Scientists announced in September that they had discovered a huge cache of ancient hominid bones deep in a cave in South Africa. The bones, representing at least 15 individuals, belonged to previously unidentified member of our family tree. Homo naledi had fingers curved for climbing, a brain the size of an orange, and perhaps even a penchant for disposing of its dead.
When he heard the news, Brad Kramer rejoiced. “Awe-inspiring” is how Kramer, who was watching the two-hour NOVA and National Geographic special at home on PBS, described it. “The discovery, the evolutionary science, was amazing.”
Coming from a typical science-loving American, that response would hardly have been noteworthy. But Kramer isn’t like most science-loving Americans: He’s an evangelical Christian, a demographic group not particularly known for rejoicing over the study of human evolution. If the Homo naledi discovery had happened 15 years ago, Kramer would have had a far different reaction. He would have considered it an attempt by atheists to hijack faith with their “science-based religion.”
“I would not have seen such a discovery as beautiful,” he says now. “I would have seen it as grotesque.”
Kramer, who is 27, no longer sees things that way. Today, he accepts all evidence for the scientific process of evolution—“the whole nine yards,” he says. In fact, he says, evolutionary science has helped him understand his faith better. “Science shows us a world of order and beauty, even in the midst of darkness and disorder,” he says. “I see the light of God in this.” This view is known as theistic evolution, the belief that God is the guiding force behind evolution.
“Now, I’m able to look at this through the lens of faith and say thank God that he has allowed us to find this discovery and this process of evolution,” Kramer says. “I can rejoice in how beautiful, how important, how creative the whole thing is.”
And he is not alone. Today, more and more young evangelical Americans are seeking a new answer to an age-old question, a debate that has been raging ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species more than 150 years ago: How do you reconcile a devout faith with the science of evolution?
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In some ways, Kramer is part of a larger trend. For the first time, younger Americans are more likely to accept than to reject evolution, as I reported last month in Slate. Thanks to science education, the open-mindedness and technological savvy of young people, and the decline of an older generation of creationists, America is experiencing a historic cultural shift.
But many evangelicals, who for decades have remained stubbornly against evolution, are still resistant to the science. Today, the vast majority of white evangelical Protestants say humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. And their numbers are significant: Approximately 62 million people in the United States are adherents of evangelical Protestant churches, an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007.
That voting bloc can wield enormous power over the nation’s science education. Consider the perversely named Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows creationist materials to be taught alongside evolutionary science in Louisiana schools. In 2008, the bill was signed into law by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (who holds a biology degree from Brown University and really ought to know better). Conservative legislators in states across the country have tried to mimic Louisiana’s strategy, proposing anti-evolution bills popular with creationist voters.
For evolution to get through to all of the American public, it will have to overcome a stubborn and politically powerful group that has historically opposed it. So what would it actually take for more young evangelicals to embrace evolution? Kramer provides a powerful example of transformation.
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Kramer vividly remembers one of his first encounters with evolution. He was on a trip with his family to a natural history museum. When they reached a display about the tree of life—an evolutionary timeline that included Australopithecus and Homo erectus—things got tense. His mother turned to him and gave what soon became a familiar disclaimer: “Just remember, we don’t agree with this,” she told him. “We believe in the Bible. And we know from the Bible that evolution didn’t happen.”
Kramer wants to be clear about his evangelical Christian upbringing. “It’s not like we were all in prairie dresses in a bunker somewhere,” he says. His parents, who raised him in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, were open-minded in some ways. They let him watch nature documentaries on National Geographic Channel, brought him to every museum in the Philadelphia area, and showed him Apollo 13. He even had an aunt who was a biology teacher. When he was 7, he was a runner-up in the New Jersey state science fair, for designing a hairbrush with a squirt gun attached.
But Kramer was still the son of an evangelical pastor. Until high school, he was homeschooled with teaching materials for Young Earth creationism, the religious belief that Earth is thousands—not billions—of years old. In his world, “millions” and “billions” of years were a no-no, dinosaurs coexisted with people, and Noah’s flood was an actual, historical event. “I was taught from an early age that the Bible is God’s word, and those who accept Jesus Christ go to heaven and those who don’t go to hell,” he says. “I was taught that my mission when it came to science and my faith was to help debunk the idea that the universe is a product of blind, random processes,” he says.
