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One Woman’s Journey from Evangelicalism to Agnosticism

by Jennifer Jones Hamilton

Jennifer Jones Hamilton is an Instructional Assistant and Substitute Teacher with Carroll County Public Schools in Eldersburg, Maryland, as well as an application reviewer for Teach for America.  She has a bachelor’s degree in History and is a 1994 graduate of Messiah College.  She is an avid reader of all varieties of books, a lover of music, a runner, and a person with deep curiosity about the world we live in.  She continues to work on figuring out what she wants to do when she grows up, and while doing so enjoys life with her husband, Bill, and their three teenage children. 

The recent death of progressive Christian writer Rachel Held Evans (RHE) sparked an outpouring of grief from many individuals across the country, myself among them.  Of course, it is a tragic story even if you had never heard of her, one of those inexplicable passings that makes the very earth seem liable to fall out from beneath you at any moment.  But like many others, I felt particularly gutted because of the pivotal role she played in the dramatic shift in my spiritual life.  Her book, Evolving in Monkeytown (now re-named Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions) was one of the first books I read that made me realize that the questions and doubts rumbling beneath the surface were not unique to me, nor were they something to be feared.  It was the catalyst that took me from years in evangelical Christianity to a more nebulous agnosticism.  

Rachel Held Evans, June, 1981 – May, 2019. Photo by Dan Evans, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

I confess that my entrance into evangelicalism sprouted from two things: the desire to get my mother off my back and the desire to meet cute boys.  I grew up Catholic; while more than just “Christmas and Easter” Catholics, we were far from zealous.  As I went through middle school, my mother searched for answers to her then-undiagnosed mental illness: she scoured Shirley MacLaine and Edgar Cayce books and met with a Jehovah’s Witness every week before settling into a Baptist Church, where she was “born again.”  

In Jesus, she seemed to find answers to all of the questions she had been asking.  Like many new Christians, she tirelessly tried to convert my sister, my father, and me. She sat on my bed, night after night, imploring me to “ask Jesus into my heart” so that I wouldn’t end up in hell. As a teenager, I was predictably annoyed by this. Exasperated, I finally joined her in the “Sinner’s Prayer” just to get her to leave me alone.

Around the same time, a friend from school invited me to youth group.  I really had no idea what that was going to entail, but her stories of snacks, fun games, and music piqued my interest.  As a marginally popular and boy-crazy 15-year old, I was quite thrilled about the prospect of meeting an entirely different group of kids, feeling that I had already exhausted my friend/potential boyfriend resources at my high school.  I was not disappointed.  My first night at youth group was thrilling, because as the “new girl” I was instantly the center of lots of attention, and I immediately felt like a whole new world of social excitement had opened up to me.  While I wasn’t initially looking for a spiritual experience, that was part of the package, so I jumped in with both feet.

The next 20 years of my life followed a predictable path of the late 20th-century evangelical young adult:  enjoying lots of youth group events, participating in short term missions projects, attending a Christian college, marrying a Christian man. The church provided me with a solid structure at a time when my family was falling apart.  My mother’s mental illness, family financial troubles, and the dissolution of my parent’s marriage all led me to seek “family” within the circles of church. Of course, along with all the “fun” came the spirals of doubt: the repeated praying of the Sinner’s Prayer for fear that I hadn’t gotten it right the first time, getting rid of all my “secular” music (and then promptly buying it all back again, thank you Columbia House and your 12 cassettes for a penny!), crushing on non-Christian boys but then pulling back for fear of being “unequally yoked,” drinking too much and then not drinking at all and then settling in some sort of happy medium of occasional social drinker. Life was a constant battle of trying to please God and at the same time be myself.  The problem was that “myself” seemed to be at odds with what I was told would please God.

I am a huge reader.  I pay attention to what is going on in the world and have a much bigger view that expands well beyond the sphere I live in.  I have an intensely good memory and remember most stories I hear, particularly if they involve tragedy or injustice. I love all kinds of art and poetry and music.  I intentionally try to expose myself to different people and different viewpoints. All of these traits combined to put me in direct opposition to what much of the evangelical world was trying to tell me was true.  As I got older, I started noticing that so much of that evangelical message just wasn’t jiving with the reality I was seeing.  Science did not seem to be the evil entity some churches wanted me to think it was.  In spite of being pro-choice, Democrats seemed to have a more inclusive, compassionate view of “the least of these” than Republicans.  I was pretty sure God didn’t hate gay people, even though my exposure to the LGBTQ community was limited.  So many of my non-Christian friends were kind, compassionate, generous, and spiritual, contrary to the idea that without Jesus you couldn’t be any of those things.  I started to feel very uncomfortable.

As I approached 40, I was well into questioning the so-called absolute truths that I had tried to believe for the past 25 years. There were many very specific, very clear signs to me that I could no longer ignore.  The mission trip to Uganda (fueled by a guilt trip from one of the organizers, if I’m totally honest) that made me question the legitimacy and value of trying to convert others, particularly others in a radically different culture.  The drive to the beach, passing church after church after church, and realizing that they all had different views of what was capital-T Truth. The Vacation Bible School my kids attended where evolution was presented in the caricature of the bumbling idiot scientist who was stupid enough to believe that people evolved from monkeys and the earth was millions of years old.  I was starting to feel as if the ground was crumbling beneath my feet. When I would sit down with friends and try to talk about it, most of them looked confused, and then condescendingly told me I should just pray or read my Bible more.   As if I hadn’t been doing just that for the majority of my life!

