Not Jesus OR Evolution, Jesus AND Evolution

What dead-end questions do we keep asking in our continuing creation/evolution debates?

  • What does real science say?
  • What does real religion require?
  • What does the Bible mean?
  • How does the evidence prove the claims of Darwin?

As we’ve seen recently, smart people can bump heads endlessly on these questions without ever convincing one another.  As I argued in my 1920s book, these go-nowhere debates have been going on for almost a century.

More evidence today that the real question we should be asking is different.  Instead of asking about true religion or true science, it seems the real question is simpler:

  • Who am I?

A piece on the BioLogos Forum recently demonstrates the centrality of this basic question to attitudes about evolution and creation.

Geochemist Steven M. Smith relates his story.  For followers of the creation/evolution controversy, it is a familiar one.  An earnest young Young Earth Creationist sees the scientific evidence for a young earth.  This evidence brings on not only a scientific or religious crisis, but an existential one.  As Smith relates, his young self felt forced to choose between his Christian identity and the unassailable evidence of science.

For Smith, it was Christian support, including the “Christ-like” model of a Christian academic mentor that convinced him that he could be both Christian and scientific.

Smith’s story is not an outlier.  As anthropologist and science educator David Long argued so convincingly in his book Evolution and Religion in American Education, the central question for most students is not one of scientific evidence or religious belief.  The real question is one of identity.  Evidence that contradicts deeply held beliefs can trigger an existential crisis.  Though a few extraordinary individuals might pull off a wholesale revolution in their understandings of their selves, most people reject the evidence and stick with their well-established identities.  In the case of Long’s study of biology students at a large secular public university, most students from creationist backgrounds did not “convert” to belief in evolution.

As Steven Smith’s story suggests, simply pouring more science on people will not make much of a difference.  If we want to promote more and better evolution education, we need to consider the profound implications of evolution for the identities of many creationists.  An acceptance of evolution, for many, is not simply an acquiescence to evidence.  Instead, unless and until they find a way to construct an identity consonant with both their religion and the scientific evidence, it would entail a wholesale revolution in their understandings of themselves.

If we want more people, more creationists, to accept the evidence for an old earth and common ancestry of species, it makes sense to support those religious folks who can help create and promote such identities.