Creation, Christians, and the Deadlock Myth

Whoops! There it is again—another commentator implying that we have been trapped in an endless deadlock over evolution and creation. It’s just not true, as we argue in our new book. That doesn’t stop it from being a very popular thing to say.


Six more decades of creationist debate…

To be fair, Pastor Ryan Gear is more interested in Christian attitudes than in educational policy. He laments the fact that so many conservative Christians continue to doubt evolution and climate change. He points out that such skepticism is not necessary, from a religious viewpoint.

Fair enough. Gear goes off the rails, however, when he implies that things have not changed for Christians when it comes to evolution and creation. As he puts it, if Darwin were alive today, “he would observe that Christians have not evolved much in relation to his theory.”

Hold the phone. In terms of both education policy and religious belief, such statements woefully misrepresent the history of the evolution/creation debate.

First, as I argue in my upcoming book, co-authored with philosopher extraordinaire Harvey Siegel, evolution education has experienced radical changes across the decades. Over long decades, evolution education has made enormous advances. In the 1920s, several states banned the teaching of evolution in public schools entirely.

As I argued in my first book, the fight over evolution in the 1920s was a fight—successful in many ways—to make explicit and legally binding the traditional evangelical Protestant domination of American public life.

These days, the goals of creationists are much tamer. Even the most vociferous young-earth advocates insist they don’t want creationism taught in public schools. Intelligent-designers have scrubbed the explicit religious references out of their arguments.


Have you read it yet?

Also, the very meanings of creationism itself have changed dramatically. As our leading historian of creationism (and my grad-school mentor) Ronald Numbers has demonstrated, today’s popular young-earth creationism was itself a novelty of the mid-twentieth century. In early evolution battles, very few anti-evolutionists insisted on a young earth.

In 1927, for example, fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley insisted, there is not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

Back then, Riley was the hard edge of creationist activism. He was the founder and leader of the World [or World’s] Christian Fundamentals Association. He founded a thriving school in his adopted home city of Minneapolis. He represented, to many contemporaries, the extreme, uncompromising wing of 1920s anti-evolutionism.

And he did not believe in a young earth. He did not think it mattered.

Today, of course, the religious landscape of American creationism is much different. Not only do many Christians in big conglomerations such as the Southern Baptist Convention insist on belief in creationism, but they also believe that real creationism means belief in a young earth and a literal six-day creation.

That is new.

We have not been deadlocked for generations in the same ol’ evolution/creation battles. In terms of public policy and private belief, everything has changed. Utterly.

Why does any of this matter to us? Deadlock suggests a need for drastic action. It suggests a stalemate, one that can only be broken by decisive, radical action. The truth, however, is not quite so exciting.

In the past hundred years, the evolution/creation debates have not been stymied in a go-nowhere morass. Rather, people like me who want more and better evolution education have consistently scored important victories. People like Pastor Gear, on the other hand, have been forced to argue against growing percentages of evangelical Christians who insist on a scientifically outlandish young-earth creationism.

From the perspective of public policy, the prescription is clear. We should keep going with our efforts to improve real evolution education in public schools. Evolution, and only evolution, should be taught as our best current scientific understanding of the way species came to be.

At the same time, we should adopt a determinedly neutral stance toward the creationist debates among evangelical Christians. If young-earth advocates want to square off against evolutionary creationists, so be it. Such religious debates are outside the realm of public-school policy.

This kind of nuanced, non-alarmist policy argument does not make for good headlines. That’s why we will likely continue to see every creation/evolution article and op-ed opened with a lament that things have not changed.

If we really want to move forward, however, on questions of evolution, creationism, and education, we need to get beyond the headlines. We need to get beyond the ahistorical assertion that we are trapped in a never-ending evolution/creation Groundhog Day.

Faculty Fudge Factors at Creationist Colleges

Ding! There it is again—the sound of another evangelical professor being ousted for harboring evolution-friendly ideas.  Some of us outsiders might think that evangelical colleges would slowly become more relaxed about evolution as time went on.  As this case shows, we’d be wrong.  The history of the past century has demonstrated that many evangelical colleges have grown MORE uptight, not less, about proving their creationist credentials.

