Street Lights and Salvation: An Exodus from the Christian Anti-Science Movement
By Eve Stewart
This is a guest post from Eve Stewart, a dear friend of our oldest daughter, Anya. Eve was raised in an Evangelical, inerrantist tradition and was homeschooled using Classical Christian methods and materials. Eve has written a powerful article about her experiences being raised in that atmosphere as well as the consequent deconstruction of her beliefs as she attends a secular university.
I hope many parents in conservative Evangelical circles will read and take heed.
Content warning: mentions of transphobia, sexual assault, and victim-blaming
My first major self-revelation during college was triggered by “Wizards of Waverly Place.” I was sitting at my desk, staring out my dorm room window at the orange glow of a street light. It was the same orange glow from the street light outside my childhood bedroom window. My roommate had just been teasing me about all the pop culture references I could not understand because of how restricted my television and internet usage was while growing up in a conservative Christian household. While I never expressed a strong interest in music as a child, I also never tried to explore it because most popular music was off-limits for my young religious ears. I was told that as a Christian, I was somehow too good for it. I remember downloading exactly one Katy Perry song on my dad’s iPod and being told it was the only song of hers I would be allowed to listen to. After my dad saw the cover art for her album “Teenage Dream,” he deemed it too risque for me. I used to love shopping with my mom—not just for the clothes but also because I could stand in the middle of the aisle and strain my ears to hear the songs coming from the store speakers.
This conversation with my roommate about “Wizards of Waverly Place” made me realize the huge discrepancies between our experiences, especially with pop culture. Looking at the street light by my dorm, I was reminded of less innocuous beliefs my family and I used to have. My beliefs have changed drastically since I was a child silently jamming to Taylor Swift in the middle of a Target, back when I was immersed in a community that helped give rise to an anti-science movement.
Let me clarify what I mean by “anti-science.” Anti-science beliefs treat what most would consider objective facts, like the deaths from COVID-19, as if they are not empirically proven and are up for debate. They rarely claim that all of science is flawed, and often use their own form of science to support their ideas. For instance, Young Earth Creationists often claim that radiometric dating (one of the most common and most trusted ways geologists date fossils) is an inaccurate method but instead try to use other knowledge of geology to scientifically “disprove” evolution. Anti-science beliefs also often overlap; many of my friends who do not believe in evolution also harbor varying degrees of disbelief in COVID-19. My former church and homeschool community are home to many anti-maskers today. Especially because motivations for these beliefs are often rooted in religion, it is common to use the word “believe” in these circles when referring to things like COVID-19 and evolution. Thus I will be using phrases like “believe in evolution” to refer to people who accept common scientific thought.
Growing up, many people within my church and homeschool community identified as Young Earth Creationists, or YECs. Essentially, YECs believe that the theory of evolution is a conspiracy against the Christian faith and that the earth is only about 6,000 years old, hence the “young” in their name. Not every Young Earth Creationist has an explicitly hostile attitude towards all aspects of science, though many of them do. Radiometric dating? That’s a lie. Fossils? They’re fake and scientists don’t know how to date them. Science? It can’t prove anything.
The sentence “Science can’t prove anything” was written in bold capital letters in the first chapter of my Christian biology textbook from a series called “Apologia,” as this principle is central to a YEC outlook on science. There is nothing wrong with taking religious beliefs into account when assessing science or one’s worldview. However, I think the overarching flaw in the YEC movement is its resistance to reconciling religion with empirically grounded science. Instead, it frames science as the enemy of religion. It claims there is an anti-religious agenda behind theories like evolution. My acceptance of evolution does not mean that I hate organized religion or that I believe all human behavior can be explained by some cold, nihilistic form of social Darwinism. But I was trained to think that every “believer” in evolution saw the world that way.
While my family was never as passionate as many of my friends and teachers were (and still are) about this battle against science, we still once identified ourselves as Young Earth Creationists. As a child, I believed that the earth was created in a six-day process, as described in Genesis. It was thrilling to learn arguments in some of my homeschool classes that could silence misguided evolutionists so that they—like my family and I—could be saved from the lies of mainstream science. Statements like “evolution is just a theory” have been pounded into my head over the years. We also harbored a more general distrust of science. When I struggled with depression in middle school, I believed if I ever told my doctor I was sad, I would be taken away from my family and locked in a mental facility. I was told that the only way to address depression was by praying, so there was a time where I would spend almost every night reading the same Bible verses over and over again as I sat in the glow of the street light by my window, begging for relief.
