Friday, October 31, 2014

DID THE POPE EVOLVE? Evolution Psychology & Christianity

Evolutionary Psychology and Christianity

This week Pope Francis commented on creation and drew lots of media attention. Pope Francis has a huge audience as the leader of most of the world’s Christians—some 1.2 billion out of about 2.2 billion

Like many scientists who also hold Christian beliefs, the Pope reaffirmed Catholic teaching that there is no contradiction between religious beliefs and scientific theories about origins of the universe (e.g., so called “Big Bang Theory”) or life (theory of evolution). 

 RNS reported on the story 27 October 2014. The fact that the story became news in the United States reminds us of the continued teaching of a competitive creation narrative that is presented as incompatible with scientific explanations of the origins of the universe and of life.  They assert that the biblical story of creation in Genesis should be understood in a literal (or close to literal) fashion. Although creationists vary in how they deal with possible meanings of biblical words, they consistently reject natural explanations for the origins of the universe and the origins of life. The teaching of Ken Ham and others at TheCreation Museum illustrates a highly literal view (Goldberg, 2014). In fairness, there are a variety of ways Christian conservatives speak about the creation accounts in the beginning of the biblical book of Genesis. So, did the Pope evolve? No. Pope Francis re-affirmed Catholic teaching that God is the Creator. God is not a magician. Faith and science are not incompatible. For Catholics, there is no new teaching.

Evangelical Christians in the U.S. who are not strict creationists have worked to integrate faith and learning in many scientific disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. The approaches these writers take vary with some positions requiring greater faith than others as the meaning of words and phrases are stretched or great efforts are invested in showing how a biblical text could be viewed as compatible with contemporary scientific evidence. Over the centuries, simple beliefs about the universe and life have been overturned. Famous historical acts of condemnation by the Catholic Church are well known. Scientists lived in fear.

U. S. Beliefs
The conservative beliefs of those in the U.S. make it clear why the Pope's statements make news in the U.S. media. A sizable minority (42%) believe God created humans in their present form (according to Gallup polls May 2014. See the chart for related questions and polls dating to 1982.

It is not surprising that conservative Christians have problems with science. Only a minority of U S scientists believe in God (33%, Pewforum, 2009) but who knows what type of God concept they have compared with that of the 83% believers identified as the "General Public" (not sure why they use the word general).

The National Center for Science Education reports that 97% of scientists believe humans and other life evolved.

The psychological response to a stressor is to flee or fight. That makes sense. Survive to live another day. The Big Bang Theory and Evolutionary Theory pose threats to some worldviews—especially when atheists ignore or ridicule any divine role. It is easy to understand the fears of Christian fundamentalists. The more scientists offer natural explanations about how the universe came into existence and how life formed and evolved, the less of a need to believe God did it all by speaking a few divine words. And some fear, maybe God will be written out of the cosmic equation altogether. You have one scope, not two, when looking at the world from a fundamentalist perspective ( perhaps a bad pun, here's the link to the Scopes Trial transcript).

When science educators teach children about the universe and evolution, they offer a different worldview than do fundamentalist clergy and other religious teachers. To the public it looks like a choice between science and religion. The vociferous conservatives and their equally ardent scientific counterparts seem poles apart. It appears as a win-lose proposition. The win-loss scenario is illustrated by those who participate in creation-evolution debates. Debates are staged to have a winner and a loser. The same goes for creationists and intelligent design advocates who go to court over evolution-related concerns. In court, someone wins or loses a case. When Christian theologians, scientists, and other advocates lose debates or court cases to scientists, they also lose credibility for themselves and for Christianity. (Link to Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate).

What’s next? Well if you can play “fast and loose” with the Genesis account of the creation of the earth and As it turns out, Christian fundamentalists view what you do with creation as a litmus test for what you do with the entire Bible. I’ve heard the slippery slope metaphor a lot. You can see this fear illustrated in Goldberg’s The Atlantic story. Do you see the fears about same-sex marriage linked to abandoning creationist views of the Bible?
life, what about those other Genesis stories? After all, the first three chapters of Genesis are where conservative Christians turn when they speak of man being created in the image of God. And it is where the first wedding or marriage happened between one man and one woman. Undoing the genesis creation knot leads to unraveling other beliefs—or so the fear plays out for some.

It gets worse. Pope Francis referred to evolution. Whatever details may or may not be in his mind, people who understand evolution know it isn’t just about the origins of life or gradual changes within species. The theory of evolution involves human evolution and challenges religious leaders to explain the concept of man created by God. And man created in the image of God. Where are the evangelical leaders who will offer university students a coherent framework for understanding what it means for life to have evolved over billions of years? And what about a theology that accounts for people who have evolved over some four to six million years?

It gets even worse for psychologists. As one preacher said to me a few years ago, “psychologists were kin to satan when you were in school” (I got my B.A. in 1972). Psychological theories were of the devil. People had problems because of sin and the cure for depression, anxiety, alcohol addiction and all the other mental disorders was prayer or in some cases, deliverance from demon possession. Just as conservative evangelicals and perhaps a few fundamentalists began to warm to the idea that some Christian psychologists and their colleagues in counseling, social work, and psychiatry are not so bad after all, here comes evolutionary theory to explain the origins of that part of human nature that has roots in the distant past. 

According to evolutionary psychological theory, human nature evolved over millions of years. Humans share some adaptive behavior patterns and survival characteristics with other animals. Evolutionary psychology offers a way of thinking about human nature (read more). Is it time for Christian fundamentalists and their conservative colleagues to re-assert their fears about psychology and related disciplines? Is it time for clergy to resume their rightful role of counseling parishioners rather than passing them off to psychologists and their kindred spirits? Where are the evangelical Christians who will integrate evolutionary psychology with Christian theology?

Psychologists and Psychiatrists have become the priests of western societies. They are the sages to whom people turn with troubled spirits and troubled lives. They are the people who study human nature and offer a range of interventions founded on science. In the minds of some, psychology is a religion. And psychology is in direct competition with the Bible. The fears of those fundamentalist Christians who warned about psychology a few decades ago have been realized.

Of course, the fears are only real for some people because many Christian clinicians work diligently to integrate their Christian beliefs with psychological science. And as noted last week, many people opt for Christian clinicians in the U.S. (I use the word clinician to include licensed professionals who diagnose and treat people with mental illness. Many people are not clear on the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists or between counselors, psychologists and social workers).

In the end, science educators in communities with high percentages of conservative Christians and in conservative Christian schools will bear the brunt of the challenge to maintain personal integrity as they remain current with advances in scientific knowledge while appeasing those who insist on specific statements about creation and evolution. I suspect educators in conservative venues will have to sign covenants and/ or remain on guard as to their communication (I’ve heard rumors of required signatures in the past). Faculty, staff, and students at conservative schools do not have free speech. And faculty do not have academic freedom in the same way as do their peers at secular schools or schools affiliated with that tribe of Christianity known as “liberals” (to rank and file conservatives, they are not really Christians).

There are several ways that Christians extract themselves from having to choose between a literal reading of Genesis and a godless view of origins. People want to understand themselves and their world. That is the quest of both science and faith. Both religion and science offer ways to understand nature. Fundamentalists frame alternatives as competing. Some Christians look for ways to insert God into the gaps of what has been discovered or known (God of the gaps). Still others look at multiple layers of meaning or different spheres of concern. You can read volumes on ideas people have that allow students to aggressively pursue knowledge without having to pinpoint where God fits as a causal agent in any particular algorithm.

That's enough for this week. I think I shall come back to this topic with additional information and reflections on integration.

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