Friday, April 17, 2009

The Role of Evolution in my Deconversion

Perhaps the most common reason people reject Christianity is evolution, and I am no exception. However, the way it influenced me was very different from the usual way that learning Genesis is not historically reliable leads to learning the rest is not historically reliable either. For me, the primary effect was sociological – it changed my social standing within [evangelical] Christianity and this caused me to see how Christians think about the rest of their faith as well.

It's hardly a revolutionary observation to notice that if Christians thought about Christianity with the same critical thinking they use when approaching the evidence for any other religion, then most of them would stop believing. But as a bare claim, this is something anyone could say about anything. An argument that can refute anything refutes nothing. (See Romans 1:22.)

The fact that Christians believe in Yahweh but not the other deities of antiquity is, in and of itself, no more reason to suspect Christians are wrong than the bare fact that scientifically minded people usually believe in the theory of relativity but not in UFOs. What is needed are the particulars of how the “problems” with and evidence for every other religion are similar to the “mysteries” inside one's own religion that are just accepted. It is only with these particulars that either side can justify the comparison.

Once I became a theistic evolutionist (TE), my Christianity became one of the positions to which young-earth creationists (YEC) apply critical thinking. And consequently, claims about the consistency of evolution and Christianity were both essential to my faith and rejected by most Christians. To understand their position was to view my faith as an outsider.

While the emotional fallout of this situation should not be dismissed, it was also a fundamentally intellectual struggle that could not be wished, tolerated, or loved away. First, a lot of the theological arguments against TE make sense. Second, most of these arguments have a twin argument which is against Christianity as a whole. Most seriously, the arguments against Christianity as a whole are equal to or stronger than the arguments against TE. But these claims are only as strong as my examples:

The Ten Commandments

While supposedly the entire Bible is God-breathed in some sense, with a few parts, more is claimed. Perhaps most dramatically, with the ten commandments, God didn't just work through the historical process of the recording of events. These words were written with by the finger of God. In the Exodus version, right after the specifics of the commandment about the Sabbath, God's finger wrote in 20:11, “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. ”

However, Deuteronomy 5 disagrees regard precisely what God's finger wrote. In that version, the fourth commandment is followed in verse 15 by “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.”

Even ignoring the question of the degree of similarity and differences, which version did God's finger write? I don't typically hear the phrase “written by God in stone” and think of it as something quite so flexible. As is so often the case, there is an enormous difference between having actual reasons to think that God's finger wrote something, and having a book that claims God helped write it. To outsiders, it can be a bit strange that this isn't thought of more often, but we don't know that God really wrote the ten commandments just because the Bible tells us so. In fact, the Bible itself accidentally testifies that God's finger probably didn't write some or all of the ten commandments.

This is a sticky enough of a question that I was not willing to charge ahead and draw deep theological conclusions out of a trouble text. Another way of saying this is that what the Bible says is so unclear, that even if it is true, trusting what one thinks it says would be unwise.


Luke traces Jesus' genealogies all the way back to Adam. My half-answer was that I still believed in a literal Adam and a literal Fall about which all we know is myth. The reason this only halfway works is that I accepted science's dating of early civilizations that are older than the Bible suggests Adam to be by means of genealogies. However, before I was willing to trust the minute details of biblical genealogies, there were some major issues that had to be dealt with that are internal to the Bible.

First off, Luke and Matthew's genealogies clash. Before giving a rehearsed answer of one being Mary's and the other being Joseph's, look them up. “Jacob the father of Joseph” is clear in Matthew 1:16, and everyone agrees with this. Luke 3:23-24 says “[Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, ...” This communicates with great clarity that Heli was Joseph's father.

The best inerrantist answer I've seen to this is that the repetitions of “the son” are not present in the original – they are incorrectly added words in English to smooth out the grammar. The literal translation is then “[Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, of Heli, of Matthat ...” where the implication is “Jesus son of Heli, Jesus son of Matthat, ...” And then the way this is consistent with Matthew is that this is merely a list of Jesus' ancestors without implications of their relationships to each other, and thus Heli could be Mary's father.

This is quite strained, but I accepted the explanation for quite a while. However, notice that it means that Luke failed to communicate clearly. You must twist the text to even get to the point where Heli could be Mary's father. What we know with certainty is that Luke didn't tell us that Heli is Mary's father. Telling us that Heli is related to Jesus because he's Mary's father is, in fact, precisely the sort of thing that genealogies are supposed to communicate. If you just read Luke and trust it to be reliable, you will conclude that Heli is Joseph's father. Perhaps the genealogies in Genesis are the same, and they need to be viewed with a grain of salt – meaning science.

