Atheists and Creationists Agree on This…

You know what they say about the middle of the road: you won’t find anything there but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. In the creation/evolution debates, the John Templeton Foundation has staked out some ground in that dangerous middle. And predictably, the only thing that fervent creationists and obstreperous atheists can agree on is that the Templeton Foundation is terrible.

What does the Templeton Foundation do? According to their website, the foundation

serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

In general, the foundation uses its money to encourage dialogue between religion and science. With its prizes and grants, it encourages people to bridge the gap. For instance, the foundation provided millions of dollars to help launch BioLogos. How might scientists and theologians come together, BioLogos asked, to help evangelical Christians (and others) understand that evolution was nothing more than the “Language of God?”

Is "compromise" a compliment or a curse?

Is “compromise” a compliment or a curse?

Here at ILYBYGTH, this seems like an eminently worthwhile project. Time and time again, we have seen that science and evolution can wear very different cultural faces. Why bundle together ideas that do not necessarily have to go together? Why feed conservative worries that any understanding of science will somehow doom their children to atheism and immorality? Why not help Christians learn evolution? Why not recognize that some “creationists” really do embrace evolution? Why not listen to the life stories of Christians who have learned that evolution is not the devil spawn they were led to believe?

Partisans disagree. The Templeton Foundation has become the target of angry attack from the hardened edges of both creationism and atheism.

At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, leader Ken Ham recently blasted the efforts of the foundation. “Sadly,” Ham warned readers,

instead of pointing people to answers from God’s Word about history, organizations like BioLogos and the Templeton Foundation are actively discrediting the Bible’s history. Instead of encouraging people to start with God’s Word, they praise those who impose man’s ideas into the Bible.

Ham might not agree with science pundit Jerry Coyne on much, but they agree about the dangers of the Templeton Foundation. For different reasons, of course. Coyne blasts the foundation for watering down the message of real science, of truckling to culturally powerful and wealthy religious aficionados. “If there is to be interchange” between scientists and theologians, Coyne wrote recently,

let it be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, one in which science’s efforts knock the props out from under faith, one by one. And religion has nothing to say to scientists, at least nothing that will help us in our work. All religionists can do is educate us about the nature and influence of divine fairy tales that have inimically influenced world culture. Do we really need that?

Now, just because the Templeton Foundation has united both atheists and creationists against it doesn’t prove that the foundation is doing the right thing. But it seems logical to me that if our goal is to help people of every background understand the science of evolution, we should not spurn allies who promise to help. If theologians and scientists can come together to improve public understanding of what the Templeton Foundation calls the “Big Questions,” it seems to me an excess of self-righteousness to oppose it.

Asking the Right Questions about Creationism

Is America a “creation nation?” Or have polls tended to inflate the numbers of creationists out there? In an effort to give a more nuanced answer to these questions, BioLogos has published Jonathan Hill’s survey results. Hill offers some powerful insights into central questions:

  • How many Americans really believe in creationism, evolution, or some mix?
  • Who cares the most about it?
  • Who cares at all?
  • And, most important, what factors go into making someone a creationist or an evolution supporter?

You may have seen this report referred to in Emma Green’s recent Atlantic article. Until now, however, you wouldn’t have been able to read the report for yourself. Green’s article had the provocative title “You Can’t Educate People into Believing in Evolution.” True enough, but that’s not news to readers and contributors to ILYBYGTH. Those who take time to read what’s out there about creationism know that creationism is not simply a lack of knowledge about evolution. Rather, creationism is better understood as part of a religious identity.

Professor Hill was funded by a BioLogos grant to conduct a large representative survey in the USA. He found that the typical Gallup polls seem to distort the numbers. In those repeated Gallup polls, respondents have three options: (1) humans evolved guided by God, (2) humans evolved on their own, and (3) humans were created within about 10,000 years. In those polls, since the 1980s about 40-45% of respondents have chosen the “young-earth creationist” answer (3). Somewhere between 9-19% have selected the “atheistic evolution” answer (2), and the rest chose number one, the theistic evolution model.

