“How I Changed My Mind About Evolution”

Is there a topic more threatening to evangelicals than evolution?

Many evangelicals are convinced that evolution theory threatens to undermine – even dismantle – core beliefs about the Bible and Christian theology. Evangelical churches tend to fall somewhere on a continuum between an unspoken but default anti-evolution stance on one end and a Ken Ham-style all-out war on the other.

A Gallup Poll (2014) found that 69% of Americans who attend church weekly believe that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Weekly church attenders are mostly evangelicals.

book review how i changed my mind evolution

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution is a collection of twenty-five short faith memoirs – first-hand accounts from practicing evangelicals. All but one in the group are theologians (academics and/or pastors) or scientists (academics, researchers, editors). Their backgrounds are varied – cradle Christians to atheists/agnostics. All but one came to faith in an evangelical tradition. Most initially embraced the literal Genesis interpretation of their faith mentors or faith tradition.

Several writers described a personal “road to Damascus” experience on their way to acceptance of evolution theory – their study of origins began as a search for ammunition in a culture war against evolution (a war which is, as N. T. Wright points out, primarily fought in America).

The group includes a history-making, world-renown research scientist (Francis Collins), a best-selling author (Scot McKnight), and many other names you might recognize.

Incremental Journeys

The journey to accepting evolution theory was often incremental and usually included a time of closeted acceptance of evolution. A first step for several writers was exposure to books and conversations outside their own faith “tribes”. The exposure was sometimes initially threatening, but eventually embraced:

I began to sense that science was bigger than what I had been taught . . . (p. 24)

How could I have never heard about these things? (p. 182)

Interestingly, tools of the trade used by several of the writers in their vocations were repurposed in their journey to acceptance of evolution theory. For example, in his fundamentalist seminary education, Scot McKnight was trained to read the Bible for himself, to sort out the evidence, and to base his beliefs on the evidence alone. McKnight calls this the “hermeneutical equivalent of the scientific method” (p. 31), and he eventually applied this “hermeneutic” to the scientific evidence of origins.

Likewise, an analytic philosopher applied a tool of philosophy – there are things that are true independent of what we think about the matter – and concluded that all truth is God’s truth.

The backgrounds and stories vary, but common themes wind their way through the memoirs.

So what changed their minds?

“What else did the church lie to me about?”

Raised in a church and Christian school where a young earth was truth and evolution was a lie, she was devastated after she encountered a thoughtful and reasoned explanation of evolution in a university science course. Her parents (members of one writer’s church) were thankful that she was willing to have a conversation, given that the church’s perceived rejection of science is a primary reason eighteen to thirty-year-olds abandon their faith.

The most pervasive theme in this collection of faith memoirs was a realization of personal intellectual dishonesty. The historical and scientific gymnastics required in order to make empirical evidence “fit” a young earth, a literal Genesis, or the claims of the intelligent design movement eventually became harder than accepting the scientific evidence.

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As an undergraduate, pastor and developmental psychologist Daniel M. Harrell felt the tension. He chose astronomy as his one required science course, hoping to avoid the “indictments of fossils and DNA”. But stars don’t lie about their age, and Harrell soon went scrambling for a “trick” to combat the cognitive dissonance he felt. His campus minister provided the solution: all evidences of evolution and an old earth are simply “appearances” – the earth only “appears” to be old, for instance. This solution worked through college, seminary, and a Ph.D. program, but eventually the tricks collapsed and the cognitive dissonance returned with force.

Harrell concluded that not only did the “appearances trick” collapse under the evidence, but it also failed theologically.

… it seemed to portray God as an intentional deceiver. This would never do. (p. 126)

Several writers recalled belief (encouraged by their faith communities) in a vast, world-wide scientific conspiracy. Scientists and atheists (aren’t they really the same?) were in cahoots to deceive the world:

  • A transitional fossil has never been found.
  • Rock dating techniques aren’t accurate or reliable.
  • There is evidence supporting creationism, but scientists suppress it.

One writer recalled a poster mocking human evolution hanging in her Christian school’s science classroom. She recalled how she and her twelve-year-old classmates were smug in the knowledge that they knew something that all the scientists in the world didn’t.

Eventually, the overwhelming evidence for evolution and an old earth overcame the science-denying mental gymnastics:

Conspiracy theories about scientists piecing together ordinary bits of bone to make dinosaurs or relying on faulty radio-carbon dating techniques to argue that the earth was hundreds of millions of years old became increasingly absurd once I got to know science and scientists firsthand. (p. 140)

tugwar

One writer, raised by her atheist father to approach the cosmos with unbridled awe and wonder, came to science before she came to faith:

the young-earth argument didn’t seem to align with the ever-expansiveness I had experienced with God . . . As I read the arguments that the earth must be only several thousand years old . . . I felt less in awe of our Creator, not a greater sense of glorious mystery . . . (p. 156)

Rethinking Theology

A prevalent theme in the memoirs is a “rethinking” of traditional evangelical theology. Primarily, what do we do with with Adam? Does Christian theology require a literal, historical, and unique Adam?

