On Crappy Conversations – Why do we (Christians) “freak out” over Evolution in Schools (and in general)?

This video features several Miss USA contestants attempting to answer the question, “Should evolution be taught in schools?” Their less than cogent responses have already gained them some notoriety on the internet. Their responses, however, are less interesting than the fact that this was even a question that the Miss USA Pageant organizers thought worthy of attention.

The quality of the creationism vs. evolution in schools debate is, in a word, “crappy.” Like many of the hot button issues that we face, this one is discussed poorly because we are asking the wrong questions. Often times the debate is too narrowly fixed on issues that miss the central assumptions that give rise to the conflict in the first place. In other words, like many seemingly intractable debates, the quality of the dialogue can only be improved once a larger conversation takes place.

Here are some seemingly important, but unasked, questions. Hopefully, by asking these questions now, I can be more prepared to have a quality dialogue in the future on this topic and avoid a crappy conversation.

Is being a Christian and an “evolutionist” fundamentally irreconcilable?

There is already a problem with this question, for it quite wrongly assumes that there is only one form of “religious belief.” There are, of course, a huge variety of denominations and sets of doctrines, some of which have no problem with evolution and some of which have said problem. It is worth noting that American Christians seem to be the only ones in the world (generally speaking) who find themselves “tripping” over evolution. Many other Christians in the world find no conflict between their faith and evolution. Even Darwin himself has written, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man can be an ardent Theist and an Evolutionist…”¹

The absurdity Darwin speaks of becomes clearer when we take a look at exactly what the claims of religion and the claims of evolution are:

(R1) God exists and created everything in the universe.

(E1) Man has come into existence through a long process of natural selection.

From the outset, these two propositions are pretty obviously not contradictory. In order for us to get a contradiction, we need another proposition:

(R2) God did not create man through a long process of natural selection.

Now, I’m guessing that the main reason people think (R2) is true is because of this proposition:

(R3) The bible is inerrant, and Genesis 1 and 2 are to be read as literally true.

A long conversation could be had about whether or not (R3) and (R2) are true, but for now, we can leave that question unsettled. The issue is whether or not disagreeing with (R2) or (R3) is sufficient to say that someone is not a Christian. Fortunately, the same proposition that is used to supposedly show that evolution and Christianity are irreconcilable can also be used to show that they, in actuality, aren’t. Here’s how.

The first part of (R3) necessarily entails that (R4) is true since (R4) is a “biblical” statement:

(R4) “If you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is LORD, you will be saved.”

(R4) seems to be a sufficient condition for establishing someone’s identity as a Christian. If this were false, then it would possible that people could be “saved,” but not Christians. (Depending on the definition of the word “Christian” and “saved,” I have no problem with supposing that (R4) is just false or not a sufficient condition, but Orthodoxy will have none of this, and is thus committed to thinking that (R4) is true.)

Now, it is not at all clear how (R4) and (E1) contradict one another. In other words, thinking that man has come into existence through the process of natural selection has seemingly nothing to do with thinking that Jesus is the Christ. To say otherwise is as logical as saying that thinking that the universe came into existence through God’s creative act contradicts the claim that Darwin was a biologist.

“Fine. Perhaps you can be a Christian and an evolutionist,” the anti-evolutionist may say at this point, “but evolution is just a false teaching, and on these grounds, we ought to oppose its teaching in the public arena.” If the discussion takes this turn, a new question has to be asked.

How important is it that we get our anthropological beliefs right as Christians?

If the anti-evolutionist says, “very important,” then we might ask, “Why?” An answer to that question might be this:

(R5) Christians have a moral obligation (i.e., they have been commanded by God) to get their beliefs right.

Moreover, the anti-evolutionist might suppose that evolution should not be taught in schools because,

(R6) Evolution teaches a false doctrine.

If this is the case, then anti-evolutionists would committed to saying that

(R7) If a doctrine is false, that is sufficient grounds to ban its teaching in the public sphere and to get bent out of shape whenever this “false doctrine” is taught.

This is logically coherent so far, but there is something quite inconsistent and hypocritical about how Christians behave if they actually think that this is true. Take the messages of commercials, for example. We might say that your average commercial says something like this:

(C1) You will not be truly happy until you purchase this product.

Now, (C1), for a Christian, is quite obviously false, for Christians believe that Christ is the only source of true happiness (joy).  So, even though (C1) is false and clearly contradicts Christian teaching, we do not often see the anti-evolutionists protesting advertisements that claim (C1). (These anti-evolutionists might claim that evolution is more of a threat to Christianity and that is why they focus on it rather than on commercials. This move will be addressed in the last section.)

There is a further related worry here, moreover, about the truth of (R5). Do we really think that (R5) is true without qualification? Do we think, for example, that God will hold it against us on judgment day that we believed that the tooth fairy existed when we were younger? A theist could believe this without contradicting anything that has been said so far, but it seems quite incredible that God would care about such matters. Perhaps an anti-evolutionist would like to revise (R5) and say something like this:

(R8) We have a moral obligation to get our beliefs about God right.

(It can be shown with a little work that (C1) is actually a proposition about God, so an anti-evolutionist cannot escape an obligation to protest advertisements by making this revision. (C1) entails this: God is not able to make you truly happy. Thus, (C1) is a truth about God that, on this view, needs to be fought against in court!)

But how seriously do we really take (R8)? Surely, what we think about God matters to some extent, but we often worry less about some doctrinal claims than others. We do not, for example, find ourselves protesting outside of Calvinistic congregations to disagree with predestination, and to show them the falsity of their ways. Why? Because I think we recognize that as Christians we are called to something a little bit more important. If we are not so called, then we better get to picketing, abandon caring for the “least of these,” and become the policemen of truth.