In 2017, when my family and I collectively came to the realization that not every verse in the Bible must be taken literally and that evolution is indeed compatible with our religion, we had to address this change of heart up front with our friends. We felt the need to do this because many in our community thought that “believing” in evolution indicated a weak faith in God. They saw it as a slippery slope that could lead to us not believing in the Bible at all. My friends’ parents did not want them associating with anyone who could lead them away from their faith. It felt like our relationship with our religious friends depended on these conversations. During the awkward conversation I had with one of my best friends about this revelation, I watched the look in her eyes change from curiosity to condescension. I was a “touchy-feely liberal” now, too attached to the ideas of mainstream science to truly follow Christ. I was the brainwashed one. She is still firm in her stance against evolution, and while she tried to spare my feelings, her shock at the news was evident. She must have been wondering what would come next. Would I start believing in climate change? Would I start believing people when they say their sexuality is not a choice? Would I pursue higher education at a secular school? The answer to all of these questions was yes, much to her and many others’ obvious disappointment. While our families are still close, their comments on how much we have “changed” and how we are “liberal” now do not go unnoticed. To this day, there is still tension between my family and some of our oldest friends over this issue.
Until coming to Colorado College, I was surrounded by people in the Young Earth Creationist community. Even after I moved from my homeschool community in Pennsylvania to a private school in Arizona in 2017, many of my friends and neighbors were YECs. At school, my brother and I were often mistaken for atheists just because we “believed” in evolution. YECs like to frame the “debate” around evolution as if it is a partisan issue. Even today, I catch myself accidentally using flawed terminology. I am tempted to use the terms “right” versus “left” to describe people who do and do not accept evolution as fact. But of course, not every Republican harbors anti-science beliefs and not every coronavirus denier identifies as Republican. My community growing up claimed that their denial of science came from both their religion and their political stance. Because of that, many YECs act as if my choice to call myself an “evolutionist” must mean that I hate God. They have been trained to see trust in science as a political, moral, and religious matter.
I still find myself becoming angry at these people despite having once been a part of their world, but I have to force myself to stop and step into their shoes. When I was a part of the YEC community, fighting evolution was seen as an unfortunate but necessary moral imperative. I remember wishing that I was “liberal,” as we termed most people we disagreed with, because I hated the conflict I feared was being spread through my beliefs.
In my eighth grade biology class, my teacher refused to even talk about evolution, claiming that it was just too ridiculous to entertain. Our textbook dedicated an entire chapter to why evolution is a lie, but even this was not worth our time, according to my teacher. Instead, she focused on more “important” pursuits which involved blatant transphobic and homophobic ideas. We were taught that queerness was a willful act of disobeying god, an act of rebellion against our religion. My teacher once led class exercises on how to identify transgender people on the street so that we could properly evangelize them. I remember sitting in class wondering how anyone could have the nerve to actually walk up to someone on the street and tell them that their identity is invalid.
While I would like to engage with and forgive people from the anti-science movement who are open to discussion, the damage that can be caused by their beliefs should not be ignored. People who deny that COVID-19 exists do not wake up every day hoping for the sickness and death of thousands of people, but the harm caused by their ignorance cannot be overlooked.
Conversation and offering alternative ways of thinking are, in many ways, a form of mercy. Though many people like my biology teacher exist, there are also a lot of people who are still genuinely trying to grapple with what is true and right. Though not all people are, some may be willing to change their minds with time and through dialogue. But being in the position to take on dialogue with the anti-science community is in many ways a privilege. Having grown up in anti-science circles, it is significantly easier for me to have sympathy for them. And being a cis, straight, white woman, I have never been subject to some of these people’s harshest rhetoric and discrimination.
I’m still in touch with some people from my old community, and I recently talked to some of them about these issues. One of my closest friends, Anya, left her Southern Baptist church where she was raised as a YEC a few years ago, upon discovering that one of the pastors was a convicted child molester.
Within our churches, Anya and I both experienced the pride people have in claiming to have discovered “objective truth.” Even at my Christian high school, teachers referred to Christian principles as “the capital-T Truth.” They claim their answers to questions are the end-all and that every other religion is incorrect and damned to Hell. When people use religiously fueled anti-science reasoning, they do not view it as a personal preference, but as objective fact. That is part of why trying to convince people that evolution or COVID-19 are real is not always as simple as showing them CDC data.
“The people who talk the most about searching for objective truth are the ones who think they always have it. It makes it near impossible to change their minds,” Anya told me.
When spreading the word about their pastor’s criminal record, Anya and her family expected outrage from the church. Instead, many members defended him; they claimed the church was right to forgive him of his sins and to put him in charge of the nursery.
