This Gallup poll that has been run every two years since 1982. Here are the results, up to and including this year’s:
Coyne notes that, according to the data, the hard creationist position has remained virtually unchanged over the past 22 years. On the other hand, as he points out, the “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation” position that God somehow guided the evolutionary process has declined in a marked way, whereas the unguided evolution position has more than doubled the support it had 22 years ago.
Coyne notes that Karl Giberson, in his comments on the same poll, expresses puzzlement at the failure of theistic evolution (evolutionary creation) to gain adherents. Coyne, on the other hand, does not find the failure of TE hard to understand.
Coyne reasons: From what group could TE/EC gain potential adherents? Not from the evolutionary naturalists; if you have decided that the evolutionary process is sufficient by itself, why would you introduce a God who “guides” evolution? Such a God would be redundant. So where can TE/EC find converts? Coyne suggests that perhaps the young-earth creationists could be won over, if a way of accommodating their creationism to evolution could be found; but he then dismisses that possibility, on the pragmatic grounds that they clearly aren’t being won over, and he has an explanation for that: one can’t logically accommodate young-earth views to evolution.
Coyne’s argument, as far as it goes, seems valid. However, Coyne leaves out of account the old-earth creationists, i.e., those who allow for an ancient earth and a less literal reading of Genesis. Some old-earth creationists allow for an Adam and Eve who lived much longer than 10,000 years ago, and most old-earth creationists accept a degree of evolution, e.g., evolution within basic types such as “dog” “cat” “horse” etc. which could allow Adam and Eve to have lived more than 10,000 years ago. There is therefore much more room within old-earth creationism for the accommodation of which Coyne speaks. A hardcore molecules-to-man evolutionist might hope that the old-earth creationists, allowing for a longer-than-Biblical timeline for man, and allowing for some naturalistic evolution, could be eventually persuaded to accept the whole scheme. And indeed, TE does make overtures to old-earth creationists. But in the end, even the old-earth creationists do not accept fully naturalistic evolution (molecules to man) and they insist on the special creation of human beings. So in the end, Coyne is right: accommodationism doesn’t work — at least, not well enough to win any creationist, even the most liberal, over to the entire evolutionary program championed by BioLogos.
So, following up on Coyne’s reasoning, who is left over? If the evolutionary naturalists are out of the picture, and the creationists are out of the picture, the only “target market” for TE of the BioLogos type would be the non-creationist Christians of the so-called “mainstream” churches. And indeed, many people in such churches — the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalian, etc. — endorse TE. The problem is that the number of members in these churches is not growing, but shrinking; in fact, in many cases, the population of the mainstream churches is in free fall. As these churches shrink, they can no longer be a source of new TE supporters.
Why are the mainstream churches shrinking? It is a logical consequence of their own excessive theological liberalism. The more liberal the church, the less most of its members can see any difference between its doctrines and plain old secular humanism; and secular humanism doesn’t ask you to get up early on Sunday mornings or donate money. So inevitably many members of liberal churches cease to be Christian at all, and then of course they will not be supporters of God-guided evolution. Also, there can be reactions to extreme liberalism; some members of mainstream churches are so disgusted by the abandonment of basic Christian doctrine that they see no alternative but to join fundamentalist churches, and then of course they become creationists and want nothing to do with TE.
So Coyne is right; there seems to be no natural “target market” where TEs can look for increased support.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, the strategy of BioLogos has been to look for new support from within the evangelical Protestant community. The hope seems to be that there is a substantial group of “moderate” evangelicals who are, if at the moment somewhat guarded regarding evolution, at least not confirmed creationists and hence potentially open to accepting evolution.
Yet the poll numbers don’t indicate any such support coming from evangelical quarters. So the question arises, why aren’t these moderate evangelicals being won over, to the degree that Giberson and other BioLogos folks have hoped?
I think a large part of the answer is supplied by a comment from Giberson himself. In the column in which he discusses the Gallup poll, he writes:
“Evolutionary creation/theistic evolution doesn’t fare much better, however. We can’t explain the difference between our position—“God guides evolution”—and that of the atheists—“evolution runs by itself.””
Bingo! In its entire 5 or 6 years of existence, BioLogos has not only failed to explain, but hasn’t even tried to explain, the difference between the two positions pointed out by Giberson. Giberson himself, when he was one of the heads of BioLogos and a frequent columnist there, never tried to explain it. Darrel Falk wouldn’t try; nor would Applegate, Venema, Louis, etc. Nor have the new leaders of BioLogos, Haarsma and the virtually invisible Schloss. And this fact goes a long way toward explaining why the TE/EC position has made no headway among the moderate evangelicals.
