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Teaching Evolution at a Christian College

Polling shows that about 2/3 of Protestant evangelicals reject the theory of evolution, which creates a real problem for professors at Christian colleges who teach evolution. Karl Giberson, who taught physics at an evangelical college for 25 years, writes about his experiences.

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.

Of course, we have no need to view that study as alarming. It’s quite healthy, actually.

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. Productive scholarship that would be highly valued at other institutions became instead a major liability. Administrators complained that I was too controversial and creating public relations problems—not because they disagreed with what I said but because I was no longer just whispering it quietly in the classroom. Youth pastors informed the admissions office at the college that they were discouraging students from attending the college because it promoted evolution. Affiliated churches withheld financial support. Donors went elsewhere with their money.

This is fairly common. My friend Howard Van Till actually faced a heresy trial by the church that controlled Calvin College, where he taught astronomy for decades, because of his support of evolution and the big bang.

Comments

  1. DaveL says

    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

    Yes, I believe this is what’s known as “speaking truth to power”, and it neither naive nor presumptuous.

  2. raven says

    Polling shows that about 2/3 of Protestant evangelicals reject the theory of evolution, which creates a real problem for professors at Christian colleges who teach evolution.

    Of which there are very few.

    The fundie colleges ha’ve had a lot of purges over the decades and found and fired almost all of them. Not that there were many in the first place. Fundies are huge fans of Stalinism and Orwell.

  3. Michael Heath says

    Karl Giberson:

    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.

    This is an illustrative example of an observation Bob Altemeyer reports in his research. Those kids who are subjected to religious indoctrination by conservative Christians are continually subjected to principle of objective truth. The principle of course is laudable, however we know that conservative Christians merely claim ownership of objective truth, they don’t actually seek it or credibly scrutinize what they currently believe. In fact they predominately avoid such scrutiny.

    A certain percentage of children subjected to an environment that forms authoritarians will reject authoritarianism. Altemeyer found those that rejected these indoctrinal attempts were mostly intelligent and cared enough about objective truth to abandon their parents’ faith since they eventually concluded their faith was based on lies, e.g., creationism. These same children grew into adults who continue to greatly value objective truth.

  4. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    My friend Howard Van Till actually faced a heresy trial by the church that controlled Calvin College…

    A Heresy Trial!? They can still do that?

  5. says

    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?

    Really? This is one thing at least where conservative Evangelicals are smarter than their liberal counterparts who do accept evolution. If there was no Adam and Eve then there was no Fall. If there was no Fall there is no Original Sin. With no Original Sin then what point is there in Jesus’ Sacrifice? If His sacrifice had no point then Christianity is pointless, All theological mumbo-jumbo that has been tried to get around this just amounts to nothing more then ad hoc special pleading.

  6. jamessweet says

    I think Uncle Karl has a point here, as loathe as I am to grant it:

    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…But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them.

    (emph. mine)

    On an individual level, I think people are making the right decision by leaving these communities, of course. And ideally, I’d like to just see everybody leave. But from a more pragmatic perspective, real change in the short term requires people working from the inside — people who still really believe and are part of these evangelical communities, but who are not afraid to champion science and acceptance of evolution/cosmology/etc. To reiterate, I would not recommend this course to anyone on an individual level; better to just be done with the fantasies. But on a broader, societal level, the fact that they are “leaving with their enlightenment” rather than enlightening the communities they came from, that is troubling and does not point towards a positive outcome.

    (As to how to fix it, you got me… I’m sure not going to ask anybody to continue to believe something false for the sake of internal reform!)

  7. raven says

    Posting the list of who is really being beaten up, threatened, fired, attempted to be fired, and killed. Not surprisingly, it is scientists and science supporters by Death Cultists.

    If anyone has more info add it. Also feel free to borrow or steal the list.

    I thought I’d post all the firings of professors and state officials for teaching or accepting evolution.

    2 professors fired, Bitterman (SW CC Iowa) and Bolyanatz (Wheaton)

    1 persecuted unmercifully Richard Colling (Olivet) Now resigned under pressure.