Also, in several places Matthew's genealogy skips generations that appear in the OT. He doesn't tell us why, but presumably, his reason for doing this is to turn it into a clever 14-14-14 pattern. He also fails to make to 14-14-14 pattern work by only coming up with 14+14+13=41 names. If you double-count one name it works out. But there is a commonly accepted term for counting something twice: a mistake. I just don't see why I should take the OT genealogies more seriously than the NT writers took them.

Furthermore, the Bible is consistently quite bad at getting numbers right. Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday, and yet Matthew 12:40 says Jesus was dead for three days and three nights. I'm very curious about which three nights these might have been. While I'm sure Matthew knew how to count, the point is that to think the numbers in the Bible are mathematically accurate is, at best, to misunderstand the Bible. To argue against evolution based on the genealogies is to assume their mathematical accuracy.

Evolution leads to the Holocaust

Suppose for the sake of argument that it does. God told Moses to slaughter the Midianites, including the male children. (The soldiers were commanded to save the girls “for themselves.”) What would become of society if everyone believed in a ideology that condones genocide?

The ease with which Christians see the depravity of the Holocaust is the ease with which I see the depravity of the Bible.

Problem of Pain

Not accepting YEC certainly makes the problem of pain more difficult. Instead of physical death being something that followed the curse of sin, it's present as part of the original creation. But if you believe in hell as I did, this objection is bizarre. The majority of humanity is supposedly going to be tortured for eternity because God didn't call them. And yet if God's plan involves animals living finite and painful lives this is supposed to be something that indicts God as cruel and unloving.

What's going on is very simple. When God's the sadistic keeper of a medieval torture chamber filled with heretics and it's part of my theology, it's just something that I'm supposed to struggle with until I can train myself to realize that it's what justice really means – if I don't accept the answer, then my sin is causing me to have a warped understanding of what a loving God is really like. But think of the bunnies! Look at them! A loving God wouldn't design a system where mean coyotes eat cute little bunny rabbits. If your theology says that God created lots of bunnies to die for no reason better than lunch, that means you are calling God evil. Is seems as though the YEC God is one of the founding members of PETA.

Of course, that's not to say the problem of animal pain is trivial. But it seems more like a concern for a universalist, an annihilationist, or at least someone who thinks God was genuinely surprised by Adam's rebellion and the necessity for hell. Otherwise, it's like a vegan wanting to venerate Stalin for being so loving but first stopping to ponder the moral implications of his occasional steak.

There is actually is a way that an evolutionary story of life can fit with the YEC doctrine of the physical death of animals being due to sin. Maybe God created the first bacterium to live forever. But before he had a chance to split, it rebelled and ate of the forbidden lactose. And then animals inherited its sin, for which they are personally (animally?) responsible, and that's why animals deserved to die for billions of years. I may not have evidence showing it actually happened, but you don't have evidence saying it didn't happen. It also may not make a lot of sense to one's mind, but maybe it's just the kind of thing that should be accepted by faith and believed in one's heart. (By the way, Pascal's wager calls for the baptizing of your pets.)

Why did God take so long?

This is a really good question. It doesn't make much sense for God to create billions of years of existence for the cosmos when the center of his attention is alive for only thousands of years. But similarly, why did God created billions of light years and billions of stars most of which no person will ever see? As a theistic evolution, I thought it was weird that creationists ask only the first. While I appreciate the consistency of asking neither, I now ask both.

Similarly, why did God wait so long after the Fall to send Jesus? Why make so many animals die as pointless sacrifices? Why spent so much time between Abraham and Jesus with only the Jews and a scattering of Gentiles having a real chance to know him? Christians' reaction to this is fairly predictable. God has a plan. We don't always understand it, but it's quite presumptuous for us to think we could have done better than him. This is precisely how I hope creationist readers react to these questions. Here's the kicker: why not give theistic evolutionists/old earth creationists the same leniency? Maybe God made the universe old for a similar “reason” – it's part of his plan that we can't understand.

