by William Trollinger
“Disingenuous” is the kindest word I can come up with to describe Ken Ham’s latest blog post.
Responding to an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, which (among other things) highlights the failure of Ark Encounter to benefit the nearby town of Williamstown, Ham writes:
It’s interesting that many secularists and others like this reporter continue to attack the Ark for not greatly impacting Williamstown. Now, even though the address of the Ark Encounter is Williamstown, the actual city of Williamstown is a half a mile off the interstate. Because it’s not very visible, Williamstown sees very few Ark visitors, plus there are no major hotels or restaurant chains there.
Wow. Talk about eliding the truth. From reading this post, one would not know that (as we have noted again and again) in 2013 Williamstown issued $62m worth of junk bonds and loaned the proceeds to Ark Encounter to get the Ark project underway. This very sweet deal (for the Ark, if not for Williamstown) was made much sweeter by the fact that, over the next thirty years, 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will instead be used to help pay off the loan.
So how did the folks at Ark Encounter sell Williamstown on what has turned out to be a very bad deal for the town? Why, of course – Ham and his compatriots suggested that great economic benefits would accrue to Williamstown, with hordes of tourists coming into town, and with hotels and restaurants popping up to service this horde of tourists!
But that was then.
Now – with the deal done, with the Ark built, with millions of dollars of property taxes lost to the town for decades into the future – Ham is telling Williamstown that the town itself is to blame for its economic misery, as it is too far from the interstate to get Ark visitors, and as it has failed to find someone to build the requisite hotels and restaurants. Interestingly, Ham and company did not share this wisdom with Williamstown in 2013, when they were pushing the town to sign on to the “$62m of bonds and property tax forgiveness” package.
Of course, there is no chance that Ken Ham will acknowledge that he sold little Williamstown a bill of goods. It is much better to blame the victim. Especially since there is nothing the victim can do. The fix is in.
by William Trollinger
In her blog post, “Death Outside the Ark . . . Made Vivid,” Sue Trollinger discusses the troubling contradictions found in the Voyage of the Ark room at the Creation Museum. On the one hand, the room – constructed as if museum visitors are actually on the Ark – is a beautiful and warm place, with “baskets filled with food for the journey,” and with dioramas depicting scenes of Noah and his family happily dining together amidst exquisite tapestries. But nearby there is another diorama, in which people and animals are frantically climbing rocks to escape the rising flood waters, and in which the humans are desperately trying to hail the Ark as it blissfully floats by. More than this, there is a video which depicts the Earth as it is being swallowed up by the Flood. Most disturbing, there is a scene in which a daughter and mother in vaguely Middle Eastern attire are in their house, happily playing a game. But through the window the museumgoer sees a wall of water rapidly advancing on the blissfully unaware pair. Within a matter of seconds, they will be desperately trying to keep their heads above the raging waters. Within a matter of minutes, they will be dead.
Sue sums up her analysis of the Voyage of the Ark room quite succinctly and understatedly: “What a curious and callous juxtaposition.” But one reader of her post is quite dismayed by Sue’s interpretation. Written just a few days ago, here is his response in full:
People were warned, repeatedly. God begged mankind to repent. He still does. WithHis whole heart God pleads with us to turn to Him, to find Him while there is time. He was rejected then and most people reject Him today. We have many examples in which mankind refuses to heed His invitations to find Life in Him in addition to this One. Destruction of civilizations is a common theme throughout history and we are headed in the same direction right now. Less than one hundred years ago the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians, maiming millions. Nazis obliterated millions of Jewish people. Stalin killed 12 million Soviet citizens or more. The greatest annihilation is yet to come and is just around the corner. God makes clear how our world will be consumed with fire and destruction beyond anything we have ever seen or known. Regardless, many of us still ignore God. We won’t be able to ignore Him forever. Each of us will be held accountable for our lives, whether we have loved Him and our neighbors as He has loved us.
Much of this fits very neatly with the interpretation one finds at the Creation Museum. This is particularly true when it comes to linking Noah’s Flood to the End Times of dispensational premillennialism, i.e., the global slaughter of the Flood prefigures the global slaughter to come (Righting America, 48-50, 168-170). Admittedly, connecting the Flood to Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s Terror is a new twist, and a particularly perplexing (appalling?) one at that. Is the point that the Japanese, Jews, and Russians failed to repent and turn to God, and thus had to be destroyed? And were Truman, Hitler, and Stalin doing God’s work?
But it is the first two sentences I want to focus on: “People were warned, repeatedly. God begged mankind to repent.” This interpretation of the Flood is very much in keeping with the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. The kindest response I can make is that this is an extrabiblical reading. There is not one word in Genesis chapters 6-8 – the chapters that describe the Flood – that suggest that God warned people repeatedly, and that God begged mankind to repent. Here is Genesis 6:5-7 (NRSV):
The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And theLORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
So that’s God. As far as Noah is concerned, there is also not one word in Genesis to suggest that Noah preached the impending divine judgment, nor any evidence that Noah sought to persuade others to join his family on the Ark, a point that discomfited some rabbinic interpreters (Righting America, 270fn18). While our correspondent does not go this route, there is much effort at the Creation Museum (and in young Earth creationism more generally) to fill in this gap with one verse from the New Testament:
And [God] spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly (2 Peter 2:5, KJV).
