Friday, July 24, 2015

How Can Christians Integrate Faith & Evolution?

Creation and Evolution:

How Do Christians
Bridge the Gap?

As noted in my previous two posts, the famous Scopes Trial was 90 years ago.

The issues at the heart of the 1925 trial continue to divide U.S. Christians.

My focus in the previous posts was a consideration of how evolution informs an understanding of psychology in general and the psychology of religion in particular.

My focus in this post is to consider why evolution is such a divisive issue for a substantial minority of Christians and what, if anything, may be done to reduce the acrimony and promote peace.

A few days ago, news stories appeared about the resignation of respected evangelical philosophy professor, Jim Stump. Stump is a philosopher of science with a degree from Boston University. His former employer, Bethel College (Indiana), prepared a statement on human origins. The resignation appears to have occurred peacefully. Here’s a quote from the ChristianPost.

"In considering this corporate commitment, I decided to resign from my position at Bethel in order to pursue alternate work, rather than remain under the new statement and bring tension to the Bethel community," noted Stump, who stressed that his resignation was completely his decision.

"While there are recent reports in national media describing the dismissal of faculty at religious institutions over origins, it should be clear that I initiated my own resignation; I was never asked to resign from Bethel College. In fact, many Bethel leaders have been extraordinarily supportive of me throughout this lengthy process of arriving at the statement," he said.

5 Christian Tribal Beliefs

Key beliefs about creation separate Christians into different groups. At least five groups can be identified. The differences are often presented in two major ways. First, each group presents reasons for their belief and second, each group explains why the beliefs of another group are wrong.

1. Young Earth Creationism (YEC). God created the earth about 6,000 years ago. God created life. Humans did not evolve from other life forms. I have heard quite a few U.S. Christians talk about creation in near literal terms. You can learn more about creationism at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

2. Old Earth Creationism (OEC). Those supporting OEC affirm the scientific evidence that the earth is billions of years old. OEC finds the biblical narrative consistent with scientific evidence when the “days” referred to in Genesis chapter 1 represent lengthy periods of time. Essentially, a day is a metaphor. Creation can take place over long periods of time. Another belief held by some has been called the “Gap Theory.” The idea is that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis. And a lot of unrecorded events happened between the two creation stories. I learned about the gap theory from my dad’s Scofield Bible—I guess I was about 11 or 12 years of age. The gap idea seemed good for a brief time.

3. Intelligent Design. Some view ID as creationism in disguise. People do not need to be a Christian to believe in intelligent design but the idea of God creating people and the universe fits the idea Christians have of God as a master designer. The idea is appealing to many. People tend to focus on the majesty of nature or the incredible details of how humans function. It just seems plausible to believe in a Divine Maker. The science of evolution seems strange. The philosophical problems are probably too abstract for many. The Discovery Institute offers the following statement.

“The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

4. Evolutionary Creationism (EC). The viewpoint of EC can be found on the website. I refer to them below as one perspective offering a bridge. I suspect EC will appeal to many educated Christians.

EC is a “Big Tent” approach.
With EC, Christians get to have
their evangelical cake
without denying the findings of science.

The narratives of the Bible are not dismissed. My take is there are various ideas about how to take a nonliteral view of the Genesis creation narratives. Following is a quote from their website.

At BioLogos, we present the Evolutionary Creationism (EC) viewpoint on origins. Like all Christians, we fully affirm that God is the creator of all life—including human beings in his image. We fully affirm that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. We also accept the science of evolution as the best description for how God brought about the diversity of life on earth.

5. Theistic Evolution (TE). There’s some variety of belief but essentially, Christians who accept the TE view believe that God had a role in the origin of the universe, including the origins of life. In my view, TE is like EC without evangelical doctrine. TE can accommodate many religious persons who believe in God and accept scientific explanations about the origins of the universe and life.

5 Factors Influencing
Christian Acceptance of Evolution

1. Life is sacred. The belief that God took time to create an individual human being named Adam imbues Adam and all of mankind with a high level of worth. The idea that all humans evolved from less complex life forms seems so demeaning.

People hate to be “treated like animals.” Some animals are associated with dirt, filth, and disease (pigs, rodents). The psychology of disgust is a well-known motivational force behind the rejection of all things unholy and degrading.

We can expect Christians who believe in evolution to include sacred words and quotes to make the belief in evolution more palatable—less subject to rejection. Sacred phrases like “God’s creation,” “made in God’s image,” and “God as creator” will be crucial to expanding the acceptance of evolution in Christian colleges, organizations, and churches.

2. Guilt by association. Many of the proponents of evolution are atheists—people to be avoided if you want to keep your faith. Some creationists have presented beliefs in creation as a test of faith. The guilt by association problem is psychological rather than philosophical. Evolution is tainted by association with atheists. Christians “touching” evolution will be contaminated. The psychology of disgust is a factor explaining the contamination effect. When this contamination factor is enhanced by the need to defend one’s faith, powerful righteous motives arise. These motives are connected to multiple moral reasons based on protecting kin from harm, respecting authority, being loyal to one’s faith, and protecting that which is holy and sacred.