    1 persecuted unmercifully for 4 years Van Till (Calvin)

    1 attempted firing Murphy (Fuller Theological by Phillip Johnson IDist)

    1 successful death threats, assaults harrasment Gwen Pearson (UT Permian)

    1 state official fired Chris Comer (Texas)

    1 assault, fired from dept. Chair Paul Mirecki (U. of Kansas)

    1 killed, Rudi Boa, Biomedical Student (Scotland)

    1 fired Brucke Waltke noted biblical scholar

    Biology Department fired, La Sierra SDA University

    1 attempted persecution Richard Dawkins by the Oklahoma state legislature

    Vandalism Florida Museum of Natural History

    Death Threats Eric Pianka UT Austin and the Texas
    Academy of Science engineered by a hostile, bizarre IDist named Bill Dembski

    Death Threats Michael Korn, fugitive from justice, towards the UC Boulder biology department and miscellaneous evolutionary biologists.

    Death Threats Judge Jones Dover trial. He was under federal marshall protection for a while

    Up to 16 with little effort. Probably there are more. I turned up a new one with a simple internet search. Haven’t even gotten to the secondary science school teachers.

    One of the hobbies of fundies are witch hunts to look for biologists in their colleges. And then fire them. Above is an old list that contains some of the ones sent to their Gulags (which we call the real world).

    The vast majority of fundie bible colleges haven’t been able to do this though. They don’t have any biologists who accept the theory of evolution to fire. Being a scientist and being a fundie xian is a lot like playing on a freeway. It isn’t going to end well.

  8. raven says

    My friend Howard Van Till actually faced a heresy trial by the church that controlled Calvin College…

    A Heresy Trial!? They can still do that?

    LOL. You need to get out more.

    What they can’t do is tie heretics, witches, or scientists to a stake on top of a stack of firewood and then burn them alive while laughing and cheering.

    It’s very sad for them but they do what they can, heresy trials. One scientist who accepted evolution was tried in the Orthodox Presbyterians, a small splinter group of that sect. He beat the rap but just barely and somehow ended up leaving for a more science friendly church.

  9. Michael Heath says

    We once had a very productive and civil debate in this forum regarding evolution with some alumni from Patrick Henry College (it could have been at ScienceBlogs). We learned that they weren’t actually taught the theory though their college kinda went through the motions. IOW, they were taught a strawman of the theory, and barely touched on even that as we scrutinized their curriculum on-line and received the perspective of these alumni. These grads left realizing there was a lot more to the theory, especially the volume of evidence, then what was communicated to them at that school. It should be noted that many PHC students come from home-schooling environments or private conservative protestant schools, so they’ve probably never been exposed to evolution or even how science works.

    I have family that have attended evangelical schools who were only taught creationism, the IDC version; IDC made them feel like they were on the bleeding edge (their school bought Dumbski’s lame-ass ahistorical spiel). They got a university degree where they left ignorant of even the basics of evolution. Especially those facts that falsify the key claims believed by nearly all creationists I’ve encountered, e.g., the convincing set of evidence for common descent, examples of natural selection, biogeographical evidence for evolution but not for creationism.

    Their reaction now is that they think scientists present their findings far more confidently than deserved. Of course their perspective has them ignorant on the volume of work, the volume of evidence, independently validated lines of evidence from other fields, and the degree of work and learning prior to scientists working on new findings. They’re uncomfortable with any scientific topic; I think that’s because they want to avoid cognitive dissonance.

    If you’re a public university I can appreciate why you’d focus more on teaching evolution than revealing the idiocy of creationism. However, if you’re a creationist school and take your credibility seriously, that would require to you confront the best evidence against your faith and see where you stand. Of course this doesn’t happen since conservative Christians share the attributes of denial, avoidance, and dishonesty. So they lie to their students, and to themselves.

    I wonder what’s going on in these fundie/evangelical schools when it comes to global warming? There’s a whole cottage industry of creationists publishing faux-findings books to defend creationism. But I don’t see that in the AGW denialist community, where those publications are instead focused on misinforming policy makers and the political ideologues that don’t want to believe it’s true.