And what about the image of God? How does common descent of all living beings impact the theology of being “made in the image of God”?

How is God “originator” and “creator” in a naturalistic process?

Some writers elaborated their thoughts on these questions; others confessed to an ongoing wrestling match with theology despite their acceptance of evolution theory. One writer eloquently encouraged patience in the “hard work of learning” (p. 88).

Here’s how another writer put it:

. . . if all truth is God’s truth, then in principle our understanding of Scripture and truth are compatible, even if the precise manner in which they are compatible may not always be clear to us . . .  (p. 81)

Probably the greatest resource used by the writers in rethinking traditional interpretations of Genesis was the historical and archeological evidence from ancient near-eastern cultures – the cultural ancestors and cultural neighbors of ancient Israel.

Creation stories and flood stories that far predate the Genesis stories demanded attention. Setting ancient Israel within its cultural, historical, and literary contexts removed obstacles to acceptance of evolution theory for many writers.

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Broken Relationships

Sadly, an all-too-common event in the memoirs was a broken relationship of some sort.

Many memoirs described an intellectual no-man’s land. Their faith was suspect by their Christian friends; their intelligence was suspect by their science colleagues.

A wealthy donor threatened to pull support from a seminary if a professor who was critical of the intelligent design movement was given tenure.

A successful, tenured professor was forced out because he refused to publicly support a new anti-evolution university faith statement.

Even Francis Collins was not immune. He definitely felt the love in the room when he spoke to a national group of Christian physicians.

Here’s a world-class science rock star! And – he’s a very public and committed Christian! Yay!

But then:

. . . I mentioned how overwhelming the scientific evidence for evolution is, and suggested that in my view evolution might be God’s elegant plan for creating humankind. The warmth left the room. So did some of the attendees, literally walking out, shaking their heads in dismay. (p. 71)

Changing Your Mind

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution hits the best of both worlds – it is readable and user-friendly, but doesn’t skimp on the science or theology. It’s a book I read with lots of “me, toos!”.

I, too, felt a conflict between what I was learning in public school and in college and what was held as the de facto origins position of my faith “tribe”.

Author and speaker John Clayton, an atheist convert to Christianity, was the first to give me “permission” to think outside my evolution box. As a geologist, Clayton rejected the idea of a young earth. I do not accept Clayton’s intelligent design explanations, but I am thankful he pushed my thinking.

On to the big guns: after Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin’s God, Only a Theory), Francis Collins (The Language of God), and Darrel Falk (Coming to Peace with Science), there was no turning back.

For an in-depth look at the origin and flood stories of the ancient near east, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam, Inspiration and Incarnation) is my go-to.

For a very user-friendly introduction to the science and theology of origins, read Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God (Mitchell and Blackard).

ccat reading

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The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge

*****

who invited the herbivore

Indiana Jones and A Tale of Two Books (Reading Genesis, part 2)

George Lucas and Indiana Jones couldn’t have made a better story. In a library that had not checked out a book in several millennia, archeologists discovered stacks of clay tablets in an ancient language.

In the early 1850s, archeologists excavated the library of a Babylonian king (Ashurbanipal) in the ancient city of Nineveh. The trove of clay tablets was treasure. There were records of laws and administration. There was literature. And in the religious texts, there was a story of creation.

In the story, order is created out of chaos.

In the story, light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.

In the story, the sequence of creation is division of waters, dry land, creation of lights, creation of humanity – all followed by a time of rest.

This Babylonian creation story is called Enuma Elish (from the opening phrase “When on high”). Enuma Elish is dated at 2000 BC, but it appears to have originated in even older Sumerian stories (3000 BC).

It was a bombshell at the time. Enuma Elish was far older than the Genesis creation story. Until the discovery of Enuma Elish, the Genesis creation account was unique. Not only was Genesis not unique, it wasn’t even original.

And to top it off, just a few years later (1858), Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Stop the ride, we’re getting dizzy. roller_coaster_scream

Genesis After Darwin

Just as mid-nineteenth scholars/theologians were grappling with Enuma Elish, here comes Darwin. Popular lore presumes that all scientists immediately discounted everything about Genesis, while fundamentalist Christians (who were not bright enough to understand the science) held to it.

Reality was a bit more complex. There were churchmen and scientists who rejected Darwin’s claims for a variety of reasons which were not always religious. At the same time, a group of 717 “gentlemen” – many of whom were leading scientists of the day – signed a document affirming “science as a gift from God” and that “the author of both (science and scripture) would not allow them to ultimately contradict” (David Wilkinson, in Reading Genesis After Darwin).

