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.

Here’s What Creationists Call Anti-Science

Who is anti-science? Depends whom you ask! Recently World Magazine offered a creationist list of the real anti-science stories of 2014.

The sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH may be surprised to hear it, but there are still people out there who think this is a simple question. They have not read books such as Ron Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail. Such folks are trapped in the old notion that science and religion have been at loggerheads ever since Galileo and Giordano Bruno poked their scientific noses under religion’s intellectual tent.

Your anti-science or mine?

Your anti-science or mine?

Such naïve readers may assume that creationism is simply “anti-science.” They don’t know that creationists and non-creationists have, instead, been fighting for decades over the title of “real” science.

Karl Giberson is not one of these people. Giberson understands the complex cultural politics of creationism and science better than most people. So when Giberson published his list of top-ten anti-science stories of 2014, he knew he was making a political point, not a scientific one. Giberson blasted such creationist institutions as Bryan College, World Magazine, the Discovery Institute, and the Institute for Creation Research. He called out prominent creationists such as Ken Ham and Albert Mohler by name. Such folks, Giberson accused, led the list of “America’s flakerrati” with their “preposterous claims.”

As Giberson knows well, proving that your enemies are anti-science is good politics. In spite of some chatter to the contrary, very few Americans distrust science as an institution. Believe it or not, even conservatives tend to have more trust in science and scientists than they do in such things as big business and churches.

Sure enough, one of the institutions on Giberson’s anti-science list has taken some pains to dispute its anti-science status. At World Magazine, Daniel James Levine has offered a rebuttal. As Levine puts it,

WORLD believes good science is vital, so we want to contribute to the effort to keep research on the straight and narrow.

As we might expect, what World thinks of as anti-science looks very different from Giberson’s list. Levine offers seven top anti-science claims of 2014. Instead of creationism, Ebola hysteria, and climate-change skepticism, Levine gives these top seven anti-science ideas:

1.) “Selling abortion through euphemism;”

2.) “Denying homosexuals can change;”

3.) “Denying the dangers of the gay lifestyle;”

4.) “Searching for extraterrestrials;”

5.) “The ‘overpopulation’ crisis;”

6.) “Gender as a social construct;” and

7.) “The imaginative multiverse theory.”

Clearly, this is not simply a case of to-may-toe/ to-mah-toe. What each side views as “real” science is dramatically different. Nor must we simply shrug our shoulders and conclude that there is no way to differentiate real anti-science from false anti-science. With apologies to creationists and religious conservatives out there, I agree that mainstream science is better science than the creationist alternatives.

In the end, though, we must remember that accusations of “anti-science” are not really about science: They are first and foremost strategic moves in our continuing culture wars.

Call Me, New York Times

Did you see it yet?

All of us who follow creation/evolution debates have likely read by now the “Room for Debate” essays in the New York Times the other day.

The jumping-off point, it seems, was Virginia Heffernan’s recent claim that she is a creationist.  The editors asked contributors, “Is it really so controversial to believe in biblical creationism?”

Each essay is short and pithy.  Certainly worth your time.  They include fourteen cents altogether, two each from an evangelical physicist, a liberal theologian, an evangelical apologist, a Muslim pundit, a political scientist, a law professor, and a theologian/environmentalist.  All in all, an interesting and idiosyncratic collection of opinions on the subject.

But here’s my beef: Where is education in all these voices?

Other scribblers, I’m sure, will ask other questions.  For example, where is atheism?  Or any sort of strong argument that it is, indeed, a big problem to believe in biblical creationism?

The editors would not have had to work hard to find a good atheist to contribute.  Even outside the big names such as Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, plenty of articulate atheists could have offered a strong opinion about the dangers of believing in biblical creationism.

More directly relevant to readers of ILYBYGTH, where is the voice of education?

IMHO, the issue of “biblical creationism” would not be nearly as controversial if Americans did not have to decide what to teach in our public schools.

As Professor Giberson noted in his piece, “The brouhaha about ‘biblical creation’ is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world.”

Well put.  But that proxy war is fought primarily in boards of education, in classrooms and PTA meetings, in state textbook meetings, and in thousands of other school-related battlefields.  The evolution/creation controversy is not primarily an issue simply of scientific or theological disagreement about epistemology and ontology.  There are plenty of other issues on which people do not agree that have not had the tumultuous career of the creation/evolution debates.

