Science Wars

How Creationism Hurts Christian Colleges—And Their Students

Most evangelical colleges teach evolution, but churches don’t. So when unprepared Christian students begin to study science and lose their faith, it feeds deep distrust of academia.

Allen Holder/Kansas City Star/MCT, via Getty

The sky is falling! Fellow Christians, gather your children and seek shelter. Hold your hands over their ears while you flee. If you don’t they might hear about … evolution.

This was the reaction of Marvin Olasky, the editor of the evangelical magazine World, to my “revelation” in The Daily Beast a few weeks ago that most evangelical Christian colleges teach evolution to their students. “Teach evolution” was my phrase for what is happening. Olasky describes it instead as “insinuating evolution,” which sounds sinister. He suspects that my revelation will be the hot topic “in the hallways” at the meeting of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) which began Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Olasky is sure to be disappointed, but this will certainly not be the hot topic at the meeting. Most of the evangelical colleges in the CCCU are fully accredited, and their science departments are staffed with credentialed scholars educated at America’s leading universities. As such, these departments are often superb places to study science—including evolution—with enviable track records of sending students on to graduate study. My friend Niva Tro, of Westmont College, for example, has written a popular chemistry textbook used at over 500 universities, including Stanford and Berkeley. Evangelical colleges are not scientific backwaters that reject evolution.

What is a hot topic at evangelical schools now is the widening gap and increasing tensions between the academy and the grassroots within evangelicalism—grassroots that provide students and donations. Evangelical scientists made their peace with Darwin long ago—and no, Olasky, they don’t think Darwin is God—and have for decades been working to educate their students that evolution is a factual account of our origins.

At the same time, organizations from outside the scientific community have sprung up arguing the opposite with messages that scientifically uninformed lay people find attractive. The most effective of these is Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, on display last week when Ham debated Bill Nye. Ham was crystal clear in his presentation: science is not relevant to origins and must be largely rejected. All that matters is a literal interpretation of the Bible, with its 6000-year-old earth and worldwide flood as principal historical foundations.

Most evangelicals, including those that attend evangelical colleges, embrace some version of the creationist viewpoint. The other influential anti-evolution organization is the Discovery Institute, where Olasky suggests that “students who are being proselytized for evolution should go,” so they will learn that “Darwin wasn’t God.” If they go this site, they will also learn there that evolution survives only because it has an effective propaganda machine; they will learn that evolution provides the scientific underpinning for an “ideology” that “wraps together materialism, atheism and Darwinism.” They will learn that I am a herd-bound mouthpiece for the scientific status quo. And they will learn that Darwin’s theory is responsible for the Holocaust. But they won’t learn much science.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals get their ideas about origins from Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute, or from pastors who have reflexive anti-science worldviews. As a result they come to college believing that evolution is false and without meaningful evidence to support it; that evolution is an evil idea that has spawned everything from pornography to the Holocaust; and, of course, that evolution is utterly incompatible with Christian belief. This, of course, is intellectually dangerous—and a key factor in Christian students losing their faith in college.

What will be discussed in the halls at the CCCU meeting, judging from the program, is this disastrous disconnect between the views of origins being promoted in evangelical churches and those of the scientific community. All across the country, especially but not exclusively in the South, college professors stand in front of classrooms full of students who have been taught that the ideas in the expensive textbook they just bought are false and incompatible with their faith.

As students learn science, they discover that they have been misled by their religious upbringing. They discover that evolution is not tottering and about to collapse; the Big Bang is not an unfounded speculation; the earth is clearly very old; Noah’s flood can’t possibly have been worldwide; and the scientific community is not filled with secularist lemmings. The result is an intellectual crisis and many young Christians simply walk away from their faith with a feeling of betrayal.

One of the keynote speakers at the CCCU conference is David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group. Barna has examined the phenomenon of young people leaving the church, a topic that has engaged evangelical leaders for some time now. Barna’s survey, which Kinnaman has discussed in his influential book You Lost Me, reports that significant numbers of “young adults with a Christian background” feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” and even that “Christianity is anti-science.” In particular, many report being “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.”

More work needs to be done on this, to be sure, but my experience teaching at evangelical colleges has been that scientifically oriented evangelicals begin to feel alienated by their faith communities before they even come to college. Many are actually relieved to discover that the evangelical college their parents pushed them to attend is not anti-science like their church.

The divide between American evangelicalism and science is great and shows no signs of diminishing. Bill Nye and Ken Ham will never be on the same page, no matter how many debates they have. And, as much as the Discovery Institute would like to be the middle ground between Nye and Ham, their aggressively anti-evolutionary agenda and constant negativity towards science make them allies of Ham, not Nye. As a result, bewildered young people will continue to wander out of the church wondering if they really have to choose between science and their faith.

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That is what will be discussed in the hallways at the CCCU conference.