Nearly one hundred years after the infamous Scopes Trial seemed to prove the irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, young people seem to be rejecting this divide. According to a recent report, those in the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1997) are less likely to accept this conflict narrative.
“There are many millennials now who do not see religion and science at odds in the same way as many of their parents did,” Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist at Religion News Service (RNS) and columnist for The Atlantic — and a millennial himself — told Baptist News.
“In America, people of faith tend to believe that religion and science are at odds at a higher number than people outside the United States,” Merritt explained. He blamed America’s “very particular religious history” for this fact, citing the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decided to challenge a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools.
The ACLU backed John Thomas Scopes, a man who essentially volunteered to be charged under the law. The trial gained widespread media attention. While Scopes was found guilty and fined (with the verdict later overturned), his pro-evolution side won in the court of public opinion and Christians largely retreated to separate enclaves on the issue. The spectacle enshrined the “conflict thesis” in the nation’s consciousness, convincing Americans that faith and science are in conflict.
Besides this, other issues like teaching the Bible and leading prayers in public schools have formed flash points in the struggle.
“I think some of this is fading,” Merritt suggested. “I think that young Christians have grown up in a world that is postmodern, post-Christian. They do not know a world where you could pray in public schools or where religion was present in an educational system.”
In some ways, millennials represent a “blank slate” for Christians to start over on engaging faith and science issues.
Many new voices have emerged in the debate, lending a great deal more options to the Christian approach. The “Young Earth Creationist” perspective that God made earth in six calendar days is advocated by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. The “Old Earth Creationist” perspective, that the “days” in Genesis 1 can mean eons rather than calendar days, has found advocates in the Intelligent Design movement, especially at the group Reasons to Believe. The theistic evolution approach, which suggests that evolution could have occurred, but God directed it, has been advocated by the group BioLogos.
Indeed, a Gallup poll conducted in May found that Christians championing the Young Earth perspective had reached a new low — with 38 percent of U.S. adults saying God created human beings in their present form. While 57 percent said they believed humans developed over millions of years, most of those embracing this “soft evolution” also said that God directed the process.
“My experience with today’s seminary and college students is that, though they may be open to different approaches to interpreting Genesis 1-2, they recognize the importance of affirming the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the crucial aspects of the doctrine of creation and the essential features of the Genesis account that impact the gospel,” Ken Keathley, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist News.
“Students must know which is non-negotiable and which is more flexible,” Keathley argued. “For example, I argue that there is room for discussion about the age of the earth, but the historicity of Adam and Eve is an essential gospel truth.”
How could a Christian believe in evolution and believe in a historical Adam and Eve? Perhaps as God guided evolution, He gave full humanity to two hominids — breathing a spirit into physical bodies as Genesis 2 explains — who later fell. Whether all of today’s humans are directly descended from these two, or perhaps all other humans merely gained God’s spirit along with sin by interacting with Adam and Eve, the central Christian doctrine of the Fall can be matched with a particular view of evolution.
“In some ways, millennials process issues of faith and science differently than, say, Baby Boomers,” Keathley added. “But this is probably how it should be. It’s difficult to overstate the impact of discoveries in the past 15 years in scientific fields such as genetics and geology.”
Contrary to what many Christians might think, there is a long and robust tradition of believers debating the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2. Even the famous theologian St. Augustine suggested that Genesis 1 is not to be taken as a scientific treatise of how God made the world, but should be understood as revealing fundamental truths about salvation nonetheless.
In The Dictionary of Christianity and Science (an excellent resource for navigating these difficult issues), Robert C. Bishop explained the “Two Books Metaphor,” which teaches that God gave humans general revelation in nature and specific revelation in scripture. “Since the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of the two books, what they reveal about creation cannot conflict,” Bishop wrote. “Rather, conflicts arise from our handling of the two books.”
Those who approach the science-religion debate with the perspective that faith and reason must be in conflict, and that either the “plain text” of the Bible or the “indisputable facts” of science must be followed at all costs, will not rightly read either “book,” according to this perspective. Rather, Christians should approach these complex issues with humility, and with confidence that all truth is God’s truth, and if science and religion seem to conflict, the error is in human understanding, not God’s creation.
In teaching students, Keathley said, “I try to help them understand the historical context of the faith and science dialogue and the variety of perspectives and approaches that evangelicals have taken and are taking today.”
“My hope and prayer is that God will call many millennials into the STEM fields [science, technology, engineering, and math],” Keathley added. “The best way for the kingdom of God to be advanced in the scientific disciplines is for a generation of young Christians to enter into these fields with a deep sense of mission and an overriding desire to glorify God in and through their vocations.”
Millennials may question the idea that faith and science are in irreconcilable conflict, but that does not mean they reject one or the other. Indeed, young people may increasingly embrace both as it becomes clear that faith and science are compatible.