In May 2000, I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, to begin a three-year postdoctoral position at Kansas State University. Shortly after arriving, I heard about a conference for Christian home-schoolers to be held in Wichita, the state’s largest city. Because anything related to public education in Kansas had relevance to my job, I decided to attend. It turned out that the conference was largely a celebration of young-Earth creationism.
So began a strange hobby I pursued steadily over the next decade. If you are interested in studying anti-evolutionism up close, then central Kansas and my current home, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, are two excellent places to live. As a politically liberal nonreligious mathematician who accepts the scientific consensus on evolution, I was curious about how those on the other side arrived at their views. And because I could think of no better way of getting answers than to go where they were and ask them myself, I resolved to attend as many of their conferences and gatherings as I could.
My new book, Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolutionist Front-Line (Oxford University Press), is a memoir of my experiences attending these gatherings. Over the past decade, I have learned a great many things about anti-evolutionism—most of them, frankly, are not very encouraging about the state of science education or religious open-mindedness in this country. There were a few surprises, however, especially with regard to the reasons people gave for rejecting evolution.
You see, at nearly all of the conferences I attended, I found some opportunity to ask my fellow attendees the blunt question, “What do you find objectionable about evolution?” Never once did anyone reply, “It contradicts the Bible.” Certainly the Bible was an issue, especially the pernicious effect of modern science on the plausibility of the Adam and Eve story, but it was never the issue. It was not as though they viewed evolution as a really neat idea but felt honor-bound to reject it because a plain reading of the Bible tells a different story.
Instead, there were three main concerns raised by my interlocutors. The first was the demise of the design argument in biology as the result of Darwin’s work. The second was the disturbing idea that God would do his creating through natural selection, a mechanism of singular cruelty and inefficiency. Finally, there was the question of human significance. Whereas Christianity teaches that humans are the pinnacle of creation, unique among the animals for having been created in the image of God, science makes humanity seem like an unintended consequence of an unpredictable evolutionary process.
There is a whole industry of books defending theistic evolution. In these books, very clever authors present a variety of arguments meant to persuade folks that there is no irreconcilable conflict between evolution and religion. My time with the anti-evolutionists has made clear to me why so many regard these arguments as unpersuasive.
Take the design argument, for example. Theistic evolutionists might retort that no central Christian doctrine rides on the argument’s correctness. Moreover, while the complexity of organisms can no longer be seen as direct evidence for the existence of a divine supermind, we can instead see God’s creative activity in the exquisite system of natural laws in which evolution plays out.
These are fine points, but they do not address the anti-evolutionist’s concern. For them, the design argument is only tangentially about bringing people intellectually to the reality of God’s existence. The bigger issue is its emotional role in stressing God’s nearness in our daily lives. That organisms are complex and that design needs a designer are hardly points you need a degree in science to understand. Transfer the design argument to the recondite land of modern cosmology and fundamental physics and, even leaving aside quarrels about the intellectual merits of the argument, you lose all of that emotional resonance.
In reply to the problem of evil, theistic evolutionists have come up with very little. The most common argument asserts that God could not have achieved his goals except through Darwinian natural selection. For some reason, seldom stated clearly, we are to suppose it would not have suited God’s purposes to create everything all at once, precisely as the Bible says he did. It is sometimes suggested that it is more impressive for God to have allowed the world to create itself than to have created everything directly himself, but this should be recognized as empty rhetoric. Those benighted Christian scholars toiling in the centuries before Darwin were plenty impressed with God’s creative prowess. Meanwhile, when we ponder the frequently sadistic mechanisms animals employ for inserting their genes into the next generation, “God is Great” is hardly the first thing to come to mind.
What can we say about the place of humans in creation? Some argue that “evolutionary convergences,” in which the same structure evolves multiple times in widely separated lineages, shows that evolution is narrowly channeled into certain broadly predictable outcomes. If this is correct, then it might be that organisms with humanlike intelligence are inevitable after all. This is possible, but it strains credulity in light of the utter lack of evolutionary directionality in the fossil record, the extreme rarity of anything beyond the most rudimentary intelligence among animals, and the role of unpredictable mass extinctions in evolution. Perhaps responding to these difficulties, others have suggested even less plausible scenarios. Maybe God is subtly directing the mutations in ways scientists cannot detect, or maybe God created an endless series of universes, confident that humans would eventually evolve in at least one of them. There is much to be said against these invented-from-whole-cloth possibilities, not least the fact that there is not the slightest reason, either scientific or theological, for believing that they are true.
Mighty treatises get written addressing each of these points, and I do not mean to suggest it is all one-way traffic in favor of the anti-evolution side. What I do want to suggest, however, is that someone who casually says “Maybe evolution is just God’s way of creating” simply has not thought through the issues. There is far more to religious anti-evolutionism than crazed Bible-thumping or absurdly literal interpretations of Genesis 1.
Theistic evolutionists have their work cut out for them in trying to reconcile science and religion in an emotionally satisfying way. They labor under the burden of knowing that whatever ad hoc theory they devise from their armchairs must compete with a very strong alternative. Specifically, it might be that science tends to make the universe seem pointless and uninterested in human welfare . . . precisely because that’s the way it really is.