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.