A “preacher of righteousness” is a pretty flimsy biblical reed upon which to rest the argument that God/Noah warned the inhabitants of the Earth and begged them to repent. As we note in Righting America (124-125), there is nothing here to suggest that Noah pleaded with people to join him on the Ark or that people across the globe – a population which, according to Ark Encounter, may have numbered upwards of twenty billion – knew about the Ark. Of course, there is also no suggestion in the Bible that the Ark could have accommodated an additional billion, million, thousand, hundred or even ten individuals! And none of this addresses the fact that the global Flood of Genesis drowned infants and toddlers and children and animals. In what sense were they liable for a failure to repent?
I understand very well the desire to soften the story of Noah’s Flood. I understand very well the desire to make the case that the wicked were given a chance to repent, they refused, and thus they were responsible for their drowning (just like the billions who end up in the fundamentalist Hell will be responsible for their eternal burning). I understand very well that our correspondent and the folks at Answers in Genesis and evangelicals and fundamentalists in general do not want to be understood as calling us to worship a genocidal God.
But it is very telling that, to get the Flood story they want, they have to move a fair bit away from the biblical text. Biblical inerrancy is the fundamental, except when it isn’t.
by Pete Cajka
Pete Cajka is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department at Notre Dame and a faculty affiliate with the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. He is an intellectual and cultural historian of the twentieth century United States with interests in Catholicism. His book manuscript, “Follow Your Conscience: The American Catholic Church, War, Sex, and the Spirit of the Sixties,” is under review at an academic press. In this post Cajka brings Righting America at the Creation Museum into conversation with historian Catherine Osborne’s book American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow: Building Churches for the Future, 1925-1975.
Pope Pius X, like American fundamentalists, responded negatively to Darwin’s Origin of Species. Not only did evolutionary theory suggest humans were more material than spiritual, Darwin’s argument, if applied to social life, made the adaptation of Christianity to modern conditions appear inevitable. A synthesis of Church and world characterized the modernism condemned by Pius in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, with evolution playing a key part. “At the heart of what the modernists teach,” he wrote, “is their doctrine of evolution.” Ken Ham comes from a different time and place, but he too desires that church, tradition and Christianity be quarantined from evolutionary theory’s perceived dangers.
In her energetic book, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow, Catherine Osbourne concedes that Pope Pius was right about one thing: even if he “significantly overstated the degree of organization and coherence among emerging modernist tendencies,” he correctly identified evolution as a centerpiece of the modernist agenda (5). She explores how evolutionary thought burrowed into western culture, and Catholic life, despite Pius’s best efforts to stop it.
The Pope’s condemnation of modernism did succeed in removing evolution from seminary and university curriculum. Catholic intellectual life, so some have argued, went into a deep freeze after Pius’s condemnation of modernism that only thawed in the years after Vatican II. Mid-twentieth century American Catholics, as historian William Halsey argued in his 1981 book, The Survival of American Innocence, chose to remain in ordered aloofness, as the moderns in their midst embraced creativity and relativity in science, legal theory, sociology, and psychoanalysis.
Osborne shows that confining our analysis of evolutionary thought to traditional academic spaces like seminaries and universities vastly impairs our understanding of modern Catholicism. In All Good Books are Catholic Books Una Cadegan traced the diffusion of literary modernism in American Catholicism via good books and periodicals – enterprises often beyond the clergy’s view. Osborne shows how a generation of liturgists and architects built the concepts of adaptation and evolution into the physical structures of American Catholic churches. These architects and liturgists, who fed off the vibe from the Liturgical Arts Society and its journal Liturgical Arts, apprehended the world via what Osborne calls “the biological paradigm.” They believed that buildings “developed naturally in accordance with their environments” (8). Buildings were living, natural, vital, and organic. Church structures must always be made with local materials that embed them in the local environment, and church spaces must always be imagined as complex organisms that evolve over time.
Setting these two books – American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow and Righting America at the Creation Museum – into conversation shows just how important it became in the twentieth century to lasso evolution to a preferred set of ends. Fundamentalists with the Creation Museum concentrate on the ills of evolution in order to galvanize Christians to participate in a Culture War. Catholic architects and liturgists design buildings that render evolution into a progression towards a unified humanity. We much prefer a positive spin on evolution (harmony) to a negative interpretation of evolution that perpetuates a culture war against “godless secularists.” But we must also recognize that the liturgists and architects drew upon space, power, and ideology to establish their hopeful interpretation of evolution as a preferred approach.