Gallup Questions and Answers

Gallup Questions and Answers

As even the Gallup folks would likely agree, these positions are not very subtle. They don’t allow respondents to explain or describe their own beliefs. Rather, they push people to pick one of three limited options. Professor Hill’s survey allowed people to say they were unsure. It also asked respondents to address different aspects of these beliefs separately. Finally, Hill asked Americans to say how certain they were about their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, those questions yielded very different results. When people can respond to different aspects of creationism differently, they tend to be more nuanced in their responses. For example, in Professor Hill’s survey, only eight percent of people affirmed their belief in both six literal days of creation and the recent creation of humanity.

When taken together, Hill found that 37% of respondents were “creationists,” 16% were “theistic evolutionists,” and 9% were “atheistic evolutionists.” The rest held mixed beliefs or were unsure. When you limit these numbers to those who said they were “very” or “absolutely certain” of their views, then only 29% of respondents were creationists, 8% were theistic evolutionists, and only 6% were atheistic evolutionists.

Also intriguing, only those who hold creationist or atheistic evolutionist beliefs tend to be sure they are correct. They also tend to think it matters to be correct. About three-quarters of creationists said they were sure about their beliefs, and about two-thirds of them said that it mattered a great deal. Among atheistic evolutionists, about 70% were sure of their beliefs, and about half thought it mattered a good deal. In contrast, among those who were unsure about humanity’s origins, only about one quarter thought it mattered a great deal.

In our continuing sniping at one another over the issues of creation and evolution, these numbers themselves matter a great deal. Since large numbers of Americans don’t know about these issues and don’t really care, the debates quickly become dominated by those on either end who feel confident about their own beliefs and who feel sure that it is important to be correct on these questions. We might see a debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and creationist impresario Ken Ham, but we won’t be as likely to see a round-table discussion between people in the middle.

Professor Hill’s survey also buttresses another conclusion popular here at ILYBYGTH: creationism and evolution are not mainly about what you know. Rather, they are questions about who you are. People do not simply pick creationism or evolution out of a neutral grab-bag of ideas. Creationists do not tend to abandon creationism in large numbers when they learn the ideas of evolution. Rather, creationism and atheistic evolution both seem most prevalent among people with recognizable clusters of identity markers. As Professor Hill concluded,

The most important takeaway here is that individual theological beliefs, practices, and identities are important, but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities. These positions are not free-floating ideas that individuals snatch from the air after considering all the alternatives; rather, they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).

Read the results for yourself. There’s far more in the report than we can discuss here. For example, the survey raises a host of questions that we want to know more about:

  • Why are atheistic evolutionists so white?
  • Is certainty more important than knowledge?
  • How can we motivate those who don’t really care about creationism to get more involved in public policy debates?

Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

Anti-creationists have warned about it for generations: Creationists are joining forces to sweep away reason and science. A growing conspiracy of dunces threatens to upend centuries of progress. But a recent tiff between leading American creationists demonstrates just how fractured and divided creationists really are.  And it demonstrates the ways hysterical anti-creationism may do more harm than good.

The threats of a creationist conspiracy go back to the roots of America’s evolution/creation culture wars. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.” Like Shipley, Asimov noted that not all religious people are creationists, but also like Shipley, Asimov failed to notice the differences between creationists. The only religious people one could trust, Asimov wrote, were those “who think of the Bible as a source of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.”

What Asimov missed was the crucial fact that many creationists DO endorse real science; many folks who think of the Bible as more than just symbolic also accept the ideas of an ancient earth and human evolution.

This is more than just a quibble. When leading scientists and science pundits lump together all creationists as “armies of ignorance,” they needlessly abandon and heedlessly insult potential allies in creation/evolution debates. When science writers such as Jerry Coyne attack all religious discussion as “accommodationism,” they unnecessarily alienate creationists who want to teach more and better evolution.

A recent interchange between leading creationists demonstrates the way international creationism really works. Creationism in practice is not a horde of Bible-believing fanatics, relentlessly unified on the age of the earth and the origins of humanity. In practice, rather, creationism is a splintered and fractious impulse, fighting internal foes more viciously than external ones.

The “evolutionary creationist” Deborah Haarsma, leader of BioLogos, recently reached out to young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Haarsma was “troubled” by Ham’s angry polemic about a third creationist, Hugh Ross of the old-earth Reasons to Believe.

