23 February 2008

Crossing the divide

I recently recommended a very nice new blog by Mike Beidler called The Creation of an Evolutionist. It's subtitled "My journey from young earth creationism to evolutionary creationism," and it's downright fun to read. Mike is engaging and bright. He writes with enthusiasm and joy, so it's hard to imagine that his journey might have been difficult in places. But I'm sure it was.

Others have shared here and elsewhere about the trauma that many experience when considering the abandonment of creationism, an experience I mostly avoided because I never fully embraced creationism, and certainly never adopted a young-earth position. But it's easy for me to understand the emotional environment in which such struggles occur, and that's why I'm glad commenters like David O. have insisted on pointing out that the debunking of crude folk science (like the Reasons To Believe train wreck) is not helpful in the absence of a sound theological framework. Why? Because the obstacles that keep most Christians from embracing evolution and an ancient creation are not merely (or even mostly) academic in nature. They're deeper, much deeper than that: they're emotional, tied to the most basic ways by which Christians define themselves.

In the newest issue of Science, a remarkable News Focus piece tackles this very subject. You need a subscription to access the article online. I'll quote it extensively here, but if you are at all interested in this topic, I urge you to get a copy and read it. I find the article remarkable not just for its coverage of the issue, but for the fact that it is published in Science, one of the most prominent science journals in the world.

The article is "Crossing the divide," written by Jennifer Couzin, and it displays this tagline: "Like others who have rejected creationism and embraced evolution, paleontologist Stephen Godfrey is still recovering from the traumatic journey." Godfrey works at the Calvert Marine Museum in Chesapeake Bay; he was raised in a "fundamentalist" Christian environment but came to a "staunch acceptance of evolution."

Godfrey's "anguished path" began with his study of fossils. 'Anguished' sounds right:

With this shift came rejection from his religious community, estrangement from his parents, and, perhaps most difficult of all, a crisis of faith that endures.
After noting the immense emotional appeal of creationism and the cruel God-or-science choice it typically presents, Couzin observes:
People like Godfrey tend not to advertise their painful transition from creationist to evolutionist, certainly not to scientific peers. When doubts about creationism begin to nag, they have no one to turn to: not Christians in their community, who espouse a literal reading of the Bible and equate rejecting creationism with rejecting God, and not scientists, who often dismiss creationists as ignorant or lunatic.
Gosh, that paragraph about sums up one of my main goals as a Christian biologist: to offer fellow Christians at least one other choice. I hope it saddens you as much it does me, and it oughtn't matter whether you believe or not.

There are some rough spots and simplifications in the piece: Couzin refers to the "fateful apple" in Eden, for example, and seems to suggest that only "biblical literalists" hold that "belief is generally an all-or-nothing proposition." (Though I think I know what she means.) The descriptions of the harrowing journey from YECism to evolutionary creation, however, are raw and jarring. Woven into Godfrey's story are quotes from Denis Lamoureux, Brian Alters, and Christopher Smith, Godfrey's brother-in-law who is a Baptist pastor here in Michigan. But it is Godfrey's "anguished path" that is laid out in disheartening detail. Examination of fossil strata (and footprints therein) finally leads to the "explosion" of his YEC ideas.
Godfrey ran through bitterness, anger, and disappointment about having been deceived for so many years. He sought out creationists and confronted them. Late in graduate school, he and his devout Christian wife, mother-in-law, and mother attended a weekend symposium at a Bible school in New York state, where Godfrey says he angrily stood up at the end of a talk and argued passionately with the speaker.
Well...gulp. That reaction is understandable, even laudable, but I think Dr. Godfrey would agree that it's not the way that things should go for long. Indeed, he identifies at least some times when one ought to let sleeping dogs lie.
But sometimes, former creationists believe, changing minds is not worth the heartache it brings. Godfrey no longer considers evolution worth mentioning to his parents, now 78 and 79 years old, and he asked that they not be contacted for this article. “You can live your life just fine and not know squat about evolution,” he says.
The hardest parts of the story for me to read were those that described his parents' distress, convinced as they are that "their afterlife depends on embracing creationism." But before you conclude that he (or I) would embrace laissez faire, consider his passion here:
Just as he longs for biblical literalists to be more receptive to evolution, Godfrey also wishes that biologists would join the discussion. He was incensed 5 years ago when, participating in an evolution-creationism debate at Bishop’s University, where he once argued against the fossil record, no one from the biology department attended.
Ouch! Not in my house.

According to Couzin, "Godfrey is conflicted about how, and how forcefully, to press his case." He co-wrote a book with his brother-in-law; his father prayed that it would fail to be published at all, and Godfrey seems unconvinced that the book had any impact.

I want to hear voices like Godfrey's, and David Opderbeck's, and others who have traveled this "anguished path." I've explained elsewhere why I don't think laissez faire is always – or even usually – the right approach. But my path was far less anguished, and I never knew the complete isolation that so many of these wise people experienced. (Thank God.) So I'm listening.

Christendom cannot continue to construct and support folk science and desperate dishonesty. It must not continue to employ falsehood in the "defense" of the gospel. But the dismantling of these corrupt and toxic structures has to be done for the sake of the gospel, and not for any other reason.

That's my pledge. Hold me to it.

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