In general, science was good. But evolution, Kramer was told, wasn’t science. “I had no idea there was anything to evolutionary theory other than atheist wishful thinking,” he says. “I had been told growing up and in every book I read that it was irrational, blind guesses made up by atheists to substantiate their atheist beliefs.”
Whenever a conversation turned to evolution, it felt as if the person talking had left the realm of objectivity and started proselytizing. “There was just a sense that something deeply inappropriate was happening,” Kramer says. “It was kind of like when you’re at a family gathering and that one weird uncle starts talking about how we’d be better off without those blacks,” he says—evolution being the weird uncle.
Before high school, Kramer didn’t know that there was a great body of scientific evidence supporting evolution by natural selection. That it was the foundation of the biological sciences, giving reason and meaning to the living world, just as the periodic table of elements makes sense of chemistry. What he knew for certain was that evolution and the Bible were enemies, as fundamentally incompatible as good and evil. “Evolution was anti-Christianity,” he says. “That was crystal clear.”
And then suddenly, it wasn’t.
The first time Kramer got an inkling that evolution might be more than just atheist mumbo-jumbo was in high school. He had taken to debating with a friend from his youth group who thought the tenets of Young Earth creationism were absurd. “My secret goal was to get him to make a personal decision to follow Christ, so he’d be firmly in the right camp,” says Kramer. The friend in turn sent Kramer to two pro-evolution websites: The Panda’s Thumb and Talk Origins.
When he went to the sites, Kramer was ready to encounter criticism of his faith. What he wasn’t prepared for was the evidence.
Kramer had always believed that God created the world perfectly and fully. Now he was confronted with a slew of disturbing ideas: namely, that many species were “created” in ways that seem to be suboptimal. “The panda’s thumb,” for instance—a name taken from an essay of the same name by Stephen Jay Gould—referred to the fact that pandas have unusual thumbs in addition to five fingers. This “thumb” is not a standard digit at all but an extension of the radial sesamoid bone which evolution has co-opted, apparently for gripping bamboo. Structures like this provided “proof of evolution—paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce,” Gould wrote.
To Kramer, the sites sounded hostile—as if they were “written as a direct attack on my faith” and “intentionally trying to jab a sharp stick in the eye of the Christians.” But they also sounded true. It was as if he had stumbled into a Pandora’s box, opening up question upon question that he felt ill-equipped to answer. For instance: OK, let’s say that an evolutionary process did take place. But if God was perfect, and God had chosen to use evolution, then why was evolution so flawed? “It was almost like my beliefs were colliding with reality,” he says. “There were just pieces in my mind that I could not put together … It was very scary.”
Kramer felt sick. “That’s when things got kind of messy,” he says. For about six months, he left his church and began questioning his faith. While he never fully embraced atheism, he experimented with being agnostic, trying to reconcile the puzzle pieces in his head. But despite his doubts, in the end there were just too many compelling reasons to come back: He liked his faith, his community, and, OK, also a girl in his youth group. “I kind of hobbled back to my faith,” he says. “Evangelicals were my tribe. And it’s kind of hard to let go of something.”
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At this point, Kramer’s rejection of evolution changed from absolute to “soft,” as Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education puts it. For Rosenau, this position is heartening. “It means there may be a way to reach some of them,” he says.
The number of young evangelicals who hold this softer position is growing, says Jonathan Hill, a sociologist who has studied trends in attitudes toward science among the religious. They aren’t necessarily embracing evolution, but there is hope. “Younger evangelicals are no more likely to accept evolution than older evangelicals, but they are less likely to reject it,” says Hill, based on his research for the survey National Study of Religion & Human Origins. “And they are especially less likely to be ‘hardcore’ evolution rejecters who are certain of their beliefs and believe this is an important issue.”