Somewhere during this time is when I came upon RHE’s first book.  And off I went.  She led me to books by Jeff Chu and Justin Lee, Rob Bell and Addie Zierman, and finally to the book that seemed to map out exactly what I had been experiencing, Kathy Escobar’s Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart.  I underlined and highlighted and wrote so many exclamation points in the margins that it reminded me of my first enthusiastic Bible studies as a teen.  I was ecstatic to realize that I was not alone, and that many, many others were going through a similar metamorphosis.  I found a camaraderie in online groups that I wasn’t finding in many of my friends and family.  My non-Christian friends reacted with “What took you so long?” while my Christian friends and family seemed to be wringing their hands over my backsliding.  

The whole experience was exhilarating and uncomfortable.  I found myself feeling so much less fearful, even as I was shedding years of fear-based belief.  (It didn’t all just go away: I still hear that voice of “what if you’re wrong?” particularly at challenging times in my life.)  I came to the realization that I could no longer just base my spiritual beliefs, the core of who I was, on the fear of going to a hell I didn’t actually believe in anymore.  I stopped going to church because I essentially would just sit through the whole service coursing with anger.  I started cursing in a way that I had never done before…it was like a tic that I couldn’t control at times.  Everything I believed was just melting away.

In the 10 or so years since I first read Evolving in Monkeytown, I hadn’t followed RHE as much.  She continued on a path into a more liturgical faith that just wasn’t my journey. “Agnostic” is defined as someone who believes that nothing is known or can be known about the existence of God, a person who claims neither belief nor disbelief in God, and that is the most accurate description of where I stand currently.  When I look at nature or art or go to concerts, when I see certain people engaged in acts of compassion, when I have an intense connection with a person, when I see the amazing and inexplicable ways animals interact with people and one another – I can’t help but believe that there is something more out there, beyond what we see and know.  I just don’t think any one religion has the answer to what that something may be. This has caused a lot of friction and misunderstanding with several of my family members who fear what this means for both myself and my children. At the same time, it has allowed me to become much closer to other friends and family who have been put off by the Christian church.  And not attending church has given my husband and children and I the opportunity to have some deep and honest discussions about faith and belief and religion that I probably would have been afraid to have 15 years ago.  There’s a freedom that I feel now that I’m not tethered to a black-and-white absolute truth.

Even though I hadn’t actively followed RHE over the past several years, I still would pop over to her Twitter feed to see what she was talking about and get her take on current events, particularly since the election of 2016, when evangelicals sold their soul to the political machinations of Donald Trump.  She was someone who gave me hope that there was a compassionate, rational, thoughtful Christianity out there, and her voice will most certainly leave a void in progressive Christianity.  She made people take a good, hard look at the truths that are being handed down by a minority of typically white, privileged men, truths that leave the majority of people on the outside of God’s favor and love.  She certainly helped me along my own journey, and for that I am thankful.  It hasn’t always been an easy road, and it’s certainly not finished.  

An Unnecessary War? How Science and Christianity Conflict and Cooperate

by Sarah Olson

Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology at Oregon State University, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. She works at a bookstore curating their science and math sections and reviews popular science books on her blog readmorescience.com. In addition to pursuing a career in science writing, Sarah frequently writes about the intersection of religion, feminism, and science. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiance. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and on Twitter and Instagram at @ReadMoreScience.

Continuing the conversation around whether America’s conservative Christians have reason to reject or accept evolution, Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt Jr. suggests the conflict between science and religion is an unnecessary war. Instead, he argues it’s a trope asserted by New Atheists and fundamentalists, and that Christianity in America today is entirely compatible with science. In regard to my post, he believes “exchanges of this kind tend to perpetuate misunderstandings that persist around the relationship between science and religion.” But can the friction between religion and science truly be reduced to misunderstandings and historical conspiracy?

It’s worth noting that theologians have a stake in persuading the public that science and Christianity are not in conflict. By reducing it to a centuries-old conspiracy between fundamentalists and atheists, theologians position themselves as more reasonable cooperators. Cooperation is a means of survival, and Christianity is determined to survive. In order to do so, theologians cannot possibly position themselves against science – they would forsake reason. But Christianity cannot simply tolerate science in order to survive. It needs to embrace it, and in many ways, non-fundamentalist Christianity in America has done exactly that. But while Christianity may need to accommodate science in order to survive in modern America, I am not convinced science should do anything more than tolerate religion in exchange.

The dilemma lies in that science and religion both claim to reveal fundamental truths about our world and our existence. When their assertions conflict, which will bow to the other? When religion refuses to accommodate reason, as is evident in the belief of a worldwide flood in which Noah’s Ark survived, we call it fundamentalism. When science bends to accommodate belief, as is the case with “creation science,” it becomes pseudoscience. Scientists and reasonable believers alike know how problematic these issues are, and why fundamentalism and pseudoscience fuel the conflict between science and religion.

Dr. Schmidt argues that science and Christianity can coexist peacefully, and that they have done so through cooperation. With historical references to Galileo and Isaac Newton, he suggests science was “facilitated mostly by Christians, who explored nature and restricted themselves to natural explanations.” Perhaps this was generally true when science as a field of study was in its infancy, before a young Darwin set off on his voyage in 1831; but after he proposed his theory of evolution, the relationship between Christianity and science changed forever. Science made a claim that directly conflicted with the Bible and the story of creation. Now scientists began to question faith. Darwin himself had doubts about God’s existence, and Einstein even rejected the God of Abraham. Debating the religious beliefs of famous scientists may be trivial, but today, we know scientists around the world are generally more agnostic than the rest of the population.