Paul's use of Genesis

When talking about the Fall, Paul says that death entered the world through one man's sin. While this isn't clear at all, especially because Adam didn't physically die on the day he ate the fruit, I'll suppose for the sake of argument that we know that Paul is talking about not just spiritual death and not just about human death, but physical death and animal death as well.

But since when have the NT authors been a valid source concerning what the OT actually says? When God makes a promise to Abraham's seed, is seed singular or plural? If singular, I would like to know the verse of Genesis that helped you reach this conclusion. If plural, then Paul was not only wrong about what the OT says, but this faulty understanding was his basis for a theological argument about the promise to the Jews being transferred to Christians.

So maybe Paul was a young-earth creationist, Paul was wrong, and Paul tangentially communicated these false ideas in the process of communicating true theological ideas about Jesus' death. And we're still supposed to believe these theological truths even after learning the debunking of the argument for these theological truths. The ease with which YECists see the weakness in this position is the ease with which I look at Galatians 3 and see that it is false.

Blurring the Line Between Man and Animals

Another problem is that evolution blurs the line between man and animals. And it certainly does. This means “human” is not a yes/no question, but rather a question of degree. There are ways around this like believing that in a certain moment in time, God gave an animal that looked like an ape-man a soul, but this isn't as clean of an answer as the one provided by creationism.

Consider embryonic development. The same problem appears. We have a smooth transition between non-human sperm and egg to a fully human baby. This cannot be evaded by just “believing” God creates a soul at conception. Theistic evolutionists believe that God created the first human soul at some point in the evolution process, and YECists don't let them get away with this equally evidence-free claim. Here, the problem is even worse. At least with evolution, you could go back 40,000 years and look at a child and say it is human while the parents were animals – while the line may be arbitrary, at least the line can't be blurred further by looking at the generation between the child and the parents. But with embryonic development, it's a fully smooth transition. YECists easily see that a mostly smooth transition from animal to human suggests that talk of a soul or being created in the image of God doesn't make sense. With the same ease, I see that embryonic development shows the concept of a soul to be nonsensical.


In Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, on page 276 he writes “The fundamental difference between a biblical view of creation and theistic evolution lies here: the driving force … is randomness.” This is tangential, but this is a common misconception about evolution. Evolution is like the weather – it's a process involving randomness. Due to the randomness of weather I can only guess within ten or twenty degrees what the temperature will be in a week. But I could guess the average temperature for 2010 within a degree or two (and without knowing about global warming.) Due to random effects averaging out, a process that looks chaotic on a small scale is often one that behaves predictably on a larger scale. Evolution says that changes are the predictable long-term result.

But theologically speaking, the misunderstanding doesn't change the implications. In theistic evolution, God's guidance of evolution looks precisely the way it would look if it looked like he stopped caring billions of years ago.

However, the same issue of randomness appears when thinking through the implications of actuarial science. If you know the rate at which heart attacks occur, and you know the size of the population, you can make a very good guess about how many people in the population will have heart attacks. For a more precise prediction, you don't pray to learn the will of God. You learn more about the population, like their age distribution. Actuarial science requires thinking about death in terms of the naturalistic cause and effect that comes from supposing death is left up to chance. And it works. This means that the way in which God takes away life looks precisely the way it would look if it looked like God doesn't care. There are less fatalist ways of saying this, but it's no different than the spin creationists universally give to evolution. Personally, I find the threat actuarial science and statistics pose to believing God still cares about death to be far more severe than the threat evolution poses to believing God cared while creating.

YECists show the proper approach to theistic evolution – skepticism toward the meaningfulness of talking about a creator who is indistinguishable from no creator at all. With the same ease, I apply this same skepticism to Christianity and see that the reasoning behind actuarial science supports the conclusion that God doesn't exist or doesn't care.

Problems in the Local Flood

Most old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists believe that Noah's flood was a local flood (a myth is the alternative.) The Bible talks about the whole world as a hyperbole in many places, so perhaps here as well. To this position, YECists have an excellent response. Why didn't Noah just migrate several hundred miles? Why not just have the birds fly a few hundred miles away? Noah had a hundred years to kill, so I don't suppose finding the time to pack would have been too burdensome.

I really like this objection. It's an excellent reason to not believe in the local flood. What I like so much about it is the underlying assumption that if a plan is completely illogical, then an omniscient God probably didn't come up with it. This assumption comes as naturally as the basic rules of logic – unless one's own beliefs are under the microscope.

