The Un-evolving Relationship between American Christians, Evolution, and Climate Change

silhouette of refinery plant on evening background
silhouette of refinery plant on evening background

Last week marked 156 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, presenting evidence that creatures evolve over time. While Darwin faced opposition then, had he lived an incredibly long life, he would observe that Christians have not evolved much in relation to his theory.

Not only that, he would notice that American Christians who read the Bible as a scientifically literal document also have trouble with the science affirming some human element in climate change. Using the results of a 2007 Pew study, biologist Josh Rosenau charted the high correlation between the belief in biblical literalism, the denial of evolution, and the denial of climate change. But that was eight years ago. Perhaps almost a decade of climate data has changed conservative religious minds? The evidence is to the contrary. A 2015 study found similar results.

While world leaders convene this week in Paris for the COP21 conference on climate change, could it be that the biblically influenced denial of science is actually what is slowing our country's progress toward mitigating climate change? The 31% of Americans who reject evolution entirely are easily a large enough voting bloc to influence policy. If this not-so-secret cabal impedes U.S. efforts to prevent climate disaster, then perhaps the place to begin is "In the beginning" with a treatment of the Bible's relationship with the theory of evolution.

Conservative Christian groups like the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans believe that the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Bible's teaching of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 (Roman Catholics and mainline Christians see evolution as compatible with Christian faith). The groups who reject evolution do so because the Genesis creation accounts appear to have God creating the heavens and the earth in six 24-hour days.

Even those who hold to a more literal reading of the Bible have proposed that Genesis 1:1 leaves room for a gap of unknown time, making it possible to integrate evolution and a literal reading of the Bible. This is not the only way, however, of reconciling faith and science.

To put it flatly (as in what the biblical authors thought the earth was), there are likely two creation accounts in Genesis. The first three chapters of Genesis, often cited by evangelical creationists to argue against evolution, seem to present two separate creation accounts that were juxtaposed by a later editor with, perhaps surprisingly, no attempt to harmonize them. Genesis 2:4 -- "This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens" -- is the not-so-subtle hint.

That verse, following the concluding statement that the first creation is finished, introduces the second, divergent account. The orders of creation are different between the two. The language style is different. The setting and scope are different. Even the name for God changes in the second account from Elohim (God) to Adonai-Elohim (Lord God) in chapter two, verse four.

The first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is cosmic in perspective and either Hebrew poetry or high prose, complete with alliteration, rhyme, and artful numerical patterns. The second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25) is down-to-earth and intimately relational. If readers are fooled into thinking there is only one account, it's not because the editors of Genesis were trying to fool anyone. They are as different as night and day (or "evenings and mornings," if you will).

Instead of addressing scientific origins, the two creation accounts are like a mirror held up to humanity in which we see both our dignity and our weaknesses reflected back to us. As a pastor, I find deep meaning in them, not as scientific documents but as ancient reflections on what it means to be human. The two creation accounts have less to say about science and more to say about living wisely in the world we inhabit and caring for it as God's VP's in charge of creation. Perhaps a closer reading of the Genesis creation accounts would grant conservative Christians a more comfortable relationship with science and actually motivate them to accept God's mandate to care for the earth.

This evidence, however, is unconvincing to a significant percentage of Americans, especially those who believe in a supreme being. The Pew Research Center found that:

Only a minority of Americans fully accept evolution through natural selection. About two-thirds (65%) of U.S. adults say humans have evolved over time, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey on science and society. But only a little more than half of that group (35%) expresses the belief that humans and other living things evolved solely due to natural processes. About a quarter (24%) of U.S. adults say that evolution was guided by a supreme being. The same survey found that 31% of Americans reject evolution entirely, saying that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

As to the role of religion, a full 64% of American white evangelicals reject the evidence accepted by 98% of American scientists, that humans and other species evolved. According to the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans who reject evolution has remained relatively unchanged since 1982.

Evangelical Christian and scientist Francis Collins believes that it doesn't have to be this way. As head of the Human Genome Project, Collins argues that DNA essentially proves the theory of evolution to be true, and that evolution does not have to be a threat to any religious person's faith. As a believer in theistic evolution, Collins writes:

But I have no difficulty putting that together with what I believe as a Christian because I believe that God had a plan to create creatures with whom he could have fellowship, in whom he could inspire [the] moral law, in whom he could infuse the soul, and who he would give free will as a gift for us to make decisions about our own behavior, a gift which we oftentimes utilize to do the wrong thing.

I believe God used the mechanism of evolution to achieve that goal. And while that may seem to us who are limited by this axis of time as a very long, drawn-out process, it wasn't long and drawn-out to God. And it wasn't random to God.

Even though secular scientists may not agree with his explanation, Christians can. It is a better alternative to denying evidence-based science and human discovery, altogether. More importantly, due to the correlation between biblical literalism and climate change denial, it just might save the planet Christians believe God created.