  10. raven says

    The fundies make accepting modern science especially the Big Bang and evolution a litmus test.

    Reject reality or get pushed out or hit the highway and leave.

    LIke everything they do, they never thought it through Litmus tests work both ways. A lot of them just say OK, and hit the highway. It seems to be in order of best and brightest first. Leaving the morons and haters behind.

  11. Michael Heath says

    jamessweet writes:

    On an individual level, I think people are making the right decision by leaving these communities, of course. And ideally, I’d like to just see everybody leave. But from a more pragmatic perspective, real change in the short term requires people working from the inside — people who still really believe and are part of these evangelical communities, but who are not afraid to champion science and acceptance of evolution/cosmology/etc. To reiterate, I would not recommend this course to anyone on an individual level; better to just be done with the fantasies. But on a broader, societal level, the fact that they are “leaving with their enlightenment” rather than enlightening the communities they came from, that is troubling and does not point towards a positive outcome.

    In many cases, working for reform is more laudable than leaving. This is one reason I’m such a fanboy of Andrew Sullivan and his refusal to abandon Catholicism (though he doesn’t take communion).

    I see three big challenges for theologically conservative Christians:
    1) It’s increasingly easier to falsify their key factual assertions as false or at least meritless and illogical. Less people who remain, hardly any will join, and it’ll be more difficult to keep their young engaged. Is it a coincidence this group is also the sole anti-education group in the U.S.?
    2) It’s increasingly more difficult to be a bigot towards blacks, women, and gay people.
    3) If they remain the predominant base of the GOP, the GOP will shrink overall and these Christians will become less able to obstruct progress and therefore they’ll become as irrelevant as they once where.

  12. says

    For some reason, I remember someone’s deconversion anecdote. As a child, she was raised in a strict Creationist environment, and one day in class, she noticed the teacher said something that contradicted her earlier lessons and asked about it. School abruptly sends her to a counselor who tells her that evolution is a Satanic lie, yadda, yadda. That was the first time she had even heard about evolution, and their overreaction got her curious enough to learn more about it on her own time. Sometimes it really is as simple as a child pointing out the emperor’s nudity.

  13. busterggi says

    “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?”

    Cognitive dissonance to soothing to the non-existant soul/mind.

  14. says

    Sigh. This is why I hate the whole idea of Christian colleges. And seminaries. Just get rid of them. So many propagate a “science is our enemy” attitude. It pisses me off to no end.

    And I also know, anecdotally, of young adults who left the church because they grew up in a “don’t listen to those pointed head scientists” continuous chant. When they encountered sound science teaching at the university, they ran from their faith as quickly as they could. If instead they are taught that science is good and not the enemy–well I can only speculate.

    And it wasn’t always the case. Conservative christian superheroes like Augustine and Spurgeon were not anti-science, but rather anti-anti-science.

    The anti-science faction within Christianity has done more harm than they can possibly imagine.

  15. raven says

    The churches still have heresy trials. Here is one from the Orthodox Presbyterians, a group that split from the main church because they weren’t Oogedy Boogedy enough.

    chicagotribune.com:
    Terry Gray, an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a conservative group that split from other Presbyterians in the 1930s, lost that status at a trial in 1995 because he taught evolution as part of his duties as a professor of biochemistry at Calvin College in Michigan.

    “I was charged with holding the view that Adam had primate ancestors,” Gray said. “I wouldn’t wish the experience of a heresy trial on anyone.”

    Calvin college just drove one professor out over evolution and they are trying to get rid of another one.

    Fall From Grace | Inside Higher Ed
    www. insidehighered. com/…/a_professor_s_departure_raises_questions_a…‎

    Aug 15, 2011 – The other religion professor, Daniel Harlow, remains at the college, and is refusing … The controversy at Calvin surrounding Schneider is notable in part in because … Evolutionary theory is hardly new, but Schneider said that the … hanging over me” of pressure from religious conservatives to have him fired.