In this case, the school is Bethel College in Indiana and the professor is Jim Stump. As Karl Giberson described recently, the flap at this Bethel [n.b., there are about one bajillion Bethel Colleges out there and it’s easy for outsiders to mix them up] echoes the trends of the past hundred years: Time and again, creationist colleges have sought to tighten both the image and reality of unshakeable creationist orthodoxy among their faculty.

Stump removal...

Stump removal…

As I’m uncovering as I work on my new book, this pattern has been the dominant theme at conservative evangelical colleges since the 1920s.

Beginning in the 1920s and repeated every generation, schools have tightened the requirements on their faculty. In every generation, some professors have sought to follow a middle path—exploring the science of evolution while remaining firmly committed to their religion. In every generation, nervous college administrators have sought to prove to the creationist community that their school will not tolerate any such thing.

In the 1920s, most schools agreed on ironclad faculty creeds. The hope was that these creeds would prevent faculty from becoming too friendly to evolutionary thinking. At flagship Wheaton College in Illinois, for instance, the trustees in 1926 adopted a creed that all faculty, staff, and administration had to sign annually. They included the following statement:


4. We believe that man was created in the image of God; that he sinned, and thereby incurred, not only physical death, but also that spiritual death which is separation from God; and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and in the case of those who reach moral responsibility become sinners in thought, word and deed.

At the time, this statement was thought to define the proper “fundamentalist” attitude toward creation. In 1960, however, a conference about evolution and creationism on Wheaton’s campus attracted ferocious criticism from the more stalwart creationists among the fundamentalist/evangelical community. Too many of the assembled theologians and scientists, critics thought, embraced the principle of evolution.

Among Wheaton’s faculty, zoologist Russell Mixter came in for the fiercest criticism. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Mixter was accused of teaching and preaching evolution in his classes. In order to calm the storm, Wheaton’s administration altered its faculty creed. At the end of 1961, the school agreed to add the following item:

By Article IV of its ‘standards of faith,’ Wheaton College is committed to the Biblical teaching that man was created by a direct act of God and not from previously existing forms of life; and that all men are descended from the historical Adam and Eve, first parents of the entire human race.

The pattern continues today. At schools such as Bryan College and Northwest Nazarene University, creeds are tightened and faculty are ousted in order to preserve an impeccable reputation for creationism. Time and again, the sticking point has been the historicity of Adam & Eve. It is not enough, evangelical communities insist, for faculty vaguely to endorse the idea of a God-directed creation. Especially when it comes to the origins of humanity, some evangelicals require a belief in a real, literal origin in two real, literal people.

According to Karl Giberson, the folks at Bethel College in Indiana have taken this tradition one step further. Under pressure from the sponsoring denomination, the Missionary Church, Bethel now requires faculty to advocate its firm position on the historicity of Adam & Eve. In the past, at Bethel as at other evangelical colleges, faculty members could sign their annual statements of faith even if they thought that such statements did not require them to disavow mainstream evolutionary science. This policy hopes to push faculty members into a tighter relationship with the denomination’s official position on evolution.

Furthermore, from now on Bethel faculty are not allowed to take leadership positions in organizations that disagree on this point. As BioLogos leader Deborah Haarsma argued, Bethel’s new policy puts evangelical scholars like Jim Stump in a very difficult position. Stump has served as the content manager for BioLogos, an organization that embraces “evolutionary creationism.” The new Bethel policy, in effect, forced Stump to choose between the two organizations.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I am a fan of the BioLogos approach. I’m no evangelical, but I think the way forward in our continuing evolution/creation battles is for both sides to agree to the science of evolution and the freedom of religious belief. As I argue in my upcoming book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (due to hit shelves in February 2016), secular folks like me need to recognize the right of religious dissenters to disbelieve the claims of evolution, even as religious folks need to recognize the duty of public schools to teach evolution as the best available science.

But as I argue in my other upcoming book, schools like Bethel are also in a difficult position. In order to maintain intellectual credibility, they must embrace changing norms of academic excellence. But in order to maintain religious credibility, they must conspicuously root out any whiff of compromise. Not on every issue, but on issues such as evolution and same-sex marriage that seem to make up the foundations of their faiths.

