Things are in ferment at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Named after William Jennings Bryan, one of the prosecution attorneys of the 1925 Scopes Trial (which also took place in Dayton), Bryan is an extremely conservative Christian school that adheres to Biblical literalism.
Until now. The press of science is beginning to discomfit even literalists, and is making incursions into Bryan.
The most recent scientific finding that’s causing Christian ferment is the calculation by evolutionary geneticists that the smallest size the population of humans could have experienced when it spread from Africa throughout the world was about 2250 individuals. That comes from back-calculating the minimum size of a human group that could have given rise to the extensive genetic diversity present today in non-African humans. Further, that figure is based on conservative assumptions and is very likely to be an underestimate.
2250 is, of course, not 2. That means that humanity could never have had just two ancestors within the time frame accepted by Biblical literalists. In other words, Adam and Eve did not exist—at least not in the way the Bible says. And that has huge repercussions for Christianity, for if Adam and Eve weren’t the literal parents of humanity, how did their Original Sin spread to us all? Original Sin is, of course, a pivotal part of most Christian doctrine, for without it there is no reason for Jesus to return and exculpate humanity from sin through his death and Resurrection. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, but were simply a fiction, then Jesus died for a fiction.
More liberal Evangelicals have responded by engaging in various species of special pleading, including assuming that Adam and Eve were merely the “federal heads” of humanity: two individuals among many who were designated by God to represent everyone else. That, of course, fails to explain how Original Sin started and spread.
More liberal theologians simply claim that the Adam and Eve story is a metaphor for our inborn “selfish” nature: our genetic endowment that leads us act for ourselves rather than others. But that then makes animals of many species the bearers of Original Sin as well, and doesn’t explain how Jesus’s return helps us fight the tyranny of our “selfish genes”.
To a rationalist, all of these Sophisticated Theological™ gymnastics are amusing, and you can read such desperate apologetics at the website of BioLogos, an organization devoted to reconciling Jesus and Darwin. But the special pleading won’t convince anybody who isn’t wedded to the Christian mythos at the outset.
The least devious Christians (and that includes those at the Vatican, which professes the historicity of Adam and Eve) simply hold fast to literalism. Regardless of what genetics tells us, they say, the Bible takes precedence, and Adam and Eve were real historical figures from which we all descend.
And that, as reported by the Times Free Press of Chattanooga, Tennesee, is the new position of Bryan College, whose trustees have just added a rider to its “statement of belief” to expand that belief to a historical Adam and Eve. Since the original statement of belief is, like the Bible, inerrant and unchangeable, the new language is said to be a “clarification.”
And this clarification must, like the original statement of belief, be signed by all professors at the school. Here are the old and new statements from the newspaper:
What prompted this “clarification” is simply the advance of science, which shows that the Bible is flat wrong about Adam and Eve. Not every conservative Christian can comfortably ignore the new results from genetics (rejecting science smacks uncomfortably of being a backwoods hick-ishness), and some at Bryan have tentatively tried to find ways around the historicity of Adam and Eve. Several biology professors, for instance, are teaching a multiplicity of views about creation, a strategy that angers many of their coreligionists:
In 2010, Ken Ham, a nationally known creationist who runs the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., wrote a scathing article criticizing Bryan College because of a graduate’s book. The graduate, Rachel Held Evans, wrote about how she had questioned the nuances of her evangelical upbringing and had come to new realizations about the world, including the belief that evolution was part of God’s creation plan.
Ham also criticized biology professor Brian Eisenback, who was quoted in USA Today saying that he taught all origin views and theories — including Genesis and evolution — without revealing his own beliefs.
“There are many colleges/seminaries — like Bryan College — across the nation with professors who compromise God’s word in Genesis and/or will not teach the authority of God’s Word in Genesis as they should. It’s about time that these colleges were held accountable for allowing such undermining of the authority of Scripture to the coming generation,” Ham wrote in a 2010 blog post.
Eisenback and Bible professor Ken Turner gained attention last year for their grant from the BioLogos Foundation to write a new curriculum on science education that will marry scientific evidence with evangelical Christian perspectives on interpreting Scripture and science. BioLogos is a nonprofit that believes God created the world over billions of years and works to further the ideas of evolutionary creationism.
