Over at the January 2 issue of The Daily Beast, Karl Giberson argues that “2013 was a terrible year for evolution.” As you may know if you’re a regular here, Giberson was a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College for 15 years as well as Executive Vice-President of the accommodationist and Templeton-funded organization BioLogos. That organization was created to make evangelical Christians friendlier to evolution by convincing them that evolution wasn’t inimical to their faith. But it failed miserably, and Giberson left, most probably because his resolutely pro-science approach didn’t sit well with BioLogos‘s increasing desire to avoid offending the Evangelicals, including, among other stuff, lots of ridiculous discussion about the possible historicity of Adam and Eve. Giberson also left Eastern Nazarene College, but more on that later.
I will give this to Karl: he has been uncompromising in his insistence on accepting evolution as it is, rather than twisting it to fit Christian preconceptions. He’s refused to buy into Evangelical apologetics such as the ludicrous “federal headship” model, in which Adam and Eve, instead of being our literal ancestors, really existed but were appointed by God as Titular Ancestors who somehow infected all their contemporaries with Original Sin. But Giberson is still wedded to religious superstition, and that, combined with his unwarranted attacks in HuffPo on Professor Ceiling Cat, made him lose the affectionate title of “Uncle Karl.”
In his Daily Beast post, Giberson argues that 2013 was a bad year for evolution, citing several facts and incidents:
Evolution did not fare well in 2013. The year ended with the anti-evolution book Darwin’s Doubt as Amazon’s top seller in the “Paleontology” category. The state of Texas spent much of the year trying to keep the country’s most respected high school biology text out of its public schools. And leading anti-evolutionist and Creation Museum curator Ken Ham made his annual announcement that the “final nail” had been pounded into the coffin of poor Darwin’s beleaguered theory of evolution.
Americans entered 2013 more opposed to evolution than they have been for years, with an amazing 46 percent embracing the notion that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so.” This number was up a full 6 percent from the prior poll taken in 2010. According to a December 2013 Pew poll, among white evangelical Protestants, a demographic that includes many Republican members of Congress and governors, almost 64 percent reject the idea that humans have evolved.
Well, in fact the Gallup poll that Giberson cites first really shows only nondirectional fluctuations around the acceptance of creationism: the real trend is a small but significant increase in the number of Americans who accept fully naturalistic evolution—that not guided by God. Here are some data from the 2012 Gallup Poll that I discussed last April:
This does show that creationism is indeed up 6% since 2010, but it’s the same as it was in 2006 and a tad lower than in some previous years. So it hasn’t been a terrible year for evolution in this respect, just a normal year. What heartens me, though, is a 6% increase since the poll began in 1982 in those who believe in naturalistic evolution. And that looks like a genuine trend, even though only 1 in 6 Americans still view evolution the way scientists do. (Note that in both cases the question asked referred to human evolution.)
Indeed, if you accept the results of the recent Pew Poll (summarized and analyzed by Greg Mayer on this site; see his latest update here), the statistics are even more encouraging, with 60% of Americans accepting some form of evolution instead of the 47% seen in the Gallup Poll. Further, the Pew Poll shows that among all American evolution-accepters, 53% accept naturalistic and only 47% God-guided human evolution. This is in marked contrast to the Gallup Poll, where the breakdown is 32% and 68% respectively. I don’t understand this disparity, since the two polls were not taken that far apart and the results differ more than both polls’ degree of sampling error. At any rate, if you believe the Pew Poll (I am dubious), things are looking even rosier than Giberson thinks.
Giberson decries the increasing Democrat/Republic polarization with respect to evolution, as the disparity between acceptance of “Darwinism” between the parties increased from 10% in 2009 to 24% in 2013 (Dems of course accept evolution in larger numbers). And, really, I don’t care much about how much the parties accept evolution so long as the U.S.’s overall acceptance of evolution is increasing. Republicans are, by and large, igorant science-denialists anyway. Nor do I care about Ken Ham’s pronouncements, which mean absolutely nothing.
As for Darwin’s Doubt, the ID book in which Stephen Meyer attributes the Cambrian Explosion to Jesus, well, it was bought largely by the choir, which is large. The same choir has also made Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box a perennial good seller.
But, as a pessimistic secular Jew (a redundancy, I suppose), I still see good news about evolution. Creationists lost their final battle in Texas, proving unable to sway the state to adopt biology textbooks that emphasized the “problems” with evolutionary biology. Ball State University canned its science course that forced intelligent design (and Christianity) on captive students. Amarillo College in Texas did the same. Creationists had no victories in 2013, and evolution is slowly but surely insinuating its nose into the American tent.