As far back as the time of Isaac Newton, British scientists questioned a 6,000 years-old earth. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, geologists had demonstrated that the earth was far older than the 4004 BC start date popularized by Bishop Ussher. Scientists and theologians in the nineteenth century debated the specifics of geologic history, but Christian writers who believed in a young earth were the exception, not the rule.

Even Darwin did not set off an immediate religious firestorm – Darwin was not the first to suggest the idea of evolution. Darwin was ground-breaking because he described the mechanism of evolutionary change (natural selection).

Most nineteenth century Christian leaders and scholars were not all that upset about the evolution of plants and animals. They weren’t all that upset about a very ancient earth. They were not even upset about a non-literal reading of Genesis. The upsetting part was the idea that human beings were in the story, too. To many Christians, the idea of humans sharing a common history with all life diminished the dignity of humans. How could man be a moral being if he shared history with the common animals?

 

Even so, B.B. Warfield, founder of the Princeton School of Theology (which birthed the American fundamentalist movement), said this:

I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need to be opposed to evolution.

Other scientists, including the noted botanist Asa Gray, saw God in the elegant process of evolution.

In the Christian world contemporary with Darwin, evolution was not collectively panned. There was a sense that because God was revealed ultimately in Jesus, the Christian faith was not dependent on the design argument (D. Wilkinson, Reading Genesis After Darwin)

A Tale of Two Books

The publication of Darwin’s Origen of Species on the heels of the discovery of Eluma Elish forced a conversation on Biblical interpretation like never before.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and again the concurrent publication of two books is driving a conversation among Christians.

Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and go-to guy for contemporary atheism, published his best-seller The God Delusion in 2006. Dawkins makes no bones about it – “scientific creationism”, “intelligent design”, and of course, a literal Genesis, are complete nonsense and unworthy of attention, except for ridicule.

That same year, another best-seller – The Language of God – was published by an American who will go down as one of the premier scientists of our generation – Francis Collins. Dr. Collins led the Human Genome Project, now heads the National Institutes of Health, and is a frequent public voice for all that is cutting-edge in science. Dr. Collins is also a committed and vocal Christian.

Like Dawkins, Francis Collins has no interest in making Genesis a science textbook.

Unlike Dawkins, Francis Collins believes that the Bible enriches our understanding of science and science helps us better interpret and understand scripture (Reading Genesis After Darwin).

Dawkins argues that modern science is completely incompatible with belief in God. Ironically, many Christians agree with him.

Collins (and many scientists like him) are authentic examples of why that isn’t so.

 The Options

In a twenty-first century conversation, Christians have three options for reading Genesis:

Option One – Reading Genesis Literally and Historically. Option one reads the opening chapters of Genesis and interprets exactly as written. The entire cosmos was created in six 24-hour days. All life was created separately and specially. The earth is about 6,000 years old, based on genealogies in Genesis. No additional considerations are needed because the text is taken at face-value. There is a sense of security in believing “what God says and not what man says”.

But for those who read Genesis literally and historically, there are things that cannot be ignored. A literal belief means a stand against the vast, vast majority of modern science and scientists. It means a stand against the science that is trusted for medical care, disease research, agriculture, aviation, engineering, and energy. The science concepts that explain the origin of the cosmos and development of life on earth are the same concepts that support our modern lives. If young-earth creationism is true, modern science collapses. Literalists have to own the contradiction.

Option Two – Forcing Modern Science into Genesis. Option two wants to find modern science in the Genesis creation story. In order to account for an old earth, some have suggested that there is a huge gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Others have proposed a “day-age” solution where the days of creation are actually millions of years. “Intelligent Design” is a well-organized, well-funded movement that recognizes a very old earth, but holds to special creation of living things in the sequence found in Genesis.

This option attempts to take science seriously, but still treats the Genesis creation story as a scientific account. This option has both theological problems and scientific problems. For example:

  • most agree that the meaning of “day” in Genesis is a real, 24-hour day
  • the order of appearance in Genesis of different kinds of living things conflicts with genetics and the fossil record

Option Three – Making Peace with Genesis and Modern Science. In Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God, Lynn Mitchell and Kirk Blackard explain that nature and the Bible are God’s two books – his two revelations. Both books reveal truth about God. Here’s Mitchell and Blackard:

No conflict exists between biological evolution and the belief that God is the source of all there is, with a creative plan that includes natural consequences and divine governance over a continuing and ever changing process…the theory of biological evolution, based on empirical evidence, makes no claim as to why life originated or who was or is the moving force.

Next up in this series on reading Genesis:

How do the ancient Babylonian creation stories differ from the creation story in Genesis? Why is it important?

How was Genesis intended to be read and understood? How would the original hearers have heard the creation story?

 

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.

I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and

night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.

I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because

the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

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