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 Published by the American Geological Institute
December 2000
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences


Studying Evolution
   and Keeping the Faith

   By Patricia H. Kelley

“Don’t you and your husband fight all the time?” a fellow graduate student asked me when I was at Harvard University. I was studying evolution with Stephen J. Gould and my husband was in seminary preparing for the ministry. The question surprised me, for the thought that my research on evolution might be incompatible with my religious faith had never entered my mind.
When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late 1960s, evolution was not an issue at my family’s United Methodist church. My high school biology teacher assured us that evolution did not conflict with our faith. At the College of Wooster, where I earned my undergraduate degree in geology, I attended the campus Presbyterian Church with other geology majors and faculty. It seemed absurd to think that evolution could come between my seminarian husband and me. We spent our honeymoon summer in Maryland, where my husband was my field assistant as I collected Miocene mollusks.

I patiently responded to my fellow student’s question and then forgot about it — until, a few years later, I ended up teaching geology at the University of Mississippi.

I never saw a conflict between evolution and my faith, but many of my students perceived evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. I obviously could not plow blithely ahead in my historical geology and paleontology courses, discussing the nuances of punctuational vs. gradual modes of evolution. Perhaps half of my students had not studied evolution at all in high school. If they had studied evolution, their teachers had warned them not to believe what they’d been taught. Many students had the impression that religion and science were incompatible, and had therefore made a conscious decision to reject one or the other. Often they came from religious backgrounds, and a decision to choose science meant risking their families’ disapproval.

“How can you be a Christian and believe in evolution?” some would ask. “How does all this stuff you’re telling us about human ancestors relate to Adam and Eve?” In light of such questions, I set a goal to teach evolution with integrity and meet the challenges posed by creationism, while remaining sensitive to the beliefs of individual students.

Many students who assume evolution is incompatible with their faith have little understanding of what evolution actually means, how it occurs and what evidence supports it. Teachers must therefore present the evidence for evolution and explain the processes involved with great clarity. But no matter how clearly a teacher communicates this information, students who perceive that evolution opposes their religious beliefs will not find these arguments convincing. Much of their resistance to evolution stems from a misunderstanding of science and how it differs from religion.

It is important to distinguish science from religion, so that students can realize that these alternate ways of understanding the world need not conflict. I explain to my students that science is not just a collection of facts about the natural world, but a tightly integrated set of facts and theories — well supported explanations derived by testing hypotheses. The conclusions of science, I emphasize, are tentative and open to falsification. There must be some line of evidence conceivable that, if discovered, would disprove a scientific theory. Because explanations involving the supernatural cannot be tested or falsified, science cannot employ supernatural explanations. Science cannot confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural, or a Creator. Such questions are simply beyond the realm of science. Given this background, students generally recognize that science and religion provide different approaches to understanding the world, and find science less threatening to their faith. They recognize that evolution meets the definition of science and does not represent an alternative to religion that one can “believe in.” They also recognize that creationism does not meet the definition of science, and therefore should not be given “equal time” in science classes. Creationist ideas are based on faith and not on the scientific method; creationist explanations are supernatural and therefore not testable.

Creationism (including so-called “creation science” or “scientific creationism”) is therefore religion rather than science. But not all who are religious are creationists. Many people of faith, including scientists, find no conflict between evolution and their religion. I stress this point in my classes, because I have found that students feel less threatened by discussions of evolution when they realize that diverse faiths see no conflict with evolution.

Most mainline religions support evolution. For example, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1981, Pope John Paul II stated that, “The Bible … does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.” In 1984, the Central Conference of American Rabbis recognized that “the principles and concepts of biological evolution are basic to understanding science.” Likewise, the United Church of Christ in 1992 stated, “We acknowledge modern evolutionary theory as the best present-day scientific explanation of the existence of life on Earth; such a conviction is in no way at odds with our belief in a Creator God.”