    You have to remember that xianity is fundamentally boring. They worship an all powerful creator god that is nowhere and does nothing. If they can’t entertain themselves with burning someone at the stake or a heresy trial every once in a while, why bother?

  16. colnago80 says

    Re Michael Heath @ #9

    I wonder what Sir Lancelot says about global climate change in the physics courses he teaches?

  17. Sastra says

    Administrators complained that I was too controversial and creating public relations problems—not because they disagreed with what I said but because I was no longer just whispering it quietly in the classroom

    I read this and immediately thought of a parallel with the so-called new atheism. As long as atheists were writing scholarly little religious rebuttals addressed to people who were interested enough to seek the topic in forums for that purpose, then there was little or no problem with atheists saying what they say. But best-selling books, billboards, and other forms of public outreach targeted at ordinary folks? Anathema.

    Karl Giberson appears to have run into an evangelical version of the Little People Argument. Difficult truths are for academics and other elites: Little People cannot handle the truth so their limitations and needs must be the primary consideration.

  18. D. C. Sessions says

    The anti-science faction within Christianity has done more harm than they can possibly imagine.

    That depends on your definition of “harm,” doesn’t it?

    If you’re defending the Inerrant Word of God against heresy, it’s not a popularity contest. The ones who leave are damning themselves, but at least they had the chance of remaining among the Righteous. Also, of course, there’s the fact that the more stringent the requirements the greater the evidence of Righteousness among those who remain.

  19. v. h.hutchison says

    7. Raven. Thanks for the list. I may use it! It would be useful if you could supply a reference or a link to each of those that gives more detail.

    The Oklahoma attempt to persecute Dawkins when he gave a lecture at the University of Oklahoma was not the Legislature, but a resolution by one fundamentalist legislator. At the same time he had another resolution castigating the Zoology Department at OU for having a statement supporting evolution (several colleges in Oklahoma also have such statements). Any legislator can file any resolutions; they are not drafts of bills, but can be voted on. In both cases, the resolutions were ignored. Dawkins’ talk attracted about 2500 persons and was enthusiastically received. Dawkins’ Foundation also made a major contribution at the time to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education and he started his talk with humorous reference to being attacked by a legislator.

  20. Nemo says

    My friend Howard Van Till actually faced a heresy trial by the church that controlled Calvin College, where he taught astronomy for decades, because of his support of evolution and the big bang.

    Don’t forget heliocentrism.

    @EricJ #5:

    With no Original Sin then what point is there in Jesus’ Sacrifice?

    Also, with Original Sin, what point was there in Jesus’ Bad Weekend? I mean, considering that God could’ve just chosen to stop sending people to Hell, without all the folderol.

    It’s a cute story, but it really doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny at all.

  21. raven says

    @21 http:// www. sunclipse.org/?p=626 [link goes to Blake Stacey's blog which has a must read essay with documentation of the cases below.] Take out the spaces!!!

    1. That is why I have Dawkins down for “attempted persecution”. I was never too clear what an Oklahoma legislator hoped to do. Especially since Dawkins lives in Oxford, England not Norman, OK. Oklahoma law doesn’t extend to the UK. It doesn’t even reach Kansas.

    2. I’ve been updating the list so Blake Stacey won’t have the latest. I put one new one from Calvin above. You can get the rest easily with Google.

    And I’m sure there will be more.

  22. had3 says

    Nemo @ 22, it wasn’t sin that got man kicked out, it was a jealous god keeping man from eating of the tree of life and gaining both knowledge and immortality and thus becoming god-like. So…Jesus “dies” and god then decided to grant man immortality and knowledge thus making him god-like. It’s not even a good story!

  23. dogmeat says

    Heddle@15:

    If instead they are taught that science is good and not the enemy–well I can only speculate.