Models of Power
There are vast differences between a museum and a church. A church constructed with evolutionary architecture does not resemble the multi-staged linear path of the Creation Museum. It is glaringly obvious to point out that the churches Osborne analyzes do not come outfitted with displays of evidence looking to back up a scientific argument. St. Patrick’s Church in Oklahoma City (see photos) is an open space contained in a rectangular shell; it does not come with placards, tables, charts, or videos of scientists giving brief lectures. Likewise, the Creation Museum is not designed to facilitate a religious ritual, the Catholic mass, nor does it have the sacred task of storing and protecting consecrated hosts. While there are thousands of Catholic Churches across the United States, there is only one Creation Museum.
But both the churches and the museum try to communicate a narrative to those who walk through their doors. As the Trollingers show, the Creation Museum is a museum in the Enlightenment tradition: it situates visitors as subjects in a grand narrative, rife with classifications under the laws that organize the universe. In a museum, the Trollingers write, a visitor observes “their own behavior as an object of knowledge and … assess[es] it according to its compliance with the laws of nature” (24). The Creation Museum implores its visitors to position themselves against evolution: they have to make the “right choice” to reject evolution and the subsequent corruption of society that comes from the evolutionary worldview.
Modernist churches also want to position subjects in a grand narrative. Its subjects are part of a humanity that is evolving – and has to be purposefully evolved – into a unified form. The open spaces, the parabolas, the arches, and the light flooding the sanctuary all seek to position the subject in an evolutionary narrative. For Osborne’s modernists, evolution is a fact, a reality that humanity exists within – it needs be accepted, even celebrated, as the framework of the real world.
Both the Catholic modernists and the Answers In Genesis (AiG) crew deploy models – miniature or life size – to constrain imaginations and amplify their interpretations of reality. In a brilliant chapter, Osborne shows how architects brought miniature models to planning meetings with archbishops and other ecclesiastical officials. In 1947, the Catholic architect Joseph Murphy, the artist Emil Frei Jr. and Passionist Priest Betrand Abell brought a model and sketches to a meeting with Archbishop of St. Louis, Joseph Ritter. It was a smashing success. Osborne recounts how the “meeting lasted more than an hour as Ritter investigated the model, made comments, asked questions” and concluded that the evolutionary designs captured the Church’s twentieth century ethos (50). Modernists made arguments about reality with these models. They were designed to hook potential boosters into a particular plan.
The displays at the Creation Museum serve a similar purpose. The Trollingers note how certain passages of the bible are omitted from the placards in order to communicate a specific message to the visitors. This is also true of the displays of scenes from the bible found the museum: life size models of Adam and Eve, or biblical characters lounging with dinosaurs, ask the observers to consider a single take on the past. Signs and models are preferred means to shape an interpretation of evolution, whether positive or negative.
Is the use of physical models particular to debates on evolution? Certainly not: built culture is used to communicate a range of arguments on all sorts of political and social concerns. But reading Righting America alongside The Church of the Future suggests that Christians prefer to communicate arguments about evolution in physical, material forms. These are strategies designed to reach a very wide audience, driving home the high stakes of commanding how people think about evolution. Thousands of people saunter through the museum and thousands will gaze upon a physical church in Oklahoma City and St. Louis, even if they are driving past.
The Creation Museum and the modernist churches both harness the power of cutting-edge technologies. The Creation Museum tour includes films, interactive exhibits, short videos, speakers, and voice-overs. The museum depends upon highly-trained craftsmen to create their renditions of Adam and Eve. A long train of construction vehicles – cranes, cement trucks, scaffolds – were required to build AiG’s Ark Encounter, just down the road from the museum. Catholic modernists and liturgists drew upon technology to help adapt buildings to their local, modern environments. To communicate the argument that humanity was evolving towards a unified state, Catholic architects called increasingly upon concrete, glass, steel, and other modern materials. As Osborne notes, Catholic liturgists and architects did this with a purpose: they deployed technology to recast the role of the church in the world – to entwine the church with the world’s evolutionary process.
Ken Ham, Harvey Cox, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Righting America and The Church of Tomorrow demonstrate how debates about evolution were – while important in and of themselves – a proxy for a contest over the boundaries of sacred and secular more broadly. Ken Ham favors a strict separation of these two realms. The operation of human reason and God’s Word must remain distinct. For him, evolutionary thought raises the specter of humanity tarnishing the sacred: to recognize the reality of evolution means denying God’s creative powers and the Bible’s inerrancy. The most influential intellectuals in Osborne’s study, Harvey Cox and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, both argued that the task of twentieth century Christians was to meld the two kingdoms together. At stake in the debate over evolution, then, even dating back to Pope Pius X, is the mission of the Christian Church itself: to separate from modern society, or to connect the secular and sacred. Cox and de Chardin did not divide the world into the categories of the divine or saved. These thinkers, and the Catholic architects and liturgists they inspired, believed the world was moving into a more holistic reality. It was the task of Christians to push this process along.