As a result, over the course of the past ninety years, many evangelical colleges–including the relatively “liberal” ones–have made their policies more rigid when it comes to faculty beliefs about human origins.  The recent news from Mishawaka is only the latest attempt by an evangelical college to remove faculty fudge factors.

From the Archives: A Creationist Mother’s Day Puzzler

What’s a Presbyterian to do? Especially at the staunchly conservative Princeton Seminary at the end of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian intellectuals wrestled with the questions posed by their creationist theology. One problem remained particularly stubborn and particularly relevant to Mother’s Day.

B.B. Warfield was no liberal. He was largely responsible for the “Princeton Theology” that bequeathed to American fundamentalism a vital notion. Along with his colleague A.A. Hodge, Warfield argued that we must read the Bible as inerrant in its original autographs. That is, later translators may have messed things up here and there, and we may certainly err in our understanding of the Bible, but real orthodoxy requires us to believe that the inspired writers of the Bible did not make mistakes.

All about Eve...

All about Eve…

Among the many gems in Bradley Gundlach’s book about Princeton and the “evolution question,” we find Warfield’s notes about Eve and evolution.

In the late 1800s, Warfield and the other lions of orthodoxy at Princeton wondered what evolutionary ideas meant for orthodox belief. Could an evolutionary theory fit in with a universe that had been planned for eternity by an all-knowing God? If evolution could be separated from its materialistic assumptions, could it be used as a way to understand God’s plan for humanity?

As Professor Gundlach argues, time and again Princeton’s conservative thinkers said yes. They objected to the assumptions that some people wrongly associated with evolution—that it was random, directionless, and atheistic, for instance. But they embraced the notion that God had developed all life from earlier forms. Just as a tree rests within the potentiality of a seed, so all life may have developed from simpler forms, the Princetonians insisted.

In short, most Old Princetonians embraced what has been called “theistic evolution,” a notion similar to what some folks today call “evolutionary creationism.”

There was one tough sticking point, however. As Professor Gundlach describes, in Warfield’s lectures on anthropology from the late 1800s, he struggled with the theological implications of evolution. Warfield asked himself and his students if a God-guided evolution was

consistent with the Biblical account of the origin of things in general & of man in particular.

According to Gundlach, Warfield answered with a qualified yes. The only problem Warfield saw was at the root of Mother’s Day. As Warfield explained in his anthropology class,

I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Gen I & II or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution. The sole passage which appears to bar the way is the very detailed account of the creation of Eve.

The rest of the Genesis account of creation, Warfield believed, could be read without doing violence to its original meaning as a poetic description of evolution. But Eve was different. The Mother of Humanity was made by a special divine act, in language starkly different from that of the rest of Genesis.

For Warfield, at least, evolution need pose no problem for Christians. Only the question of Eve needed to be resolved.

Evil and a Young Earth

It’s one of the oldest and toughest questions for monotheists. If God is all-powerful, and the world has evil in it, then God is responsible for that evil. Creationist leader Ken Ham recently argued that only a young-earth attitude can explain away this problem of theodicy.

Ham was reacting to a viral video of Irish comedian Stephen Fry. (Youtube has since taken the video down due to copyright claims.) In the interview, Fry blasted God as evil, capricious, and flat-out monstrous. “Because,” Fry explained,

the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?

Of course, theologians and atheists have wrestled with this challenge for centuries. Ham, the well-known leader of Answers In Genesis, explained recently that other forms of creationism could not handle the challenge.

Intelligent Design, Ham argued, fails because it argues only for a vague creator. If there is only a bland, inexact creator, then Fry’s challenge is correct. He, or She, or It, must have created everything, including evil.

Other creationists just don't get it...

Other creationists just don’t get it…

Evolutionary creationism, too, can’t handle evil, according to Ham. The sort of creationism embraced by the BioLogos folks stumbles in the face of Fry’s challenge, Ham says. “If God did use millions of years of evolutionary processes,” Ham wrote,

then He is responsible for all the death, suffering, disease, extinction, pain, cancer, and other evils in this world.