Uncertainty, in this case, is a good thing: It means they’re open to considering new ideas. Among young evangelicals Hill surveyed, 25 percent of respondents reported that they simply had no idea what they believed about evolution, compared to 14 to 15 percent among those 30 and older.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has been tracking a similar change. “We have noticed qualitatively that there does seem to be positive interest in the evangelical community toward embracing more science in their communities, including evolutionary science,” says Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. The association has seen continuing interest from evangelical communities in a book it produced called The Evolution Dialogues, as well as a series of workshops it hosts across the country to bring evangelicals and scientists together. (Disclosure: I was invited by DoSER to speak at the Religion Newswriters Association conference earlier this year.)
Even at seminaries and religious institutions, young evangelicals appear to be increasingly interested in evolution. “The younger generation of evangelicals exhibits a notable openness to different forms of inquiry,” says Aaron Smith, the former chair of theology at Colorado Christian University, in a video on DoSER’s Perceptions Project website. “While some young evangelicals will come with ardent Young Earth creationist beliefs into the classroom … it doesn’t take much time at least to get them to believe there are alternative views with scriptural backing.”
In his six years of teaching at Colorado Christian University, Smith told me, he found that the thousands of younger evangelicals who passed through his classroom came with far less of a knee-jerk reaction against evolution. “It wasn’t the case that they all understood evolutionary science well, from a standpoint of microbiology or chemistry or geology,” he said. “It’s just that they were … hungry. I don’t think it would be too strong to say that they were eager to explore something broader.”
Yet even if young evangelicals go through a period of questioning, they don’t always get the answers they need to revise their beliefs. Young evangelicals are more likely than older evangelicals to have more liberal attitudes on some things, such as same-sex marriage, premarital sex, and pornography. But they’re just as conservative as previous generations about others, including abortion. And very few evangelicals change their minds definitively on evolution: Hill found that, over the course of two years, a scant 1 to 2 percent reported having a change of heart on this issue.
Moreover, there is still strong resistance to evolution at traditional institutions like Colorado Christian University. In 2014, heartened by the student response he had gotten in his God and Genetics course, Smith planned to co-teach a class on science relevant to key theological questions. The school’s administration, however, had other ideas. Word had gotten out about the kind of conversations that were happening in Smith’s classes—for instance, debates about when human life begins—and higher-ups were not happy. Smith was a popular professor; the student body voted him Faculty Member of the Year for the final two years of his professorate. But in February 2015, he was let go. The school’s president, Smith says, “chose not to renew my contract for the stated reason that my views on the Bible were no longer ‘conservative enough’—his words—for the institution.”
Given his experience, “I’m reticent to say everything’s going to change,” says Smith, who is currently at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “But I do think change is coming. How could it not? As one generation supplants itself and trends keep going in the way they’re going.”
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When Kramer started asking questions about evolution, a new form of creationism gave him what seemed like answers.
In eighth grade, Kramer met Michael Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box and the main proponent of intelligent design. In his documentary Unlocking the Mystery of Life, Behe makes an argument known as “irreducible complexity,” using the example of a biological motor known as a bacterial flagellum. If you take away one part of this delicate machine, the whole thing falls apart. This, supposedly, proved that the flagellum could not have come about by the iterative process of evolution; it was simply too complex. There must, therefore, be a creator. And this unnamed, unsigned artist could be none other than God.
Objective, evidence-based proof for the existence of God? Kramer was sold.
Creationists tried to sell intelligent design as a science that should be taught in school. But in the landmark 2005 case Kitzmiller vs. Dover, a Pennsylvania court ruled that intelligent design had zero scientific validity. It was “nothing less than the progeny of creationism,” wrote Judge John E. Jones III in his opinion; to teach it in class was “breathtakingly inane.” Intelligent design “has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research,” the court wrote. The Dover case struck down the school district’s policy of suggesting intelligent design as a legitimate alternative to evolution.
Believers in intelligent design didn’t give up. They continued to promote themselves as the underdogs, the open-minded ones, the free thinkers—the people who had the openness to acknowledge the possibility of supernatural intervention. Evolutionists were the closed-minded ones, the ones who accepted only atheist arguments. “It is ironic that science, the supposed bastion of objectivity, is doing the same thing to intelligent design that the church did to Galileo,” Kramer wrote in an op-ed for his school newspaper published just before the ruling.