The divergent responses to evolution influence the question of salvation. For Ham, salvation is granted to a militarized remnant who reject evolution; this means choosing God over man, and saving oneself in the inevitable destruction that is to come. For de Chardin, salvation can be worldly: as individuals blended a single consciousness into an emerging world soul, humanity moves along towards an Omega Point. Gradually, the profane is drawn into the sacred. Salvation is total, both individual and social. Osborne also deftly explores how at the center of this evolutionary process is a tension between will and grace – of one moving himself or herself into unity while also being ineluctably drawn in. Could de Chardin find space in his theory of evolution even for those who reject evolution like Ken Ham? Whereas Ham welcomes an ecological disaster – or accepts a global flood or plague as inevitable – de Chardin sees evolution as a potential solution to broader ecological and political crises. For Ham, God separates and destroys; for de Chardin, God blends and saves. Both arguments, it’s important to recognize, are responses to the provocation of evolutionary theory.
The Creation Museum is a space that seeks to separate Christianity from culture in order to wage a Culture War against secular liberalism. Osborne shows how Catholic modernists were profoundly inspired by Harvey Cox to break down distinctions between sacred and secular. The church served as a physical space where these barriers melted away. Christians were called to act in the world – to transgress boundaries – in order to change the world. Christians, in fact, were called to tear down the barricades that cordoned off sacred and secular. Cox, like de Chardin, saw the world evolving and progressing towards a more unified state. Deeply formed by Cox’s Secular City, Catholics began to build spaces that immersed people in the city and inspired individuals to participate fully in secular culture. Catholic churches became community centers, ecumenical gathering spaces, and even sites of secular protest. The church should be a place of openness for those in need. Whereas Ham perceives worldly attitudes, underscored by evolution, as a threat to God’s Word, Catholic modernists were inspired by evolution to fill the world with grace. Physical spaces, the Creation Museum or the hundreds of churches built by an evolutionary model, reified these theologies.
Debates about evolution are about the future. Positions on evolution are positions on what is to come. Read together, Righting America and The Church of Tomorrow show how Christians focused on the question of evolution as a means to shape the future to a desired set of ends. For Ken Ham and the Creation Museum, the future is bleak: evolution undermines God’s Word and the inerrancy of the Bible, and God promises retribution on a mass scale as a result. “While a future is not specifically foretold at the museum,” the Trollingers note, “the museum’s controlling and repetitive narrative of disobedience and punishment, especially its emphasis on the global flood and Noah’s Ark, makes it clear that judgment for America, for the West, for all of humanity, is forthcoming, and with it the rescue of a faithful remnant and eternal damnation for the rest of humanity” (224). Even as each believer faces a choice, destruction for the totality of humanity seems inevitable, with salvation promised only to the faithful.
Catholic modernists and liturgists held out hope that evolution promised a more unified humanity. Humanity was evolving – and needed to be spurred along – into a holism. Physical spaces tuned believers into this reality and asked them to participate in the process. Evolutionary theory, if used to explain how the future could unfold, promised a more unified and peaceful planet. These books impress upon readers how evolutionary theory sent shockwaves through modern Christianity, sending believers into different camps. Fundamentalists at the Creation Museum and Catholic modernists who build churches are united in their mobilizations of evolutionary theory, but not the desired ends.
by William Trollinger
In the previous post, “Every Child is a Gift . . . Except When They Aren’t,” Emily Hunter McGowin makes a very strong case for the argument that evangelicals treasure some children, and not others. I decided to apply her argument to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. Looking at one year’s worth of blog posts, what does Ham have to say about children, and is it true for him that every child is a gift, except when they aren’t?
In keeping with Emily’s argument about evangelicals in general, Ham definitely has had a lot to say about abortion, and he has also talked about adoption, euthanasia, procreation, and the sex trafficking/sexualizing of children.
Sex Trafficking/Sexualizing of Children
Now, it must be said that on his blog Ham spends more time attacking any and all threats to the male-female binary than anything else. Some of these posts explicitly or implicitly focus on how these threats are threats to children and youth:
In her post, Emily McGowin also points out that, for all their concern about children, most evangelicals are silent about the number of children (particularly, African-American children) who are killed in gun violence (often within the home). Most evangelicals are also silent about the rapidly expanding scandal of sexual abuse and harassment of children and youth in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Most evangelicals have been silent about the horrific treatment of children at the southern border, including the separation of families and the keeping of toddlers and children in appalling conditions in cages.
Ken Ham fits this description perfectly. On his blog over the past year there has not been a word from him on these topics. For Ham and his fellow evangelicals, it would seem that devotion to the Second Amendment, pastoral authority, and the current President of the United States trumps care for children (particularly children of color).
But here’s the thing. White evangelicalism is shrinking rapidly and aging rapidly. Young evangelicals are heading for the doors. They get the silence, the hypocrisy, the absence of Jesus.
In his blog post, “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Leaving,” John Pavlovitz – who once served as a pastor in an evangelical church – says that “this attrition is likely irreversible.” Of course, nothing is inevitable. But if evangelicalism and its leaders continue to choose right-wing politics over the Gospels, it seems clear that the decline will continue apace.
by Emily Hunter McGowin
Today’s post is from Emily Hunter McGowin, who is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She also serves as a deacon in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). You can learn more about Emily at her website.
