Where Were You Radicalized?

Have you seen it yet? Emily Nussbaum asked a simple question on Twitter: Where were you radicalized? I admit I haven’t read all the responses, but there’s one obvious one that I have heard from lots of my ex-evangelical friends that I’m not seeing.where were you radicalized

Some of the responses are compelling. Patrick Deneen, for example, blamed the effete and impudent snobs. Where was Deneen radicalized?

Princeton University, upon hearing colleagues using the words “flyover country” without irony or embarrassment, and where being anti-Christian was an acceptable and even required prejudice.

Other respondents share stories of feminist, economic, anti-war, or other radicalizing epiphanies. But here’s my puzzle: I’m not seeing tons of responses from people who say they were radicalized in church. I thought I would.

I don’t mean the people who heard a left-wing pastor sing and play guitar. I mean the people who sat in pews and listened to the conservative, maybe fundamentalist spiel over and over until they rejected the whole thing.

As I polish and revise my creationism book, I came across example after example of evangelicals who turned away from creationism precisely because of the young-earth ideas to which they were exposed at church.

For example, as two intrepid evangelical scholars relate, they met plenty of students who were “radicalized” due to the intellectual shortcomings of young-earth creationism. As one student told them,

My parents saw evolution as incompatible with religion; I agree, and when I decided the evidence did not support a 6-day creation, I stopped believing in God.

So for all those left-leaning evangelicals and ex-evangelicals out there, where were YOU radicalized? Was it in Sunday school? At church? At your religious school?

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Bryan College and the Grey Lady

Bryan College is in the news again. A recent New York Times article describes the hullabaloo over creationism and college creeds. But here’s the problem: journalist Alan Blinder seems all too willing to cast today’s struggles as only warmed-over reiterations of the 1925 Scopes trial. That doesn’t do justice to the history nor does it help today’s readers understand the kaleidoscopic world of evangelical higher education.

ILYBYGTH readers will remember that Bryan has been back-and-forth on the issue of Adam and Eve. The school has always been friendly to young-earth creationism. But President Stephen Livesay pushed through a clarification of the school’s traditional creed. From here on out, faculty members must affirm their belief in a literal, historic Adam and Eve. Most recently, the college has been sued by two faculty members who have refused to sign the clarified statement of faith.

I’m glad to see that journalist Alan Blinder has paid some attention to the controversy in the pages of the New York Times. But I can’t help but complain about Blinder’s framing of today’s story. For instance, Blinder calls today’s fight a “similar debate” to the 1925 Scopes trial. He says, “The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are…”

I’m not complaining because Blinder does not name the two professors who are actually suing Bryan—Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge. I’m not complaining because Blinder focuses instead on Brian Eisenback, who had become controversial due to his evolutionary creationism.

No, I’m complaining because this sort of coverage implies that the issue at hand is the teaching of evolution or the teaching of creationism. I’m complaining because so many writers—not just Blinder—feel a need to call every new example of evolution/creation controversy “Scopes II” or something similar.

It would be entirely plausible, I think, for a casual reader to walk away from Blinder’s article thinking that Bryan College is becoming a religious school that teaches creationism, when it used to be a more secular school that taught evolution. It would also be plausible for readers to think that the issue at Bryan College today is the same issue that motivated the Scopes trial so many years ago. Both of these are woefully misleading implications.

First of all, Bryan College is now and has always been a friendly environment for young-earth creationism. Until recently, Bryan hosted the Center for Origins Research and Education. This center was lead in turn by prominent YEC intellectuals such as Kurt Wise and Todd Wood. Today’s controversy at Bryan College is decidedly not between a “creationist” mindset and a “secular” one. Today’s controversy is between a pluralist sort of big-tent creationism and a stricter young-earth-only vision. The school may be tightening its definition of acceptable sorts of creationism, but that is a very different thing than imposing creationism on a pluralist school.

Also, the controversy in 1925 was about whether or not evolution could be banned from public schools. As I argued in my 1920s book and in my upcoming Other School Reformers, due to such controversies, many conservative Christians founded schools like Bryan College. But today’s debate is vastly different. The debate today is over what sort of creationism counts as creationism at a private evangelical college.

Just because it brings journalists from New York down to Dayton again, there is no need to imply that this is somehow a return engagement for Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken, William Jennings Bryan, and John Scopes. What we’re seeing today is worlds apart from what Dayton saw in 1925.

 

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.

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.