Perhaps the way to move toward peaceful coexistence is for the Bible to be understood as inspirational rather than factual. Many Christians argue that the Bible should not be taken literally, and some claim it was never meant to be. As evangelical author Rachel Held Evans wrote in her 2018 book Inspired, which I have been pouring over in light of her recent and tragic passing, the Bible is not a science or a history book, but a collection of divinely inspired stories. I found it odd that Dr. Schmidt would argue inspiration could cause enmity between science and Christianity, but theology is his expertise, not mine. Evans suggests that “Christians believe the bible to be uniquely revelatory and authoritative to the faith, [and] we have no reason to think its many authors were exempt from the mistakes, edits, rewrites, and dry spells of everyday creative work.” Seen this way, the Bible is no longer a manual or textbook, but “inspired and inspiring.”

For non-fundamentalists as well as non-believers, it’s much more palatable to accept the Bible as stories rather than facts. I greatly appreciate literature (during my first two years of college, I even intended to major in it), and like Evans, I grew up inspired by Biblical stories. But when I witnessed the way those stories were used to undermine science, medicine, and equality, my belief faltered. I can accept the values of a religion that teaches love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. But as an atheist, I know these values exist outside of the context of religion. I know the power science and technology hold to do good for the world, and I think believers know it, too. But in America today, where Christian fundamentalism is continuously used to undermine science, when our Evangelical-endorsed president denies climate change and pseudoscientific conspiracies grip vulnerable populations, will non-fundamentalist Christians help lead these wayward believers back to reason?

My brother recently asked me if it wasn’t too negative a message to say conservatives “should fear” evolution. I realized that my post likely came across that way, when I intend it to be read as conservative Christians have good reason to fear evolution. I think it’s worth any believer’s time to understand the ways science may conflict with their scripture. It allows for productive, beneficial discussions around science and the existence of the divine. While I may not find belief a necessary or fulfilling addition to my life, as a science communicator, it’s worth considering why someone else might. Recovering from the pain caused by fundamentalist Christianity can sometimes lead to nonbelief, as it did for me. But what does a conservative Christian-turned-atheist have to gain by turning her back on her family’s faith? What does an aspiring scientist have to profit from dissecting a theology many in her field accept and embrace?

The pain I experienced losing my faith and relationships with my family and community is not something I have or would ever take lightly. But I truly feel I’ve found a more accepting community in secular humanism. The atheism of my generation is not the flawed version of the New Atheists, but an attempt to move toward a more tolerant, reason-based world. Neither is our secular worldview a form of “scientism,” in which we’ve simply replaced religion with a distorted dependence on science. Dr. Schmidt is wrong to assume non-believers and scientists such as Khan and myself “treat science not just as a powerful descriptive tool, but as a discipline that also serves an almost metaphysical function.” There is nothing metaphysical about a method with which to describe and understand our natural world. I am driven by a sense of wonder, not faith.

Wonder, as Socrates once wrote, is the beginning of wisdom. I believe it is also a scientist’s greatest tool, and “one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable,” as Richard Dawkins once stated. One of Christianity’s merits is its encouragement of wonder. In this, science and faith may even encourage one another, like when Dr. Schmidt described some of the early naturalists and their spirituality. This said, I tend to agree with Carl Sagan:

No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety, and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration. But of course I might be wrong.

A Belated Father’s Day Tribute, or Dad v. The Young Earth Creationists

by William Trollinger

William Trollinger, Sr.’s Geologic Timetable

William Trollinger, Sr. was a Denver-based petroleum geologist. He died in 2002. While I wish he were still around, I confess that I am glad he did not have to see the openings of the Creation Museum in 2007 and Ark Encounter in 2016, both of which would have horrified him.

While not a fundamentalist in behavior – he drank a little, gambled more, and swore a lot – William Trollinger, Sr. was definitely a fundamentalist in theology, holding firmly to biblical inerrancy: The Bible is without error, and factually accurate in all that it has to say, including when it speaks on history and science. This said, he had no problem squaring a literal reading of Genesis 1 with his geological training. According to Dad, each of the “days” in Genesis 1 referred to an “era” of great length of time. And as he saw it, the Genesis days lined up very neatly with the geologic timetable.

In short, he was an old Earth creationist. In this regard, he was very much in keeping with fundamentalists of his generation. But everything changed in 1961, when John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris came out with The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. Borrowing heavily (to put it mildly), from the writings of Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, Whitcomb and Morris made the argument that: the Earth (actually, the universe) was created in six twenty-four hour days; Noah’s Flood was a global event that lasted one year; this cataclysmic Flood produced all the geological strata that we see today. Voila, a young Earth.

The ideas promulgated by Whitcomb and Morris swept through evangelicalism and fundamentalism with remarkable alacrity. This included the conservative Protestant churches of suburban Denver, including the Baptist church in which I was raised.

My father was infuriated by The Genesis Flood – I will never forget the evening in which he threw the book against the wall of his downstairs study, with a crash that reverberated throughout the house.  More than this, he was appalled by how easily his fellow Christians could be duped by the “bad science” of young Earth creationism. So, he created a multi-media lecture – slides and transparencies and charts and more – that he presented to local churches, in which he explained how the basics of geology and the notion of an old Earth fit neatly with a literal reading of Genesis. The photograph above shows one of his charts, with the geologic table on the left, and the “Bible events” of Genesis 1 on the right, with the corresponding verses at the far-right edge.

All this to no avail. Young Earth creationism swept through conservative evangelicalism, in Denver and throughout the nation, to the point that the word “creationism” is now synonymous with young Earth creationism.

