Old Earth, Young Minds: Evangelical Homeschoolers Embrace Evolution

By David R. Wheeler

More Christian parents are asking for mainstream science in their children's curricula. Will religious textbook companies deliver?

homeschool-top.jpg Jen Baird Seurkamp, a Kentucky evangelical who homeschools her children, avoids textbooks that discredit evolution. (Kate Mitchell Hisey)

For homeschooling parents who want to teach their children that the earth is only a few thousand years old, the theory of evolution is a lie, and dinosaurs coexisted with humans, there is no shortage of materials. Kids can start with the Answers in Genesis curriculum, which features books such as Dinosaurs of Eden, written by Creation Museum founder Ken Ham. As the publisher's description states, "This exciting book for the entire family uses the Bible as a 'time machine' to journey through the events of the past and future."

It's no secret that the majority of homeschooled children in America belong to evangelical Christian families. What's less known is that a growing number of their parents are dismayed by these textbooks.

Take Erinn Cameron Warton, an evangelical Christian who homeschools her children. Warton, a scientist, says she was horrified when she opened a homeschool science textbook and found a picture of Adam and Eve putting a saddle on a dinosaur. "I nearly choked," says the mother of three. "When researching homeschooling curricula, I found that the majority of Christian homeschool textbooks are written from this ridiculous perspective. Once I saw this, I vowed never to use them." Instead, Warton has pulled together a curriculum inspired partly by homeschool pioneer Susan Wise Bauer and partly by the Waldorf holistic educational movement.

For many evangelical families, the rationale for homeschooling has nothing to do with a belief in Young Earth Creationism or a rejection of evolutionary theory. Some parents choose to homeschool because they're disenchanted with the values taught in the public school system. Others want to incorporate more travel into their children's education. Still others want to implement specific learning techniques they believe are more suitable for their children.

But whatever their reason for homeschooling, evangelical families who embrace modern science are becoming more vocal about it -- and are facing the inevitable criticism that comes with that choice. "We get a lot of flak from others for not using Christian textbooks," Warton says.

Theologically conservative Christians were not always so polarized. "By the late 19th century," says David R. Montgomery author of The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood, "evangelical theologians generally accepted the compelling geological evidence for the reality of an old earth." However, Darwin's idea of natural selection scared away many fundamentalists, who saw "survival of the fittest" as an atheistic concept. Over time, those who insisted on a literal interpretation of the Bible's account of creation came to reject both geology and evolutionary biology.

This staunch rejection of modern science tends to characterize today's leading homeschool textbooks. For example, Science 4 Christian Schools, a homeschool textbook published by Bob Jones University Press, doesn't mince words when it comes to evolution and Christian faith. "People who accept the Bible believe that God made everything," the book states. "They call God's description of how things began the Creation Model. Those who disregard the Bible believe instead that everything got here by itself. They call this description of how things began the Evolution Model."

The assertion that anyone who believes in evolution "disregards" the Bible offends many evangelicals who want their children to be well-versed in modern science. Jen Baird Seurkamp, an evangelical who homeschools her children, avoids textbooks that discredit evolution. "Our science curriculum is one currently used in public schools," she says. "We want our children to be educated, not sheltered from things we are afraid of them learning."

The rising number of homeschool families striving to reconcile belief in God with today's scientific consensus has attracted the attention of at least one publisher -- Christian Schools International in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Most science textbooks that attempt to present the content from a Christian perspective also attempt to discredit the theory of evolution," says Ken Bergwerff, a science curriculum specialist at Christian Schools International. "Some do it discreetly; others are quite blatant. The CSI science curriculum clearly presents science from a Christian perspective, but does not attempt to discredit the theory of evolution. The content presents God as the author of all of creation, no matter how he did it or when he did it."

Dorothy Boorse, a biology professor at Gordon College, a Christian college in Massachusetts, applauds these underdog homeschool textbooks. "I believe that the best evidence is that the earth is very old and that God used and continues to use the biological process of evolution," she says. "Many Christians in the sciences believe such a position is consistent with several possible interpretations of Scripture, including some that go way back in Christian history, and several from the Jewish tradition."

Other Christian organizations that believe in evolution are beginning to put money and resources into their efforts to reframe the conversation. In 2012, the BioLogos organization received a multimillion-dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund its Evolution and Christian Faith project, which disburses money to Christians who reconcile theology with evolutionary biology.

For example, grant recipients Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, and Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar at Northern Seminary, will "write a book on the evidence for evolution and population genetics, with informed theological reflection on how these issues interact with orthodox Christianity," the BioLogos website states.

Meanwhile, professors at evangelical colleges that attract homeschoolers often have to deal with objections from Young Earth proponents. "We do have to address some one-sided perspectives in biological science that some of our freshman biology majors come pre-loaded with," says Jeffrey Duerr, a biology professor at George Fox University, a Christian university in Oregon. "But we do this by first addressing why science and Christian faith are compatible and then by teaching biology to them."

For Seurkamp, the ability to reconcile science and faith is one of the biggest advantages of homeschooling. "God knew what his creatures would need to survive and thrive when he created them," she says. "The ability to evolve and adapt is just one example of his creativity and infinite wisdom."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/03/old-earth-young-minds-evangelical-homeschoolers-embrace-evolution/273844/