Biologists like Richard Dawkins intensify the need to keep a safe distance when he attacks not only creation narratives but also beliefs in God and other tenets of Christianity. And it doesn’t matter that Charles Darwin believed in God—his faith isn’t good enough for contemporary evangelicals. The lesson: If you believe in evolution you must also be an atheist.

3. Metaphors make mayhem. From a psychological perspective, the warnings of young earth creationists make sense. Once you open the door to a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis, you open the door to heresy. The proponents of YEC see themselves as defenders of the faith against atheism. The devil comes in different forms from Darwin to Dawkins. I find most Christians are creative in the reasons they give for not taking a particular part of the Bible literally. Some ignore troubling Bible passages. Others explain troublesome texts by creating elaborate explanations that allow for the text to be true in a nonliteral way.

Not surprisingly, the whole debate has an effect on young Christians. Barna reports nearly a quarter of youth are turned off by the creation-evolution debate. Whatever the actual “turn-off” percentages are, Christian churches and colleges that insist evolution does not explain the origins of life are sure to lose many young people interested in the sciences and philosophy.

I recall the story of a bright young man who has invested money in books about creation. He had what sounded to me like a conversion experience—he abruptly turned his back on the whole issue and destroyed his books. I wanted to learn more but he clearly did not want to talk about it.

Most Christians seem unaware of the metaphors they do accept when reading the Bible. A heightened awareness of metaphors might help some integrate science and faith.

4. Fear factor. Some U.S. Christian leaders engender fear that Christianity is under attack. There are enough stories in the news supporting their claims. Christians are being killed because of their faith. Long-held positions of the Christian church about marriage and male-female roles have been upended by new laws and court rulings. In this context, evolution is another attack on faith.

Fear has at least another important role too. Many Christian colleges and universities are strapped for funds. They are dependent on donations from the faithful for their very existence. No faculty member or high ranking employee in such institutions can speak against a conservative view of creation unless they want to risk losing their job. Many are underpaid and have families. Fear of job loss is real. So we’ll never really know how many Christian professors accept evolution—it’s just too risky to be honest unless one’s views are consistent with the official views of the college and the majority of its stakeholders.

5. Sunk-costs. I think it is nearly impossible to persuade a Young or Old Earth Creationist to accept the findings of evolution. Many creationists have invested great quantities of time learning about the details of their viewpoint and the supposed problems with evolution. Many have invested money in the purchase of books and videos. And some have donated funds supporting creationist organizations. Their investment represents evidence of a strong commitment that will not be dislodged by information from nonauthoritative sources—that is, any source that appears to contradict the Bible. Sunk-costs is a psychological principle derived from studies showing how people continue to pursue a course of action after investing so much in a particular endeavor.


I’ve wondered how Christians could bridge the gap—how Christians with different beliefs could come together and share perspectives in an effort to ensure that truth prevails rather than a belief about the truth. Perhaps I’m asking too much. In any event, I wonder if young people who have not formed rigid opinions might benefit from a “virtual big tent” where they feel respected and can explore the pros and cons of different perspectives on origins. If beliefs cannot be bridged, I hope respect can work.

Creating Bridges of Belief

Jim Stump, the retired professor referred to above, works for BioLogos. Their mission statement follows.

BioLogos invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.

Their mission statement, core commitments, and 11 beliefs offer one way Christians attempt to create bridges of belief. Read more at

Evolutionary Creationism and Theistic Evolution, in one form or another, offer Christians two slightly different ways to bridge the gap between a strictly naturalistic explanation for the origins of the universe, earth, and life in contrast to the literal or near literal views of Genesis represented by the proponents of Young or Old Earth Creationists, or the creation compatible views of ID.

Creating Bridges of Respect

I had not thought a lot about creation and evolution after leaving school. But several events in the past decade captured my attention. Two friends, Mike Tenneson and Steve Badger presented results of a survey of beliefs on the origins of the earth and life. They were cautious as if they were aware that creation vs. evolution was a really big issue for many Christians. Of course, court cases, the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate of 4 February 2014, and the opening of a Creation Museum helped keep the issue alive. I also began to notice more and more articles on evolutionary psychology. Taken together, many factors revealed the importance of the long-standing U.S. creation-evolution debate—not just to understanding human behavior but also to understanding intertribal conflicts between Christian groups.

After I wrote the foregoing descriptions of the five tribes, I found an article by Mike and Steve, which uses slightly different language than I used. When I read the article, I noticed a conciliatory tone, which reminded me of how Mike presented his lectures.

As a biology professor, Mike teaches young Christians who hold beliefs that fall into YEC, OEC and EC groups. I think Mike’s attitude conveys a lot about creating bridges of respect. He presents information in a low key way. He works at not creating divisions among Christians but instead focuses on bringing people together. Mike and Steve recommend:

“In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love.”

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