But my father never reconciled himself to this reality. I shudder to imagine his response to Ken Ham’s recent post, immodestly and ludicrously entitled “Ken Ham Solves Great Paleontological Mystery,” in which he provides an explanation for 259 fossilized fish which have been

Preserved in the position they were in the instant they died. But how on earth is this possible?  Fossil experts are confused, but I’ve solved the mystery! . . . This school of fish was catastrophically buried by water-borne sediments during the immediate aftermath of the global flood of Noah’s day.

Do I hear the sound of a computer being thrown against the wall?

Science and Religion: The Casualties of an Unnecessary War

by Frederick W. Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

In a recent exchange of views Sarah Olson, a formerly conservative Christian-turned-atheist, responded to Razib Kahn, who is a Muslim-turned-atheist.  Kahn argues that Christians should not be afraid of evolutionary theory and Olson argues that they should be.  What is interesting about the exchange is what they hold in common.  Both are atheists. Both assume that conflict between science and religion is a given, and both presuppose a conservative Christian audience.

On the face of it, the entire exchange is unexpected.  Why would atheists care about conservative Christians do or don’t make of evolutionary science or science in general?  But on brief reflection, it is not all that strange.

To understand why topics of this kind matter to atheists, one need only remember that both writers were reared in theologically conservative homes.  We all work out of our personal lives to one degree or another, and writers — more publicly than others — continue to rehearse those experiences. In the case of Kahn and Olson, my suspicion is that both continue to rehearse their departures from their respective faiths, and – understandably – they continue to imagine how those faith communities may or may not process their relationship with science.  Science, in turn, figures prominently for atheists who often treat science not just as a powerful descriptive tool, but as a discipline that also serves an almost metaphysical function.

Be that as it may, exchanges of this kind tend to perpetuate misunderstandings that persist around the relationship between science and religion. Ironically, atheists and religious conservatives have often contributed to the perpetuation of those misunderstandings.

One such misunderstanding is the notion that religion and science are and have been at odds with one another for centuries.  Students of the history of science and better-informed religious historians debunked that assumption long ago, and they continue to try to inform broader audiences of just how little information there is to support the so-called conflict thesis between science and religion.  Among the most recent efforts to make that case with broader audiences are Jeff Hardin (Chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison), Ronald L. Numbers (Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) and Ronald A. Binzley (an environmental engineer at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).  Together, Hardin, Numbers and Binzley assembled a group of distinguished historians to make their case in accessible terms in an edited work, entitled The Warfare between Science and Religion, The Idea that Wouldn’t Die.  

As Hardin and Numbers observe in a recent Veritas Forum, the warfare trope is largely a nineteenth century creation and can be traced to the work of John William Draper and Andrew Dixon White who, together, made it their mission in life to promote the impression that science and religion – in particular, science and Christianity – had been at war for centuries.  In fact, as Hardin and Numbers note, science – as we know it – is largely a late eighteenth, early nineteenth century creation, which was facilitated mostly by Christians, who explored nature and restricted themselves to natural explanations. In so doing, they broke with patterns that were well established, even among thinkers like Isaac Newton, who had no hesitation in referring to God when explaining natural phenomena.

Numbers goes onto note that many of the so-called historical illustrations of enmity between science and the church are also predicated on dubious evidence.  Galileo is a good illustration. Referring to the work of Maurice A. Finochiarro, Numbers points out that, when Galileo was questioned by the church, he was accommodated first in the embassies of Tuscany and Florence, and then in the luxurious six-room apartment of the prosecutor.  He was fed by a chef who attended to his dining needs; when he was eventually placed under house arrest, he was already blind, and his daughter, who was a nun, served as his secretary. The language that describes the Inquisition’s interrogation of Galileo suggests that he was “closely examined,” but nothing in the historical record suggests that the church had him tortured.  More importantly, Galileo himself had been ordained and tonsured before his interrogation, and the differences between the church and Galileo were actually far more subtle than the warfare trope suggests. Numbers’ book is pointedly entitled, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.  

So why, then, does the warfare trope persist?  According to Numbers, some of it is willful. The new atheists, he notes, do not just cherry-pick the history to make a case for the trope, they simply assert the fact of a war between science and religion.  When asked what he would say to new atheists like Sam Harris, who persist in repeating the theme, Numbers responds, “Read some history.” That’s undoubtedly good advice.

I think it is also fair to say that the trope serves certain rhetorical purposes on both sides of the atheist-fundamentalist divide.  For the former, the warfare image serves as leverage, discrediting the church in particular and religion in general. The case for the new atheists is intrinsically stronger, if the picture drawn for readers characterizes religious people as obscurantists who live in childish fear of scientific truth.  The notion of a war also situates the new atheists as the defenders of scientific truth, no matter how much or how little they know about the actual science.

For those who are fundamentalists, the warfare model also presents a rhetorical advantage. The assumption that scientists are “out to get” the church strengthens the hand of fundamentalists like Ken Ham, galvanizing audiences and advancing their financial goals.  Ham himself acknowledged that the debates with Bill Nye helped him to raise enough money to begin work on his “Ark Encounter Project,” estimated to cost roughly 73 million dollars.

But, apart from history and rhetorical leverage, are there any other reasons that even people like Kahn and Olson believe that science-as-a threat-to-religion needs to be addressed?  The answer, I think, lies in attitudes toward Scripture. While Olson begins to identify the challenges, I don’t believe she fully outlines the problem. Because she left behind a fundamentalist form of Christianity, she also doesn’t fully realize that while science is, indeed, a problem for fundamentalism, it is far from being a problem for Christianity.

