Discovery of the Reality of Human Evolution Leads to a Crisis of Faith (part 1)

Evolution was one of those subjects that no one in my family or church talked about when I was growing up. If it was talked about, it was relegated to a category of people who wanted nothing to do with God and used evolution as an excuse to explain a world without God.

This is not to say my family or my fellow Christians who wrote off evolution years ago as anti-God propaganda weren’t critical thinkers. Even scientists admit it is not the answer one would intuitively arrive at. For most of my life I never gave much thought to it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have genuine questions pop up from time to time while I was growing up however, particularly concerning dinosaurs. The same intuition I relied on to tell me evolution was ridiculous, also told me that the earth was surely older than 6,000 years. The thoughtful explanation given to me by my grandmother when I was young was that there were civilizations before Adam and Eve, but they were wiped out and God started over with Adam and Eve.

The basic idea was that everything else may have been created over millions of years, but humans were separate and distinct from the rest of the animals, an explanation I found to be surprisingly satisfactory over the years. The universe is billions of years old? No problem. There are hundreds of millions of galaxies? No problem. Radiometric dating shows animals alive on earth millions of years ago? No problem. Human-like creatures existed before us? No problem. I did not suffer from many of the issues that young earth creationists suffered from because I had happily accepted that the earth was in fact old, very old.

The first event that would lead me on a journey concerning evolution occurred when we took a family trip to Arizona. Living in the Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana area almost all of my life, it is not readily apparent (and one is consequentially not regularly reminded) how old the earth actually is because we are surrounded by wildlife and vegetation. Before heading out to the Grand Canyon, we visited the Petrified Forest. Sitting there looking over the desert and visiting the park’s museum (as suggested by my grandmother) and finally standing at one of the scenic points of the Grand Canyon during sunset, overlooking such magnificence, what I had always accepted as true without much thought, suddenly overwhelmed me. I came face to face with the reality that the earth has been here for a very long time. I felt incredibly small; not in the traditional sense of there being millions of people in the world, but small in relation to the passage of time.

“…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” ~ James 4:14

I left Arizona and returned home with a profound sense of gratitude that I was able to witness something that literally took millions of years to create. With this positive experience however eventually came questions, questions that would take on a new urgency when my daughter came to me one day, visibly distraught, asking if evolution were true. In science class at school, they had told her that human beings are evolved creatures and she was asking me if this was in fact the case. 

I was caught off guard. I had never been in a position where I felt like I had to defend a point of view on this topic, one way or the other. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I remember thinking I did not want to automatically undermine her science teacher without a legitimate reason for doing so, so I sat out on a personal quest where I would devote my attention to this question until I got to the bottom of it. I was convinced I was right from the outset. I was certain that evolution was just the naturalist way of explaining what was more easily explained by old earth creationism. After all, if one chose not to believe in God, evolution seemed like a reasonable, though miraculous alternative explanation for the origins of mankind.

Around this time, a Christian friend of mine I greatly respect (who helped me found borderland faith), threw me a curve ball when I told him about the issue. He confessed that, while he finds it problematic for the conservative Christian evangelical faith we both share, when he looked into the matter, he found considerable evidence for evolution that is hard to deny. Hearing him say this disturbed me and I confess, I moved at a considerably slower pace after hearing him say that, afraid of what I would find.

There would be weeks, even months, where I had to stop and not go any further while the ramifications of what I had become aware of sunk in. With each new layer I encountered, I feared my worldview and possibly even my faith would not survive this journey, at least not in any recognizable sense.

It wasn’t until I began understanding the recent advances in DNA that my faith in old earth creationism began to unravel. The first noticeable unraveling was when I saw the statistics that showed genetic similarity between human beings and different animal species, with Bonobos being our closest genetic relatives, sharing 99% of human DNA. Could it be a conspiracy in the scientific community to come up with those kinds of numbers? I knew deep down that seemed absurdly unlikely.

“If I was wrong and my Christian evangelical worldview had been wrong all this time, what else might I be wrong about? What source of knowledge or truth could I trust? Could I trust any?”

The tipping point for me was something called chromosome two in human DNA. Keep in mind, I was not trying to disprove the earth was old or that animals had not macro-evolved. I already accepted at face value most of the scientific community’s findings. My only issue was with attempting to validate my position within old earth creationism, that God had wiped out all life on earth and started over, with Adam and Eve as overseers of creation. It didn’t even matter to me how God started over, just that God had started over and had made human beings, separate and distinct from all other creatures. 

