Karl Giberson on Evolution and the Evangelical Church

karl giberson

Karl Giberson, a physicist with a PhD from Rice University and a Christian who accepts and teaches evolution, recently wrote an article for The Daily Beast about 2013 being a terrible year for Evolution:

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…

…I am a white evangelical Protestant, or at least I was until persuaded to leave a couple of years ago. Raised in a parsonage, I grew up in that tradition and, after earning a Ph.D. in physics, I taught science, including evolution, at an evangelical college, one of approximately 160 similar—and accredited—institutions in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Most evangelical colleges teach evolution, albeit quietly, carefully, and often tentatively, although there are exceptions. And almost all public schools, of course, are required by law to teach evolution. In an ideal world these efforts should slowly trickle onto Main Street, where they would inform ordinary evangelicals, including those who run for Congress. In time, Darwin’s dangerous idea should become widely accepted, just as Christians gradually gave credence to Galileo’s dangerous idea about the motion of the earth.

But that is not what is happening.

For a quarter century I taught scientific theories of origins—evolution and the Big Bang Theory—under a cloud of suspicion that waxed and waned but never totally disappeared. With few exceptions, my mostly evangelical students accepted these ideas. I took informal polls indicating that most of the 50 percent of my students who rejected evolution at the beginning of my course accepted it by the end. My colleagues at other evangelical colleges report similar experiences. We were hopeful that these evangelical students would become leaders of their faith communities and gradually persuade their fellow evangelicals that evolution was not a lie from hell—which was what many of them had been taught in Sunday school. But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them…

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.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it is not. Henry Morris, the leading anti-evolutionist of the 20th century, made the same argument in his influential book The Long War Against God: The History & Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict. Such theological thinking explains why Darwin is linked to Hitler, our greatest symbol of evil, by most creationist leaders and even the supposedly more enlightened “intelligent design” theorists at the Discovery Institute. It was what Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA)—who was on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee at the time—meant when he called evolution and the Big Bang “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

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?” Such an approach works surprisingly well, at least in persuading young people that evolution is true and compatible with their faith, as long as it occurs in the quiet intellectual confines of the classroom, where the subversive message is delivered by caring and thoughtful Christian professors.

But some professors, alarmed by the persistent gap between the evangelical community and the findings of science—the gap that drives their students out of their churches—have naively presumed to educate their larger faith communities by writing books and articles in support of scientific theories of origins such as evolution and the Big Bang. Their quiet whispers thus become loud proclamations. Influential leaders read their books and are horrified to discover that a faculty member at “their” college is spreading “lies from the pit of hell” and destroying the faith of the students. Campaigns of various sorts are mounted and pressure exerted on the college leadership to remove that dangerous professor.

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…

You can read the complete text of Karl Giberson’s article here.

I have Giberson’s book, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, in my library. I found it quite helpful in the early days of my post-Christian life. If you have not read this book, I would encourage you to do so.  I know some atheists want nothing to do with men like James McGrath, Francis Collins, and Giberson due to their Christianity, but I think this is a big mistake. While atheists may not be able to accept their Christianity, we should applaud ANY effort to move the American Christian church away from its fundamentalist, literalistic, non-scientific tendencies.

Besides, forcing Evangelical Christians to actually think about what they say they believe is good for the atheist/humanist cause. Once they can no longer defend their beliefs they are more likely to move left and might even leave Christian altogether. Isn’t that exactly what many of us did?

Comments (11)

  1. Becky Rogers Wiren

    Sad. The denomination I left (Seventh-day Adventist) taught Biblical creation. I don’t know how it was handled in science classes as I transferred and didn’t need those classes. It was also anti-gay. I have an excellent friend, woman pastor of the SDA Church (they can’t be totally 100% like the men’s credentials) who still is against gay marriage. I’m hoping that knowing me and my liberal views can open her mind a crack. Now, I don’t know for sure what it teaches as I know very liberal Adventists and Tea Party Adventists, and none in between.

