Young people are reconciling faith and science.
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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