If there is no easily graspable conceptual difference between “God guides evolution” and “evolution runs by itself,” the average evangelical will conclude that the results of evolution are out of God’s control. After all, neo-Darwinian evolution, which BioLogos champions, can’t either in principle or in practice guarantee any evolutionary outcomes. It just bounces along this way and that, according to various contingencies that come up along the way (random variations, asteroid strikes, ice ages, and so on). And since God is not supposed to “tinker” with the process (that would be “God of the gaps” and is a no-no theologically and scientifically, according to all BioLogos folks), he can’t actually “guide” the process, and can’t guarantee any outcomes with all these contingencies popping up to stop them from being realized. Evolution left to steer itself, like a driverless car careening through a city: that sure doesn’t sound like the doctrine of providence or the doctrine of sovereignty taught in the Bible and in the historical evangelical churches. So the evangelicals are not going to buy in.
Thus, BioLogos specifically, and TE in general (insofar as BioLogos represents the most influential and widespread modern form of TE) has hit a ceiling of support. It cannot grow until it comes up with a doctrine of how God influences evolutionary outcomes that will satisfy the average evangelical churchgoer. As long as it keeps saying, “God leaves nature and evolution to their freedom, but nonetheless, you just gotta have faith that God is somehow providentially in control,” the result will be “no sale.” The moderate evangelicals will either recoil from such a vague doctrine of God’s power and sovereignty, and opt for fundamentalism, or they will adopt one of the “intelligently guided evolution” models advocated by ID.
TE cannot grow by the strategy it is currently employing. The number of creationists it will pull in will be statistically insignificant, and by all projections secular humanist, naturalist explanations of origins are growing in popularity, and the pure naturalists are drawing from the same part of the population (i.e., the non-creationists) from which TE must draw. And to be frank, a one-hour TV special by Neil DeGrasse Tyson will win over many more people than a hundred columns by Dennis Venema or Kathryn Applegate on BioLogos.
Jerry Coyne sees this clearly enough. Karl Giberson should be able to see it, too, but he is fuzzy in his thinking, because, although he sees part of why TE is not connecting with evangelicals — he sees that an anemic God is of no interest to them — he is still “puzzled” why TE is not growing. In this case, as so often, the atheist is the clearer and more consistent reasoner than the TE proponent.
The route to success for a TE campaign is through an orthodox rather than an unorthodox Christian religion. Evolution must not be accepted on terms that would diminish the power, providence, freedom, or sovereignty of God. The problem with most American TE leaders is that in order to accommodate Christian faith to evolution they have watered down the doctrinal contents of Christian faith. That isn’t the way to go. Not only does it lack theological integrity, it excludes any possibility of gaining support from that massive, solid block of creationists (40%-47% of the population according to Gallup) who will not even look at evolution unless it can be incorporated within orthodox rather than unorthodox Christian belief.
It is interesting that Giberson, at the end of his article, laments the division of Americans over evolution as a division into “extremes” where “moderates” (i.e., Giberson and BioLogos) are unable to make headway. The fact is that the theology of many of the past and present leaders of BioLogos (and of many TEs outside of BioLogos) is not “moderate” Christian theology (the theology of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, etc.) but is very liberal and sometimes even heretical theology (regularly flirting with open theism, embracing non-Christian solutions to the problem of evil, openly doubting the truth of the entire Bible, and so on). Implying that conservative Protestant evangelicals in the USA are “immoderate,” merely because they will not accept heresy in order to make peace with Darwin, takes a lot of gall.
The problem with Giberson is that he thinks in political terms (“moderate” versus “extreme”) when, this being a theological issue, he should be thinking in theological terms (“orthodox” versus “heretical”). The orthodox view (whether “extreme” or not) should always be preferred to the heretical view (whether “moderate” or not). The first job of the Christian is not to “save Darwin,” and still less to kowtow to Darwin; the first job of the Christian is to determine what orthodox faith teaches about God and creation. After that, the Christian can explore those versions of evolutionary theory which are possible within an orthodox Christian vision. It is because TE (for the most part) has been cavalier about what orthodox faith teaches that it has failed to make a serious dent in the 40%-47% of the American population. TE can’t grow any further until it gets its theological house in order. Giberson and his friends should sit down and undertake this task, instead of bellyaching about how those evangelical Protestants who remain true to their tradition are “immoderate.”