  2. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    We don’t have any Evangelical universities over here in Australia, but creationism is a problem in our Evangelical churches and in the schools associated with them.

    Creation Ministries , with its headquarters in Queensland, is active in all states of Australia with its propagandists gaining entry to speak at many churches around the country and distributing their literature to these churches whose libraries are filled with this nonsense.

    Most Evangelical pastors in Australia have NO university training in the sciences and are totally ignorant of the evidence for evolution (and unwilling to read it). Yet these same people are so dogmatic and think that the bible is a textbook that ought to guide science.Many of them say: “Our biblical creation scientists can demonstrate the truth of a young earth and a young universe and that all humans descended from Adam and Eve”.

    There is a culture of intimidation in these many of these churches which seeks to silence any form of Theistic Evolution and, if you try to present any scientific evidence for evolution, you will likely be threatened with excommunication.

    When a small proportion of Evangelical young people start a science degree with a major in physics, geology or biology they see how they see how ignorant their pastors, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders are. The BIG TROUBLE IS THIS: not enough students from Evangelical homes are doing these sciences because they are so often discouraged by the whole church atmosphere which is so anti science under the guise of “creation science”. So talented young people are steered into other courses. They are frightened that “evolutionary Satanists” might get them. What a tragedy!

    John Arthur


  3. Mortimer

    I am glad to see some Church of the Nazarene people finally beginning to speak out to the public and not just “whisper quietly” into the ears of the college students. Such was my pain.

  4. August

    “Besides, forcing Evangelical Christians to actually think about what they say they believe is good for the atheist/humanist cause.”

    One can force an Evangelical Christian to think about something? Hallelujah… a miracle!!

    The ones I’ve met (which are admittedly few) have put their brains on cruise control.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      It is not easy, I know. :) Evangelicals tend to have all the answers and it is hard to talk to someone like that.

  5. Oberon

    The reason for the fear of evolution is that a literal Adam and Eve are necessary for the ‘original sin’ doctrine fundamentalists must believe in order to stay in the club. No literal Adam and Eve? Then you are on that slippery slope of a symbolic story about sin and only a step away from becoming a liberal Christian. It’s why evolution is fought with such vigor and intensity, even though it is a more supported theory that our current understanding of gravity. It’s just that gravity does not threaten someone’s faith.

    What puzzles me is why someone stays in Christianity at all once some of the major doctrines are shown to be mythology.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I think some liberal Christians are atheists/agnostics/universalists who like to go to church. :) I have no problem with this, but some liberals jettison so much of Christianity that it ceases to Christianity. (IMO)

      Liberal Christianity is good for the world. Liberals don’t murder in God’s name, oppress the poor, and they often do good works that help the poor and disadvantaged.

      Not sure why your comment went to moderation. Sorry about that.

  6. gimpi

    But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them…”

    Well, If these churches would stop promulgating falsehoods, they wouldn’t have this problem. The best evidence is this; the Big Bang happened, the cosmos evolved, the Sol system – including the Earth – formed, the Earth evolved through many geological ages, life evolved on earth and all life on earth – including humans – evolved from simpler forms.

    Note to Creationist-believing churches: If you don’t teach lies, you don’t have to worry what happens when people find out you lied.

  7. gimpi

    “Productive scholarship that would be highly valued at other institutions became instead a major liability.”

    Ah, yes, the Evangelical-institution brain-drain. Drive off your best teachers, your best researchers, your most published professors and your smartest students, and then complain that no one takes you seriously as a learning institution. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Dr. Giberson, you have my sympathies.

  8. Tom Moe

    There are way too many generalizations here. The biggest is to lump all of the theories of Creation into one and to do the same for Evolution. There are literally thousands of theories for either side. Many Creationists accept Evolution and vice-versa. Only very narrow thinkers are “either/or.”

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Giberson focuses on young earth creationism and Evangelicalism, not Christianity in general. The vast majority of Evangelicals are creationists. No one is being narrow here, except to focus on where the biggest problem is. Giberson, I believe, is a theistic evolutionist.


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