In short, the brouhaha over reality of meaning is only a brouhaha because we need to decide on what sorts of meanings we will teach our children.

It would have helped this discussion enormously, I believe, if someone had pointed this out; if at least one contributor made education his or her primary intellectual interest.  I’m not only saying this because I wish the NYT had called me.  Though I do work for peanuts.

In the bigger picture, leaving an “education” voice out of a creation/evolution debate has long been a problem for those of us trying to understand the issue.  Too often, creation/evolution is framed as an issue of science and religion.  Science and religion only.  As if the truth of life’s origins remained the primary source of controversy.

That makes it difficult to understand the real issues.  As thoughtful scholars such as Randy Moore, Lee Meadows, Michael Berkman & Eric Plutzer, and David Long have pointed out, creation/evolution is not only about “the reality of meaning in the world.”  The rubber hits the road in this culture-war issue with individual students, in specific classrooms, day after day, decade after decade.

Unless we recognize the importance of the way creation/evolution plays out in such real-life environments, we will not move forward.

So, for the record, the next time any editor wants to corral a herd of scholars to comment on creation/evolution issues, please be sure to include someone with a primary interest in evolution.

It doesn’t have to be me.  But I’m always available.

I will also talk about creation/evolution at Labor Day cookouts, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, awkward crowded elevator rides, or any other event.  Just call me!

 

Is the War between Science and Religion Over?

Here’s one we missed: among the year-end top-ten lists was Paul Wallace’s list of “Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars” at Religion Dispatches.

Looking back at 2011, Wallace offered this cheering prediction:

“This year has marked, I believe, the beginning of the end of the war between science and religion. Creationism cannot last. The New Atheists are now getting old. And between these camps the middle ground continues to expand.”

Wallace’s article lists ten leading voices from the broad middle ground.  Included are evangelical scientist Karl Giberson and irenic atheist Chris Stedman.

We missed Wallace’s list at the time.  Looking back at the progress of 2012 so far, it doesn’t seem as if the culture wars have abated noticeably.  But perhaps we need to look more at trends than headlines.  As one of Wallace’s top-ten peacemakers, Rachel Held Evans, put it,

“My generation of evangelicals is ready to call a truce on the culture wars. It seems like our parents, our pastors, and the media won’t let us do that. We are ready to be done with the whole evolution-creation debate. We are ready to move on.”

The goal at ILYBYGTH has always been to promote a true and lasting peace in these culture wars, not merely an angry and demilitarized standoff.  A more profound and sympathetic understanding of Fundamentalist America among us outsiders could lead to a greater willingness to work together.  Or at least to an ability to understand what the other side is saying.

Was Wallace right?  Has 2012 produced a new crop of peace-makers?  It is not too difficult, after all, to stretch beyond Wallace’s list to point out other hopeful signs of a new generation of writers and activists willing to reach across the cultural trenches to work with the other side.  Just a few that have attracted wide notice lately:

Starting long before Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 invocation of the “culture-wars,” it has seemed that the boldest headlines have been made by those who attack their opponents relentlessly.  Perhaps we can see here a broadening of interest in the peaceable middle, those who want to speak civilly and productively with those on the opposite sides of these culture-war trenches.  One can always hope.

Required Reading: Fundamentalist America Defends Its Borders

The knives are sharp!  At the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens has published a collection of snippets of angry reviews of his recent book and New York Times op-ed.

For all those who are trying to make sense of Fundamentalist America, the book, the op-ed, and the hostile reviews are all worth reading.

Stephens and his co-author Karl Giberson took to task the culture of conservative evangelical Protestantism–maybe the most powerful single faction of what we call Fundamentalist America–for supporting a raft of puffed-up self-declared experts.  Stephens and Giberson themselves are evangelical Christians and teach at a Christian college.  But the false experts, they insist, do not represent the totality of evangelical Protestant intellectual life.  A fundamentalist “Rejection of Reason” is only one possible style of evangelical belief.

The angry denunciations of their work demonstrate the defensive stance of some twenty-first century conservative Christians.  As Stephens points out in his blog post, the “haters” were notable for the “red-faced, veins bulging-out-of-the neck, barking jeremiad passion” of their reviews.