One reason for the enmity between faith and science lies with notions of biblical inspiration.  Fundamentalists prioritize such claims, and what they are willing to entertain as factual must, by definition, be congruent with that claim.  

Scripture does, indeed, talk about the inspiration of Scripture, but oddly, of course, the passages that suggest or infer divine inspiration rarely claim inspiration for the books in which such claims lie.  So, for example, there are places in Scripture that describe someone receiving a revelation from God — e.g., Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 — but the notion of revelation does not extend to the whole of the Book of Exodus.  Even better known is the description of Scripture as “God-breathed” in Second Timothy 3:16-17, which refers to the Hebrew Bible, but is not a reference to Second Timothy, let alone the New Testament.

This is not to suggest that only fundamentalists believe that the Bible is inspired.  All Christians do in one way or another. But whereas fundamentalists tend to treat inspiration as a quality that that is imparted to Scripture from its inception, much of the rest of Christianity believes that inspiration is deeply connected with the experience of the church, emerges from that experience, and is often only recognized in retrospect.

A second reason lies with the ways in which fundamentalism unpacks the concept of inspiration.  

Because fundamentalists think of inspiration in terms of God acting on the text, they are inclined to understand inspiration in terms of its perceptible impact.  As a result, inerrancy is asserted, and the authority and reliability of the biblical rises and falls on being able to demonstrate that inerrancy.

The difficulty with this point of view is that where notions of inspiration figure into descriptions of the Hebrew Bible or certain revelations in the biblical text, the authors deal in story and metaphor.  They do not quantify the impact of inspiration in perceptible or measurable terms, and while they certainly believe that God has acted and communicated, they do not make claims for the kind of inerrancy that is so often the hallmark of fundamentalism.  The very fact that narrative and metaphor about the inspiration of Scripture becomes the grist for “theories” of inspiration illustrates the problem.

The third reason lies with the exclusive and definitive role that Scripture is forced to play in the theology of fundamentalism.  

Combined with the view of Scripture outlined above, the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura exerts an exaggerated power over fundamentalist theology and cosmology.  The Bible not only names basic assumptions about the nature of reality; it is also forced to serve as a living matrix for understanding the world and all forms of truth.  As such, the Bible not only allows and prohibits certain kinds of thinking, it also functions in ways that its writers never intended, making assertions for example, about the physical process by which the world was created.  That approach is a break with other approaches to thinking theologically in the church, which emphasizes the primacy of Scripture – prima scriptura – and makes room for the construction of theology, relying upon the traditions of the church and other forms of knowledge.

This understanding of inspiration leads fundamentalists inexorably to a fourth reason that science appears to be the enemy of religion: A literalist approach to reading Scripture.

If theories of inspiration reify what is to be expected from Scripture, then a literalist approach to the reading of Scripture makes it easier to account for the effects of inspiration — or so it seems to fundamentalists.  In fact, of course, the wooden insistence on this approach to reading Scripture flies in the face of its very nature. Both the Old and New Testaments are marked by literary variety and sophistication that depends upon history, but depends equally upon metaphor, poetry, figurative expressions, story, parable (which Olson wrongly identifies as the genre of the Genesis story), and mythic narratives (which is a rather more accurate way of characterizing Genesis 1-3).  With this inherent tension in place with the phenomenology of the text itself, conflict is almost guaranteed, and alternative understandings of a text are unavailable to people who do not open themselves to discoveries and information that contradicts a literalist reading of Scripture.

Just how powerfully these four assumptions about Scripture reinforce the warfare trope is clear from the ferocity with which some creationists defend their views, and the extent to which they are prepared to contort their understanding of scientific data or deny it altogether.  But the more poignant evidence of just how powerful those assumptions are may lie in its impact on the faith of people like Ron Numbers. Numbers grew up in an Adventist church and was deeply wed to fundamentalist categories.

Along with a classmate at the University of California where he eventually received his Ph.D., Numbers found that what he learned there about science made his religious upbringing untenable.  Today, he is a gracious and important participant in conversations about the history of science and religion, but he is also an agnostic. Interestingly, his biography cites that fact with a single observation from Numbers himself: “I no longer believe in creationism of any kind.”

Outside of the fundamentalist world, the warfare between science and faith is, as Numbers notes, without historical justification, and theologically, there are also countless alternatives.  But among fundamentalists, Olson is right, it has its casualties.

The Ongoing Battle Over the Civil War, in Niles, Ohio

by William Trollinger

Presentation at the McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles, Ohio.

Last Sunday, I was at the William McKinley Memorial Museum in Niles, Ohio – McKinley’s birthplace – to speak on “Statues, Flags, and the Ongoing Battle Over the Civil War.” Given McKinley’s role as a Union soldier, it seemed quite the appropriate venue, even if it felt a bit unusual to be giving this talk while flanked by the busts of twelve or so wealthy industrialists (who paid for the privilege of being thusly commemorated in the McKinley Museum, and who even wrote their own citations). 

I began by briefly mentioning the use of the Confederate flag by contemporary white supremacists. Then it was on to the Civil War. I started my discussion of the war by noting that – despite what many of us were taught – it really is indisputable that slavery was its primary cause. Along the way, I showed slides of South Carolina’s South Carolina’s and Mississippi’s secession resolutions. Within moments of beginning my talk, a white man sitting near the front interrupted my talk by loudly exclaiming that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and he also accused me of manipulating the secession resolutions by way of use of ellipses to serve my argument. I assured the audience that nothing I left out of the statements changed their central arguments about the necessity of secession on behalf of protecting slavery and told him that he should read the statements for himself (and add Georgia’s interminable secession resolution for good measure). I then went on to Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens’ infamous March, 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” in which Stephens asserted that  

 African slavery was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution . . . The Constitution rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . . Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

 I was again interrupted by the same (and increasingly angry) man, who announced that Abraham Lincoln said exactly the same thing, and that in fact Lincoln was as passionately proslavery as Stephens. In the politest tone I could muster, I said that was ridiculous.