Depending on the above answer, is this issue worth our time?

Perhaps, then, an anti-evolutionist might say, “Ok. Our moral obligation to find the truth in such anthropological matters is not ultimately important in an intrinsic sense.” “BUT,” they might say, “the following is true”:

(R9) We are morally obligated (i.e., commanded by God) to “go and make disciples.”

(R10) Evolution hinders us from “making disciples” because it convinces people that a) there is no God and/or b) the bible is not reliable.

(R9) is not problematic, so let’s look at (R10). (R10), in actuality, does not by itself convince people that there is no God, nor does it necessarily convince people that the bible is unreliable. We will look at reasons for thinking that this is true momentarily, but for now lets examine an incredibly important, but overlooked, question on this matter.

If we have to choose between “making” someone a disciple and convincing them that evolution is false, which one should we choose? Suppose, for example, that you are conversing with someone and they tell you, “I am not a Christian because I think evolution is true.” Suppose further that you know that you will not successfully convince them that evolution is false (because he is, say, a biologist firmly entrenched in the “dogma” of evolution). Finally suppose that you could convince them that Christianity and evolution were compatible and you had good reason to think that this would take this person “one step closer” to becoming a disciple. I would like to suggest the following:

(S1) We are morally obligated to make disciples, AND this obligation trumps obligations to get our anthropological (and many other) beliefs right.

This certainly seems to be a radical suggestion indeed, but upon closer examination, it is not so extreme. First, lets get a grasp at exactly what this would look like. If (S1) is true, then I would be morally obligated to choose “making a disciple” over “convincing someone evolution was false.” If I am so commanded, then even though evolution is false, I would morally be committed to showing that evolution and theism are compatible because someone’s devotion to Christ is more important than his/her beliefs about the genesis of mankind (given that those beliefs do not exclude devotion to Christ, which we have shown is possible earlier).

Interestingly, if (S1) is true, then the following is also true,

(S2) Sometimes it is not evolution that is responsible for keeping people from Christ. Rather, it is our own attachment to a particular anthropological truth that is keeping people from Christ.

To see that this is not such a radical suggestion, let us change the example a little bit. Suppose that you meet a rather strange fellow who believes that 2+2=5. Now, suppose that he says to you, “I don’t believe in Christianity because I believe 2+2=5 and I cannot believe both.” Finally, suppose that you will never convince this fellow that 2+2=4. Wouldn’t you be obligated, then, to show him that there is no contradiction between the claim 2+2=5 and the claims of Christianity even though you think 2+2=5 is false? Intuitively, it seems like you would be obligated to show the compatibility between 2+2=5 and “Jesus is LORD.” If we are obligated in this case, it is unclear why we would not be obligated in the case of the evolution vs. Christianity “conflict.”

So we have an obligation to show that there is not conflict in this case. Fortunately, this is not too difficult. This may, in fact, be easier than showing that evolution is false. To think that believing in evolution necessarily entails that a) God doesn’t exist and b) the bible is unreliable is just as confused as saying believing that 2+2=5 necessarily entails that God doesn’t exist.Here is how we could show that evolution is compatible with a) God exists and b) the bible is reliable.

Recall, that it is quite possible to believe that God used evolution as a means to create man. If a person believes that (E1) is proof that God does not exist, they are thinking incorrectly. (I am not suggesting that all stripes of atheism are incoherent, nor am I suggesting that atheists are stupid. I am only suggesting that the inference from (E1) to there is no God is more than a little suspect.) This is incorrect because even if (E1) is true, we can still ask, “Where did the ‘stuff’ come from that allowed evolution to happen in the first place?” Traditional arguments for God’s existence can pick up at this point, so a theist need only pose this question and answer with, “God created that ‘stuff'” in order to show that (E1) is compatible with (R1: God exists and created everything in the universe) .

Evolution is only problematic for the reliability of the bible because of a certain literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2.² Thus, a theist could simply say that Genesis 1 and 2 are metaphorical accounts of creation. “Oh no! This is unacceptable!,” the anti-evolutionist might reply. “If we admit that, then the whole bible could be metaphorical and thus, untrue or unreliable.” Marcus Borg has some good things to say about metaphor in his book, and I think his comments are relevant here. The bible is already filled with metaphors! Take one, “Enter by the narrow gate….” We do not literally think Jesus is telling us to enter a gate, but we do think what Jesus is saying is true. So metaphors don’t necessarily mean “not true.” So, a theist could suggest that Genesis 1 and 2 are not to be read literally, but that they are still true in a deeper sense.

Recap

If the above comments are correct, then the following has been demonstrated:

(1) Christianity and evolution are not contradictory

(2) Even if they were, it might not be intrinsically important.

(3) It is more important that someone become a disciple than they be shown that evolution is false and that evolution can be reconciled with the beliefs that a) God exists and b) the bible is reliable.³

I am more than willing to be wrong about any of these conclusions, and I hope and pray that the error of my ways be shown if this is the case. Regardless, however, of the truth hood of these statements, I have hopefully asked some questions that will make a conversation about evolution and creationism less crappy.

Notes:

1. Charles Darwin In Box 106, p. 107, Darwin archives, Cambridge University Library

2. By the way, there is reason to think that the author of Genesis 1 did not intend his writing to be taken literally: in the original Hebrew, Genesis 1 is a poem. See (among other available sources) Rob Bell, Everything is Spiritual.

3. For reasons that I cannot discuss, I think it is a bad idea to “ground” religious belief in “the validity of the bible.” We would be much better off if we actually “grounded” our belief in the experience of Christ in us.

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