    I would say that I’m an example of the “science is good and not the enemy” approach, and I believe that is precisely what the anti-science types fear. As I studied more and more scientific concepts and dug more deeply into the various theories, the stories of the Bible became more and more ludicrous. I then embarked upon a search to discover that theology was correct and, after years of study and contemplation, came to that most feared conclusion, none of them. I then moved to the idea that maybe their philosophy and models for behavior were the real purpose and that there was some sort of Deistic entity out there that was referred to as “God” but which may or may not exist. Ultimately, I dismissed most of the philosophy of the world religions as well. Much of it was insular tribalism, xenophobic fear of the “other,” and methods for controlling society. The small nuggets of legitimate “truth” were generally universal ideas that were much better explained through natural processes (IE don’t kill those around you because society can’t really function that way), empathy, etc.

    In the end, my willingness to embrace science and pursue objective truth resulted in my Atheism which is, I believe, the fundamental fear of those who advocate anti-science positions. They (not universally, but generally collectively) believe that science is teaching false doctrine that challenges the “Truth” of their faith. Those exposed to that false truth will then be lost. Remember, in that context, they are lost for all eternity, so being anti-science is the only option. Much like the Tea Party nut jobs can’t compromise with the “evil” Obama that they have created in their minds, anti-science religionists cannot compromise with science because the stakes are simply too great to risk.

  24. dogmeat says

    Whoops, made a mistake

    I embarked upon a search to discover that theology was correct…”

    Should read

    I embarked upon a search to discover what theology was correct…”

  25. says

    dogmeat @15,

    I generally agree with what you wrote.

    However, It is not the only option. It just seems to be the default position in the US. I attend/have attended conservative Calvinistic Baptist churches. I have always taught full-semester Sunday Schools on a complementary view of science and faith, and taught how the two are compatible (yes I know many of you disagree but that’s not the point), and in all those cases I think there is only one instance of a family leaving the church because they didn’t like my pro-science teaching. On the contrary, I keep getting requests to teach on science/faith again. So it is not necessary that a conservative church be anti-science. Just like it is not necessary that conservative Christians be political conservatives. It appears to be a sociological issue peculiar to the US. (Most if not all of the European conservative Christians that I know are politically liberal, at least by American standards.)

    I wish I had enough data to test my hypothesis, that young adults leaving our church (which is conservative but not anti-science) are less likely, when studying good science at a secular university, to leave their faith than those leaving anti-science churches with otherwise similar doctrine. But I don’t. To me it is an important question.

  26. Michael Heath says

    heddle,

    How do you explain the creation story being out of order with the Big Bang theory? How about the two conflicting creation narratives in the first couple chapters of Genesis?

    I’m not challenging you, I just genuinely want to understand how both narratives are reconciled to each other and to what science now understands.

  27. says

    @Michael Heath #29

    For the creation account I give the three main views. One is YEC which is absolutely at odds with science. Another (which I used to hold to when I first became a Christian) is the day-age view which is not as at-odds as the YEC view (by a long shot) but still very difficult to reconcile (especially with regards to order, as you pointed out.) The third, which I tell them is my view, is the Framework view a la Meredith Kline (a genre explanation, at heart) which is trivially compatible with science (in that it makes no scientific claim.)

    I emphasize, repeatedly, that the YEC position, as a test of orthodoxy, is a recent, unfortunate development in the church. It (as a line-in-the-sand doctrine) is a misguided response to the advent of evolutionary theory. For example the man most baptists (and some from other denominations) would name as the greatest preacher ever, Charles Spurgeon, sermonized five years before Origin of Species:

    In the 2d verse of the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” We know not how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be—certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam. Our planet has passed through various stages of existence, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God.

    As for the two creation narratives I don’t even consider it a problem. The charge that the 1st and 2nd chapters of genesis present different accounts is something atheists bring up–but it is not considered a problem by us (at most it is viewed as a long-solved problem). There are many, many fine expositions on this topic which exegete, especially in the Hebrew, chapter one as “the trailer” and chapter two as the full story.

    There are many problems for Christianity–the first and foremost being the problem of evil. Genesis 1 v. Genesis 2 is not even on the radar.

    For a mostly educated congregation, such as ours, the potential reconciliation is welcome even if they still have unanswered questions.

    On this front, Al Mohler is not at all helpful. But Francis Collins, with his theistic evolution, has been.

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