 While there were no more outbursts, he remained upset throughout the entirety of my presentation (arms crossed and shaking his head), and he marched out early in the question-and-answer period.

 The ongoing battle over the Civil War, indeed. It is 2019, and yet many white Americans remain determined to hold on to the notion that the Civil War was not about slavery, but, instead, was an avoidable and unfortunate conflict of (white) brother vs. (white) brother. And this determination to see the past in this fashion seems rooted in a very deep desire not to see that racism and racial oppression is a central feature of American history.

 But my agitated interlocutor in Niles was very much in the minority. In fact, I have to say that it was a quite receptive audience (which may indeed have contributed to the his departure). And Niles is not an anomaly. The vast majority of folks I have encountered in giving Ohio Humanities presentations on Confederate monuments (and on the Ku Klux Klan) are people who want (as one person in Niles said) to know the “real” American history, warts and all. Of course I know these are self-selected audiences. But in this time of ascendant white supremacy and grotesque racism emanating from the White House, I am grateful for this measure of encouragement.

 

Why Conservatives Aren’t Wrong to Fear Evolution

by Sarah Olson

Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology at Oregon State University, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. She works at a bookstore curating their science and math sections and reviews popular science books on her blog readmorescience.com. In addition to pursuing a career in science writing, Sarah frequently writes about the intersection of religion, feminism, and science. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiance. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and on Twitter and Instagram at @ReadMoreScience.

In a recent opinion piece for the National Review, conservative and evolutionary geneticist Razib Khan made a bold claim: conservatives shouldn’t fear evolutionary theory. Khan, an outspoken atheist who does not have a background in Christianity, argues that evolution and faith are inherently compatible because science and religion both seek to know truths about our world. “The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value,” writes Khan. “And many Christians well-versed in evolutionary science find it entirely compatible with their religious beliefs.”

I have been following Khan on Twitter for a while now, and I think he’s an intelligent and competent scientist. But his piece doesn’t grasp how problematic it can be for science to try to accommodate conservative religious beliefs, nor does it address why the majority of white evangelical Christians believe humans have always existed in their present form. Instead, Khan outlines “two major strands of evolution skepticism.” The first involves irreducible complexity and aligns with Michael Behe’s arguments; the second has to do with conservatives’ focus on disagreements about evolution among prominent scientists. He neglects to address the fact that in America today, many conservative believers are, in fact, creationists – and those who do accept evolution indicate they believe God had a role.

At first, it seems reasonable for Khan to conclude evolution and Christianity are compatible. As a conservative, he wants to reach out to the believers in his community who have doubts about the validity of evolution. But the question Khan neglects to adequately answer is why conservative believers would reject evolution in the first place. Telling readers that evolutionary theory is the “crowning jewel” of Western civilization does little to explore the depths of conservative fear surrounding the subject. Ignoring the fact that conservatives are more anxious than their liberal counterparts, Khan instead attacks liberals, claiming they deny “the very idea of human nature,” which Khan asserts is the binary male/female biological differences. This incorrect assumption betrays Khan’s lack of understanding about gender theory (not to mention organisms who change biological sex), and he loses sight of his main argument in order to console conservative readers with a wink-wink-nudge about ignorant liberals.

Communicating science to conservative believers is an important pursuit, but I worry Khan may not fully understand what he is advocating for. I am an undergraduate student and a science communicator, and although today I am an atheist, I was raised in a conservative Christian community that was antagonistic toward science. Because I understand firsthand how contradictory conservative Christianity and science can be, the first thing I noticed while reading Khan’s piece was that he seems not to have a firm understanding of Christian beliefs. The second thing I realized was that his piece is a perfect example of accommodationism.

As defined by evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne in his brilliant book Faith Versus Fact, accommodationism is an attempt to reconcile the differences between religion and science in order to come to a compatible conclusion. Its fatal flaw is that one of the two must make compromises in order to “accommodate” the other’s assertions. For example, if a Christian is to accept evolution as fact, they must view the Genesis story as a parable. But many conservative Christians don’t take Biblical stories for parables: they see them as literally true, and even “proven” through scientific evidence. You don’t need to look any further than the Creation Museum or the Ark Encounter to realize how hard conservative believers are working to demonstrate that Bible stories are factual. If we asked them to regard the Bible as parable, what does that imply about these museums and the beliefs they exist to substantiate? And if you consider the opposite example – that a scientist must accept she cannot fully understand the mechanisms of evolution because a mysterious god played an undetectable role – then you’re left with shoddy science.

Another dangerous implication Khan’s piece does not consider is that, for conservative Christians, to regard Genesis as fiction casts a long and dark shadow of doubt on the validity of the rest of the Bible. As many conservatives understand it, if we don’t believe in instantaneous creation or a worldwide flood, who’s to say Jesus really died and rose again? If Christians don’t believe in those miracles, how can they also believe in sin and salvation? And if Christians don’t believe in miracles or salvation, why would they believe in an uninvolved deity when we have reasonable scientific explanations for the existence of our world and ourselves? As conservative Christians understand it, this is exactly how science can begin to undermine faith. So it is that they crusade against teaching evolution in public schools, and why they’ve established the fields of creation science and Biblical archaeology.

