Saturday, February 18, 2006

Evolution of my Thoughts on Evolution

The creation / evolution debate is alive and well in the United States. My experience of it is illustrative of the current issues, so let me recount it.

I grew up in a protestant evangelical Christian household. My parents disliked evolution saying things like Darwin invented it to avoid the moral requirements of a creator. I had access to plenty of creation science literature which was filled with "evidence" against an old earth and evolution. When I started college I recall that my roommate asked me if I believed in a literal 7-day creation, and I said I did. During university days I learned some about cosmology and the Big Bang theory, and so I started seeking interpretations of the creation story which were compatible with an old Universe -- such as perhaps the days of creation were long periods of time. I still didn't consider evolution of humans as compatible with my faith.

The first time I really worked through the issues was when I taught a one-semester course on evolution and creation to the teenager class at the church I went to. For that I did a lot of reading on the creation/evolution debate and I sought to present both sides of the argument. In addition to library material, I sent off for materials from the Institute for Creation Research. My findings are summarized below:
  • Evolution is not a finished theory yet; there are still plenty of holes and things are are not explained yet. But contrary to various creation science claims, that does not mean it is false, just incomplete.
  • The evidence for an old earth (~4 billion years old) is overwhelming. Claiming that it is only 6000 years old is like claiming that the sun revolves around the earth. How anyone who looks at the evidence can deny an old earth and actually teach their children that is beyond me.
  • What surprised me most was that creationists continued to use arguments against and old earth and against evolution that were known to be false. (Things like extrapolating the recent decay of the earth's magnetic field backwards and concluding that the earth can be at most 10,000 years old -- ignoring the fact that now there is plenty of evidence of the earth's magentic field flipping polarity multiple times). I was shocked that Christians who professed to be seeking the truth, and were commanded not to lie, would be so misleading and deceitful to children. Their arguments against evolution are filled with a multitude of misrepresentations. I suppose what matters to them is the end-product: that people's belief in the Bible is strengthened, even if it takes untruths to accomplish this.
Since that time I have continued to consider the evidence for evolution. The more I read, the stronger the case becomes that all of life is decended from a common ancestor. In particular the genetic evidence for this seems compelling.

So if the case for evolution is so strong, why are Christians (especially evangelical ones) so reluctant to accept it? Here are the reasons I see:
  • There is a strong focus on the Bible as the ultimate authority for one's faith. The bible is what sets evangelical Christian beliefs apart from other beliefs. This entails taking it as literally as possible, otherwise one can take all sorts of liberties with the text. For example, if Adam and Eve aren't our literal ancestors as Paul thought, then maybe his condemnation of homosexual activity is also mistaken. Without a strong literal interpretation it is much harder to split the world into good and bad, black and white.
  • Some basic theological teachings depend on a literal Adam and Eve as our ancestors. In particular the doctrine that Paul taught that sin entered the world through Adam's disobedience and is inherited by us. Then Jesus is the second Adam who brings forgiveness of our sins through his death and resurrection. If Adam wasn't a literal person or our literal ancestor (as evolution implies), then Paul was mistaken, and perhaps he was also mistaken about Jesus having a literal resurrection? If there isn't original sin, maybe people of other faiths aren't going to hell, and maybe Christians aren't going to heaven? A host of difficult questions ensues, and there isn't an unambiguous authority to answer them. Perhaps that is why the Catholic church isn't so worried about evolution, because it still maintains that the church has this unambiguous authority on matters of faith.
  • Evolution raises questions about what makes humans and animals different. In particular it casts doubt on humans have a non-physical spirit or soul that lasts after they die. This brings into doubt basic Christian doctrines on an afterlife.
So for Christians and the church what seems to matter most is authority, as this is crucial to maintaining their faith and its distinction from other faiths. For me what matters most is truth. I am not willing to sacrifice truth for authority or even for faith. For protestants who look to the Bible as the basis of their faith, accepting evolution entails developing a much more liberal faith. What exactly this is faith is I'm not sure, and I would like to consider this more.