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.”     



The Trauma of Evolution

Can we educate by banning ideas?  For one group of conservative Christian homeschoolers, proper education means banishing lots of ideas.  How can progressive educators like me understand this impulse to put up intellectual walls around young people’s minds?  I wonder if some creationists view exposure to evolutionary ideas as a form of trauma, an entirely harmful experience.

The Finish Well homeschooling conference, in the words of its organizers, “is designed to equip homeschooling families to confidently homeschool the high school years for the glory of God!”

One of the ways the conference promises to help attendees is by purging the atmosphere of any hint of evolution.  In order to secure a table at the conference, vendors are required to agree to the following statements:

“1) Scripture teaches a literal 6 day creation week, a young earth of approximately 6,000 years, and a literal understanding of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day. 2) The Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. It is inerrant and our ultimate authority in what we believe and how we live. Any speakers who contradict these two truths during their speaking session will be immediately asked to leave.”

Clearly, the goal of Finish Well is not only to keep out evolution.  Any other explanation about humanity’s origins will be verboten as well, including the evolutionary creationism of folks such as Darrel Falk or the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement.

This notion of proper education is one of the hardest intellectual nuts for progressive educators like me to crack.  How are we to understand this idea that good education means hiding important ideas away from young people?  My first reaction, my gut reaction, is that this is precisely the sort of totalitarian impulse that kills any real education.  This sort of intellectual protectionism smacks of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.  To me, and to lots of people, one of the first rules of true liberal education means opening intellectual doors, not bricking them up.  Real education, in my opinion, means allowing young people to explore a variety of ideas, to make up their own minds.

But in the conservative tradition, an important aspect of improving education has long consisted of the effort to remove “dangerous” ideas from the educational mix.  For generations, various types of conservative activists have insisted that simple exposure to certain ideas represented a danger—something from which young people had to be protected.

This idea played a big part in the first “creationist” controversies in the 1920s, as I explored in my 1920s book.  One of the public leaders of the anti-evolution movement of that decade was populist politician and former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan condemned the notion that good education meant a willy-nilly exposure to perfidious ideas.  In a battle with the University of Wisconsin over the teaching of evolution on campus, Bryan offered this sarcastic advertisement for the college:

“Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”  [SOURCE: William Jennings Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner (June, 1921): 3.]

For my current book, I’m exploring the longer history of conservative educational activism.  This notion of proper-education-as-protection echoed throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, Grace Brosseau, President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, argued that young children ought not be harmed by “the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.”  Such modern theories of education, Brosseau insisted, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of childhood and the responsibilities of education.  As she explained in 1929,

“One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.”

Instead, parents and teachers must give students only what students need to develop the “delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind.” [SOURCE: “The 38th Continental Congress, N.S.D.A.R.,” DAR Magazine 63 (May 1929): 261-271.]

More recently, the late Mel and Norma Gabler echoed this notion that proper education meant protecting young people from dangerous ideas.  In their 1985 book What Are They Teaching Our Children, the Gablers compared modern teaching to letting young children float in dangerous seas in flimsy lifeboats.  Modern teachers, the Gablers argued, too often allowed children to drift near sharp reefs and crashing waves, without offering any sort of guidance.  The teachers knew the rocks were there, the Gablers argued, yet these ‘progressive’ teachers did not see fit to warn the students.  Better for the students to ‘discover’ such dangers for themselves.  The Gablers asked, “Has the instructor gone mad?” (pg. 99).

For the Gablers, as for Bryan, Brosseau, and the organizers of the Finish Well conference, the notion that some ideas must be hidden from children made perfect sense.  For those like me who don’t agree, perhaps one key to understanding might come from the school controversies of the 1920s.  During that decade, many state lawmakers proposed bills that promised to keep certain ideas out of children’s paths.  One 1927 bill in Florida would have banned “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter” [Florida House Bill 87, 1927].

To the authors of this bill, evolution and atheism could be treated the same way as “obscene” material.  To those 1920s legislators, it made sense to keep obscene materials out of the hands of school children.

I agree that young people ought not be exposed to “obscene” materials.  And maybe this is the way for folks like me to understand the conservative impulse to keep some ideas out of schools.  After all, all of us—not just conservatives or fundamentalists—agree that some things must be kept from children.  No one wants young people to view a lot of hard-core porn at school, for instance.  Nor do we think that children should see graphic violence.  Exposure to such things seems traumatic.

