Believing everything

Watch out whenever someone calls "religion" a separate category

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

"It's not that Americans no longer believe anything," George Gallup told a group of us in Indianapolis a few days ago. "It's that they believe everything."

Mr. Gallup was not referring to the issue of gullibility-although that is ultimately involved. He was referring instead to an apparent determination by most people in our society to believe as many different things as they possibly can, all at the same time, and even if some of those things flatly contradict each other.

We've seen it most dramatically on the political scene. A majority of Americans say they believe that, yes, their president was probably guilty of behavior that would have most corporation presidents and school principals fired on the spot, but that at the same time, no, such behavior should in no way disqualify him from continuing as president of the United States. Everybody looks at the two sets of data, shakes his or her head, and with puzzlement acknowledges, "It just doesn't compute."

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But, of course, the behavior of the American public on this issue did not happen in a vacuum. It happened after several generations of that public's having been taught and assured that it is perfectly all right to believe fervently in contradictory lists of evidence.

It happened again just a few days ago when the National Academy of Sciences launched a remarkable campaign to accelerate the teaching of evolution in our nation's public schools. Because so many public school teachers have been "intimidated by anti-evolutionist special interest groups," according to Texas Tech University professor Gerald Skoog, NAS is sending 40,000 copies of a new guidebook to encourage the beleaguered teachers to hold firm.

"The widespread misunderstandings about evolution are of great concern," says NAS president Bruce Alberts. "Evolution is the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world." Pointedly, to assure folks that spread-eagling their belief systems is quite acceptable in today's philosophical milieu, the new guidebook vouches that it's just fine to believe in God and evolution at the same time because "religion and science answer different questions about the world."

But be warned: Whenever you hear someone assure you that "religion and science answer different questions about the world," watch your footing. Someone-and it's almost surely not a friend of God's truth-is about ready to slip the rug out from under you.

For decades, a lot of rug-slipping has been going on. The main reason American society is today so double-minded on so many issues is that its people have been repeatedly assured that "religion and science" operate in different spheres. So, of course, do "religion and education," "religion and economics," "religion and politics," "religion and business," "religion and art"-or "religion" and any other combination you want to make.

The more you can persuade people that all these are hermetically sealed, independent components of life, the more you enable those people simultaneously (and shamelessly) to believe contradictory things about life. Now you have generously allowed them to believe everything, without offense to anyone on any side, but also without any insult to their critical faculties.

It is, in one sense, the essence of liberal thinking. But it's not just "out there" that this intellectual double-mindedness is so pervasive. It's a yeast that infects our evangelical household as well. It was appropriate that George Gallup's remarks about "believing everything" were addressed to a meeting of the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities. CCCU is an alliance of 91 institutions in North America with historically evangelical commitments-and I hope that the 800 educators gathered there took Mr. Gallup's remark as a jab at them as well as at the population at large.

It would be nice to be able to report that these Christian institutions have always, and without exception, been faithful in pointing out to their students the difficulties (and ultimate impossibility) of "believing everything." But in fact, the record shows that too often many of the Christian colleges and universities that should have been making these distinctions have instead been blurring them.

Instead of spelling out boldly for their students how they can hold to the biblical truths of creation and refute the shallow arguments of materialistic evolution, dozens of evangelical Christian colleges offer tacit acceptance of theistic evolution as an acceptable way to "believe everything." Instead of proclaiming boldly God's good gifts of gender differences and roles, most Christian colleges have in cowardly fashion conceded some of the basic tenets of secular feminism. Instead of helping their students build gutsy and creative models of distinctly Christian answers to welfare, education, and health systems, Christian colleges have too often provided only wimpy apologies for bigger expressions of statism.

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