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Creationists Drive Young People Out Of The Church

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Survey results recently reported by Christianity Today clarify once again the sober truth that evangelicals are not making much progress in accepting well-established mainstream scientific ideas about origins. Particularly disturbing is the finding that only 27 percent of evangelical pastors "strongly disagree" with the statement that the earth is 6,000 years old. A higher number "strongly agree" that the earth is just 6,000 years old, a conclusion refuted by mountains of evidence. Seven in 10 evangelical pastors "strongly disagree" that "God used evolution to create people."

Also out this fall is a survey by the Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, explaining why most evangelical Christians "disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15." It turns out that science is a major factor. Barna identified six reasons for the disconnection:

1. Churches seem overprotective.
2. Teens and 20-somethings' experience of Christianity is shallow.
3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
4. Young Christians' church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
5).They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Barna elaborates on item three -- Churches come across as antagonistic to science -- as follows:

One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is "Christians are too confident they know all the answers" (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that "churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in" (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that "Christianity is anti-science" (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have "been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate." Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

I have been teaching science to evangelical college students for more than 25 years, and all this rings true. The students in my classes have had hundreds of hours of religious education growing up before they came to college. Most of them attended Sunday School regularly, listened to sermons at least once a week, spent time at summer Bible camps and weekends away with their youth groups. They read religious books, watched religious videos and subscribed to religious magazines (or, as is more likely, were given gift subscriptions by relatives).

Many evangelicals grow up in a sort of "parallel culture," running alongside and often at odds with the larger, secular culture. The educational component of this parallel culture, which Randall Stephens and I describe in detail in "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," contains strategies and techniques for undermining and even challenging secular culture, particularly science. Young earth creationist Ken Ham is the best and most influential example of this. In videos and writings that are widely consumed by evangelicals, he encourages students to ask their science teachers "Were you there?" when they talk about the past. The biology teacher says "Life first appeared on earth about 4 billion years ago," and the student is to ask "Were you there?" The physics teacher says "The universe originated in a Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago" and the students is to ask "Were you there?"

In a recent piece titled "Nine Year Old Challenges Nasa," Ham blogged proudly about "Emma B" who, when told that a NASA moon rock was 3.75 billion years old, asked "Were you there?"

The suggestion that scientists cannot speak about the past unless "they were there" is a strange claim. The implication is that we cannot do something as simple as count tree rings and confidently declare "This great pine was standing here 2,000 years ago." As a philosophy of science, such a restriction would completely rule out the scientific study of the past. This, of course, is precisely what the creationists want.

Many bright evangelical young people are, fortunately, not impressed with the suggestion that only "eyewitnesses" can speak about the past. Just this past spring I taught an honors seminar on science and religion at an evangelical college. The class included a couple of bright students who had grown up in fundamentalist churches that showed Ken Ham videos in their Sunday School class. Both of them recalled the encouragement to ask their teachers "Were you there?" And both of them, a few years older and wiser than "Emma B," thought this suggestion was ridiculous and wondered what kind of ideas required the embrace of such nonsense on their behalf. These students -- in fact, most of the students I have had over the years -- will graduate from college accepting contemporary science and its various explanations for what has happened in the past. But unless the leadership in their churches does a better job with its teaching ministry, such students will have a hard time returning to their home churches.

The dismissive and even hostile approach to science taken by evangelical leaders like Ken Ham accounts for the Barna finding above. In the name of protecting Christianity from a secularism perceived as corrosive to the faith, the creationists are unwittingly driving the best and brightest evangelicals out of the church -- or at least into the arms of the compromising Episcopalians, whom they despise. What remains after their exodus is an even more intellectually impoverished parallel culture, with even fewer resources to think about complex issues.

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