For some creationists, intelligent design may function as a “gateway drug” into evolution, says Smith, by unintentionally giving evangelicals a taste of a more science-based viewpoint. But for Kramer, it merely let him procrastinate, let him keep believing in creationism and dismissing evolution.
After high school, Kramer attended the King’s College, an evangelical school in New York City that held classes in the basement of the Empire State Building. That’s where he met Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who was visiting as part of a dinner and lecture series by influential Christians.
Collins is an unusual scientist. As the longtime head of the Human Genome Project, he is one of the world’s leading geneticists as well as a devout, outspoken Christian. (Compared to the general population, far fewer scientists believe in God, according to Pew research.) In 2006, Collins wrote The Language of God, a deeply personal book that argued that the sciences provide evidence for the existence of a higher power. He once described the sequencing of the human genome with these words: “It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”
Collins was the first Christian Kramer had met who embraced evolution. In his lecture, Collins presented evolution as a means to understand the beauty and glory of God. Here was someone who showed that you could be an excellent scientist and still believe in God. “Most people are seeking a possible harmony between these worldviews [science and faith],” Collins said in an interview about the book. “And it seems rather sad that we hear so little about this possibility.”
In 2007, Collins founded BioLogos, a nonprofit that preaches the harmony between science and Christian faith. BioLogos’ target demographic is those softened evangelicals, as well as scientists who want to embrace faith. According to Deborah Haarsma, the current president of BioLogos, it embraces a literalist reading of the Bible, Jesus and all: “The Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God.” But it also embraces evolution. “We affirm evolutionary creation, recognizing God as creator of all life over billions of years,” reads the BioLogos mission statement. “[E]volution is not in opposition to God, but a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes.”
Many evangelicals say BioLogos goes too far in accepting evolution. But for Kramer, BioLogos was a revelation: It showed him a way to have his faith and Darwin too. After reading The Language of God, “I had this epiphany moment,” Kramer says. “I realized that, as evangelicals, we love getting God out of the boxes he’s put in. We want a God that’s super big and powerful and sovereign and can’t be constrained by any human limits. And then I realized with kind of a shock that all the perspectives of my childhood were very much putting God inside of a box. I realized: Why couldn’t he have created through evolution? Isn’t that beautiful too? Who are we to say he can’t create in all these other ways?”
After college, Kramer went to seminary to study ways to read Genesis through a different lens, taking the view that you can reconcile faith and science without forcing the two to cohere line by line. By 2009, he had done a complete reversal: “[W]e should proceed with extreme caution when trying to understand science through the writings of an ancient culture that looked at life poetically, not scientifically,” he wrote in an op-ed supporting evolution from a Christian perspective. In 2014, Kramer became managing editor at BioLogos. This year, he started a blog called “The Evolving Evangelical.” Today he still considers himself a creationist—just one who happens to embrace evolution and who helps others do the same.
“We call ourselves creationists, and we’re stubborn about that,” says Kramer of BioLogos. “We purposely live between the cultural categories, because we disagree with the way in which the lines are drawn.” If you asked Kramer whether he believes in the words of Genesis or the words of Origin of Species, in the biblical God or the science of evolution, he knows what he would choose. It’s the same answer he’d give if you asked him whether the recent Homo naledi discovery is scientific or divine, or whether his 2-year-old daughter Josephine is a gift from God or nature. “I’d say both,” he says. “One hundred percent both.”
Of course, Kramer’s view is not everyone’s. Most people who study evolution see no evidence of or need for God in the history of life on Earth. For them, something like BioLogos is a stopgap, the training wheels you put on your bike before realizing you can ride without them. But the fact that there is a group that considers itself both creationist and pro-evolution shows that America’s divide over evolution is not inevitable—that evangelicals, historically some of the people most resistant to a scientific worldview, can find room in their belief systems for evolution.
And that’s something worth rejoicing over.