So here's my question: Why didn't God just smite everyone and skip the whole flood thing entirely? This would have saved so much trouble for everyone. Noah could have preached about coming judgment for years and he could have shown he believed his own message by making provisions for surviving on his own. I would be interested in hearing if there are any reasons to send a flood at all that don't also defend the idea of having Noah build an ark for a local flood. Maybe there are reasons, but I could throw in an extra miracle or two if they are needed for the practicality of my smiting proposal.

With the local flood, YECists show the proper way of thinking about dramatic claims about what God did. If the story has God commanding a lot of pointless milling about, this should count strongly against its chance of being true. By applying the same skepticism to the global flood that creationists apply to the local flood, I reject the story of Noah even without the scientific and biblical cases against it.

Reconciling the Bible with evolution is really quite easy compared to reconciling the Bible with the Bible and other realities in the here and now. Creationists' ability to see the problems in my answers to comparably easy questions helped me see how contrived both our answers were to the hard questions.

Failing The Insider Test

Small step at a time, I moved my theology a bit while staying inside what I thought was inside. I would wait a bit, and my idea of “inside” would be stretched with me. After moving a moderate distance, I thought that where I came from was inside while the painful truth is that where I came from thought I was outside. This placed me in a curious position: YEC was still inside to me, YEC viewed me as an outsider, I was seeking to fully understand different positions within my idea of orthodoxy, and therefore the logically inevitable result was viewing my faith as an outsider.

I don't remember if anyone ever told me that I would reject Christianity if I used the same skepticism toward it that I use toward every other religion. If so, I don't remember it because it made no impact on my thinking. But eventually, I found myself looking at creationists and seeing that if they were to apply the same critical thinking to their own beliefs that they apply to mine, they would stop being Christians. Conversely, if I thought about my own faith the way other Christians thought about my faith, I would stop being a Christian.

While I thought my way out of many aspects of faith, here I simply got lucky. The desire and ability to think critically about my own beliefs was a very small part of the final step out. Thinking critically about my own beliefs was forced upon me as an unintended consequence of other decisions that were much easier to make. Perhaps this is the difference between me and Christians smarter than I am.

While many of the arguments against Christianity work just fine as academic arguments, I doubt this can be written so that readers will feel the weight of the argument as I did. It took the grind of over two years of not only trying to fit evolution in with Christianity, but trying to fit evolution in with the Christian community to see the blatant inconsistencies on both sides. It's not a matter of people being dogmatic or whatever negative adjective you want to throw in. It's simply the predictable clash of incompatible beliefs – or rather, different Christianities.

My YEC and inerrantist Christianity failed the insider test because the arguments against it are so solid that any perspective save for closing one's eyes is sufficient to see it. My TE Christianity failed the insider test because even the very idea of an insider test failed the insider test. To define “inside” as bigger than “me” was to include people who don't agree on everything. To be willing to have candid conversations with other Christians who believed a bit differently and to honestly seek to understand where they were coming from was to look at many of my own beliefs and critically think through if I had reasons for believing them or not. Sociological circumstances turned this into looking at all of my beliefs with skepticism.

Few faiths, if any, can survive under the scrutiny that everyone applies to everyone else's faith. Truth has nothing to fear from inspection and Christianity should be terrified. My mortally wounded faith staggered on for a while, but my fate had been sealed. I had escaped.


  1. "For me, the primary effect was sociological – it changed my social standing within [evangelical] Christianity and this caused me to see how Christians think about the rest of their faith as well."Your post is interesting to me in that though I never as a Christian subscribed to YEC, but it was exactly the kind of thinking you described that eventually led me away from faith in the rest of the bible. It just took me a lot of time to apply the same reasoning I used to dismiss YEC to biblical history as well. And then on to biblical theology.

    It can only take one stone to be removed from the wall of faith for the whole wall to tumble down. Biblical literalists are foolish in that regard to stake their claims on YEC. But I'm glad, because it made it that much clearer to me what was going on with "biblical reasoning."

  2. Wow. It's almost like you cribbed your story from my life. Or I from yours...

    I remember being in a car with a girlfriend once. She had been poorly served by a private Christian education and believed Ken Ham had some smart things to say. She tried to pull the old, "Maybe god just made the universe look old," routine on me. I figured that was a possibility. Then I thought about it for a moment and realized it was incredibly, massively stupid.

    But I was more interested in keeping the already failed relationship going at the time...