Every child is a gift. Every child is a blessing. These are bedrock convictions of conservative evangelicalism. Right?
The idea that every child is a gift rests on three theological assumptions. First, the belief that God has a direct hand in the creation of every child, which is rooted in scripture. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” the Lord says to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5). “For you created my inmost being,” the psalmist says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). Second, the God who creates each child also loves each child personally and unconditionally. This, too, is rooted in scripture, particularly the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. If these two assumptions are true, then the third also follows: The gift nature of children is unqualified. The circumstances of a child’s conception, birth, and life do not change the reality that the child is a blessing created uniquely and intentionally by God.
Arguably, the most passionate evangelical practitioners of the child-as-divine-gift principle are found in the Quiverfull movement. In my book, Quivering Families, I wrote about the development of Quiverfull, as well as its cultural features, discourse, and practices. Put simply, Quiverfull families are characterized by a life of Christian patriarchy, homeschooling, and what I called pronatalism. The mothers and fathers of the Quiverfull movement embody their commitment to the blessing of children by refusing to prevent or even seeking to manage their conception. Every pregnancy is viewed as a direct work of God’s creative hand. As a result, these families often have six or more children and devote their lives to “bring[ing] them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Another way this child-as-divine-gift conviction shows up in evangelical culture is in the realm of adoption, both local and international. Perhaps the most visible and vocal proponent of the cause among American evangelicals is Southern Baptist leader, Russell Moore, who advocates not only for the practice of adoption among Christian families but also the cultivation of an “adoption culture” in local churches. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this,” the letter to James says, “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Evangelicals like Moore take this admonition to heart and seek to provide Christian homes to needy children worldwide.
(Of course, both the Quiverfull movement and the evangelical adoption movement have faced serious criticism both inside and outside evangelicalism. Space prevents me from reviewing these critiques here, but the interested reader is invited to do their own research.)
In addition to birthing and adopting children, though, evangelicals are also known for creating and supporting organizations that prioritize the needs of children. Take, for example, Compassion International, which, among other things, allows households to sponsor children on a monthly basis and provide for their physical, educational, and spiritual needs. A similar child sponsorship program is run through World Vision, along with other ways to give to children in impoverished and war-torn locales across the globe. Also, countless American churches participate in the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child program, which involves packing boxes of small gifts to be sent to tens of thousands of children for Christmas every year. This is not to mention the Vacation Bible Schools, Awana programs, and other such child-focused events sponsored and staffed by evangelical churches annually. Each of these organizations and programs is grounded in the conviction that children are gifts from God and deeply loved by God.
All of the above is in addition to the white evangelical participation in and support for, the pro-life/anti-abortion movement. Even where evangelicals are not marching or working in organized ways, evangelical Christians have been faithful supporters of professedly pro-life political candidates since Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right helped mobilize evangelical voters to elect President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Today, abortion remains a key issue for conservative evangelical voters, cited over and over again as the reason for white evangelicals’ continued support of President Trump.
Every child is a gift. Every child is a blessing. Right?
Yet, these convictions are painfully and strikingly at odds with the behavior of large swaths of evangelicalism in recent years. I’ll detail just a few.
First, we have seen story after story emerging from evangelical churches in recent months about the repeated failure of church leaders to protect children from sexual abusers. It’s happened among Southern Baptists, independent Baptists, Reformed denominations, and non-denominational Bible churches. Reports from newspapers all over the country have revealed that over and over again leaders in countless evangelical churches have chosen to prioritize the reputation of their leaders and prestige of their institutions over the protection of children in their pews.
While the sexual abuse crisis was brewing in evangelical churches, the past couple of decades have also seen an alarming rise in gun deaths among children in the U.S. as a whole. While most of the media attention is given to school shootings, the vast majority of gun deaths among children do not happen in those settings. Though the rate of firearm-related homicides has declined since the 1980s, gun violence is now the second most common cause of death among American children. The majority of children—an incredible 85 percent—under the age of 13 who were shot to death from 2003 to 2013 were killed in a home. In addition, nearly two in three of gun deaths of all ages are the result of suicide. It is also important to note, as The Atlantic does, that African Americans make up about two-thirds of gun-homicide victims among those ages 15-29, which means they are 18 times more likely to be murdered by guns than their white peers.
In the face of this alarming threat to the well-being of American children, white evangelicals have done almost nothing. (One notable exception is evangelical pastor and activist Shane Claiborne). Most don’t even consider the matter a serious priority. It is this issue where the commitment to maintaining access to guns (born of constitutional conservatism regarding the Second Amendment) conflicts with the conservative commitment to protecting children. And the Second Amendment always wins (at least so far). The pursuit of any legal changes to regulate, or in any other way limit, the proliferation of guns is a political non-starter among white evangelical voters. Thus, deeply held convictions about the blessing of children have not led to any widespread effort to take tangible steps to curb child deaths by gun violence in the U.S.