Is this the key to understanding the conservative insistence on keeping certain ideas out?  For some young-earth creationists, mere exposure to evolutionary ideas represents a danger to their young children.  It might be that such conservatives view exposure to evolutionary ideas as an intellectual trauma, a theological trauma.  Such ideas might be ‘out there’ in the world, just like genocide, rape, and lynching might be ‘out there,’ but that does not imply that education must include graphic exposure to them.

Is this the way to understand Finish Well’s prohibition of any hint of evolution?  I’d love to hear from those who believe that young people should be protected from such ideas.

CS Lewis: You Don’t Know Jack

WWAD: What Would Aslan Do?

A new essay series at the BioLogos Forum by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship NC State staffer David Williams insists on a more complex understanding of CS Lewis’ theology.

This essay series arose in part as a response to a new collection of essays about Lewis and science. As we’ve noted, editor John G. West of the intelligent-design-friendly Discovery Institute presented a portrait of an evolution-skeptical Lewis in The Magician’s Twin.

Williams argues for a more nuanced understanding of Lewis’ work. Williams gives us a CS Lewis–“Jack” to his friends—that might not be comfortable to many of Lewis’ new best friends in the American evangelical community. As Williams writes,
“Lewis is no safer a lion than Aslan, and he will not go quietly into our tidy evangelical boxes. To be frank, American Evangelicalism’s infatuation with Lewis is in many respects somewhat odd. For here is a pathologically populist movement with a penchant for Big Tent Revivalism, an obsession with liturgical innovation, a deep-seated suspicion of ecclesiastical tradition, and a raw nerve about the doctrine of justification, falling head-over-heels for a tweed-jacketed, Anglo-Catholic Oxford don—a curmudgeonly liturgical traditionalist who was fuzzy on the atonement, a believer in purgatory, and, as we shall see, whose views on Scripture, Genesis, and evolution position him well outside of American Evangelicalism’s standard theological paradigms. All of that is to say that Lewis was not ‘just like us’—any of us—and if we would do him justice, we must be prepared to be surprised by Jack.”

In the first essay of the series, Williams notes that Lewis was not as hostile to modern methods of Biblical criticism as many American evangelicals might like. And the Bible, Lewis felt, must be understood as a human product. For those evangelicals who insist on the theological centrality of a young-earth interpretation of Scripture, Williams offers this warning: For Lewis, “Apart from the Incarnation, then, much of the Old Testament would be but ‘myth,’ ‘ritual,’ and ‘legend.’”

For an evangelical movement that has clung tenaciously to its nineteenth-century hostility to much of this sort of Biblical criticism, Williams’ Lewis presents some challenges. Just as other heroes from outside of the evangelical tradition might make things intellectually difficult for their evangelical fans, so a fuller portrait of Lewis’ intellectual world might generate some healthy confusion.

CS Lewis on Science and Evolution

Did Aslan evolve?

Aslan and friends. Image source: WikiNarnia

Not according to a new book about Narnia-creator C.S. Lewis’ philosophy of science. Editor John G. West pulled together a fascinating collection of essays in The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.

The Discovery Institute’s West hopes to claim Lewis’ legacy for the intelligent design movement; the essays argue that Lewis was profoundly skeptical of what Lewis called “error scientism.”

As evolution skeptic Tom Bethell notes in a review for American Spectator, some evolutionists have claimed Lewis as an ally. But the authors in The Magician’s Twin paint a very different portrait. Among Lewis’ intellectual protests against evolutionary thinking, Bethell argues, was a deeply held concern with Darwin’s naive progressivism.  A nineteenth-century optimism about humanity’s natural tendency to improve, Lewis believed, had been thoroughly discredited by both Christianity’s vision of original sin and the twentieth century’s horrors.

Intelligent design advocate Michael Flannery agrees that this collection of essays captures Lewis’ deep anxiety about the cosmological claims of naive evolutionism.  In a long review for Evolution News and Views, Flannery extols the essays for recognizing Lewis’ appreciation for medieval thought, Lewis’ denunciation of the plausibility of natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism, and Lewis’ worry about the anti-human and anti-Christian implications of evolutionary thinking.

C.S. Lewis remains one of the most popular Christian authors for Christian and non-Christian audiences alike.  His Screwtape Letters , not to mention his wildly popular Narnia books, keep Lewis a household name in all kinds of households.  Claiming Lewis’ legacy for the intelligent design movement would be a major coup for West and his co-authors.

