The Science-Religion Crisis at Christian Colleges

Science tells us that there was no Edenic paradise, no first couple, and no sinless parents of humanity. And while most scientists and some theologians and philosophers teaching at Protestant Christian colleges know this, very few are willing to speak out.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Shortly after the 2004 publication of his book, Random Designer, biologist Richard Colling was prohibited from teaching introductory biology courses at Olivet Nazarene College in Illinois and his book was banned from the campus. Peter Enns, who earned his PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, claimed that the first chapters of Genesis are firmly grounded in ancient myth, which he defines as "an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins in the form of stories"; in 2008, the board of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia forced Enns, a tenured faculty member, to resign after fourteen years. In 2010, Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando fired biblical scholar Bruce Waltke for stating that evolution is true. In 2011, Calvin College fired theologian John Schneider and silenced biblical scholar Dan Harlow for challenging the traditional Christian understanding of a literal Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve are the third rail for contemporary evangelical scholars--touch it and you will die (homosexuality is another third rail).

Science has peeled away successive layers of the Adam and Eve narrative for over two centuries. According to the traditional account, Adam and Eve, the morally pure first couple, lived in a paradise where, though they didn't work, their every need was met. In Eden there was no suffering and death (not just for humans but for every living creature). Adam's fall, then, issued forth in natural evils such as earthquakes, pestilence, and famine (and the suffering and death that lie in their wake) and moral evils such as human slavery, war, and other forms of violence (and the suffering and death that lie in their wake). Prior to the fall, the world was one of suffering-free and death-free bliss.

The disciplined study of geology in the nineteenth century presented an entirely different picture: a history that preceeded by millions of years that suggested by a literal reading of Genesis, a history of natural evils on a scale vaster than could have been imagined. For example, previously unknown species such as the Megalosaurus and Iguanodon had not only suffered and died; they had gone extinct.

Modern geology says that natural evil, then, did not enter the world through the fall of Adam; it's built into the world's very structure. Therefore Adam and Eve did not live in an Edenic paradise with little struggle for existence. They would have entered into a world of suffering and death, one in which they would have to eke out their own existence.

What about Adam and Eve themselves? Even if an Edenic paradise is no longer tenable, what about a primordial perfect couple from whom all human beings have descended?

Contemporary molecular biology suggests that all living human beings are descended from about 10,000 early humans, not a single couple. And paleontology, anthropology and archaeology have converged on the view that the first humans were anything but morally pure; their lives were characteristically selfish and even viciously so, in ways that included war, murder, and rape.

Science tells us that there was no Edenic paradise, no first couple, and no sinless parents of humanity.

And while most scientists and some theologians and philosophers teaching at Protestant Christian colleges know this, very few are willing to speak out. The message of the dismissals is clear -- speak out and get fired. When dissenting Christian voices are squelched or fired, faculty clam up.

Christian colleges and seminaries desperately fear change. According to Peter Enns, "The theological tradition embraced at Westminster Theological Seminary, stemming from deliberations in England during the seventeenth century, is nevertheless perceived by its adherents to enjoy an unassailable permanence and in need of no serious adjustments, let alone critical reflection, despite many known advances in biblical studies or science since that time."

How can Christian intellectuals be getting fired, just when Christians need leadership on this and other science-related matters? With such a paucity of intellectual assistance, Christians feel forced to choose between the science of human origins, on the one hand, and an antiquated theology of human origins on the other.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that in the U.S. the percentage of those who believe that humans evolved through a God-guided process has declined from 38 percent to 31 percent for the period from 1982 to 2014.

And while massive amounts of money have been spent on science education and in court battles, the number of people who believe that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago has stayed roughly the same over this period (an embarrassing 42 percent of the U.S. population).

The single, most relevant variable indicative of young-earth creationism is church attendance. Fully 69 percent of young-earth creationists are regular church attenders. Sadly, low education is likewise highly correlated with young-earth creationism.

The only clear winner of the past thirty years is atheism. The number of people who believe that God had nothing to do with the creation of humans has doubled in just over 30 years (from 9 percent to 19 percent). Apparently, those people, too, think that one is forced to choose between science and antiquated theology.

Along with their firings, Protestant Christian college and seminary presidents have taken the side of antiquated theology over science (contributing even further to Christian colleges' climate of fear). For example, in 2010, at a conference chock full of Christian leaders, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (the flagship seminary of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.), resoundingly declared that the Bible unequivocally teaches six twenty-four-hour days of creation and a young universe (on the order of tens of thousands of years, not billions). He claims:

I would suggest to you that in our effort to be most faithful to the scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the gospel an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and what it means and why it matters.

In his wooden and historically uninformed interpretation of Genesis, Mohler, armed with no training whatsoever in the relevant sciences or ancient Mesopotamian history, rejected cosmology, geology, and biology. At the end of his sermon, Mohler boldly asserted: "I want to suggest to you that when it comes to the confrontation between evolutionary theory and the Christian gospel we have a head-on collision. In the confrontation between secular science and the scripture we have a head-on collision."

By squelching faithful scientific and theological exploration, Mohler and company are teaching Christian students that Christians are forced to choose between well-established knowledge and God. And they are teaching teachers and pastors who are teaching children and lay people that they must choose likewise.

But forcing a choice between science and God may not have the result Christian colleges and their shortsighted leaders desire. Forced to choose between physics, cosmology, paleontology, anthropology, geology, genetics, and biology, on the one hand, and their antiquated interpretation of Christianity on the other, increasingly many will choose science.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot