I just spent three days with 650 Christian evangelical pastors, artists, youth leaders, authors, musicians, publishers as they met at conference in Portland, Oregon to discuss the future of the church as seen by this Facebook generation. It was sort of Christian TED which short, intense, diverse, and highly polished talks (all those preachers) and a lot of networking in between. I was there to give an 18-minute talk on my book What Technology Wants, and to listen. The purpose of this yearly conference, called Q, is to enable the leaders of evangelical churches to confront the perplexing intellectual issues of their faith in a honest way. For example among the 30 or so speakers at this Q were the Imam of the Ground Zero Mosque, and a NASA scientist leading the search for exoplanets, making room for two real discussions about Islam and a very old universe.
It is the latter matter -- evolution -- that interests me most. Officially, the evangelical church in America preaches against evolution, particularly teaching evolution in their schools. Their orthodoxy is a young earth, and no evolution of species.
Of course, the evidence for an ancient planet, a far still older universe, and a long life-span over billion of years is so plain to see in many ways that it becomes harder each year for any thinking person to maintain otherwise. And despite stereotypes, the typical urban evangelical is a thinking person.
What has happened is similar to what has happened in the use of birth control among Catholics: the belief of lay members has diverged from what is preached from the pulpit. When I speak to evangelicals one to one to ask their views in private, I have discovered that on average they do not really believe in creationism, even though their church officially does. This is truer the younger the person is. The gulf shows up in polls as well. In a survey among the conferences goers at Q, the majority responded (anonymously) that they embraced a belief in a theistic evolution.
What this says to me is that in another generation or two this issue of evolution will become an non-issue to American evangelicals. It is already a non-issue to Catholic believers and Protestants outside of America. Current controversies often disappear in time. Four hundred years ago, the immobile flat earth was the orthodox biblical view (although very highly educated medieval thinkers seemed to accept a spherical earth). In all its references to the "earth" (about 3,000 references in total) and the "world" (34 or so) the Bible depicts the world as fixed, flat, cornered, and never, like other celestial bodies mentioned, as either moving or circling spheres. Today, the very same verses stand in the Bible, but that literal interpretation is gone, in part because "literal" is always shaped by reality. The reality of a moving, spherical Earth overwhelms the earlier naive interpretation. The insights of evolutionary science today continue to help us find oil in the earth, manipulate genes in organisms, and overcome ancient diseases. On the other hand the insights of creationism spurs no advances in know-how. Therefore this quaint view will simply disappear. Several generations from now, most evangelical and even most "fundamentalist, literal-scriptures, Bible-believing" Christians will endorse the facts and perspective cosmic evolution and wonder what the fuss was about in the past.
But in the meantime, the denial of the reality of evolution by evangelical churches is hugely detrimental to themselves and to the rest of American society. It harms the rest of society because the strong evangelical influence on textbooks and public education in some states means the true strength and role of evolution in the world at large is not made clear, and even hidden. But more importantly, the denial of evolution harms the greater church as well. The denial of evolution is the prime reason why there are so few leading scientists professing orthodox Christian Protestantism. Evangelical schools and churches steer their best students away from a full embrace of the biggest unifying idea in science -- cosmic evolution -- and toward technical, social, and business professionalism. Thus the evangelical church is cut off from the leading edge of our society. Their refusal to adopt the full scientific framework means that only non-evangelicals can lead in inventing our progress.
For those who are anti-religious, who find religion of any sort to be a recurring source of evil in the world, or who are simply anti-Christian, then having the church cut off from the leading edge of culture is no loss. In fact, they would say good riddance! I can't post a full apologetic in this quick post, but I believe Christianity will be around for a while and so I would like to see its formidable energies joined with secular efforts to bring justice and progress world wide. American evangelism cannot be a leader of the modern world while it denies evolution.
The first step to unbind contemporary evangelicals from the prison of creationism is simply to embrace the obvious framework of an evolution driven by God: God-made evolution. Or God started evolution. Atheist evolutionists go completely bonkers if anyone mentions God and evolution. Not only does this not compute for them, they think its a dangerous idea. But there is nothing inherent in the facts of evolution that precludes it being initiated by a creator. I don't know enough about what the theory of intelligent design or evolutionary creationism are suppose to be, but if it means evolution created by God, then I can't think of anything better to introduce into churches. Except maybe the straight stuff. Michael Dowd is an itinerant preacher. Together with his wife, evolutionary naturalist Connie Barlow, they travel the backroads of the US, preaching the great story of divine evolution at any church that will have them. They've given their sermon at all variety of congregations and are generally received well. Dowd's curriculum is contained in his very readable book, Thank God for Evolution. While it is aimed at thinking Christians, the whole epic view integrating the cosmos, bios and noos may be helpful to secular thinkers as well.
But just as radical anti-religion atheists go bonkers about mixing God and evolution, so do radical anti-evolution Christians. While their church members quietly accept the science, their leaders continue to beat this dead horse. But to repeat, there is nothing inherent in evolution to preclude being initiated by a creator. Both the radical atheists and fundamentalist Christians are drinking the cup of the same error: that evolution = no god. In a weird way the radical atheists and fundamentalists are agreeing with each other, and feeding each other this unnecessary mistake: that evolution must be godless.
There are many different ways that an evolution launched by a god might play out (see my Taxonomy of Gods). One possibility for a theistic (God-based) evolution is a story that would look pretty much like what we see in the 4.7 billion-year history of life on earth. See Michael Dowd's version for more. But the image of the creator behind this process looks a little different than the traditional Sunday school image of God, which is God the dollmaker, who molds each species in their final form. Instead the unrolling creation of evolution requires a much larger God, a creator outside of time who unfolds the cosmos and life and mind an on-going process.
Personally and collectively we are defined by our understanding of where we come from. If we believe in a fearful angry-father God, our society will angry and fearful. If we believe in directionless randomness as God, then our society will be directionless. I therefore seek the largest God of possibilities and growth. The God of evolution may not be the optimal God, but it/he is much greater than the dollmaker God of creationism. I'm betting on the bigger God.
UPDATE: I've made some changes, correcting facts and added clarifications.