Only a young-earth approach gives a satisfying account of the origins of evil. In Genesis, as Ham reads it, God’s original creation was evil-free. Only when the sinful choices of Adam & Eve introduced evil into the world did things go awry.

For this to make sense, Ham says, we need a real, literal Adam & Eve. We need to take God at His Word. Otherwise, jokers like Fry have the last laugh.

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.

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.


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.


Commenting, Evolution, and Public Forums

Another prominent website in the evolution/creation debates has changed its comment policy.

As you may recall, Popular Science announced recently that it was shutting off public comments entirely.  Now BioLogos has decided to vet, edit, and publish only select comments, along with author response.

For those new to the scene, BioLogos has made itself the leading voice for theistic evolution, what its leaders often call “evolutionary creationism.”  Founded by evangelical scientist Francis Collins, the organization has hoped to spread the idea that good science and good religion do not need to conflict.  Bible-believing Christians, BioLogos believes, can still embrace evolutionary science.

But that does not mean, apparently, that good manners and blog commenting can go together.  BioLogos’ Content Manager Jim Stump explained their reasoning for changing their public comment policy.  Too much of the online discussion, Stump said, was dominated by a few voices.  Instead of merely leaving comments open, editors will solicit email comments.  Those comments will be organized into a more coherent back-and-forth between commenters and original authors.  The hope is that this model will encourage more participation from more people than the open-forum approach.

Will it work?

If it does, is it worth the price of restricting open dialogue?

Ferocious critic Jerry Coyne called this a “desperation move” by an organization foundering on the shoals of reality.  Too many commenters, Coyne argued, were asking awkward questions and making persuasive arguments.  The real questions—about how God interacts with the world—proved threatening to BioLogos’ position on the compatibility of science and faith, Coyne said.  Too wide a chasm yawned between real science—which recognizes the extremely unlikeliness of humanity deriving from only two people—and evangelical religion—which insists on an historical Adam & Eve.

I don’t share Professor Coyne’s contempt for the BioLogos mission.  I believe the evolution/creation debates have plenty of room for scientific belief that rubs along with religious belief.

But I agree with Coyne that shutting down comments to preclude dominance by a few voices doesn’t make much sense.  The purpose of this sort of online publication is precisely to allow a free flow of ideas and discussion between people who might not otherwise meet one another.  If a few vociferous voices dominate that discussion, so be it.

A better way to include the unincluded would be actively to solicit short columns and opinion pieces by a wide spectrum of readers.  That way, more voices could be included from people who might shy away from the hurly-burly of an active and combative open-comment forum.


Jesus Loves Teaching Evolution

Is there a way to talk about creation and evolution without anger?  Without getting defensive?  Can evangelical Christians teach evolution without alienating their staunchly creationist fellow Christians?

To cut this Gordian knot, Christian biologist Kerry Fulcher offers what he calls his “Pedagogy of Hospitality.”

Fulcher laments the anger and hostility that are so often generated by these questions.  How does he approach teaching evolution in a Christian, creationist environment?

By remembering that love comes first.

Fulcher offers a six-point guide for teaching evolution in a Christian way:

  1. Begin by disarming/diffusing, which creates an openness to listen and discuss vs. feeding the flame that threatens others and causes them to be closed to real dialogue.

  2. Create a reason for the audience to be engaged or care about the topic by helping them understand why open discussion or dialogue about the issue might be helpful to them.

  3. Recognize the complexity of the issue and how an individual’s faith can rightly or wrongly interact with it in foundational ways.

  4. Set the tone of discussion as one of mutual respect for individuals that honors right relationships above right answers.

  5. Set goals of education that promote greater understanding vs. advocacy that promotes winning the argument. This puts us in the uncomfortable position of being OK with others understanding our position without necessarily accepting or believing it.

  6. Honor the individual and their journey by remembering our own – It has taken years and a lot of study and thought to get where I am on this issue, so don’t expect others to make huge leaps in their own positions…be gradual.

Of course, for some pundits on various sides of the creation/evolution debates, Fulcher’s person-first approach raises hackles.  Some creationists might worry that the Bible must always come first, even if some people find it off-putting.  Some evolution advocates might lament this sort of truckling to religious superstition.  The legitimacy of science, they might say, must not be abandoned, even if it hurts the feelings of some religious listeners.

