I've never had to change my mind about evolution, as I can't ever remember a time I doubted it, but lots of people can't say that. I've just completed a most interesting book titled How I Changed My Mind About Evolution. It includes brief personal stories from some 25 scientists and theologians. These people are all committed Christians who previously were skeptical about evolution, but who have now come to embrace it. In the process of embracing evolution, they continued to affirm their Christian beliefs.
The book is edited by James Stump and Kathryn Applegate, both of whom are connected with Biologos, an organization that endorses the idea that the findings of modern science and the Christian Bible are completely compatible. Biologos, and those who hold similar views to the organization, often describe this as evolutionary creationism. This is not the creationism that says the Earth is no more than about 6,000 years old and that humans were specially created by God, not through the process of evolution by natural selection, and that the Biblical Book of Genesis is literally true. Instead, it fully embraces Darwinian evolution by natural selection. In that sense, it is identical to the beliefs of people like Richard Dawkins, except that supporters of evolutionary creationism believe that the world was created by God in the Bang Bang, and that the process of evolution is, and always has been, ultimately under the control of God.
Many of these stories are intensely personal, and quite a number of the contributors share very sad tales. A number are university academics, possessing doctorates in a broad range of fields, and who pursue advanced research. We like to think that universities are places where competing ideas are shared. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case for some of the authors, who reported that their colleagues were often close-minded and couldn't understand how any of their colleagues could simultaneously believe in scientific concepts and maintain strong Christian beliefs. The very same people then reported that fellow members of their churches were equally skeptical that they could be Christians and yet harbor beliefs in evolution by natural selection – a sort of reverse close-mindedness. In other words, they were greeted with skepticism and mistrust both at work and at church!
Stories with personal drama are often attractive, but why should anyone be interested in the ones recounted in this book? Having read the book, I think three distinct groups ought to take a look at it. Surprisingly, the first group includes those who are not Christians. Why would non-Christians, particularly those who strongly endorse Darwin's theory of evolution, care about a book like this?
The reason is to help overcome a popular stereotype that Christianity and modern science are incompatible. This is an idea that has been fostered on one hand by militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, but also by many fundamentalist Christians who are skeptical of Darwin. The stories in the book show this simply isn't the case: people with serious scientific credentials can simultaneously endorse ideas such as Darwin's theory and that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. Many of these are scientists possess very serious credentials. As an example, Francis Collins, best known as the head of the Human Genome Project, and also the founder of Biologos, has an essay in the book. Collins is a highly respected scientist who fully embraces Darwin and is a committed Christian. Another profiled in the book has a PhD in Astronomy from MIT while still another has a PhD in computational cell biology. No intellectual slouches in the bunch! Moreover, as noted by one of the contributors, "While [Richard Dawkins and other militant atheist writers] are persuasive, what many readers fail to see is that they misuse the authority of science (the study of the natural world) to claim that belief in the supernatural is irrational." The notion that you either believe in modern science or you believe in religion is ultimately a cartoonish notion and certainly overly simplistic. So this book can provide atheists a different perspective, maybe even food for thought.
A second group that should find this book interesting is people who maintain Christian beliefs and also accept Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. I include myself in that group. For this group the book should be worthwhile if for no other reason that to read the stories of others who have struggled with the issue. Doubtless, many who are now able to reconcile science and the Bible have faced their own struggles and will recognize similar stories to their own. The 25 contributors to the book possess a range of views on this subject.
The third group is the key one to whom the book is directed: Christians who are skeptical of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. A common experience for the authors was to grow up in a Christian home, exposed to a world that was anti-evolution. Problems started to arise when these writers became exposed to modern science and found it challenging to reconcile modern science with their Christian beliefs. Ultimately, each of the contributors found a way to reconcile beliefs, but also pointed out that many others simply couldn't and, as a consequence, lost their faith.
One of the contributors observed that this is a major problem facing churches today: young people grow up in the church, lacking exposure to modern science, then are thrust into the world of universities and popular culture and find themselves un-moored. That was the experience of many of the 25 contributors. Unfortunately, a very high percentage of 18 to 30 years who grew up in the church are leaving, quite often because of this issue. Many of the 25 stories are of people who actively fought against Darwin's theory, or who actually lost their faith when they discovered that scientific evidence of evolution ran counter to their faith. In each case, however, they ultimately found a way to regain their Christian faith, as well as to embrace Darwinian science.
Several of the contributors noted that a core problem is that so many Christians grow up in a world that is seemingly walled off, and one where there is never a serious discussion about modern science and how it might relate to religion. Increasingly, we all seem to live in our own "filter bubbles", the world of evangelical Christians merely being one. Atheists appear to have their own "filter bubbles", too.
The writers lament this state of affairs and hope that it will change, but I personally don't expect that to happen. It isn't because evangelical Christians are ill-educated or stupid, as some might like to think. That simply isn't the case. Instead, they resist modern scientific findings about evolution and the age of the Earth because they sincerely feel that modern science is at war with them. Even a casual reading of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris will lead one to conclude the evangelicals aren't just imagining that.
So if the real problem is that evangelical Christians are seemingly close-minded about modern science, how might that resistance be overcome? Ultimately, I believe it comes to down to a matter of providing a "welcoming environment." At present, every Christian who rejects modern science as seemingly anti-Biblical has to reach two conclusions: 1) that they've been wrong about the science all this time; and 2) there is a way to reconcile their Biblical beliefs with modern science. For an awful lot of them, that's a very tall order. They're being asked to do something that in their minds is very difficult, but they haven't been given a reason they should want to do this. From their perspective, there is no benefit, at least no perceived benefit, to make the change. Until Christians who reject modern science as seemingly anti-Biblical can be offered a more "friendly environment", meaning reasons why they would benefit from changing their minds, they're likely to remain highly resistant. Which then means more and more people, especially younger ones, will reach the proverbial "fork in the road": clinging to their faith or rejecting faith to accept modern science.
So if that's the case, what might the "benefits" be to an evangelical skeptic of Darwin making a change? Up to now, the only reason they've been given is, the science is good. In their minds, that hasn't been compelling.
I think there is a much better argument. Instead of saying, believe in evolution because the science is absolutely compelling, I say, believe in it because evolution through natural selection can be used to reinforce two key and distinctive concepts in Christianity. The first is that mankind is sinful, and that the proclivity for sin has been transmitted down through the generations to every human. That's always been a core Christian belief, but there really hasn't been any hard evidence of it. My argument is that evolution actually provides a very reasonable explanation for sin.
The second core idea is that humans cannot overcome this sinful behavior. In other words, we cannot through our own efforts truly improve ourselves. We have to depend upon God. Again, physical evidence for this has been scant. And again, I believe that modern science, through Darwin's theory, can be used to demonstrate the reality of this idea.
These two ideas form the core of what makes Christianity distinctive. Therefore, the benefit for Christian skeptics of embracing evolution is the idea of real world evidence that those doctrines are more than just faith. These ideas are discussed more fully in my book, The Unexpected Perspective.
How I Changed My Mind About Evolution is definitely worth your time, and I encourage you to read it, whatever your particular perspective on modern science and religion.