Finally, I must mention the thousands of immigrant and refugee children separated from their families and being detained indefinitely by the U.S. government. Although recent reports have rightly focused on deplorable and inhumane conditions at facilities along the southern border, the separation of children from their parents and their indefinite detention on U.S. soil has been a regular practice since the Trump administration’s implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border-crossers in April 2018. Even though President Trump walked back the more extreme child separation policy through an executive order in June 2018, by that point more than 2,700 families had been separated at the border. And, even though the policy has officially ended, the practice continues to this day.
Some evangelical leaders and organizations have criticized the immigration policies of the Trump administration, particularly on the matter of family separation. The Evangelical Immigration Table, headed by leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, World Vision, and World Relief, is attempting to catalyze a cultural shift on immigration among American evangelicals. But, it is notable that the unjust immigration policies and cruel treatment of immigrant children has done nothing to reduce white evangelical support for President Trump. It seems that their prioritization of “law and order,” an ideal going back to the Jim Crow era, is more important than their commitment to the welfare of children. In the words of Janelle Wong, author of the book Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, “Evangelicals are in a difficult position because of their emphasis on supporting the traditional family. But here, if you strongly support the president’s overall strategy on immigration and see immigrants as dangerous lawbreakers — some even blame the parents for putting their children in this position — it’s easier to justify.”
Why am I linking the evangelical response (or lack thereof) to the sexual abuse crisis, gun violence, and treatment of immigrant children? Because I think they betray a damning pattern.
When I was working on my book about the Quiverfull movement, I noticed that leading Quiverfull figures often failed to apply their children-as-divine-gift conviction to all children. Even though they said all children are gifts of God, they didn’t really mean all children are gifts of God. Our children—that is, the children of white evangelical Protestants in the U.S.—are gifts of God; the children of ethnic and religious “others” are not.
For instance, in her book The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, Mary Pride says, “Scripture draws a fundamental distinction between the children of the righteous (of whom there are never enough) and the children of the wicked (of whom there are always too many). The children of the righteous are blessings… On the other hand, curses are on the children of the wicked…” In Pride’s work, as well as the writings of other Quiverfull proponents, the children of Muslims were regularly singled out for special mention. In order to motivate Christian couples to embrace reproduction, authors raised alarm that Muslim children might come to outnumber Christian children within just a few decades. Fear of “other” children was always part of the discourse.
Most white evangelicals would never use such explicitly xenophobic language. But, I think this differentiation between “us” and “them” transcends the Quiverfull movement. All of the above scenarios (and there are more I could mention) reveal that there are ideological and political limits to the theological conviction that every child is a gift. It seems to me that evangelical Christians feel bound to love and protect children only insofar as they are like “us” and are not perceived as a threat to “our” way of life. That is to say, most white evangelicals are eager to love, serve, and protect children, but only on their own terms.
Think about it. If the child victims of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches were faces in a Compassion International campaign, they’d be happily supported and prioritized. If the child victims of gun violence were located in the Democratic Republic of Congo rather than Chicago, they’d be happily donated to, sponsored, or even adopted. If the children presently living in overcrowded cages in McAllen, TX were the recipients of a Casas por Christo home-building effort they’d be happily held, played with, and provided for. But, the key is, such children could be loved and served on our own terms, in our own time.
When children do not seem to be like “us,” when children are causing “us” discomfort, when children are imposing themselves upon “us,” when children are challenging our ideologies—most evangelicals have had enough. The children of “others”—political, religious, or ethnic—are not worthy of sacrifice and activism. Children who would force a change in our ideologies and practices are not worthy of our support.
by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.
David Ray Griffin argues that science and Christian faith embody a great truth, but “both of these truths have been distorted.” These distortions have made it seem as if science and religion have been at war.
I contend that there is no war. When there is truth and distortion on both sides of a debate, the tendency to resort to fake dualism is great.
Both sides of this debate have members claiming to have the whole truth. There are scientists who line up to insist that Christianity is riddled with nothing but myth, illusion, and error. Stephen Jay Gould insisted that there didn’t need to be conflict between science and religion if only religious folk would accept the proper division of labor, i.e., science provides us with truth, while religion’s task is to provide moral motivation. But one has only to read Francis S. Collins and Kenneth R. Miller, for starters, to know that many scientists do not agree with Gould.
On the other side of the imaginary war are preachers and philosophers insisting that science is completely false, and that the conflict between science and religion will be resolved only by the scientific community bowing the knee to faith and returning to a supernaturalistic framework. Sophisticated thinkers like attorney Philip Johnson and philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga continue to insist on the necessary repentance of science. Less sophisticated thinkers – best epitomized by Ken Ham – burnish their faith credentials by appearing ferocious and courageous against mainstream science. But as Charles Taylor makes clear in A Secular Age, this naïve point of view has been undone and will not be making a comeback, since the default setting in Western culture is no longer belief in God.