A 2016 study found that most scientists embrace a compatibility perspective. But how can this general acceptance of compatibility work? The authors conclude by proposing a “contact hypothesis,” which posits that intergroup prejudice can be reduced by having frequent contact between diverse groups for the sake of a common objective” (Religion Among Scientists in International Context: A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions, Sept 1 2016). This is an interesting suggestion because it implies that scientists, whether they are personally religious or not, are inclined to get along with believers for the sake of a common objective.

This is where I find the most significant problem with trying to make science and conservative Christianity compatible: they can try to accommodate each other’s claims, but when it comes down to asserting a fundamental truth about the universe, one of them will inevitably undermine the other. Put another way, conservative believers can accept the theory of evolution, but they need to understand what that implies. If they believe God has a hand in evolution, they must also recognize that it is a scientific theory that holds true even if one leaves out God. And it is this fact – that evolution does not require divine intervention – is exactly why conservatives fear evolution.

No Jokes Allowed: Ark Encounter Sues Insurance Company over Damage Caused by Flooding

by William Trollinger

Exterior of Ark Encounter. Photo credit: Susan L. Trollinger, 2018

I have often wondered if one of the “Fundamentals of the Faith” – along with “Thou shalt believe in the inerrant and perspicacious Bible” and “Thou shalt obey your Husband” – is “Thou shalt have no sense of humor.”

I received a barrage of emails and texts from friends when the news came out that the Ark Encounter was suing their insurance company for not covering the damage caused by heavy rains in 2017 and 2018.

Not surprisingly, reporters have had fun with this story. See, for example, the May 24 Washington Post article, “Lawsuit: Flood damage at Noah’s Ark attraction in Kentucky,” which begins with these two sentences:

In the Bible, the ark survived an epic flood. Yet the owners of Kentucky’s Noah’s ark attraction are demanding their insurance company bail them out after flooding caused nearly $1 million in property damage.

One might imagine that the folks at Answers in Genesis might go along with the joke, might even take the opportunity to poke a little fun at themselves.

But no. In an article entitled “Faked News” – which on the AiG website is linked to previous articles such as “Local TV Station Airs Misleading Ark Encounter Story” and “The Secularist Media War Against the Ark Continues” – AiG/Ark Encounter CCO Mark Looy complains about the news coverage of the AiG lawsuit:

Here is what we’re sharing with the media, if they even bother to contact us . . . “Contrary to some reporting, the damage to certain ares of the Ark Encounter themed attraction was not caused by a ‘flood’ . . . The damaged areas have already been remediated, [and] the Ark itself does not sit next to the damaged area” . . . So now you know the REAL account!

In this article Looy specifically criticizes the aforementioned Washington Post headline. But what is stunning is that all of the salient details in Looy’s “REAL account” – including that the damage was caused by heavy rain, the damage has been repaired, and the Ark is not damaged – are in fact included in the Washington Post article.

There is no “fake news” here. There is just the mildest form of joking. But AiG is determined to cast this as yet another example of secular persecution.

It takes real work for fundamentalists in Trump’s America to present themselves as the perpetual victims. There is simply no time or space for humor. Especially self-deprecatory humor.

Love Over Hate in Dayton

by William Trollinger

Hundreds of Counter-Protestors Demonstrate Against the KKK in Dayton, Ohio. Image source: PressFrom

On Saturday afternoon, the Honorable Sacred Knights of Madison, Indiana held a rally in Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton. “Rally” is an overstatement, as only nine of them had the courage to show up. They were greeted by hundreds of counter-protesters, ranging from Antifa members and the New Black Panthers to local church groups. Taking lessons from what happened in Charlottesville in 2017, the well-prepared Dayton police kept the two groups apart. After two hours of being drowned out by chants — including “no Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA” – and songs (including “Amazing Grace”), the little band of white supremacists slinked out of town. No violence, no arrests.

Two nights before the rally I spoke on “The Past and Present of the KKK and White Supremacy” at Precious Blood Catholic Church here in Dayton. Upwards of 300 people were in attendance. There was a significant police presence, but there was no incident (and afterward a couple of the officers thanked me for my presentation). While a good portion of my talk was on the Klan in Dayton in the 1920s, it was not surprising (given the apprehension about the upcoming rally) that most of the questions in the lengthy post-lecture Q and A had to do with the present:

  • Why are the Klan and Klan-like groups not officially designated as terrorist organizations?
  • What can we do now to ban or curtail future rallies by white supremacy groups?
  • How do we combat people’s indifference to injustice?
  • How do we get beneath the lies and the spin to know what political candidates really stand for?
  • How do we teach people to value other human beings?

In anticipation of the Honorable Sacred Knight rally, my old friend Rod Kennedy – formerly the pastor of First Baptist Church here in Dayton – penned a lovely short sermonic essay.  His conclusion was rather prescient:

Let the KKK come. Let them come to Dayton. I know a thing or two about Dayton, and the hateful spirit of the KKK will be met there with the spirit of goodness, equality, and justice. I know people there, courageous people who will stand against the KKK. As surely as the University of Dayton football team chased away the KKK in the 1920s,  the good citizens of Dayton will once again win the victory – as partial, contingent, precarious, and incomplete as it will be.

The Klan is Coming to Dayton (Again)

by William Trollinger

Flier for William Trollinger’s upcoming presentation at Precious Blood Church in Dayton, Ohio.