Most mainline religions also oppose the teaching of “scientific creationism” in the public schools. The American Jewish Congress, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian-Universalist Association, United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A and the United Methodist Church have all issued statements supporting this stance. Indeed, the plaintiffs opposing the 1981 Arkansas “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act” included Jewish, United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian and Southern Baptist clergy, denominational leaders or organizations. This information often surprises my students and helps dispel their preconceptions that evolution and religion are incompatible, or that having faith requires accepting creationism.

Don’t take it literally

I don’t specifically discuss religious views in science classes, but I consider it important to understand the results of modern biblical scholarship in order to address student questions. As Genesis scholar Conrad Hyers has argued, because creationism is a religious position, it must be critiqued on religious grounds. No truly literal translation of the Bible is possible, due to problems with the ancient texts. The original Hebrew included no vowels or punctuation marks and the oldest consistent text dates from the first century — A.D., not B.C. — so that the original meaning of the Hebrew is obscure in many places. As a result, all biblical translations must be interpretations. Following Hyers, I suggest to my students that, in making such interpretations, we should be as conservative as possible. We should try to conserve the original intention of the authors rather than interpret the passages in the context of our own concerns.

Was the original intention of the biblical creation stories to provide a scientific, factual account of the origin and development of life? I don’t believe so. The Old Testament contains multiple creation accounts that present very different perspectives: Genesis 1 and 2, Proverbs 8, Job 26 and Psalm 74.

Each of these passages presents a different account of creation, and inconsistencies occur within and between accounts. For example, of the two primary creation accounts, Genesis 2 is the older passage, dating from the tenth century B.C., during the reign of King Solomon. It focuses primarily on humans and rejects the temptations of idolatry that were then rampant. The Hebrew god, Yahweh (as opposed to the Canaanite god, Baal), is emphasized as the source of life and fertility. In contrast, Genesis 1 dates from the sixth century B.C. and the Babylonian exile. It addresses the origin of the universe, Earth and its inhabitants, and also affirms monotheism and repudiates idolatry (the temptations of which were particularly strong during the exile).

In fact, Genesis 1 has many parallels with, and appears to be a direct response to, the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, in which creation occurs via procreation of various gods and goddesses. Genesis 1 and 2 differ in many details, including their context and language — they each use a different name for God — and their mode of creation. In Genesis 1, the all-powerful God commands and it is so. In Genesis 2, God is more hands-on, molding the man from dust and laboring to plant a garden. God forms the beasts and birds from the ground and the woman from the man’s rib.

The two passages also have completely different sequences of creation. In Genesis 1, water and formless earth exist before God begins to command. God first brings into existence light, followed by the firmament; earth and vegetation; sun, moon and stars; fish and birds; “cattle and creeping things and beasts”; and finally humans (male and female together). In Genesis 2, heaven and earth pre-exist and God waters the earth with a mist. God then makes man, plants a garden, forms animals from the ground, and finally makes woman.

The Hebrew authors and editors who juxtaposed the biblical creation accounts did not view these inconsistencies as problems. This fact is evidence that the creation stories were not meant to be taken as literal scientific accounts. Indeed, viewing them as historical narratives divests these passages of some of their power and meaning. Instead, I regard the biblical creation accounts as statements of faith by the Hebrew people, faith in one true Creator God.
Many scientists share this faith and find no incompatibility between their religious beliefs and the evidence for evolution.

One student at a time

Not all my students come to accept evolution as the explanation for the history of life found in the fossil record. I continue to treat them with respect for their religious beliefs, although I do expect them to know the evidence that has been used to support evolution, as well as the current explanations for how evolution occurs. Even my students who continue to espouse creationism, however, recognize that evolution need not be synonymous with atheism.

If we help our students realize that evolution need not threaten their faith, we can begin to dissipate public hostility toward science and the perception that science and religion are incompatible.

Kelley is chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and president of the Paleontological Society.

Her husband, Jonathan Kelley, is the pastor of Southport Presbyterian Church, where Kelley teaches Sunday school and youth club and sings in the choir. As her minister father-in-law once quipped, “Tricia studies the ages of rocks and Jonathan studies the Rock of Ages.”

Patricia Kelley, Department of Earth Sciences, Deloach Hall 102, UNCW, 601 South College Road, Wilmington, N.C. 28403-3297. E-mail:


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