about it (his writings on the sixth day are fascinating).

    Reply
  2. Donna

     /  December 17, 2013

    When I spoke with a Biology teacher from a public school, she told me that she does two lectures on evolution. One on geology and fossils and one on natural selection ( squirrels and the Grand Canyon). She goes by the state standard. I wonder how this would compare with what other science educators would say is an adequate education in evolution on a high school level.

    My sense, and I could be completely wrong, is that this curriculum will for the most part reach those who already agree with theistic evolution.

    Reply
    • Donna

       /  December 17, 2013

      (BioLogos curriculum)

      Reply
    • deuteroKJ

       /  December 19, 2013

      I’m one of the authors of the proposed curriculum. Our goal is to aim at a wider audience than TEs, and actually think more conservative types who are committed to education and able to get out of the culture-war mentality a bit will appreciate it. (In fact, we think this can serve as a supplemental resource for Christian families/schools who continue to use the more traditional Christian biology textbooks.) Naive? Maybe. But there’s worse things to attempt! BTW, I appreciate the spirit of this whole discussion (and I’m sorry to hear about Douglas E’s experience mentioned below).

      Reply
      • Donna

         /  December 19, 2013

        Thank you for commenting deuteroKJ. How do you and the other authors plan to reach beyond TEs both in Christian schools and to Christian homeschoolers? Also, besides teaching TE, what is the overall message you want to convey regarding the culture war?

      • deuteroKJ

         /  December 21, 2013

        Donna, if you read the description of our project (http://biologos.org/ecf/grantees/back-to-the-beginning) you notice that we are trying to lay out specific facts as objectively as we can without telling the reader what she ought to believe (thus, we are not “teaching TE” as your comment assumes). By “facts” I mean (1) the modern scientific consensus (including assumptions, evidence, weaknesses and/or remaining questions) in narrative form from Big Bang through human evolution; and (2) the consensus (or majority) opiniions on reading Genesis (in particular) from evangelical OT scholars (rather than systematicians, philosophers, scientists, or popular speakers/ministries). Only then will we summarize the major Christian options, providing strengths and weaknesses proponents of each should realize. We want evangelical Christian students, wherever they land on the “issue,” to know that (a) evolution comes with a lot of circumstantial evidence (which even many YECs agree with), (b) interpreting the beginning of Genesis (as a piece of ANE literature) is much more complex than normally assumed, and (c) evangelicals should consider this a big tent, in-house discussion. Understanding both science and biblical theology take time and patience…the kind of dispassionate inquiry not suited to culture war. Hope this is somewhat clear. We know this approach will not satisfy everyone, but we do think a certain segment of our intended audience will look back one day and thank us. Those who truly understand our specific context will hopefully appreciate our strategy.

  3. Thanks for this post Adam. You hit may nails on the head. A number of years ago, several of us [ranging from evangelicals to agnostics] put together a proposal for developing easily accessible resources for teachers and professors at public institutions to help them adequately respond to questions/challenges from Christian students. We know that most instructors are not particularly well-versed in Christian theology and not aware of the wealth of thoughtful writings that address the reality that evolution challenges a fair amount of Christian dogma. The idea was that when questioned, the instructor could direct the student to appropriate readings, from Polkinghorne to Aquinas. Templeton was very interested in funding the project, and after three revisions responding to the Foundations directives, they inexplicably said “sorry.”

    Then, after the founding of BioLogos, pretty much the same crew put together a proposal to develop science [particular evolution] curriculum for Christian schools. Again, Templeton was very interested – but – they then decided that our biblical scholar, Pete Enns, would not be an appropriate member of the team because he could not/would not be able to deliver an historical Adam and Eve. After all, Pete understands the science!! 🙂 So again, what I thought was a very good proposal stalled. It is thus interesting that the project is now at Bryan College, a pretty big step away from our academic homes: Pepperdine, Gordon, Point Loma, NCHPEG, etc. It has been interesting to note the migration of BioLogos from Francis, Karl G, et al in Washington DC, to Darrel F at Point Loma to Haarsma at Calvin.

    Just a note for your readers’ understanding – the money for the “BioLogos Grants” comes from the Templeton Foundation. The TF does not want to be the managers of such small grants, and thus BioLogos administers the program.

    Reply
  4. How ironic that Eisenback & Turner are trying this at Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, who fought to keep evolution out of the public schools!

    Reply
    • Great point. This is one of the main points I make in a new book about the history and philosophy of evolution education and its attendant controversies. Some folks say there has been a century-long “deadlock” over the teaching of evolution, but as you point out, positions have changed dramatically. Young-earth creationists these days insist on keeping children’s minds open by teaching more than one “theory” of origins, science pundits insist on more draconian policies to restrict creationist inroads in public schools, and Bryan’s heirs are leading the charge to teach evolution to evangelicals.

      Reply
  5. deuteroKJ [I am guessing Professor Turner?] – I am always available as a consultant! 🙂 I believe that in our first go-around, we got stranded in the no-man’s-land of the organizational shifts that occurred after Sir John died. The second time around, I believe that it was a concern that too many evangelicals would object.

    Good luck!

    ds

    Reply
    • deuteroKJ

       /  December 21, 2013

      We could use all the extra set of eyes we can. Perhaps we’ll check on your consulting fees 🙂 We hope to have a rough draft done by summer, then spend a year editing and gathering feedback (we’ve got some potential Christian school/homeschool groups willing to try out and discuss the material).

      Reply
      • dKJ – I recently put a bunch of BioLogos curriculum stuff in our recycle box, but was able to retrieve it. As part of our preparing for the curriculum project, we held several focus groups with hs biology teachers at xian schools and with homeschooling parents, and I have the transcripts. You are most welcome to have them – I believe that they might be somewhat helpful – and if you are interested, just send me an email at swartzendruber46@gmail.com

        doug

  6. Donna

     /  December 22, 2013

    deuteroKJ, sorry for making an assumption. It looks like an interesting curriculum. Thanks for the explanation.

    Reply
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