How to Love God Excerpt: Evangelicals and Evolution, Part 1 of 2 (or maybe 3)
CHAPTER 8: EVANGELICALS AND EVOLUTION
This chapter is the most frustrating one I’ve written, and I have to admit that here I open by admitting defeat. In the area of evolution, evangelical Christians are at their most stubborn, their most misinformed, their most perversely resistant to anything like sensible behavior. And what makes this most irritating is that they take the stance they do even though it doesn’t actually solve the problem they claim it solves, and even though a much more intellectually acceptable answer is only a short step away. In every other chapter, I think I have some hope of convincing the unconvinced or the wavering. This chapter is mainly concerned with triage. On the bright side, however, this is where the whys of evangelical religion become interestingly apparent, and it starts by looking at the difference between what evangelicals do believe, and what evangelicals could believe without much trouble.
What evangelicals do believe is this: Evolution is a flawed science, merely a theory, full of holes, and is only popular because of a conspiracy between godless scientists and sinful men who are determined to promulgate a creation story that denies the existence of God. Evangelicals believe that Creation story in Genesis is partially symbolic (the “days” of creation could be millions of years, and the serpent is actually Satan, not just the forefather of all snakes, and God probably wasn’t literally “walking” around in the Garden like it says), but partially real. (They usually don’t think about it much, but if pressed, most evangelicals will believe in a real Adam and Eve, an actual Garden of Eden in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and a real Fall caused by an argument over fruit from an actual tree.)
What evangelicals could believe is this: Evolution is as true as scientists claim, and all of Genesis 1, not just parts of it, is essentially symbolic. But the Bible’s main message—that God created us in love, and it is best to obey him and take care of creation—remains as valid as ever, and would scarcely change a single evangelical sermon on Genesis in the last 100 years. And what’s more, scientists don’t know everything, because not only can they not answer the big moral questions of life, but there’s even proof that God exists: roughly 100,000 years ago, human beings simultaneously developed speech, art, and religion, and the world has never been the same since. Surely this is no mere coincidence, but the work of a guiding God who has steered evolution in such a way as to create us to have fellowship with him. I will be calling this the “big bang theory of human origins,” for reasons I will explain later. It’s also worth pointing out that this is, in fact, the way most mainstream and liberal religious people think about evolution: it’s true, but it’s not the whole truth, and evolved human beings need divine moral shepherding. It’s an eminently religious way of viewing this particular science.
But first, some clarification. Some evangelicals—in my experience, usually the more intellectual college types—do believe in evolution. (They quickly learn, however, not to mention this casually at evangelical gatherings; arguments are inevitable.) So my characterization above is broadly true, but won’t work for everyone. Moreover, most evangelicals will accept much of evolution: the adaptation of viruses, the fact that fossils are old and show certain kinds of development, etc. What most evangelicals are keen to cast doubt on is macroevolution, and most specifically the evolution of man. Dogs may have come from wolves—that’s microevolution, because dogs and wolves can still mate—but no way did we humans come from monkeys or fish or microbes! The point, obviously, is to preserve mankind’s dignity as a special creation of the Almighty, and (to a lesser extent) God as the maker of individual distinct species. Take care of that, and you scientist types can have all the different-colored moths and three-toed horses you want.
Second, it should also be made clear that my “big bang theory of human origins” has a few holes. Although you can argue that language, art, and religion appear simultaneously and uniquely in human history, this is not universally held. There are some signs that primitive forms of language and art, at least, appear among non-humans, and the time between language and religion gets staggered depending on who you read. But on the whole, the development of all three really did peak with us at practically the same time, and in any event the principle still holds that God might have stepped in to make us humans unique on the planet, and given us the gift of religion in order to commune with him. So the main point still stands no matter what we eventually learn later.
The reason this matters is because if you look at evangelical websites or books (or even Conservapedia, which is allegedly merely conservative but in practice is essentially evangelical), you find that the number one sin that evolution causes—the main thing evangelicals are determined to prevent—is moral decay. Specifically, evangelicals state over and over again that if human beings are mere animals, then we can have no morality, and the next step is communism, racism, drugs, sexual depravity…take your pick of possible dark futures. By knocking away God, evolution ushers in Babylon. Any evil is possible, and therefore evolution, which ushers in this evil like a gateway drug, must be fought at all costs.