For those of us trying to understand cultural conflicts over education, these essays offer key insight into the intellectual depth and range of the intelligent design movement.  Especially for those evolutionists who dismiss intelligent design as simply “Ken Ham warmed over,” this collection of essays will illuminate the very different tone, style, and intellectual ethos of the movement.

In the News: Tennessee Two-Step

Tennessee’s lawmakers recently passed a law that—according to supporters—will allow teachers to work with more academic freedom.  It will encourage students, supporters insist, to explore ideas beyond the surface.  Opponents argue that the new law is only a sneak-attack by creationists and intelligent designers.  The law speaks in the language of academic freedom, opponents say, only to mask its true creationist intent.

The law itself claims to want to “help students develop critical thinking skills.”  Since the teaching of “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the law asserts that Tennessee teachers need clarification and assistance in teaching such issues.  The law mandates that school districts allow and encourage teachers to teach such controversial issues.  The law states that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”  Finally, the new law notes that this law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

In presenting the issue as one of academic freedom, Tennessee lawmakers apparently hope to overcome constitutional objections that have overwhelmed other anti-evolution laws.  The inspiration seems to have come from the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the teaching of intelligent design.  In 2007, the Discovery Institute offered a similar-sounding model Academic Freedom bill.

Tennessee is not the first state to enact such a law.  In 2008 Louisiana lawmakers passed a similar “academic freedom” law.  Even earlier, in 2001, then-Senator Rick Santorum inserted a non-binding note into the No Child Left Behind Act that recommended teaching a full range of ideas whenever “controversial issues” were taught.

The Tennessee law has attracted more than its share of journalistic attention because of the easy connection to the 1925 Scopes trial.  The editors of the New York Times, for example, began their objection to the Tennessee law by intoning, “Eighty-seven years after Tennessee was nationally embarrassed for criminally prosecuting the teaching of evolution, the state government is at it again.”

Nearly all the news coverage of the new law insists on connecting it to the famous 1925 trial.  Coverage in USA Today and the Huffington Post offer a sample of the way every journalist seems obliged to mention Scopes.

However, as perspicacious observers have noted, this new law represents something very different from the 1925 event.  Today’s laws demonstrate a remarkable shift in the strategy and nature of anti-evolution activism.  As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center pointed out, today “the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.”

Haynes is right.  The power in public schools has shifted decisively.  Anti-evolution activists today do not try to ban evolution from public schools.  Rather, anti-evolutionists these days struggle to insert wedges into school curricula.  They hope to create opportunities for teachers and students to question the scientific claims of evolution.  At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, anti-evolutionists had a much different agenda.

In my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback edition, pre-order today!), I explore the ways so-called “anti-evolution” laws in the 1920s included much more than simply the teaching of evolution or creation.  The laws themselves, including Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, usually preserved a special role for Protestant theology in public schools.  Other bills considered “anti-evolution” made much more sweeping claims.  In 1924, Representative John W. Summers of Washington successfully inserted an amendment banning “disrespect of the Holy Bible” among Washington D.C. teachers.  In a similar vein, one so-called anti-evolution bill in North Carolina (1927) actually would have banned any teaching that would “contradict the fundamental truth of the Holy Bible.”  A proposed bill in West Virginia cut an even broader swath.  That bill would have banned the teaching of “any nefarious matter in our public schools.”  In Florida, a 1927 bill hoped to prohibit teaching and textbooks that promoted “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter.”

These bills were about more than just prohibiting evolution. They asserted ideological and theological control over public schools.  Public schools, in the vision of these bill’s supporters, ought to do more than just ban evolution.  They ought to be purged of any notion that might challenge the traditional evangelical morality of students.
Today’s laws are also about more than the teaching of evolution, but in a very different way.  Rick Santorum’s non-binding rider to NCLB was more about making a statement about the nature of science, culture, and education than about transforming education.  It didn’t and couldn’t actually change the way teaching happened.  Some observers have suggested that Tennessee’s law will also not change a thing.

But such laws do change something.  For one thing, laws like the ones in Tennessee and Louisiana demonstrate the political power of anti-evolutionism.  These laws show that significant numbers of voters in those states agree with this kind of cultural statement against the claims of mainstream science.  Laws like these also tell us something about the ways schooling is controlled.  If mainstream scientists cannot simply decide what will be the best sort of science education, then we can see that schooling is not simply a neutral institution in which knowledge is disseminated.  Rather, laws like this show clearly that knowledge is political.  Schools do not simply teach what is true.  Schools teach what culture decides children should know.