    Also, most of your links are broken. They have the generic Blogger link, then the link you want.

  3. I would be interested in knowing how often evolution influences deconversions as it affected us compared to the straight forward way. At one time, I would have thought I was unusual for evolution affecting me this way, but I'm not at all.

    Christians have a specific list of ways that people lose their faith, and many or most decons don't fit into any of those categories. When this happens, the decon is convinced they are an exception. Nope. Christians are just in denial about deconversions that happen for reasons that aren't PC (pastorally correct.)

    Thanks for telling me about the links - they are fixed now.

  4. Jeffrey, you make a good point about decons not fitting into the "normal" Christian categories. Conservative Christianity, which is what we're talking about here if we are referencing young earth vs. old earth, has a certain, limited, group of bible verses to fall back on in an attempt to define deconversion. And since they believe the bible is the source of all wisdom, they are restricted to those categories. In my experience that puts you into a couple of categories, first, disbelief explained because you are not using "biblical wisdom" but are rather depending on the foolishness of the wisdom of the world, or, heaven forbid, your own wisdom (aka thoughts). And second, willful rebellion against God. Really both boil down to moral failure, as seen from the conservative Christian perspective. Where else can you go with that but to be in denial?

  5. Christians have a specific list of ways that people lose their faith, and many or most decons don't fit into any of those categories.Totally. I got really annoyed with people asking me what horrible thing had happened that had hurt me so much. I had a crisis of faith, yes, but it was only the culminating event in a long series of doubts and questions. And the crisis didn't even kill my faith. It only made it impossible to ignore the questions I'd been avoiding.

    In fact, just last week I posted an entry about how evangelists just don't get that I probably know more about the Bible and apologetics than they do and invent a story for me that isn't mine. Right on cue I got an annoying evangelist in my comments. He did more to confirm my point than I ever could.

    I don't know that they're in denial, though. I think they're just limited in imagination. I mean, a switchover probably has to occur at some point when they hear over and over again that, "No, it didn't happen like that," but I at least give the sheltered, novice evangelist the benefit of the doubt and say they simply can't imagine anything other than those few approved stories of eviscerated faith.

  6. The interpretation of the two genealogies belonging to different persons (Mary and Joseph) is a Protestant innovation. The Pre-Reformation Christians didn't believe in this.

    I would also like to ask You something: count the names in Luke (exact number) and then compare it to Matthew's insistance on the number fourteen. [Not so as to see the difference of which You're already aware, but the connection].

  7. Are you the same Lucian that I've talked to at de-conversion?

    What is the alternative to Mary's/Joseph's genealogy? Numerology? I can see it with Matthew a lot more than I can see it with Luke, especially due to Luke 1:3-4.

    There are 77 names in Luke. Where is the connection? I know seven is important, but I don't know enough about numerology to understand (or deny) a connection with 14.

  8. Fourteen is the double of seven. (And You don't need numerology to know this).

    Yes, I'm the same Lucian that bugged You at de-conversion, because I found out about Your blog's existence at debunking-christianity.

    I don't agree with Your take on Luke 1:3-4. [And I also don't agree with the Protestant take on the meaning of the words "as it was supposed" in Luke 3:23 either (those words mean that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph [Mark 6:3] and that the way in which Joseph was Jesus' father [Luke 2:48] is not meant in a biological sense)].

  9. Perhaps the clearest way to see the discrepancy is to try to figure out who Joseph's father is. In Matthew 1:16, it's Jacob, while in Luke 3:23, it's Heli. I don't see how you are getting around either of these claims.

    Also, I'm still not seeing a connection between the numbers in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, there are 3 sets of 14, for a total of 41 or 42. In Luke, there are 77 names. I don't see how 77 explains an insistence on 14. You're going to have to spell it out instead of just hoping I'll see what you see.

  10. Matthew's genealogy is picky for the sake of conveying a deeper, more mystic meaning. (7 was the number of perfection; 14 was its double: "at the fulness of time"). I don't see why Luke's can't be that way. I also don't know how in a society which practiced large-scale polygamy and divorce, plus levirate marriage, and so on, anyone can find some sort of liniage that somehow is "more correct" than other possible ones. That's all.

  11. And there's something else, also well-known, that I forgot to mention: people have many names (I guess the funniest example is ``Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus``, who had three names, and who didn't even make it into the "Top Twelve"). Other examples abound, throughout both Testaments, but they only have two names.