This is precisely where evangelical reasoning becomes incoherent. If evangelicals are right that evolution leads to moral chaos, then the liberal “big bang” reading already solves the problem perfectly! But evangelicals fight instead for their own interpretation — fight like hell, tooth and nail, with tirelessness zealotry. And they do it for a reading which on paper doesn’t add any new moral assistance (since liberals and evangelicals are agreed that human beings are special in the eyes of God, and have special moral responsibility) — but which adds a host of terrible implausibilities, from “Where did the Garden of Eden go?” to “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” to “How come whales have hips?” to “How do you explain endogenous retroviruses?” (We’ll get to those later.) The liberal Christian can answer all of those questions calmly and save human beings from the potential moral damage of evolutionary thinking. The evangelical, by contrast, seems weirdly determined to make his job a million times harder than it needs to be — if protecting morality is the main point. What gives?
The nice thing about irrationality is that it exposes what you’re really obsessed about. For example, in skeptical quarters, any time someone in Skeptic magazine or The Internet Infidels talks about astrology, they inevitably say at some point, “And what’s so terrible about astrology is all the money people waste on it!” As if astrology’s chief sin were how much money goes down its particular drain. This is an awfully weird thing to assert, because astrology is a pretty small corner of any major bookstore you look into, and most people who are into it either get them for free from the newspaper, or buy them—for what? $1.99?—at the local grocery store sales counter. As wastes of money go, this is pretty small potatoes, and if I had to put my own personal list of “terrible wastes of money,” astrology wouldn’t even crack the top 100, and it would be down far below even things like Beetle Bailey. (All that newspaper space, and all that reading time, devoted to a daily comic strip that hasn’t made a non-idiotic joke in decades! We should weep for the lost ad revenue.)
The mere fact that this untenable assertion is even made is a very handy red flag to point us to the fact that something else is being deliberately unsaid—something unseemly and unsayable. I think I know what it is. What skeptics really want to say is something like, “Astrology is idiotic, inconsistent, completely irrational, and…and it’s wrong to be irrational! Can’t you see that? Look at how awful irrationality is! Grr, wake up!” Unfortunately, that’s the best they have to offer, while astrology offers an illusion of insight into yourself and others, usually in mild and flattering terms. So the rationalist knows, on some level, that they can’t really compete with astrology, since a world with astrology is more fun for most people than a world without it. But for the rationalists to simply scream, “What’s wrong with you idiots, who by the way are mostly women?” would be unseemly. So they are forced to complain about money because expressing the real problem (people are happy being ignorant and uninformed!) would cut themselves off from civil debate.
It’s the same way with evangelicals and evolution. What they’re trying to preserve is not primarily public morality—at least, not the way they claim. What they’re trying to preserve is the trustworthiness of the Bible, because that, as we have seen, is the only reliable guide for all morality. But if they simply said, “Evolution is wrong because the Bible is more or less scientifically accurate!” no one outside the camp would listen for a second, for the obvious reason that this assertion is both unscientific and provably wrong.
I should pause here and note that many evangelicals, when asked what they think about evolution, will say, “I don’t care about it one way or the other.” On one hand, this is sort of true, since evangelicals don’t believe in evolution, and therefore it never figures in most of their day-to-day conversations. They can go for months without being forced to think about it at all. But in another very real sense, this statement is a lie. If you hear an evangelical claim this, don’t believe it. There are two ways, after all, to “not care” about something. The first is to say “I don’t really care what we should order on the pizza.” A person in this situation, since they don’t care and are surrounded by people who do, will simply shrug and defer to the people who actually give a damn. This is genuine not-caring, and if evangelicals did this we’d never have had a Monkey Trial in the first place.
The other kind of not-caring is the kind that happens after a breakup or a divorce, where someone at a party says, “Hey, Vashti! I saw your ex at the movies yesterday, and he was on a date.” And the woman responds, “I don’t care what that man does.” This is defensive not-caring, the kind that results from a severe excision, where the broken couple has had to divide up who gets which friends and which social circles, where someone avoids certain stores or takes a different route to work to avoid running into the other person. Because a chance meeting will result in an unwinnable conflict that’s bad for everyone. That’s the kind of not-caring that evangelicals practice in respect to evolution: it’s the choice any sane human being would make if the alternative was being in a constant state of siege and warfare. It is, if you like, a voluntary secession from the workings of a scientific community that never had a chance in hell of being sympathetic to them anyway.
“But wait!” you might say. “I know a lot of evangelicals, and they take a lot of things as symbolic. Why not Genesis?” This is perhaps as good a time as any to point out why the evangelical’s parsing of evolution mostly works for them, and in the process explain the process by which evangelicals “believe” the Bible, and what makes them believe some things literally and not others…