And one of the reasons it’s doing so is that religion is on the wane, for as religion goes, so goes creationism. (Although there are religions without creationism, there is no creationism without religion.) And so Karl bemoans the fact that Christian youth are leaving the church in droves, and for an excellent reason: they perceive the church as anti-science:
An alarming study by the Barna group looked at the mass exodus of 20-somethings from evangelicalism and discovered that one of the major sources of discontent was the perception that “Christianity was antagonistic to science.” Anti-evolution, and general suspicion of science, has become such a significant part of the evangelical identity that many people feel compelled to choose one or the other. Many of my most talented former students no longer attend any church, and some have completely abandoned their faith traditions.
Viewed from “outside,” the phenomenon alarms and even enrages church leaders. Children are nurtured carefully in their faith through Sunday school, church, summer programs, and at home—and are then sent to expensive private evangelical colleges with the expectation that this faith will be protected as the children mature into well-educated adults. But often students are educated out of their childhood faith and even into no faith at all—at a cost of $40,000 a year. That is a disaster of the first magnitude, as it implies, in the theology of most evangelical parents and leaders, that their children have lost their salvation and will spend eternity in hell if they don’t recover their faith.
What’s so “alarming” about that? Despite historians of science claiming that the “conflict thesis” between science and religion is bogus, Christians know otherwise, and vote with their feet. If people leave the faith because they see it as “anti-science,” then so much the better: religion loses adherents and science gains them. Too bad about the children losing their salvation, but I can’t be bothered with that because there’s no evidence for either salvation or hell. It’s only people like Giberson who consider this a disaster, and he’d be better off if he relinquished the last vestiges of his superstition.
Sadly, he’s been unable to do this, perhaps in part for the reasons he gave in his book Saving Darwin, which I reviewed (giving this quotation from Giberson) in The New Republic:
As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God, and we attend church together regularly. Most of my friends are believers. I have a job I love at a Christian college that would be forced to dismiss me if I were to reject the faith that underpins the mission of the college. Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.
I’m not sure that, especially to a scientist, those are “compelling” reasons to believe in what’s palpably not true, but they’re compelling reasons to pretend to believe in God.
But we all know from yesterday’s post how wrenching it can be to leave a faith community, and I feel for Giberson. I feel for him even more because in fact he was in the end forced to leave his teaching job—not for abandoning his faith but for insisting on teaching evolution. And in the Daily Beast piece, for the first time, he recounts the sordid tale. I’ll give just a snippet:
Those of us teaching evolution at evangelical colleges are made to feel as if we have this subversive secret we must whisper quietly in our students’ ears: “Hey, did you know that Adam and Eve were not the first humans and never even existed? And that you can still be a Christian and believe that?”
. . . That was my life for my last 15 years as a faculty member at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, after my books, articles, and lectures made me the focus of fundamentalist rage. Productive scholarship that would be highly valued at other institutions became instead a major liability. Administrators complained that I was too controversial and creating public relations problems—not because they disagreed with what I said but because I was no longer just whispering it quietly in the classroom. Youth pastors informed the admissions office at the college that they were discouraging students from attending the college because it promoted evolution. Affiliated churches withheld financial support. Donors went elsewhere with their money.
I spent countless hours in the office of a succession of college presidents, explaining why Christians needed to make peace with evolution, no matter how painful. I was forced to communicate and even meet with hostile external constituents to defend well-established science against people who knew nothing about it beyond the challenges it posed to their interpretation of the Bible. One such watchdog group, the Reformed Nazarenes, rejoiced when I finally left the college.
Yes, that took courage, and, having exchanged emails with Giberson over the years, I think he knew it was coming. He has, however, found a more congenial home teaching science writing at Stonehill College, a Catholic school in Massachusetts.
So it wasn’t a bad year for evolution, really, but it was a bad few years for Giberson, and I feel for him. His life did go a bit off the rails, but because he stuck to science, not because he gave up Christianity.
What happened to Giberson has happened to other science-friendly evangelicals at Christian schools, and you can sense the bitterness in his last paragraph:
Truth, alas, seems to resemble a commodity at such institutions, to be purchased by the highest bidder or the most powerful political leader. Accepting evolution and teaching it to students are entirely acceptable until some powerful constituency says they are not.
I wish at some point Karl would realize that science and religion are inimical, for their ways of finding “truth” are completely odds with one another. How can you teach evolution and dismiss the historicity of Adam and Eve on the one hand, and believe in the virgin birth, the Trinity, and the Resurrection on the other? How can you buy the solid evidence for evolution on the one hand (evidence that, says Giberson, is “now piled so high that not even one evolutionary biologist at any of America’s research universities rejects the theory”), and on the other believe the fairy tales of a man-made book from a prescientific era?
It doesn’t make sense. What I’d like to say to Karl is this, “Your Christianity doesn’t make sense, for there is as little evidence for your religious beliefs as there is massive evidence for evolution. Why on earth do you continue to buy into superstition when you insist in the classroom on the hegemony of empirical truth? Join us as a happy heathen, and you will be free.”
But of course that would send his life off the rails. And believe me, I appreciate that. I just find it ineffably sad.