How can someone really understand evolutionary theory, critics might say, without somehow believing it?  Can belief really be separated from understanding?

Though I don’t share Fulcher’s religious faith, I do share his opinion that effective education of any sort must begin by understanding and even loving one’s students.  In the narrow question of evolution education, that means not attacking students’ faiths.  It means beginning and ending with the positive relationships between teacher and student that are at the heart of any good teaching.

Why Do Evangelicals Doubt Evolution?

For outsiders like me, it can seem an utter mystery why intelligent, informed American adults remain skeptical about the truths of evolutionary science.

The BioLogos Foundation recently re-posted a 2010 video by evangelical scientist Jeffrey Schloss to help people like me understand evangelical skepticism.

Professor Schloss offers two main reasons why evangelicals oppose evolution.  The video is short and worth watching.  But the message is misleading.

Schloss argues that evangelical faith depends on the reliability of Scripture.  Accepting any ideas that challenge that reliability, he points out, would force evangelicals to make profound changes in their core religious beliefs.

Also, Schloss notes that some visions of evolution force evangelicals to doubt the omnipotence and benevolence of God.  If evolution implies a purposeless development of life, it must be rejected by evangelicals.

Such insights are important, but in the end they suggest misleading conclusions.

The vast majority of evangelicals who reject evolutionary science do not do so primarily for theological reasons, as Dr. Schloss suggests.  Rather, evangelicals who doubt evolution mostly do so due to their complex cultural identities as members of communities who doubt evolution.  In other words, evolution skepticism should not be understood as one rational decision among others, made by evangelicals (and others) based on reasoned theological considerations.  Rather, those who doubt evolution do so as members of communities reliant on authoritative statements about the theological impossibility of evolution.

In other words, people doubt evolution because they come from churches, families, towns, and denominations that doubt evolution.  They explain their doubt in theological terms, and such explanations are immensely important.  But they are not the primary reasons why people doubt evolution in the first place.

Perhaps this problem will make more sense if we try an analogy.  Historically, some economists suggested that people tend to make rational economic decisions.  By plotting a rational economic forecast, the thinking went, economists could predict the ways homo economicus would behave.  Unfortunately, real people don’t act often enough like homo economicus to make those predictions useful.  Some people do, naturally, but not enough to make homo economicus a useful explanatory tool.

I suggest that Professor Schloss is crafting a similarly misleading picture of homo theologicus.  Professor Schloss suggests that American evangelicals deny evolution due to two important theological considerations.  Doubtless there are some American evangelicals who have done so.  But more people make decisions for other reasons.  The theology is important, but it is not the place to start if we want to understand evolution skepticism.

Professor Schloss is doubtless fully aware of these sociological and cultural reasons for evolution skepticism.  He notes the many factors that go into evolution skepticism.  But by describing two theological ideas as the most important reasons for opposing evolution, he grossly mischaracterizes the nature of American evolution skepticism.

For those of us who hope to improve evolution education, this matters.  If we think of evolution skepticism as a rational theological belief, then we may decide that the best way to spread evolutionary theory is to explain evolutionary theory rationally and repeatedly.  We may be led to believe that reasonable independent actors have chosen evolution skepticism, and may thus be open to rationally and reasonably changing their minds.

That’s not how it works.  As my grad-school mentor Ronald Numbers has shown, the boundaries of acceptable “creationist” belief among evangelicals and other creationists have changed over time.  Such boundaries have not been something each individual evangelical creationist has reasoned out for him- or herself.  Rather, the meanings of evolution skepticism have themselves evolved.  And, as David Long’s ethnographic studies have demonstrated, personal commitments to evolution skepticism are not often changed by exposure to evolutionary theory.

Evolution skepticism is a complex cultural identity.  Americans do not choose to believe in either evolution or creationism in a sort of cultural cafeteria.  Rather, they are born (or adopted) into communities of belief.

Those of us who hope to spread the acceptance of evolutionary science must begin with a thorough and nuanced understanding of evolution skeptics.  Professor Schloss’ overemphasis on homo theologicus does not do that.