It is important to keep in mind that the notion that science originated in the 19th century ignores a long tradition of scientific naturalism that began in 600 BCE. David Lindberg’s definitive work, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, traces the scientific mentality from its birthplace in Greece. Known at first as natural philosophy, modern science emerged from the support of the Church. Lindberg traces the appreciation and employment of the Greek heritage in the church, and he demonstrates how the church became the incubator of modern science with her preservation and transmission of Hellenistic schools and the preservation of manuscripts and learning in the monasteries. Regarding the latter, David Ray Griffin points out that “this task of preservation and transmission was an essential task, without which the emergence of modern natural science. . .. would have been impossible.”
The alleged war between science and faith is fake. It is the concoction of a witch’s brew of dedicated fundamentalists on both sides throwing huge rocks at one another in the vain hope that one glass house will disintegrate before the other.
Rather than continue to pretend there is a war, perhaps we could work toward a reconciliation and coalesce around shared beliefs, in the process helping to make it possible for people to participate fully in both communities. While I hesitate to use anecdotal material in an argument, in this case I think it is justified. When I served in Dayton, Ohio, I observed that the two worlds of faith and science could be situated in a geographical analogy. Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation with the Wright Brothers (apologies to North Carolina), represents the coming wave of scientific technology. Three hundred eighty miles due South lies Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous Scopes Trial, with the prosecution led by the Bible-quoting Christian William Jennings Bryan. While the fundamentalists won the trial, in the court of public opinion Mr. Bryan was humiliated and roundly defeated by Clarence Darrow.
But I preached that Christians can and should participate in both communities of science and faith – doing physics and math at a Wright Patterson Air Force base lab, and saying prayers and singing songs of praise to God in the First Baptist Church of Dayton. That is to say, we don’t have to hold one worldview on Sunday and a different one during the week. There is room under the giant umbrella of truth for quarks and Quakers, black holes and heaven, science and faith. As Kenneth R. Miller says in Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul: “Theology does not and cannot pretend to be scientific, but it can require of itself that it be consistent with science and conversant with it.”
My hope lies in the conviction that the universe, in a certain sense, had us in mind from the very beginning. In the moving words of physicist Freeman Dyson, ours is a “universe that knew we were coming.”
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.
Dr. Schmidt, thank you for your thoughtful response, and for participating in this discussion. I would like to close by noting that I don’t believe in science as a faith, nor do I think atheists have turned it into something metaphysical, a substitute for their lack of religion. It’s interesting to me that Christians use the argument of scientism to compare science to religion or spirituality as a means to invalidate it. Doesn’t this simply cast doubt on religion itself instead? As an atheist, I choose not to believe in a God or the legitimacy of the Bible until I have valid, reasonable evidence indicating they are true. I guarantee that atheist scientists, presented with adequate evidence for God, would be among the first to accept the idea. But would Christians be willing to deny the faith they cling to so adamantly if they were presented with scientific evidence that a different divine being, a being other than the God of Abraham, existed – say, a goddess, or Gaia? I would love to believe in something, given the evidence to justify it. But I’d hazard to say that many, if not most Christians would scoff at evidence contradictory to their beliefs.
Finally, I don’t accept the notion that science is incapable of explaining why anything exists. Science and technology in their present form may be advanced, but they are still young, and the possibilities of future discoveries are still tantalizing, especially for those of us in biology. Scientists are just as fascinated with the why’s as well as the how’s, they just don’t deign to assert the “why” without adequate support for their claims. Science may be a descriptive tool, but I believe this makes it an explanatory one as well. And Christianity, unfortunately, offers far less in terms of describing and explaining. If I come across as materialistic by saying this, it is only because I am grounded in our wondrous physical reality. I am too preoccupied with it to lose my head over the possibility of invisible dragons in the garage.
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 an article here, dated June 3, 2019, Sarah Olson outlined her reasons for believing that science and faith live in conflict and, more specifically, that faith has good reason to fear science. In a subsequent article I outlined why I believe that conflict is unnecessary and, I might have said, even imaginary, based upon the history of their interaction. Now, in a further article Ms. Olson has outlined her response.
It is always difficult to know when to call a halt to such exchanges and I certainly don’t want to play a game of “I want the last word.” On the other hand, the shortcoming of many academic discussions is that there is little or no sustained discussion. In the name of having that conversation, I have decided to tender a further response — not with an eye to having the last word — but in an effort to explore at greater depth the differences between my position and Ms. Olson’s. For that reason, I also want to register at the outset my respect for her willingness to respond. The strength of the academy’s work depends upon such energy and commitment. What I would like to do here is outline what I believe are the assumptions that unpin Ms. Olson’s article and where we differ. For those who are interested in the conversation and the issues, the links to her articles and mine will provide a fuller context. With that in mind, here are the places where I believe we differ:
One, at the outset, Olson argues that I believe new atheists and fundamentalists are engaged in a conspiracy and that as a theologian, I need or might prefer to believe that religion and science can cooperate for the sake of professional or institutional self-preservation.
Olson’s first assumption requires both a clarification on my part and a bit of further explanation. First, I do not believe that atheists and fundamentalists are engaged in a conspiracy. I have been made allergic to conspiracy theories by both reading history, as well as by the sheer ubiquity and fanciful character of such theories. What I do believe is that both groups have been engaged in debates with one another that has made the claim that there is a religion-science war attractive to each of them for slightly different reasons.