This Saturday, May 25, the Klan-affiliated Honorable Sacred Knights of Madison, Indiana will be holding a rally at Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton. Concerned about the possibility of violence, the city of Dayton filed a lawsuit in March in order to keep the projected dozen or so white supremacists from rallying in paramilitary fashion. This past week both sides agreed to a consent decree: the Honorable Sacred Knights are prohibited from bringing shields, bats, long guns, and assault rifles to Courthouse Square, but they are allowed to wear masks and carry sidearms.  

Of course, the Indiana white supremacists want to spark some sort of incident that they can then publicize via social media. So, the city, the University of Dayton (UD), and the Dayton unit of the NAACP are asking folks to stay away. On the other hand, Dayton’s New Black Panther chapter is calling people to Courthouse Square on the 25th to challenge the presence of the Honorable Sacred Knights.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a one hour radio roundtable devoted to the May 25 rally. This program was broadcast on WCSU – the Central State University radio station – and included Nan Whaley (mayor of Dayton), Derrick Foward (president of Dayton’s NAACP unit), Donald Domineck (head of Dayton’s New Black Panthers chapter), Dr. Gabriela Pickett (artist and member of Welcome Dayton committee), and myself. Perhaps the most interesting part of this expertly moderated conversation was the lively disagreement between Forward and Domineck regarding how to respond to the white supremacy rally (an exchange with resonances of Martin and Malcolm). Listen to the conversation, from WCSU’s Talk To Me below. (Note that the first six minutes include an interview with Sen. Sherrod Brown.)

While city leaders have asked Daytonians to stay away from Courthouse Square this Saturday, they have also mounted a United Against Hate initiative. UD has also hosted a series of events in response to the May 25 rally (and in response to the posting of several neo-Nazi fliers throughout campus), including a well-attended April 9 White Supremacy teach-in (sponsored by UD’s Human Rights Center).

This Thursday, May 23, I will be speaking at Precious Blood Church here in Dayton on the topic, “The Past and Present of the KKK and White Supremacy.” One of the points I will be making is that it makes sense that the Honorable Sacred Knights are rallying in Dayton. In the 1920s, this city was one of the nation’s great Klan hotbeds, with frequent rallies at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds (just two blocks from UD) that attracted tens of thousands Klansmen, Klanswomen, and enthusiastic spectators.

Of course, the white nationalists from Indiana can only dream of such numbers on May 25. But as I will also mention, the Honorable Sacred Knights is just one in a constellation of white supremacist organizations currently active in America, all of which can be conveniently and iconically grouped under the term “Ku Klux Klan.”  

It should go without saying that 26 months with Donald Trump as president has been a great boon to white nationalism. But Trump is much more the beneficiary of American racism than he is its creator.

That is to say, in the United States we have only just started coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. We have a long ways to go.

Science Denial, White Supremacy, and Two Escapes

by William Trollinger

“Flat Earth | Conspiracy Theory VOL.1” by Daniel Beintner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

I keep saying it. The denial of mainstream science, white supremacy, and the evangelical attachment to right-wing politics were all well-entrenched in American culture long before 2016. But it was the election of Donald Trump that has attracted so many smart journalists and scholars to these topics, and now there is just so much to read on these and related issues. Below are three articles on science denial and white nationalism . . . and remarkably enough, all three pieces contain elements of hope.

Lee McIntyre, “Flat Earthers, and the Rise of Science Denial in America,” Newsweek

Drawing from his new book, The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science From Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience, McIntyre argues that in this “post-truth” era, in which science deniers simply reject factual evidence, those of us who are interested in combating climate change denial need to “stop talking about proof, certainty, and logic.” Instead, we need to emphasize that what makes science, science, is the notion “that scientists care about evidence and are willing to change their views based on new evidence.” Most interesting here is McIntyre’s description of his efforts to apply this approach in discussions with attendees at the 2018 Flat Earth International conference in Denver, in which he pressed the question, “what would it take to convince you that you were wrong?” Bottom line? Face-to-face conversations are our only hope.

Sarah Olson, “My Parents Raised Me to Be a Science Denier, So I Educated Myself,” Leaps

In this fascinating piece Olson, who is currently an Oregon State undergraduate, and who blogs at readmorescience.com, describes her evangelical upbringing in which her parents homeschooled her in intelligent design, young Earth creationism, and a general skepticism of mainstream science. Upon entering public school she “became acutely aware of my ignorant upbringing,” but it was not until she left home and entered community college that she discovered her passion for biology and science writing. Interestingly, her parents have over time become more open to mainstream science, giving her “hope that people in deeply skeptical communities are not entirely out of reach.” Echoing McIntyre, Olson argues that “science communicators need to shift their focus from convincing to discussing,” as “people will only change their minds when it is the right time for them to do so.”

Rosie Gray, “A Former Alt-Right Member’s Message: Get Out While You Still Can,” BuzzFeed.News

Here is one of Katie McHugh’s infamous tweets: “British settlers built the USA. ‘Slaves’ built the country much as cows ‘built’ McDonald’s.” With her profile of McHugh – briefly an alt-Right media star – Rosie Gray provides us with a disturbingly compelling peek into the inner workings of white nationalism, a movement animated by, as the author points out, “the loneliness of the disaffected.” McHugh’s own loneliness was exacerbated by the level of her extremism, which even alienated some alt-Right compatriots. Now she says she has changed – giving some credit to her reading of St. Augustine – and she has a message for other white nationalists: “You have to own up to what you did and then forcefully reject this and explain to people and tell your story and say, ‘Get out while you can.’”

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