Seventh-Day Adventists split over evolution?

Via John Pieret’s excellent Thoughts in a Haystack blog I learn of an ongoing controversy about the teaching of evolution at Adventist Universities. (See also this Sept. 1 article from Inside Higher Ed.) The latest event is that the board of trustess of La Sierra University in Riverside, California, voted to endorse young-earth creationism:

La Sierra’s board of trustees last week unanimously voted to endorse Adventist beliefs that the world was created in six 24-hour days and said the teaching of evolution must be “within the context of the Adventist belief regarding creation.”

The board also proposed that all 15 North American Adventist universities develop a curriculum that includes a “scientifically rigorous affirmation” of Adventist creation beliefs.

At first glance, it is confusing that this is news. Those of us who are familiar with the history of creationism and have read Ronald Numbers’ classic The Creationists, and learned that the Seventh-Day Adventists were virtually the only fundamentalists who produced major advocates supporting belief in a young earth and global flood in the early 20th century – based on the literalist visions of Adventist founder and prophetess Ellen White. It was only in the 1960s that the young-earth/global view became dominant within American fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism in general, primarily through the efforts of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb in The Genesis Flood.

Due to the above, it would be natural to assume that if anyone dependably takes a stauch YEC position, it would be the Seventh Day Adventists. The Adventists and their Geoscience Research Center supplied most of the creationist expert witnesses in the 1981 McLean vs. Arkansas trial, and the official position of the church seems to be unambiguous. As one Adventist writes,

The point is not whether or not Darwinian evolution is true (I don’t believe it is, but that is another issue altogether). The point is an ecclesiastical one, not a scientific one: Like it or not (and I take it that Ron doesn’t like it), the official, endorsed, published, voted, endorsed, sanctioned, (add your own synonyms here _____) position of the world-wide Seventh-day Adventist Church is that the Genesis creation account is to be literally understood as communicating an actual, literal, solar Six Day Creation.

Open-and-shut case, yes? Well, apparently some of the professors at La Sierra haven’t been reading the history or doctrinal statements, and have been treating evolution in a less-than-completely-hostile fashion. An example posted online is the syllabus of Bio112, which is 1/3 devoted to evolution and contains a fairly strong statement that students need to learn about the evidence for evolution, whether or not they decide to believe it. This article gives the “dirt” on four La Sierra biology profs that apparently defiantly teach evolution. This has got some La Sierra graduate and Adventist named Shane Hilde so annoyed that he has launched a petition drive and website (it’s a big and detailed website, with the goal of cracking down on evolution at SDA universities.

Hilde’s campaign seems to be working. The board of trustees decision at La Sierra is any indication, it seems to be working. Another indication comes from an October article by Hilde:

One has to wonder why LSU refuses to be transparent. As the veil is being pulled back, some parents are realizing LSU is not the place for their children. One such parent, Karen McPherson, said: “My daughter went to La Sierra. When I discovered they were teaching naturalistic evolution – I transferred her to Pacific Union College. The transfer was for this reason alone!”

This passage is…interesting. Apparently McPherson thinks that PUC (an Adventist school in the hills of the wine country just 1 hour north of San Francisco) is a resolutely YEC school. I thought so also, until I visited it in 2006. Here’s the story.

In 2006, Wes Elsberry and I were invited to come to PUC and debate evolution for part of a student-organized speaker series. We were initially hesitant, since we are generally skeptical of debating creationists. However, after some discussion with the organizers, we grudgingly signed up, since it seemed like there was some chance for a reasonable discussion rather than just a Gish-gallop debate. Wes and I drove up to PUC – but, aware of the YECiness of Adventists, we went in as armed to the teeth as academics can be, with huge powerpoint files solely devoted to putting evidence for the age of the earth and common ancestry as bluntly and non-deniably as possible. When I spoke, I popped the slides up one-by-one and used the basic refrain, “Here are the hard facts. If this evidence has been hidden from you before now by your teachers and professors, you should ask yourself why.” It was pretty much a go-in-with-blazing-guns strategy.

However, as the discussion ensued, the students, and some of the professors, had some news for me. “You’ve got us all wrong,” they said. “We’re not all old-fashioned young-earth creationists and anti-evolutionists here, that’s an old stereotype about Adventists.” (Note: this is not a direct quote, rather it is just the gist of what I remember hearing.) Subsequent discussion indicated that many of the students & profs were reasonably well-informed about evolution and not really skeptical of it. After some interesting chats, Wes and I drove home, shaking our heads and commenting that if Seventh Day Adventists were becoming OK with evolution, we should keep our eyes open for flying pigs and freezing hells.

So, anyway, the point is: watch out Hilde & McPherson! It looks like Pacific Union College isn’t safe, either! Light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks!

(The other point is: even if the claims in the movie Expelled were true, which they aren’t, they still don’t add up to anything like the campaigns that have been waged against supporters of mainstream science at fundamentalist colleges. Such things have been going on since the 1800s at evagelical schools; it has just taken until the 21st century for the Adventist schools to catch up.)