I discovered from Dr. Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, that it has been known for some time within the scientific community that humans have one less chromosome than the great apes which could be explained by one of two theories. One theory was that the difference demonstrated human uniqueness in creation, and that we are all together separate and different from other animals. If human beings evolved however, then at some point in the evolutionary chain of events, two chromosomes had to have fused and the evidence for that fusion would still be recognizably present in the DNA helix strand itself. Once the technology became available to make such observations, if the evidence was not there, this would fatally undermine the evolutionary theory.

In 2001, the long-awaited results from the Human Genome Project were finally published giving a map of human DNA itself to the world. With this unprecedented scientific event, it was now possible to confirm or refute evolution through DNA evidence. Did God really wipe out all mankind and start over with Adam and Eve resulting in a 23 pair chromosome or did we progressively evolve from lower species of apes and a chromosome fuse at some point to create 23 pairs instead of the 24 that the great apes have? In 2005, Dr. Miller testified in a precedent setting trial as an expert witness about the discovery of telomeres (thanks to the mapping of the human genome) in human DNA on chromosome two, demonstrating that the chromosome had in fact been fused and verifying through DNA evidence, the scientific validity of human evolution beyond any reasonable doubt.

Moving from a Pre-modern Framework to a Modern Framework

The word modern gets regular usage in everyday vernacular, usually without much thought as to its larger meaning. We use it subjectively quite often when we introduce a new technology to someone. People say things like, “here grandma, this is an Apple Tablet, welcome to the modern world” or “check out that new Tesla vehicle, another wonder of the modern world.” Broadly speaking however, the modern world is defined by a shift away from pre-modern understandings of the world, almost exclusively framed by and understood through religious doctrines and beliefs to an understanding of the world framed by and understood through scientific discovery.

In the pre-modern world, people were highly superstitious about almost everything. From black cats and the devil’s B flat to the burning of witches for having been found to be in league with the devil. People used the best framework available at the time for understanding the world around them and the results range from comical to surprisingly insightful to downright terrifying.

As science became ascendant in Europe in the 1700’s during the Enlightenment era, a gradual shift began to take place. The change was not uniform, however. Modern insights depend on education and exposure to modern findings and people around the world have not had equality of opportunity in this regard. I saw a Netflix documentary recently where they interviewed natives who had lived in isolation in the Amazon rainforest their entire lives. At one point the interviewer asked them where they went when they died. They pointed to the stars and said “up there, with their ancestors and we never come back.” They didn’t elaborate beyond this, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a human mind, using nothing but the most basic observational data available (a starry night), to make a conclusion about the afterlife.

With this revelation, my worldview had been proven false and I felt lost. Not just in a religious way, but in a way where I no longer understood my place within the world around me. I almost instantaneously felt alienated from the Christian evangelical community in a way I had never experienced before and did not know was possible. This paradigm shift created a shroud of uncertainty over everything. If I was wrong and my Christian evangelical worldview had been wrong all this time, what else might I be wrong about? What source of knowledge or truth could I trust? Could I trust any?

For those who have spent years studying the Bible from a conservative evangelical Christian perspective, accepting evolution as fact has serious ramifications. There are doctrinal issues as well as reliability issues that one is faced with concerning the Bible in light of a world brought about by evolution. In my quest to answer the questions surrounding evolution, the bar for me was set quite low due to the Old Earth Creationist worldview I was raised with. I did not need compelling evidence that we evolved from algae on a rock over billions of years. I only needed to go as deep as common ancestry. If we share a common ancestor with the great apes then my entire world view had to be reevaluated. With the discovery of the chromosome two evidence, I found it impossible to hold on to Old Earth Creationism in good conscience, despite its comforting familiarity. I knew God would want me to follow what is true wherever it leads.

This would eventually lead me to being forced to radically redefine my understanding of my faith and the world. The understanding of the world I live in now is much different. Part of me is very much a stranger in most of the churches and even family I grew up with who believed differently than me. I have found myself in the borderlands of faith, reflecting on everything I have ever believed and experienced and how to make sense of it in this new reality.

***This is part 1 of a four part story. Part 2 can be found be clicking here.***

Thank you for taking the time to read. If you would like to ask me any questions or interact concerning any of these topics, feel free to comment or visit the Borderland Faith discussion board for more in-depth conversation and interaction.

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