We all have our differences, Dr. Haarsma said. But why can’t we come together over our shared Biblical faith? About our shared concern that young people are leaving the church? Why can’t we at least sit down together for a cordial dinner and talk over our differences?

Ken Ham publicly rebuffed Haarsma’s efforts. Ham agreed that his animus toward Ross was not at all personal. As Ham explained, “I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy . . . he is actually a pleasant person.” But Ross was also an “enemy of biblical authority.” And Haarsma was no better. “People like Dr. Haarsma,” Ham wrote,

make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!

There will be no dinner. There will be no grand alliance of creationists. Instead, we see the ways some creationists will tend to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller like-minded communities.

This story spreads beyond the borders of the United States. As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421). And Islamic creationism, much of it based in Turkey, has thrived. However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

There will be predictable tensions between different types of creationists. Though some conservative religious voices will work to spread evolutionary theory among evangelicals, others will focus on what Ken Ham called “rebuilding a wall” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).

Folks like me who want to see more and better evolution education will be wise to reach out to those conservative religious folks who also believe in evolution. Instead of copying the tactics of Ken Ham, as Jerry Coyne is prone to do, science promoters should embrace allies and make friends. Instead of shrieking about the “armies of ignorance,” science promoters will do well to look closer at the creationist population. There are plenty of friends there.

Evangelicals and Evolution: A Closer Look

We all know large numbers of evangelical Protestants disbelieve in evolution, right? But among evangelicals, who does and who doesn’t? Thanks to Professor Thomas Jay Oord and the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project, we can see a breakdown of evolutionary disbelief in one large evangelical denomination. In the Church of the Nazarene, at least, most academics allow for God-guided evolution and an ancient earth, while among the laity there is a more pronounced split.

For those outside of the kaleidoscopic world of American evangelicalism, the Church of the Nazarene is part of the Holiness tradition. That means, in a very crude nutshell, they are part of a tradition that emphasizes an experience of sanctification and sanctified work. In the analogy of one early holiness evangelist, sinful human nature is like a weight, but that weight can be lifted up by the hot-air balloon of the Holy Spirit. The sin is still there, but earnest Christians can be buoyed up to perform missionary work if they open themselves to the Holy Spirit.

In more mundane terms, according to its Wikipedia page, the Church of the Nazarene claims 2,263,249 members in 29,007 churches around the world. That’s a lotta Nazarenes. And while we can’t make any claims that Nazarenes somehow represent the totality of evangelicals, we can learn something about evangelicalism and evolution by looking in close detail at what Nazarenes say on the subject.

In general, American evangelicals are one of the most skeptical groups about evolution. As a recent Pew survey found, sixty-four percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that humans “have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Only a small minority (15%) of white mainline Protestants hold that view. And while it is notable that so many self-identified “evangelicals” don’t believe in human evolution, we can see that a significant minority of evangelicals DO believe.

Oord’s more nuanced look at one evangelical denomination allows us to get a better inside scoop on this breakdown.

In brief, Oord and his colleagues found that most Nazarene academics believed that evangelicalism and evolution could co-exist without traumatizing Nazarene theology. Your regular Nazarene-in-the-street, however, is much more likely to insist on a young earth and on hostility to evolutionary theory.

For example, among Nazarenes as a whole, 14.39% strongly agree, and 7.37% agree, that the Bible requires “Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.” Among lay Nazarenes, 18.95% disagree with that statement, and 55.09% strongly disagree. We see that this evangelical denomination does not, by and large, go in for “young-earth” creationism, though clearly a significant minority of its members does.

Lay Nazarenes and a young earth

Lay Nazarenes and a young earth

But look at the results when Nazarene academics answer that same question. Absolutely ZERO strongly agreed that biblical beliefs require belief in a young earth, and only 1.23% agreed. In contrast, a whopping 81.48% strongly disagreed with the notion that Christianity requires belief in a young earth.

Academic Nazarenes and a Young Earth

Academic Nazarenes and a Young Earth

Check out Professor Oord’s essay in the BioLogos Forum for more details. You will see, for example, that among lay Nazarenes there is much more hostility to the notion that “Humans likely became a species as God worked with the evolutionary process.” Academic Nazarenes feel much more comfortable and confident with that idea.

