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Evangelicals and Science

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One thing about evangelical fundamentalists: Once they form a grudge, they don't let up.

Evangelicals are now often perceived as being anti-science, but that was not always true. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they pursued investigation of the physical world with vigor. If, indeed, all around us was God's work, exploring and understanding what he had accomplished was divine work. George Marsden, the foremost historian of modern evangelical thought and himself a practicing member, wrote, "[T]he millenarian's view of Scripture was, in effect, modeled after the Newtonian view of the physical universe. Created by God, it was a perfect self-contained unity governed by exact laws which could be discovered by careful analysis and classification."

This approach meant that science, based in a solid education, was a high calling. At the time of the American Revolution, evangelicals "correlated faith, learning and morality with the welfare of civilization," according to Marsden.

This continued into the next century, especially in this country, because Marsden wrote:

"[I]t provided a firm foundation for a scientific approach to reality. In a nation born during the Enlightenment, the reverence for science as the way to understand all aspects of reality was nearly unbounded. Evangelical Christians and liberal Enlightenment figures alike assumed that the universe was governed by a rational system ... guaranteed by a ... benevolent creator. The function of science was to discover such laws... "

Scientific inquiry, therefore, was revered by evangelicals because it helped them better understand God's will and works.

The big split came in the late 19th century because of one man's ideas. The response to Charles Darwin created the Fundamentalist wing of modern religion, and turned evangelicals against the science they had previously pursued with fervor.

In a debate at Princeton in 1868 both sides made their positions clear. James McCosh, president of Princeton, argued that evolution and Christianity could exist simultaneously.

"Both reveal order in the world; the one appointed by God, the other discovered by man," McCosh said.

In rebuttal, the Reverend George W. Combs declared, "If man is sprung from primeval matter, he can not be the man spoken of in Genesis."

As Marsden pointed out, after this, "Religion would no longer be seen as dependent on historical or scientific fact susceptible of objective inquiry... "

Since 1859, when Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the human world has been totally transformed. In so many ways, evangelicals accept and use these scientific developments, from cellphones to the internet.

But one stumbling block remains a question from a century and a half ago. A recent Pew study found that 60 percent of all Americans believe that humans evolve over time. Among independent voters, the figures go up a little, to 65 percent. The big jump comes among white Protestants who are members of mainline religions, 78 percent of whom believe in evolution, thus substantially higher than among political freethinkers. Even 68 percent of white Catholics accept this premise.

The figure for white evangelicals is 27 percent.

This is an amazing consistency, an enduring resistance to scientific evidence developed and refined since before the Civil War.

Yes, there is a basic difference between science and religion. Science sees the creation of the universe as a result of natural as opposed to divine forces -- a scientific understandable event rather than a supernatural one.

But is there not a middle ground? Scientists are practicing members of many faiths, and religious Americans have embraced scientific findings. Might we all benefit by going back to earlier evangelical beliefs, go back to their roots instead of blocking knowledge refined over and over since the days when railroads were a new high tech innovation?

Isn't it time for evangelicals to return to their foundations, to embrace science more fully, to rediscover the full measure of what God has wrought?