I also believe that the debate between fundamentalists and atheists have led them make the wrong kind of truth claims for both fundamentalism and science. Some of the most telling evidence of this distortion is that the debate between atheists and fundamentalists has led both groups to project the religion-science war on a history that pre-dates both science and fundamentalism. Science did not exist as such before the nineteenth century, though its methods were rapidly developing, and fundamentalism is an American product of the early twentieth century.
Science and religion were not at war before the early twentieth century because science was in its infancy and fundamentalist Christianity was still largely in control. They were not at war because Christianity was not fundamentalist, Christians were often (and still are) at the forefront of science, and science had not yet been co-opted by atheists as a metaphysic, rather than as a method. It should also be noted that religion and science are still not at war among the vast majority of scientists and Christians.
That is because, contrary to the second assumption that Olson seems to make, Christianity is not fundamentalism looking for a way to keep the truths of science at bay.
Perhaps this is easier to see when one is not reacting to fundamentalism. I cannot be sure, never having been a fundamentalist. But it strikes me as perfectly reasonable that it would be difficult to imagine. The architecture of faith in fundamentalism rests solidly on literalist readings of Scripture, on the doctrine of inerrancy, and the assumption that all truth is factual truth. Years ago, when I taught biblical studies in an institution that was becoming increasingly captive to fundamentalist influences, I discovered this first hand.
Fundamentalism does not teach its adherents to believe in God. Instead, it teaches its adherents to believe that the Bible should be read literally, that it is without error, and that all truth – including the truth in the Bible – is factual in nature. Belief in those assertions justifies faith in God, and – if those assertions are compromised – faith in God becomes impossible.
The vast – and by vast, I mean overwhelming number of Christians in the world — do not think this way. Faith arises not out of assent to fundamentalism’s propositions, but out of an encounter with the Resurrected Christ. Scripture is not the only authority for the Christian faith. It occupies a unique, but not a solitary position. It is God-breathed in that it inspires the church and illuminates our understanding of God’s work in the world, but that work is evident in other places as well, including the created order.
Third: The vast majority of Christians do not believe that for Scripture to be true it needs to be factual, but contra the assumption that Olson makes, not all truth is factual in the first place.
To be sure, the Christian faith rests upon certain claims that might be described as facts. The most important of those is the Resurrection. But much of what Christians claim to be true and much of what all human beings believe to be true are not facts, as such. Here, I am afraid Olson is captive to materialism and the far too simple assumption that everything that is “true” is a “fact” – as if (so the word suggests) there is what really happened and then there are interpretations of what happened. So, she argues, Christians would be minimally better off if they read their Bibles for inspiration, rather than claim that they contain truth.
This ignores the fact (!) that most data and events are meaningless without interpretation, and it also fails to recognize that not all truths are facts. Fundamentalists may not realize this or acknowledge it, but that is not a failure that can be laid at the doorstep of Christianity. Christians have long recognized that understanding the significance of events requires interpretation; that those outside the church have not always agreed with the church’s interpretation; and, that not all truths need to be facts in order to be true.
This last point is particularly important with regard to creation narratives. Fundamentalists may need to believe in a seven-day creation and an historical Adam and Eve, but from the very beginning, most Christians did not interpret Genesis in that fashion, and those who did not rank among the leading voices of the early church.
Fourth and finally, I should return to the purposes of religion and science. Olson’s original claim, which she modifies slightly, sees Christianity and religion in conflict with one another because – she assumes – they occupy the same place: i.e., they both offer detailed accounts of the origins of the universe.
I doubt that I will convince her otherwise, but I will say it again, they do not. Christianity asserts that God is the creator of the universe. But it does not offer an account of how that creation took place. That should not be surprising. The biblical text was written in a prescientific world, and in any event, the writer of Genesis was not interested in the question of creation as an abstract consideration. As I have said elsewhere, the first chapter of Genesis is a statement of faith in one God over against many. Fundamentalism has projected an alien concern onto the text and lifted it to the level of dogmatic necessity. That is a grave error, but it is hardly grounds for rewriting the history of Christianity, biblical interpretation, or the relationship between science and Christianity.
That said, science is incapable of explaining why there is anything at all and – as I noted in the my first article on the subject – it was not the interest of science as originally conceived. It is a descriptive, not an explanatory tool, and it is devoted to describing the physical order, not anything that predates it. Contrary to what Olson implies in her article, it is also not an antidote to immoral activity. Fundamentalist Christians may have done great harm in the name of their faith, but scientists have had their failings as well, be it the experiments conducted in concentration camps or, in this country, in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
I realize that Olson explicitly owns scientism as her faith. But while science provides a useful account of the material universe, it cannot explain why the material universe exists at all. If I shared her convictions about Christianity and religion in general, then I would advocate for science, not scientism, and I would declare myself an agnostic on the questions of God and the ultimate origins of the material universe. That is, I believe, a far more defensible position, but perhaps Augustine was right and we all need to worship something.
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.
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.
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.