Lay Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Lay Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Academic Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Academic Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Jesus Is the Answer

We Americans don’t have any confidence in evolution.  But we might if Jesus told us about it.  That’s the implication I get from Dan Kahan at the Cultural Cognition Project.

This fits with anecdotal evidence we hear from our evangelical friends and colleagues.  Many folks who grew up in strict young-earth creationist homes reported a life-changing experience at a Christian college.  When they heard about evolutionary theory from a science professor who was ALSO a devoted evangelical Christian, it changed the equation.  Instead of being forced to choose between their religious identity and evolutionary theory, they could accept both without facing a crisis.

Professor Kahan argued yesterday that Americans, in general, do not distrust science or scientists.  Skeptics who complain that Americans do not listen to scientific truth, Kahan says, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.  The evidence just doesn’t show it.  In case after case, Kahan shows, Americans love science.  We want more science and more funding for science.

With issues of climate change and vaccinations, people don’t argue against science.  Rather, Kahan says, people argue about who is a legitimate scientific expert.  People tend to trust more in the credentials of “experts” with whom they agree, or, more precisely, in the credentials of experts with whom they can identify.  As Kahan puts it,

If subjects observed the position that they were culturally predisposed to accept being advanced by the “expert” they were likely to perceive as having values akin to theirs, and the position they were predisposed to reject being advanced by the “expert” they were likely to perceive as having values alien to their own, then polarization was amplified all the more. . . . polarization disappeared when experts whom culturally diverse subjects trusted told them the position they were predisposed to accept was wrong.

When it comes to evolution, creationism, and evolution education, we can’t help but conclude that Jesus should do it.  That is, evangelical Christians and other resistant populations will be more amenable to learning about evolution if they can learn from someone who seems to share their religion.  It makes sense, then, to support the evangelical-friendly approach of organizations such as BioLogos.

On the other hand, Kahan’s argument implies that the angry-atheist approach will actually INCREASE creationist belief.  When evolutionary theory is associated with an anti-religious personality, religious people will tend to reject evolution entirely.

 

What Would Bryan Do?

H/t KT

Would William Jennings Bryan support the recent move by the president of Bryan College?  That’s the question Bryan’s great-grandchildren are asking these days.

As we’ve reported, Bryan College’s leadership has imposed a new, stricter faculty policy.  From now on, faculty must believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical persons and the real, genetic origins of all subsequent humanity.  As science pundit Jerry Coyne has pointed out, that puts evangelical scientists in a pickle, since genetic evidence indicates that the smallest possible pool of original humans had to be at least 2,250 people.  Bryan College is home to science-curriculum innovators Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner, who hope to show evangelical students that evolution does not necessarily disprove their Biblical faith.

What would the original Bryan say about all this?  The college, after all, was founded as a memorial to Bryan’s last decade of work defending the centrality of Biblical wisdom in American life and politics.  As I argued in my 1920s book, though, Bryan himself held some beliefs about both the beginnings and the end of time that have made other conservative evangelical Protestants uncomfortable.  Bryan did not believe in a young earth, nor in a literal six-day creation.  Nor did Bryan think Jesus had to come back before the earth experienced its promised thousand-year reign of peace and justice.

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Other historians, too, have noted Bryan’s complicated relationship with the fundamentalist movement in its first decade, the 1920s.  Lawrence Levine’s Defender of the Faith and, more recently, Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero both get into the gritty details of Bryan’s anti-evolution crusade.

Historians might disagree, but we all will get nervous about trying to predict what Bryan would say about today’s dust-up at Bryan College.  Because Bryan’s ideology and theology remain necessarily part of his life between 1915 and 1925.  It is mostly meaningless to ask what he would say today, because the situation today is so wildly different from what it was back then.

For example, when Bryan led his anti-evolution movement in the 1920s, the scientific jury was still out on the mechanism of evolution.  Darwin’s explanation—modified descent through natural selection—had been roundly criticized and nearly dismissed by the mainstream scientific community.  So when Bryan led the charge against the teaching of evolution, he could claim with scientific legitimacy that natural selection was not established scientifically.  It was not until years after Bryan’s death that biologists and geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and others solved the problem of genetic “swamping” that seemed to make Darwin’s idea of natural selection a non-starter.

