When Small-Town Faith Meets Big-City Science

Among those in cultural spaces where mainstream science is accepted without question, there is a tendency to assume that people who reject mainstream science do so because they either don’t know enough science or don’t like science. This leads to efforts which focus on educating people about the data and trying to get them to be less “anti-science.” When these efforts come up short-handed, both sides are mutually bewildered at the stubbornness of the other—which, ironically, only deepens the divide.

Journalist Rachel Gross, writing recently in Smithsonian Magazine, nails the problem: “Cultural barriers, not lack of education, are what’s preventing more Americans from accepting evolution.” Her article, titled “How to Talk to Evangelicals about Evolution,” covers a new movement of people and organizations who are trying to change the way that Americans talk about evolution—and the people who oppose it.

The main character in her story is Rick Potts, a Smithsonian biologist who directed a traveling exhibit on human evolution. This exhibit completed its first “tour” last year, after 19 stops at public libraries around the country. Potts, a distinguished evolutionary scientist, is a colleague and friend to several in the BioLogos network, and someone with deep respect for those with religious beliefs. According to Potts, the exhibit was specifically designed to “lower the temperature” of discussions about human evolution by inviting conversation about the question, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” He explicitly scheduled some of the stops in places that are geographically and culturally removed from mainstream scientific institutions—hence the traveling exhibit. His hope was that, by bringing a piece of the Smithsonian to these communities, he could create conversation across the borders of this cultural divide. In addition to displays about fossil evidence and evolutionary theory, the exhibit invited dialogue about evolution at public forums, including local faith leaders and science educators.

As Gross relates, one stop on the Smithsonian tour stirred particular controversy. By sheer coincidence, it also happens to be exactly the same small town where I lived for eight years: Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Nestled in the rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—famous for its substantial Amish and Mennonite communities—Ephrata is the sort of place with a slow and simple pace of life, where people find their identity in the deep fabric of faith, family, and tradition. Ephrata is where I met my wife (and where we started our married life), and where much of my family still lives. To this day, I count it as one of the most beautiful and serene places I have ever lived, and I have immense respect for the values of the people who live there.

Battling ‘the Lies of Darkness’?

I remember hearing about the exhibit on social media back in 2015, less than a year after I moved to Grand Rapids to work for BioLogos. One of my friends posted a prayer that “the truth of God’s Word would overpower the lies of darkness,” and participated in an official library boycott and prayer vigil. Others responded to the exhibit by booking trips to the Creation Museum, motivated to learn more “biblical” answers to the “secular” science presented at the exhibit. I’m sure there were others in Ephrata who were positively impacted by the exhibit and the conversation with Potts and others, but to my knowledge, none of my Ephrata friends and family are among them.

In my opinion, the exhibit suffered from three nearly unavoidable problems, which all contributed to the reaction of those like my friends. First, it was still a Smithsonian exhibit, which represents a different cultural universe than Ephrata. The reason why so many reject evolution in places like Ephrata is not because they are “anti-science,” but because they perceive evolutionary scientists to be high priests of a cultural mainstream that is actively hostile to the values they hold—particularly their religious faith. Growing up in a place similar to Ephrata, the only people I knew who believed in evolution were non-Christians who used evolutionary science as a bludgeon against the beliefs and values of my community and my culture.

Some of this problem is evident in the tone of Gross’s article, which reads, at points, like a missionary report on efforts to reach a recalcitrant indigenous tribe in a “rural, remote” area. The article’s title also gives the sense that Evangelicals are being treated as Those Other People, whose beliefs and values are inscrutable to her target audience. Folks in Ephrata are very sensitive to this sort of condescension, and the Smithsonian article is certainly not the first example of it. This isn’t Potts’ fault, but it left his exhibit with an extremely high hurdle to jump over, before his audience could give his message a fair hearing. Potts was wise to invite local faith leaders to the Ephrata evolution dialogues, but it was not enough to shake the feeling, for some, like the exhibit was a foreign invasion. Such is the depth of distrust between the cultures.

Second, regardless of how “conversational” such events and exhibits are, the dominant narrative still reflected a mainstream scientific viewpoint, which necessarily demotes the anti-evolution views of many in the target communities (a demotion that was deeply felt by critics of the exhibit, I should add). Despite Potts’s efforts to create dialogue, my friend boycotted the event partially because “debate was not allowed,” which probably means that young-earth creationism was not portrayed as a valid alternative to evolutionary science. Sure, my young-earth creationists friends were invited to the table, but it was somebody else’s table—somebody they didn’t trust.

Thirdly, the exhibit talked about evolutionary science. I’m fully aware that a Smithsonian exhibit needed to talk about science at some point, but for many, it was probably not the right place for the conversation to start. If all Rick Potts had done in Ephrata was spend a month eating breakfast with people at local diners, introducing himself as an evolutionary scientist, and explaining that he doesn’t hate Christians, an enormous amount of good would have been accomplished. (If he’s ever in town again, may I recommend Udder Choice and Pancake Farm? Fantastic breakfasts.) In fact, for many in a community like Ephrata, a face-to-face conversation over bacon and eggs would probably be more effective than the whole exhibit in changing their views about evolution. For myself and many others in communities like Ephrata, the first steps in this conversation must be about trust, not data.

That’s why the BioLogos approach is so different. We’ve always been about people before topics (see: menu at top of this page). Our primary goal is not “science education.” It is to invite the church and the world into a bigger vision of what it means that God is the creator of heaven and earth. Every single one of our efforts at dialogue have been founded on shared beliefs about God, his creation, and his Word. We worship, pray, laugh, and eat together with Christians of all beliefs about science. And these dialogues, crucially, are places where deep theological questions and anxieties can be openly addressed—something that the Smithsonian exhibit, for all its strengths, is much less equipped to tackle.

My own journey of harmonizing Christianity and evolution had almost nothing to do with being better educated about the science itself. I became an evolutionary creationist because I encountered peoplewho defied the cultural stereotypes I grew up with, which spurred a radical re-examination of the culture that produced these stereotypes. At no point has my view on evolution been a rigorous verdict on the data itself—almost ten years after I became an evolutionary creationist, I still feel I am only beginning to understand the actual science of evolution. It’s all about whom I’ve decided to trust. (And, I might add, my increasing amazement at the beauty and explanatory power of evolutionary science continues to validate this decision.)

That is the context in which dialogue about evolutionary science can begin to happen—and the context in which people can listen without feeling like they are being asked to give up their identity in the process. Those who do change their minds about evolution—like myself—usually do so because they met real people who embodied a way to love God and accept evolution at the same time. If, in 50 years, Ephrata is a place where many Christians celebrate an evolving creation, it will happen because of relationships and conversations like this.


This essay originally appeared at BioLogos, which “invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.” Reprinted with permission. Read the original article.

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