Physicist Karl Giberson, a former evangelical who now identifies as a mainline Protestant, has written an admirably clear-headed essay for The Daily Beast on contemporary evangelicalism’s fraught relationship with the theory of evolution. Here he is summarizing scientific illiteracy in the United States in general, how it’s driven by the crassest sort of young earth biblical literalism, and how absurdly disconnected this ridiculous worldview–Adam and Eve literally existed in a garden in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, etc.–is from reality:
Americans entered 2013 more opposed to evolution than they have been for years, with an amazing 46 percent embracing the notion that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so.” This number was up a full 6 percent from the prior poll taken in 2010. According to a December 2013 Pew poll, among white evangelical Protestants, a demographic that includes many Republican members of Congress and governors, almost 64 percent reject the idea that humans have evolved.
The connection between acceptance of evolution and political affiliation has grown stronger over the past three years, exacerbating the polarization now plaguing Congress. Among Democrats, acceptance of evolution increased by 3 percent, to 67 percent, while among Republicans it decreased from 54 percent to 43 percent.
The trajectory is not encouraging, especially as it runs in parallel with a steady increase in the evidence for evolution—evidence now piled so high that not even one evolutionary biologist at any of America’s research universities rejects the theory. Evolution is as widely accepted in biology departments as gravity is in physics departments. [...]
Those of us teaching evolution at evangelical colleges are made to feel as if we have this subversive secret we must whisper quietly in our students’ ears: “Hey, did you know that Adam and Eve were not the first humans and never even existed? And that you can still be a Christian and believe that?” Such an approach works surprisingly well, at least in persuading young people that evolution is true and compatible with their faith, as long as it occurs in the quiet intellectual confines of the classroom, where the subversive message is delivered by caring and thoughtful Christian professors.
But some professors, alarmed by the persistent gap between the evangelical community and the findings of science—the gap that drives their students out of their churches—have naively presumed to educate their larger faith communities by writing books and articles in support of scientific theories of origins such as evolution and the Big Bang. Their quiet whispers thus become loud proclamations. Influential leaders read their books and are horrified to discover that a faculty member at “their” college is spreading “lies from the pit of hell” and destroying the faith of the students. Campaigns of various sorts are mounted and pressure exerted on the college leadership to remove that dangerous professor.
That was my life for my last 15 years as a faculty member at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, after my books, articles, and lectures made me the focus of fundamentalist rage.
In other words, science over the past 150 years has discovered that the Earth is vastly old, plants and animals change over time, and humans got their start in Africa, not Mesopotamia. These things are true. And there are colleges–colleges!–across America where these basic scientific discoveries cannot be spoken by professors too loudly or insistently, lest they lose their jobs.
That’s how bad it is; how unhinged it is.
Here’s Giberson naming names:
I spent countless hours in the office of a succession of college presidents, explaining why Christians needed to make peace with evolution, no matter how painful. I was forced to communicate and even meet with hostile external constituents to defend well-established science against people who knew nothing about it beyond the challenges it posed to their interpretation of the Bible. One such watchdog group, the Reformed Nazarenes, rejoiced when I finally left the college.
My story is far from unique. Indeed, it’s almost typical. Understandably, only a handful of evangelical scholars have published books and articles in defense of evolution, but many of them have been forced to resign as a result. Howard Van Till and John Schneider were both forced out of Calvin College. Richard Colling was forced out of Olivet Nazarene University. All three had decades of exemplary service. Many others were silenced or censured.
Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but any religious group, however large, that is incapable of incorporating the elementary findings of history and science into its worldview, and uses its institutional power to enforce an over-rigid conformity on its members, is a cult. The majority of Mormons are cultish about the history of North America and the majority of Evangelicals are cultish about the history of life on Earth. They close themselves off from the readily verifiable truth. Both groups are thus cranky–attracting cranks, charlatans, and crackpots. They provide their communities with alternative (and quite ridiculous) counter-narratives to mainstream history and science, becoming ever more insular in the process, and facts become “stupid things.”
But the truth matters. And when there is no real contact between what is believed and what is, someone has to step forward and say, in more than a whisper, “The emperor has no clothes!”
Karl Giberson has done that, bravely and repeatedly, at real professional risk to himself. He has made truth paramount, and has played the role of an unwelcome Jeremiah to the community to which he belonged–and he has paid a price for it. Here he is declaring his own status after coming out of the closet on evolution:
I am a white evangelical Protestant, or at least I was until persuaded to leave a couple of years ago.
And here he is on the demographic exodus of the young–most especially, the better educated young–from evangelicalism:
For a quarter century I taught scientific theories of origins—evolution and the Big Bang Theory—under a cloud of suspicion that waxed and waned but never totally disappeared. With few exceptions, my mostly evangelical students accepted these ideas. I took informal polls indicating that most of the 50 percent of my students who rejected evolution at the beginning of my course accepted it by the end. My colleagues at other evangelical colleges report similar experiences. We were hopeful that these evangelical students would become leaders of their faith communities and gradually persuade their fellow evangelicals that evolution was not a lie from hell—which was what many of them had been taught in Sunday school. But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them.
An alarming study by the Barna group looked at the mass exodus of 20-somethings from evangelicalism and discovered that one of the major sources of discontent was the perception that “Christianity was antagonistic to science.” Anti-evolution, and general suspicion of science, has become such a significant part of the evangelical identity that many people feel compelled to choose one or the other. Many of my most talented former students no longer attend any church, and some have completely abandoned their faith traditions.
In other words, contemporary evangelicalism is England in the 1970s–a place where the taxes are simply too high, and the best and the brightest head for the exits. In the case of evangelicalism, it’s not income taxation, but intellectual taxation, that has become too burdensome. Giberson is saying that, if you have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of science, it is taxing to be an evangelical.
Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard, in his book The Blank Slate (Penguin 2002), describes “the mentality of a cult” as “fantastical beliefs” that “are flaunted as proof of one’s piety.” He goes on to state, “That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for truth, [...]” (Preface). That’s the tax on those exposed to science; the price of admission for the educated into the cult of contemporary evangelicalism. The rejection of evolution becomes a test of commitment. Can you believe in biblical literalism regardless of what you’ve learned about the historical and scientific evidence contradicting it?
If so, blessed are you! You don’t care what the secular historians and scientists have “discovered.” Yours is the kingdom of heaven. Join the marriage supper of the Lamb and dance among your brethren, for they too have surrendered their reason to the Lord, which is the last bastion of pride.
But don’t expect many others of a similar education to your own to come along. Narrow is your way.
Karl Giberson, by the way, has written, with Randall Stephens, an excellent study of contemporary evangelicalism: The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Harvard 2011).