I’ve spent my time with Bryan’s papers at the Library of Congress.  I like Bryan.  He was a successful politician, but I don’t hold that against him.  I believe he was also sincere and devoted to justice.  I came to believe that Bryan was profoundly shocked and surprised when he could not produce his dream team of scientific experts at the Scopes Trial to put evolutionary scientists in their place.

Of course, Bryan died just a few days after the trial.  I can’t help but wonder how he might have “evolved” in his thinking if he had lived.  Would his experience at the Scopes Trial have caused him to re-think his confidence that evolutionary science would soon be disproven?  And, more intriguing, how would Bryan have responded if he had lived for an even longer stretch?  An Old-Testament sort of lifespan?

Would Bryan have embraced the “new evangelicalism” of Carl Henry and Billy Graham?  Would he have worked to make sure Biblical religion remained in conversation with mainstream American culture and politics?

I can’t help but think that he would.  I agree with Bryan’s great-grandson Kent Owen, who told reporter Kevin Hardy, “My view of Bryan is that things weren’t set in stone. . . .  He was pragmatic.”

What does this mean for today’s leadership at Bryan College?  On one hand, they are continuing the legacy of their school.  Bryan College was never bound too tightly to the thinking of the original William Jennings Bryan.  From its outset, Bryan College took a firmer, more “fundamentalist” position than Bryan himself ever did.  But on the other hand, the insistence of today’s leadership that Bryan College faculty sign on to a specific understanding of the historicity of Adam & Eve does not sound like something the Great Commoner would have supported.  As long as the principle of respect and reverence for the Bible was maintained, the original Bryan thought, people of good will could disagree on the details.

Creation? Evolution? Both? Neither?

Those of us who follow the creation/evolution debates bump up against a frustratingly common factoid.  Article after article, both scholarly and popular, cite Gallup polls as proof that nearly half of American adults espouse a young-earth creationist position.  In fact, we might be better off thinking of a much smaller number.

In the pages of Christianity Today, sociologist Jonathan Hill suggested that the real numbers are much more complicated.  The problem with the Gallup polls are that they force people to pick the position on creation that comes closest to their belief.  We do not find out, for example, how much they care about the issue, or how certain they are about their beliefs.  Most tellingly, we do not find out what other views they also find convincing.  As any social scientist can tell us, people tend to say one thing about their beliefs and believe another.

Hill is not the only nerd to question Gallup’s high numbers.  Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education noted recently that poll numbers change as questions change.  Similarly, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer survey the surveys in their must-read Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms.  Not surprisingly, they conclude that the structure of the survey and the wording of the questions can deliver very different perspectives on the numbers of Americans who believe in evolution or various types of creationism.

For example, two polls from 2005 came up with different results on the issue of teaching creationism in public schools.  One poll from Virginia Commonwealth University found that 21% of respondents favored teaching only creationism; one from Harris found 23% support for that position.  Pretty similar.  But the VCU poll concluded that 43% of Americans preferred public schools to teach a combination of evolution and creation in science classes.  The Harris poll put that number at 55%.  That’s a significant difference, one that can’t be explained away by hanging chads.  (For younger readers, “hanging chads” is an hilarious reference to an ancient election conundrum in the USA.)

Furthermore, when pollsters ask Americans different questions, they get—no surprise—different answers.  Gallup pollsters in 1999 asked if people would favor or oppose teaching creationism INSTEAD OF evolution in public schools.  Depending on who did the asking and when (Berkman and Plutzer review a handful of polls from 1999-2005), either a slim majority or a near-majority oppose such teaching.  The numbers vary from 54% opposed to 44% percent opposed.  That’s a big difference.

When Jonathan Hill conducted his BioLogos-funded survey, he found similar complications.  As he explains in the pages of CT, a better survey will allow respondents to separate out their specific beliefs about origins.  A better survey will allow respondents to explain how important each belief is to them.  Hill’s National Study of Religion and Human Origins asked respondents to specify their belief in each of three ideas.  Did humans evolve from other species?  Was God involved?  Were humans created within the last 10,000 years?  The familiar Gallup poll question lumps together all these notions into one young-earth creationist position.

