From the July/August, 2007 issue of Touchstone

They Are A-Changin’ by Phillip E. Johnson

They Are A-Changin’

I do not believe that the editors of the New York Times purposely design their newspaper to please me, but during this spring, the contrast between two stories gave me much delight. On April 15, the brilliant columnist David Brooks provided an essay titled “The Age of Darwin.” Brooks was referring, not to Darwin’s original theory of how favorable variations spread through pre-existing populations, but to the ambitious gene-centered Darwinian worldview of today, which aspires to explain virtually everything we do as a direct or indirect product of variations in the genes we have inherited from pre-human ancestors.

Brooks gives a summary review of modern intellectual history: “Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today, Darwin is everywhere.” He notes that “scarcely a month goes by” when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover story telling us that something we had once attributed to choice is actually controlled by our genes, be it diet, sexual orientation, or religion.

For instance, the November 13, 2006 cover article of Time consisted of a debate titled “God versus Science.” Time’s introduction to that debate observed that “brain chemists track imbalances that could account for the ecstatic states of visionary saints or, some suggest, of Jesus.”

“Confident and exhilarated” is how Brooks sums up these evolutionary theorists, who “believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.”

Campus Shift

And yet, though we may live in the age of Darwin, religion is increasingly becoming the topic of choice on college campuses. That is the import of the second delightful contribution by the New York Times, which appeared less than three weeks later, on May 2. This article by Alan Finder explained how, on secular campuses across the country, from Harvard to the University of Wisconsin to the University of California, Berkeley, where I reside, “chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember.”

As evidence of this growing interest, the report noted that increasing numbers of students “are majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death.”

“At Harvard these days,” the Times quoted theology professor and preacher Peter Gomes, “there is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.” I can’t speak for 100 years yet, but the scene sure has changed a lot since I entered Harvard College in 1957.

Among explanations offered by university officials for the surge of interest in religion are the visibility of religion in politics, “an influx of evangelical students at secular universities,” and growing numbers of students from other countries, which means that “students arrive with a broader array of religious experiences.” At Berkeley, the Reverend Randy Bare, the Presbyterian campus pastor, noted that many among the large number of Asian-American undergraduates come from “observant Christian homes.” “That’s new,” he said, “and it’s a remarkable shift.”

Peace & Friendliness

Reading these two articles in succession gave me a sense that our young century is moving in two opposing directions at once.

Some, as Brooks posits, are captivated by the ambitious Darwinian materialism being promoted by evolutionary theorists with their “universal framework to explain human behavior.” When we look, however, at the college students who will be the scientists, professors, and public intellectuals of the next generation, we see that they are interested in something very different, even on campuses where we might least expect it. They are more likely to want to form a relationship with Jesus than to explain away his words as the product of a chemical imbalance.

Interestingly, the May 2 article makes no mention of any conflict, either among those diverse groups of students or between the students and university faculty or administrators. This peace may be partly because religious interests do not distract these students from serious academic work.

For example, Christian graduate students put on an annual research fair at our First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, standing beside posters describing their research and answering the questions of all who stop by. The atmosphere is like that one would find at a scientific conference, only friendlier. I don’t know of any previous generation of students that behaved so professionally. I wonder how our world’s ways of thinking will be affected when this student generation comes of age as parents, professors, deans, and newspaper editors.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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