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The Bible & Evolution

It’s been nearly ninety years since the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee that pitted a high school teacher against a state law criminalizing the teaching of evolution in any state funded institution. The case became high drama, in part because of the prominence of two of the competing attorneys – Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. It highlighted the so-called “Fundamentalist – Modernist” controversy in American religious history and represented a significant turning point in American attitudes toward evolution even though the Scopes case itself ended in a finding supporting Tennessee’s restrictive laws. Many attribute Fundamentalism’s retreat from the public arena (at least until much later in the 20th century) to the trial and the publicity surrounding it.

I used to think that in the nine decades since the “monkey trial” Americans have made significant progress in the forging of a national consensus on evolution. But that appears to be wishful thinking. “Creationism,” the latest version of anti-evolutionist ideology, seems to be forming the anti-science views of more of our neighbors than many of us would like to believe. While a recent Pew Study http://www.pewforum.org/ shows that six in ten adults in the United States believe that humans have evolved over time, fully one third of all American adults believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

A whopping two thirds of white evangelical Protestants hold to this view and half of all African American Protestants do as well. Only among white mainline Protestants do the numbers shift dramatically, with 78 percent believing humans have evolved over time. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics lean toward support of evolution, with a slight majority of Hispanic Catholics and two thirds of white Catholics. Younger people support evolution more than older Americans, which is not surprising given declining rates of religious affiliation among younger generations, and higher levels of education correlate to higher support for evolution. But even among those with at least a college level education, one in four reject evolution.

Clearly the legacy of conflicting approaches to Protestant readings of the Bible continues to contribute to the cultural divides that exist in the United States, with implications for politics and public policy. And the chasms may be deepening. The Pew study shows that, over the last four years, Republicans as a whole have grown more resistant to theories of evolution while Democrats have grown in their embrace (the percentage of Republicans rejecting evolution has grown from 43% in 2009 to 54% in 2013; the percentage of Democrats embracing evolution has grown from 64% in 2009 to 67% in 2013). I’m not sure whether a growing theological divide contributes toward a growing political/cultural divide, or the other way around. Either way, it is disturbing.

It’s tempting to view all of this with a sense of intellectual superiority and cultural condescension, a view reinforced even at the time of the Scopes’ trial by Darrow’s unusual examination of Bryan and by the portrayal of the trial in the popular play, Inherit the Wind. But if we’re concerned about the health of our common life, then we may need to find alternate ways of relating to those who view the Bible’s approach to explaining the natural world very differently from our own. Progressive Christians need not – and should not – compromise their understanding that a Biblical worldview and a modern scientific worldview may complement rather than compete. And we must insist that science, not theology, shape public school curricula. But we may also need to accept the fact that time and education will not, in and of themselves, erase the dividing line between these two camps. We may instead, at least in the interim, need to find ways to live respectfully with differences lest the oddly American fascination with Genesis fuel a distinctive American implosion of our corporate political and social life.       

John H. Thomas
January 9, 2013


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