BioLogos is the organization founded by Francis Collins, current head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health; its aim was to get evangelical Christians to accept science, including evolution. But since then it’s gone down a path that I can only describe as cowardly, refusing to take an official position on the historicity of Adam and Eve. But all the genetic evidence militates against that historicity, and it’s ironic that Collins is a geneticist (he no longer heads BioLogos). Nevertheless, BioLogos actively debates the “meaning” of Adam and Eve, and, by taking a grant from that organization to meld science and religion, the Bryan professors only exacerbate the tension that exists between these fields.
In fact, Bryan’s president, Steven Livesay, decried this accommodationism, citing the primacy of scripture:
Last month, a chapel talk at Bryan featured a discussion with Wood and well-known evolutionary creationist Darrel Falk. At the end of their conversation, Livesay said he wanted to make a statement about Bryan College’s stance on origins. He said he did not agree with the views of BioLogos.
“Scripture always rises above anything else. Scripture rises above science. … Science at some point will catch up with the scripture,” Livesay said, according to an online podcast of the event.
Haynes, the trustee, said Livesay has brought up the need for clarification several times to the board. Christians have increasingly begun to question traditional interpretations of Genesis, though he believes the Bible is clear on the matter.
“When you review these things, the first thing you must do is go back to the scripture and make sure what you’re saying is compatible with scripture,” he said. “Scripture judges you.”
So much for the compatibility of science and religion! But remember that 64% of Americans, at least in 2006, claimed that if science were to disprove a tenet their faith, they’d reject the science and hold to their faith. That’s precisely what the Bryan kerfuffle is all about.
In the meantime, the students are also conflicted, for not all of them want to be seen as rejecting science wholesale:
Nearly 300 of the school’s 800 students signed a petition within a few days asking the trustees to reconsider the change. Joseph Murphy, in a Student Government Association letter to the administration, said the decision was made without faculty input and that the president and trustees were threatening academic freedom. He called the move unjust, uncharitable and unscriptural.
“We believe that this sets a precedent of fear and distrust in our community,” the petition read. “We believe that this will discourage potential faculty and staff from serving at Bryan and potential students from coming here.”
Remember, though, that what the students are objecting to is simply the new rider about Adam and Eve. They apparently don’t have any quarrel with the equally ludicrous claims about the creation of humans and Original Sin. As usual, you can pick and choose which statements of the Bible can be read as metaphor, and you don’t need good reasons. Remember as well that at nonreligious universities, professors are not required to sign any statement of belief—in evolution or any other proposition.
The Times Free Press notes that statements of faith are not uncommon in religious colleges, and lists some.
Our local Christian college, Wheaton College, which has a good reputation for academic rigor in other areas, also has a statement of faith that completely undercuts any notion of that university’s objective search for truth. Unsurprisingly, their statement strongly resembles the Nicene Creed.
Bryan is fighting a losing battle, but it will be a long battle. These vestiges of superstition, and of blind adherence to it, will eventually disappear as America becomes more secular. There will always be Biblical literalism, but I’m confident it will slowly wane. But it will wane not with the changing of minds, but over the corpses of its adherents, as the older generation dies off and the younger, exposed to secularism and doubt on the internet, begins to ask questions. (It’s telling that it the students of Bryan College are the biggest protestors.) I am patient, for I know this change won’t happen in my lifetime. But I also know that in one or two centuries, Adam and Eve will be regarded as we now regard Zeus and Wotan.
There are still those who engage in the futile battle to change the minds of literalist Christians. BioLogos tried and failed, and is now fighting a rearguard action that involves not promoting science, but soothing the ire of creationists. The National Center for Science Education, which has been highly effective in fighting public-school creationism in the courts, is still trying to reassure evangelicals that their faith is compatible with evolution:
“The position they’re staking out with this new statement is not shared among all evangelicals, all Christians,” said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, which advocates teaching of evolution and climate science. “The evangelical position doesn’t have to be an outright rejection of human evolution. There are ways to be a Bible-believing literalist without being at odds with science.”
Well, yes, of course some evangelicals are friendly to evolution, though 46% of all Americans (not just evangelicals!) are young-earth creationists. But to tell literalist evangelicals that they can simply make their faith compatible with evolution simply isn’t on, for it misunderstands Biblical literalism, the tenacity of faith, and especially the role of Adam and Eve as buttresses reinforcing the whole edifice of western Christianity. Such accommodationism tries to force Christianity into the Procrustean bed of science, and it just won’t fit.
To claim that Bible-believing literalism is compatible with science is like saying that eating broccoli is compatible with being a lion. It’s not only silly, but it’s also a theological statement—something that science-promoting organizations shouldn’t be making. Literalism is literalism, and Bryan College is fighting to keep it.
Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post originally appeared there.
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