Disarming Suspicions of Evolution: One Student's Story

This was originally an introductory statement for a panel discussion at the 2012 International Conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching

Fr. Charles Allen

This is one story of how a student's suspicions of evolution were eventually disarmed. It's not every student's story, certainly not the story of every fundamentalist or conservative evangelical student. But maybe that's the point. Behind a student's suspicions may lie a story that isn't easily categorized.

I grew up in a household of educators who, like the 60% of science educators, were a bit conflicted about evolution. They didn't have a problem with it personally, but they didn't rise to its defense. That would be rude.

They were actually Southern Baptists, but they didn't believe that the Bible was a flawless answer book. Dad was a professor of educational administration at a state university, and Mom was an elementary school teacher. They took us to church and Sunday school fairly regularly, but they also bought my brother and me a whole library of books on natural history. We had Jewish and Muslim and secular friends too and didn't think they needed converting. Our pastor was tolerant of people like us, and so was our church. It was a FIRST Baptist Church in a southern college town, and those are never typical.

So before I could even read, I accepted a watered-down story of evolution along with watered-down Bible stories, and as I grew older I harmonized everything by assuming that the really established facts were in my science books. The Bible, I assumed, had a lot of facts in it too, but they weren't always clearly or accurately reported. One of my Sunday school teachers was a biology professor, and he would have agreed. My heroes included Jesus, Socrates, Galileo, Moses, Darwin, Muhammad, Einstein, Gautama, Mr. Wizard, Billy Graham and John Scopes. I didn't realize that it might be tricky to admire all these people at once.

But while I was in high school that all changed. Our church called a younger pastor who was finishing his doctorate. He was a scientific creationist who assumed that practically everybody needed converting, not just Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or, of course, atheists, but even most so-called Christians. There were very few real Christians. I considered leaving that church for, maybe, the Unitarians, but he had an engaging way with young people and a library full of books that challenged most of my bland, if tolerant, assumptions. So instead I became a conservative evangelical, suspicious of most scholarship and especially evolutionary science, worried that many churchgoing friends and even my own family were not real Christians.

Now, obviously, that phase didn't last, as you can tell from my collar alone. Episcopal priests led the list of people who might not be real Christians. They couldn't even decide if they were Protestants! I try to imagine what would happen if that young, intolerant evangelical and this current edition of me could actually meet. I suspect it would be traumatic for the evangelical I once was.

But fortunately, my "evolution" out of that intolerant phase was not traumatic. Oddly enough, my creationist pastor played a bigger role than he realized in slowly undermining the worldview he wanted me to promote. He kept encouraging me to investigate things for myself. He made it clear, of course, that he expected me to wind up thinking pretty much the way he did. So I kept investigating things and instead came to realize that I couldn't possibly think as he did.

Even when I gave most of my attention to writers he endorsed, I kept running into problems. They made claims about the Bible that even the Bible didn't seem to make. They insisted that there was no room for disagreement on how to read the Bible, yet they often disagreed with one another. They claimed that reading the Bible would answer all questions, while I found it raising more questions than answers.

By the time these problems came to a head, my creationist pastor had moved on. Our new pastor, to my relief, saw the early parts of Genesis as origin myths, stories telling us that, for all its shortcomings, this world is exactly where we and God belong. He also encouraged me to do my own thinking but didn't expect or even want me to wind up thinking exactly as he did. So I returned to my more tolerant upbringing, though with a far greater sense of how complicated things could be. And I finished college convinced that my theology would be enhanced and challenged to grow if I didn't try to second-guess the peer-reviewed work of other fields, including, of course, biology.

I haven't changed that much since then. I wouldn't even have been too surprised to learn that I had become an Episcopal priest, as I had already grown to love their liturgy. It was a trauma-free transition.

So ... what can we learn from this?

First: students who question or challenge the teaching of evolution may sometimes be on their own peculiar path of critical inquiry. I questioned evolution precisely because I had grown up taking it for granted. I hadn't realized that there were any living science Ph.D.s anywhere who would try to argue that Genesis could be a factual account. There was something exciting and intellectually stimulating about identifying with what I took to be a cognitive minority who, they claimed, were being silenced. It took a while to realize that most of them would have gladly silenced everybody else, given the opportunity. The people who helped me most during that phase were those who encouraged me to keep questioning consistently. I learned that I, at least, was not being silenced by some grand secular humanist conspiracy, but only challenged by friends and faculty who had to be honest about what they did and did not find convincing.

Second: I was not helped by people who spoke of scientific method as if it were a magic spell that could lift us above our own humanity. I was helped by philosophers of science who spoke of the natural sciences in more humanistic terms. Science is not a matter of automatically scrapping a theory the first time something doesn't go as predicted. It's more like what we do with all our promising ideas: we follow where they lead; we may modify them when they take us somewhere unexpected; we may eventually drop them for a different idea when they seem to have grown too cumbersome, but hardly ever without some controversy among our peers. There's nothing wrong with admitting all this. Natural selection, I had to admit, is one of those promising ideas. It's been challenged and modified countless times without getting too cumbersome. Its relevance for understanding all sorts of topics has actually grown. It would be a disaster to stop following where it leads just because of a few isolated puzzles. And it would be a needless distraction to devote valuable time to theories that claim to solve a few of its puzzles by invoking one of the biggest puzzles ever imagined, that is, some sort of superperson working behind the scenes. That's not an explanation, it's changing the subject. And it's not even good theology. (Trust me.)

Finally: I'm saddened by the culture wars that can make biology teachers think twice about teaching evolution. I suspect that an aggravating factor has been the desire for a simple checklist of steps that could settle all our questions. Some people claim to find that checklist in a sacred book; others claim to find it in the book of nature. I suggest instead that only simple questions can be answered by simple checklists, and that we need to wean people away from the temptation to turn every question into a simple one. That's not what people want to hear, especially school boards and anxious parents, and especially in this economy. But that only shows how deep-seated the problem is. It won't go away if we ignore it.