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Christians in the Evolutionary Crosshairs


I’m not an Evangelical Christian, nor a Christian of any kind, so I have no personal stake in what Evangelicals believe about evolution. But I do resent seeing thoughtful adults, of any persuasion, patronized as rubes or treated like stubborn and ignorant children. And the fact is that a lot of time, trouble, and money, including tax money, is being poured into an effort that, in the most offensively patronizing way, treats Evangelicals like primitives.

That effort seeks to recruit them to the cause of Darwinian evolution. A few years back, Casey Luskin checked out a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit was titled, “Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?” “Making a circuit around the country, visiting 19 public libraries from Spokane, Washington, to Bangor, Maine,” it was like a “portable version of the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins,” as Casey wrote here in a post (“Smithsonian’s Traveling Human Origins Exhibit Overstates the Case for Human Evolution”).

It All Comes into Focus

What I didn’t realize is that the Smithsonian’s library road show, curated by paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, was inspired by the aim of targeting Christians. Ah, now it all comes into focus. “How to Talk with Evangelical Christians About Evolution” is the title of an article from the Smithsonian website, originally published by an online magazine, Undark. This is, of course, exactly how we discuss broaching difficult subjects with children — “How to Talk with Children About…” — whatever it might be, shootings or bombings, disasters, race, bullying, mental illness, money, circus accidents, or other “sad or scary topics.”

The piece tells how, “For two years, researchers from the Smithsonian traveled the country explaining the science of our shared origins.” For Potts, we learn, “human evolution is the perfect topic to break down entrenched barriers between people in an increasingly polarized, politicized world.” He realized something: “In order to reach the more than 100 million Americans who still question that science, he would have to take the evidence — carefully packaged — to them.”

“Carefully packaged”! You wouldn’t want to scare the poor Christians any more than they already are.

Such was the origin of the Human Origins Traveling Exhibit, which wrapped up last year. The idea was to bring key parts of the permanent installation in the nation’s capital to diverse communities, including ones that were rural, religious, remote. At least 10 of the 19 sites the Smithsonian visited were deemed “challenging” — places where the researchers suspected that evolution might still be a contentious subject, for religious or other reasons. The exhibit would be accompanied by a team of clergy members and scientists handpicked by the Smithsonian, and they would engage the public and local clergy in conversations about this fraught topic.

This is like a parody of what our colleague Jay Richards calls “Officially Smart People” and how they talk about flyover country. They’re targeting “diverse communities,” that might be “rural, religious, remote,” “challenging,” in need of crisis counseling from friendly and enlightened clergy persons ready to offer comforting “conversations about this fraught topic.”

Anything organized by the Smithsonian is paid for by you and me. But we’re not alone! The Templeton Foundation is also involved for a sum that the reporter doesn’t specify. “This project was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, a wealthy group that backs efforts to bring religion and science into harmony.” That’s how Rachel Gross wrote it for Undark Magazine. In an interesting editing move, when the piece was reposted at the Smithsonian site, someone didn’t like how it sounded to call the Templeton Foundation a “wealthy group” — maybe the hint of plutocracy would alarm the Christians, too — and changed it to the “John Templeton Foundation, a well-resourced organization.”

Potts says his goal is “Not conversion, but conversation.” Others, though, are more forthright. Regarding the idea that Darwinism might be seen as in tension with theism:

Those who research the topic call this paradigm the “conflict mode” because it pits religion and science against each other, with little room for discussion. And researchers are starting to realize that it does little to illuminate the science of evolution for those who need it most. “Acceptance is my goal,” says Jamie Jensen, an associate professor who teaches undergraduate biology at Brigham Young University.

Now that is telling. “Acceptance” is the “goal.” But how to achieve it? By engaging the scientific controversy about Darwinian theory? Of course not.

“The Big Players”

The piece by Ms. Gross wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the Templeton-funded BioLogos Foundation: “This work is part of a wider movement seeking to bridge the gap between evolutionary science and religion — whether real or perceived. The big players include the BioLogos Foundation, an organization that stresses the compatibility of Christianity and science…” 

Bridging the gap” reminds me of the book Evolution News reviewed earlier today, from BioLogos Advisory Council member Greg Cootsona, Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults. As we saw there, in “bridging” this “gap” or “divide,” and attacking intelligent design in the process, the one thing Cootsona doesn’t do is engage the science that suggests most potently that there is no “divide,” no necessary state of warfare, between credible science and credible faith. His book, at least in its treatment of ID, is shallow, ill-informed, and misleading.

One community to which the traveling exhibit paid a visit, and that gets special attention from Rachel Gross, is Ephrata, PA, between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. (Perhaps the Officially Smart would consider that “remote.”) She quotes a librarian there who reports a “backlash” and “anger” at the exhibit. One “Troubled Mom,” among others, objected to a statue in the foyer of naked Neanderthals. I have not been to Ephrata, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the “anger” came from the cultural condescension, the impression that the Smithsonian wasn’t actually interested in a “coversation” about the science but rather, as Jamie Jensen candidly puts it, winning “acceptance.” 

In that effort, there’s not much place for acknowledging scientific complexities or admitting challenges or weaknesses in the dominant theory. As Casey Luskin reported, the exhibit was replete with the “usual overstatements and crucial omissions about the evidence.” Here’s “the kind of ‘conversation’ Potts wants to spark”: the aim is to “make skeptics…feel like they are opposing science and standing in the way of well-established rational knowledge.”

If I were among those Christians in the evolutionary crosshairs of this exhibit, I think I’d be able to handle some naked Neanderthals. What I’d have a harder time with is being manipulated, patronized, and misled, even as I’m asked to pay for it with my tax dollars. Yes, if I were among the benighted yokels of Ephrata, I think I’d feel “angry” about this, too.

Photo: Ephrata, Pennsylvania, by Jon Dawson, via Flickr.