To those who claim that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion, read this:
Bryan College is a small, conservative Christian school in Dayton, Tennessee, deliberately placed in the town that hosted the 1925 Scopes Trial, and where the school’s namesake, William Jennings Bryan (who was one of those testifying against Scopes for teaching human evolution), died shortly after the trial.
As I’ve posted before (here and here), the College is in a ferment over a topic close to my heart: the historicity of Adam and Eve. It turns out that the college’s recent insistence that faculty and staff swear to an oath affirming that historicity is tearing the college apart. Even conservative Christians, it seems, have trouble believing that Adam and Eve were the literal ancestors of humanity. That historicity has become increasingly problematic since the appearance of new papers in population genetics, showing that over the last few hundred thousand years, the population of Homo sapiens could not have been smaller than about 12,250 (10,000 who remained in Africa and 2,250 who migrated out of Africa to populate the rest of the globe).
In other words, the human population never comprised only two people. And if Adam and Eve weren’t the literal ancestors of humanity, then a critical part of the Genesis story is wrong: the acquisition of Original Sin. And if there were no Original Sin accrued by a literal Adam and Eve, then all of us—their supposed descendants—aren’t sinful by birth, and Jesus’s return wasn’t necessary.
Now theologians have been busy trying to show that Adam and Eve were really metaphorical (of course they didn’t really do that much before science showed that n > 2), but that solution has its own problems. It means that Jesus died for whatever metaphor they manage to concoct. If, for instance, “Original Sin” means simply—as some theologians think—the inherited “selfish” side of our nature stemming from evolution, then Jesus died to redeem us from what evolution instilled in us. Since Bryan College doesn’t accept evolution, that won’t work anyway.
Or one could also claim that Adam and Eve were the titular heads of humanity, and there were many other people around who were not anointed with Original Sin. But that also has problems. Genesis doesn’t mention anybody else around, and if Original Sin were inherited from parent to offspring, then the descendants of those other people weren’t afflicted. So how did we all become sinful?
Since the divinity and salvific properties of Jesus are the non-negotiable, bedrock truth claims of almost every Christian, a metaphorical Adam and Eve poses severe problems for Christianity, as the role of Jesus becomes unclear. No doubt theologians, with their clever and devious ways, can circumvent the problem, but it’s a problem that is bloody obvious to every thinking (and believing) Christian.
And this is what’s ripping apart Bryan College. The science is clear: Adam and Eve were not the sole ancestors of humanity. (By the way, the Catholic Church, supposedly okay with science, still maintains that they were.) But the Bible is also clear: there were two historical ancestors, and their malfeasance is what made Jesus’s appearance on Earth necessary. For conservative Christians this is cognitive dissonance in its most painful form, and it’s causing huge problems at Bryan College.
To deal with them, last November the College added an Adam-and-Eve rider to its long-standing statement of beliefs to which all faculty and staff must swear:
Because of that rider, faculty left (or have been fired), and the students are protesting. A lot of them simply don’t like the Adam and Eve rider.
The continuing fracas is documented in an article in yesterday’s New York Times: “Bryan College is torn: Can Darwin and Eden coexist?” Just the title of that article shows the continuing incompatibility between science and religion in many people’s minds. As the Times reports:
Since Bryan College’s founding in 1930, its statement of belief, which professors have to sign as part of their employment contracts, included a 41-word section summing up the institution’s conservative views on creation and evolution, including the statement: “The origin of man was by fiat of God.” But in February, college officials decided that professors had to agree to an additional clarification declaring that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms.”
For administrators and many members of the governing board at Bryan, the new language is a buffer against what they see as a marked erosion of Christian values and beliefs across the country. But for critics, the clarification amounts to an assault on personal religious views, as well as on the college’s history and sense of community.
“It makes Bryan a different place,” said Allison Baker, who graduated this month and was the vice president of the student government, which raised questions about the clarification’s swift enactment. “I would argue it makes it a more narrow place.”
It’s telling that some people see this new statement as an “assault on personal religious views,” as well as making the college “a more narrow place.” That can be construed only as religious beliefs coming in conflict with the new science that tells us that Adam and Eve were completely fictitious. (Of course many would have thought that privately anyway, even before the new science.) And “a more narrow place” means, I think, “a place where science and reason are rejected”. I find this curious in view of the original faith statement, which affirms that humans were created by God, sinned, and thus incurred spiritual death.” That equally defies evolution and reason, but I suppose could be seen as somewhat metaphorical.
But Adam and Eve were the last straw: the straw that broke Bryan College’s back. It is religion cracking in the face of good science. That’s clear from the departure of biology professor Brian Eisenback, who, after leaving Bryan, said this:
For Dr. Eisenback, who is writing a book with support from an organization that has called the college’s clarified stance “scientifically untenable,” teaching an array of perspectives was an act of faith in itself.
“Because of the culture war that is raging with Scripture and age of the Earth and so on, I think it’s important for me to teach my students the same material they would hear at any state university,” said Dr. Eisenback, who accepted a job at Milligan College, also in Tennessee, amid the discord here. “But then also, as a Christian who is teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I think it’s important that they be educated on the different ways that people read relevant Scripture passages.” Others at Bryan insist that the college’s doctrinal stances should take precedence.
The raging fight between fact and faith is also evidenced by the College’s obdurate stance that when they clash, faith trumps fact:
Academic freedom is not sacrosanct,” Kevin L. Clauson, a professor of politics and justice, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Bryan Triangle, a campus publication. “It too must submit to God in a Christian college.”
. . . Such debates often take place, Dr. [William] Ringenberg said, as the colleges try to fine-tune the balance of faith and education. “Soon enough, the two of them will clash if you’re serious about academics and serious about having a biblical view of Christianity,” he said.
Stephen Livesay, the College’s beleaguered President, defended the Adam-and-Eve rider in a curious way:
Dr. Livesay said that Bryan’s leaders were determined to proceed with the clarification.
“I don’t think you have to believe the Bryan way in order to be a strong evangelical,” he said. “But this is Bryan College, and this is something that’s important to us. It’s in our DNA. It’s who we are.”
What’s in our DNA, in fact, is evidence that we all come from a minimum of 12,250 ancestors. How funny and ironic that they say that their rejection of that fact is also in their DNA! But of course the DNA for Biblical literalism is metaphorical.
Some accommodationists, such as those at the National Center for Science Education, would claim that this problem could be solved by other Christians telling the administrators at Bryan College that evolution is simply not in conflict with their faith. But the problem is that they already reject that view, for they’re part of the 64% of Americans who, when a tenet of their faith conflicts with science, simply reject the science. And so we have one more example of the failure of accommodationism.