But when Hill separated out these beliefs into three separate questions, he found that only 14% of respondents agreed with all three.  Only 10% called themselves “certain of their beliefs.”  And only 8% said that “it was important to them to have the right beliefs about human origins.”

Hill found similar dwindling numbers on the evolution side.  When pressed, the number of people who firmly and cantankerously cling to a belief that life came from evolution without the interference of any divine entity shrinks considerably.

What does it all mean?  Hill offers a stirring conclusion.  “If only eight percent of respondents,” he suggests,

are classified as convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and if only four percent are classified as atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them, then perhaps Americans are not as deeply divided over human origins as polls have indicated. In fact, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle, holding their beliefs with varying levels of certainty.

Of course, Hill is not just a neutral observer.  As do I, Hill hopes to find a middle ground, and his surveys find one.  Evangelical Christians, Hill suggests, would do well to put battles and controversies to the side, and focus on their broad shared beliefs.  For the wider society, I wonder if we might be able to do the same.

 

Creation Debate Update: Squeezing Out the Middle

Forget the Super Bowl.  Next Tuesday, February 4th, at 7 PM New York time, we’ll all be watching the debate between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and science popularizer Bill Nye.  It looks as if Nye and Ham agree on their goals: squeezing out the middle.  Both debaters want to draw attention to young-earth creationism, and their agreement threatens to exacerbate the divide between evolution and creationism.

The debate host, Answers In Genesis’ Creation Museum, will be streaming the action live for all of us to see.

Ken Ham has suggested that the debate might be a perfect learning opportunity for teachers and students in public school science classes.  From Ham’s point of view, this debate might be a chance to reach students who might not otherwise be aware that mainstream evolutionary science is full of holes.

Bill Nye, too, has explained his reasons for engaging in this debate.  In these pages and elsewhere, evolution-education mavens have wondered if this debate only legitimizes the dead science of the young-earth creationists.  As “The Science Guy” explained, “I don’t think I’m going to win Mr. Ham over.”

So why debate?  Nye says, “I want to show people that this belief is still among us. . . . It finds its way onto school boards in the United States. . . . I’m not going in as a scientist as such . . . I’m going in as a reasonable man.”

So it seems both debaters have the same goal.  Both men want to make people aware of the claims of young-earth creationism.  From Ham’s perspective, such awareness will help keep smart young Christians from leaving the faith.  From Nye’s point of view, if people know what creationism is, they will help fight against it politically.

With such agreement, it seems likely both debaters might succeed.  This debate might elevate the profile of young-earth creationism.  One casualty, it seems, will be other visions of creationism.  Ken Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism, after all, is only one extreme form.  Many religious people believe that humans and life were created at some point by God.  But they do not believe that they must discard the findings of modern science.  The folks at BioLogos, for example, insist that fervent Biblical Christianity can go hand-in-hand with mainstream evolutionary science.  And “old-earth” creationists such as Hugh Ross agree that God did it all, but they don’t insist that he did it only 6,000 years ago.

If this debate succeeds—at least according to the goals of both Ken Ham and Bill Nye—those “other” creationist belief systems will likely get squeezed even further out of the conversation.  That’s a shame.  Too many observers already equate “creationism” with young-earth creationism.  It may make for more lively debates, but it makes for less productive and civil conversations.

 

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.

 

BioLogos: Comments Are Back

Good news for those who want to see more open dialogue on vexing questions of God, creation, and evolution.  The “evolutionary creationist” group BioLogos has reinstated its open-comment policy on its blog.

As we reported recently, BioLogos decided to nix those comments.  After reader uproar, they’ve decided to put them back.  As Content Manager Jim Stump explained,

While we want to introduce new paths for dialogue via a “Letters to the Editor” feature, we see now that we didn’t need to shut down an existing forum for communication. We’ve heard stories of how the comments section has been a haven for gracious dialogue, and of how it continues to be a key part of our witness to the church and the world. We want to build on that dialogue, not close it off. So the comments section is back.

Hear hear.  As Stump explained, the comments on a site such as BioLogos provide a unique forum.  In his words,

There are too few organizations that allow the free flow of discussion about these issues; we want to continue to be one of them.

Let’s give the folks at BioLogos credit for being willing to change their policies.  Too often in these kinds of discussions, petty resentments and stiff backs prevent sensible shifts like this one.