Creationist Mom Reaches Out to Evolution

Sometimes stereotypes have some truth to them.  Then there’s “D.”

D first got in touch with me a couple of months ago.  As she described herself, she is a Christian young-earth creationist homeschooling mom.  She had read about my blog on Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis page.  I’ll include our brief correspondence to let D speak for herself:

From: D
Sent: Monday, January 21, 2013 8:36 PM
To: alaats@binghamton.edu
Subject: thank you

Hi Dr. Laats,
I have to say that it is very refreshing that you don’t think creationists like myself are complete idiots.  Really, I appreciate that. 
As a young earth creationist that homeschools, I wouldn’t give any Richard Dawkins books the time of day.  If someone is THAT hostile towards me, then I have no interest in what they have to say.  But I look forward to reading your blog when I have a chance because you try to understand where I am coming from, and you don’t think we are completely unable to do any science. 
Thank you,
“D”

I suggested that D might give Dawkins a shot.

From: D
Sent: Monday, January 22, 2013 9:48 PM
To: alaats@binghamton.edu
Subject: Re: thank you

Dear Dr. Laats,
I also agree that we should be looking at the other side, and I do plan to do that.  As a Christian homeschool Mom I am not trying to protect my sons from learning evolution.  The public school is not a place we feel comfortable putting our children because their thoughts and beliefs are not welcome in the classroom.  They would have to follow the advice my father in law got from his father before he joined the Navy, “keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut”.  Learning can not take place, in my opinion, in that kind of environment.
I am going to teach my kids about evolution, somehow.  There is a lot of material out there.  I would read Dawkins if I had to, but the amount of information out there that he has published alone is way too much to look at, sort through, and figure out what to teach.  For the sake of time, I’m looking for something comprehensive and succinct, and what a child in high school should know about the subject.  I am familiar with the NCSE website and that is what I plan to use as of now, though it will be guess work to know what all to cover.  
Thanks for your time,
D

I was surprised and happy to hear that D was using materials from the National Center for Science Education to teach her kids.  I think the folks at NCSE would be happy to hear it, too.  The NCSE is a leading voice for evolution education and a staunch opponent of creationism in public schools.  And too often, people like me tend to suggest a stark division between two sides: either Answers in Genesis OR the National Center for Science Education.  D has reminded me that smart people make all kinds of decisions about what to read and what to do with that material.  People choose public schools, private schools, or homeschools for all sorts of different reasons.  D’s work reminded me how quickly and easily we can oversimplify the many approaches people make to these snarled questions of evolution, religion, and education.

Yesterday, I heard back from D:

From: D
Sent: Monday, March 18, 2013 5:09 PM
To: alaats@binghamton.edu
Subject: Hi

Hi Dr Laats,
Well, I wanted to let you know that I checked out the [Dawkins] book The Greatest Show on Earth.  I never would have considered it except for your response.  Dawkins says on page 155 ” it would be so nice if those that oppose Evolution would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.”  I couldn’t believe that I totally agreed with Dawkins about something!  I am happy to listen, minus the hostility.  I don’t sense hostility in this book, which makes it readable.  This has made me realize that I can not get my head wrapped around what evolution IS.  He says we did not descend from monkeys, but we have a common ancestor.  I do understand that we would find no missing links because of the extreme gradual process, that is what I understand from the book, hopefully that is correct.  So I looked on Internet, and I guess I don’t understand phylogenies.  So we did not descend from monkey, but have a common ancestor, and then branched off to chimpanzees and humans etc.  So, it seems to me that we descended from something “monkey like”.  I guess I don’t understand how he can say that we did not evolve from monkeys, whether it was monkeys or monkey like, it seems similar.  Can you shed any light on this please?  As you can see, I am making an honest attempt to understand this so I don’t teach it incorrectly.  Thanks for the help,
D

First of all, my hat’s off to D for engaging with Richard Dawkins’ writings.  It is far too easy for all of us to read only those materials that confirm our own beliefs.  I am optimistic that there may be far more “Ds” out there than we might think: people who have strong beliefs, yet hope to find out as much as they can about the other side.  How many of us can say–like D–that we have taken the time to puzzle through books and websites of people with whom we totally disagree?

As for D’s question about phylogenies, I suggested she check out Dennis Venema’s series about evolution theory on recent pages of the BioLogos Forum.

Any other suggestions for someone like D?

 

 

Evolution for Christians

How are evangelical Christians supposed to understand evolution?  This morning at BioLogos, evangelical scientist Dennis Venema begins a series that hopes to explain why evolutionary ideas do not conflict with a Bible-based evangelical faith.

One of the trickiest aspects of understanding American creationism is that there are potentially as many “creationisms” as there are creationists.  Many outsiders like me tend to use the term “creationist” as a catch-all term, when in fact the differences among and between types of creationism are perhaps the key to bridging many of our evolution-creation culture-war divides.

Some “creationists,” for instance, embrace the young-earth creationism promulgated by organizations such Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research.

Others might find an old-earth version more compelling, one such as that defended by Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe.

Yet others might prefer the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement, promoted most assiduously by the Discovery Institute.

Still others might prefer the sort on offer by Dennis Venema in this series.  BioLogos calls its brand of creationism “evolutionary creationism.”  In general, BioLogos’ creationism embraces the tenets of evolutionary science.  Such evolution, many evolutionary creationists insist, is simply God’s method of creation.
I’m looking forward to following Venema’s series.  Venema describes it this way:

“The goal of this course is straightforward: to provide evangelical Christians with a step-by-step introduction to the science of evolutionary biology. This will provide benefits beyond just the joy of learning more about God’s wonderful creation. An understanding of the basic science of evolution is of great benefit for reflecting on its theological implications, since this reflection can then be done from a scientifically-informed perspective. From time to time we might comment briefly on some issues of theological interest (and suggest resources for those looking to explore those issues further), but for the most part, we’re going to focus on the science.”     

 

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.