by Rev. Penny Greer Friday, January 20, 2012
I had recently moved to a new community and begun a new job. One night I was dining with some potential new friends. Upon learning that I am both a Christian and a passionate student of geology, one of my dinner mates proclaimed, “So, I suppose you believe in evolution, right? Well, I need to let you know that I HATE evolution.” I somehow managed to keep my cool. “And exactly why do you hate evolution?” I queried. “My minister has taught us that it is false Christian teaching,” she retorted. By that time, I could not hold myself back. I initiated some strong discussion aimed at educating.
As an ordained Christian pastor with a bachelor’s degree in geology, encounters such as these are not unusual for me. However, I am not alone; most members of the scientific community have encountered the same deep-seated rejection of evolution, particularly from certain quarters of the Christian community.
Most in the scientific community are aware that “evolution” now refers to a collection of observations and hypotheses that enables us to understand how populations of living organisms are interrelated through time. Most of us understand that populations experience changes that can be inherited. Along with inherited change comes genetic change. These are facts as certain as the force of gravity. Geologists add to these understandings all the time, documenting the fossil record of changes and the vast lengths of time certain changes might need in order to occur. Furthermore, as living organisms evolve, they can modify Earth; and in turn, Earth can further modify them. For example, photosynthetic microbial life produced the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere eons ago. Then, only after Earth acquired an oxygenated atmosphere, could higher forms of life evolve.
It is puzzling why the American Protestant Fundamentalist tradition, newly resurgent these days, has been so stridently opposed to these truths. Certainly biblical literalism plays a role. But there are other reasons as well. To understand them, we need to appreciate the context within which American Protestant Christian Fundamentalism developed.
In the United States, Evangelical Protestantism was one of the dominant religious traditions during the latter half of the 19th century. Individual conversions to the faith were important back then, like today, but progressive social movements such as the Abolitionist and Suffragist movements were also important facets. Christianity had not separated into the fundamentalist and liberal factions that exist now. Centered both in universities and churches, the Evangelical Movement was devoted to spiritual conversions, moral education and the development of reason. These things worked together to aid the spread of American civilization.
Science was important to Evangelicals as well, but they conducted it quite differently. Nature was considered to be governed by a set of natural laws overseen by a benevolent Creator. Influenced by their interpretation of the work of Francis Bacon, a key proponent of scientific Empiricism, Evangelicals began the scientific enterprise with observation. They observed nature to discover facts. Once discovered, they would attempt to organize and classify those facts from which they could identify laws. “Positive science,” as these Evangelical leaders termed it, had to do with facts and verified laws.
Hypotheses, however, were not facts but mere speculation. Learned Evangelicals read Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” shortly after it was published and rejected Darwin’s claims. Evolution was to them a speculative hypothesis, and therefore not a fact that could be classified among other facts to help lead to the discovery of laws.
As the 20th century approached, the Modernist Movement began to take hold in many parts of the world. Science and the scientific method were becoming more commonplace. But the core of Evangelical ideas linking morality, conversion, civilization and a particular way of doing science was threatened. Furthermore, the Western world grew increasingly unstable and eventually, World War I erupted. This led to the rise of a new segment in the Evangelical Movement: Fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism’s dominant ideas included the inerrancy of scripture and its literal interpretation. Scripture represented the divine control over all of history through a series of God-ordained divisions of time. After 6,000 years, Christ would return to inaugurate a 1,000-year reign of peace. By Fundamentalist reasoning, time on Earth could have been no more than 6,000 years old with the last 1,000 years about to commence at any point.
Such a historical framework for human existence required that evolution be rejected wholeheartedly. God was in control of all history and there could be no “godless” natural process, such as evolution, that would fly in the face of such a reality. The billions of years of Earth history documented by geologists could not have existed in the literal biblical world.
By the mid-20th century, leading Evangelicals rededicated themselves to promoting their movement in American society by encouraging conversions, promoting Christian morality in public school education, championing American civilization and opposing evolution. Some of these Fundamentalist ideas are still essential for many who attend contemporary Pentecostal, Baptist and many independent nondenominational churches, which included my dinner partner.
The wall that scientists have been encountering within Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity is composed of diverse building blocks. They include a historical tradition that defines scientific investigation differently, and a particular understanding of God’s intervention limited to specific ages that total a mere 7,000 years. Then add in literal scriptural interpretation. Any productive dialogue will depend upon a careful understanding of these realities.
Those who embrace evolution can still be people of faith. Understanding where the rejection of evolution comes from may help us deal with it more effectively.
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