“When you’re in that environment, you don’t know what to research,” she said. “You
don’t even know your beliefs are a problem.”
I often catch myself using the exact same tactics as the people I argue with to shut down conversation. It is easy to look at the people I grew up around and simply feel enraged at the hurt and misinformation that they have spread. The deaths caused by COVID-19 are a tragedy, and outrage is a warranted and proper response to the mismanagement we have seen. But while rage can fuel change and can get people’s attention, in my experience, it does not fix anything alone.
Part of how people like Donald Trump acquire such large and blindly supportive crowds is by focusing on what divides us. He makes his more zealous followers feel like vigilantes for justice against the insanity of the “radical left.” Given my experience within, and now outside of such circles, I have never found responding to aggressive rhetoric with aggressive rhetoric to be effective. I do not want to involve some of the friends I interviewed in this article because I still think they can change. Many are willing to come out and say that they need to do more research on certain issues now that they are older. They do not realize how hateful their beliefs are. So while this does not excuse the harm their words cause, it makes me less inclined to use them here. My friends are working towards a different understanding of the world at their own pace. I would rather help them as they walk than embarrass or enrage them.
I found in my community that a lot of anti-science beliefs are ultimately based in fear of the unknown and pride. I share the following story not to encourage readers to sympathize with the racists or the fascists of our world, but to acknowledge that there are a lot of kids out there like I was who, despite being raised around MAGA-hat-wearing Republicans, secretly wish they could read real science textbooks.
The guest preacher at my church had been preaching for 35 minutes already. I was sitting there on the hard wooden pew kicking my legs back and forth. I was so proud of myself. I had actually listened to the entire sermon! It was just some story about a rebellious teenage girl, not the usual complex theological analysis that I could never hope to wrap my head around as a 12-year-old. The girl in the story was heading out to a party. She was mad at her boyfriend and wanted to distract herself. The preacher noted her short skirt. That’s when my stomach dropped. I knew what was coming. The story ended with the girl being gang-raped at the party. The preacher smiled and said, “She was raped, obviously, because of her short skirt. When we disobey God like her, we pay the price.” Even after being raised around such rampant sexism, I sensed there was something wrong with that narrative. There was a voice inside my head saying that this story felt unfair. How could the actions of boys at the party be the fault of the victim? But the congregation just kept smiling, nodding in agreement.
Growing up, my family and I drove 45 minutes each way to a small Presbyterian church in central Pennsylvania every Sunday. My family did not agree with everything the people around me believed, but I was always told to listen to my pastor and the elders of the church. After all, we drove farther than any of my friends did to church because we thought we had found a great fit. I grew up in the middle of many conflicting beliefs. We would drive to church, where I was discouraged from reading the Bible since it was not my role as a woman to do so, but then return home where my dad would read chapters of his huge biblical commentaries aloud. I would go to my homeschool co-op where my history teacher would talk openly about why women must submit to their husbands, but then return home to see my mom making big decisions right alongside my dad. Between this and my own moral compass, I found that I was conflicted about many of my beliefs. But to mask this conflict and anxiety, I simply leaned into these beliefs even more. It made me feel more powerful against the non-Christian world that I had never experienced but was told I would have to fight against.
I was told I should not read the Bible myself since I apparently would not have the capacity to understand it. My understanding did not matter anyway, since it was my role as a woman to just believe whatever my father (and later, my husband) told me. I grew up watching my dad read countless commentaries on theology. I always wanted to be like him, to know the god I was supposed to pray to every day. Wanting to emulate my father, I would ask to attend the elusive Bible studies he was invited to after church services. They were called “Head of Household” meetings because they were only for men. As I’m sure you could have guessed, I was not invited. So while my dad was able to have discussions about faith as the “head” of our household, I was left in the nursery to watch my younger siblings and to foster what my parents called my “maternal instinct.” When I spoke too harshly or was not eager enough to care for my siblings, I was rebuked, even called “evil” at one point for my lack of conformity to our standards for women.
My dad would talk excitedly with my brother on the way home from church about all he was learning, saying that my brother could be a pastor someday because of how inquisitive he was. During one of these drives, I mustered the courage to ask if I could be a pastor someday. My dad looked at me in disbelief and simply said, “No” before continuing to talk with my brother. My dad was not trying to be mean, but given our family’s beliefs about a woman’s role in society, the answer to my question seemed obvious.
In my homeschool community, similar ideas were enforced. As I have already mentioned, my history teacher liked to go on tangents about how I was to submit to my husband when I got older. When taking a mock trial course where we examined cases of domestic abuse to learn more about American legal procedures, my teacher told us that if we were ever hurt by our husbands, it was our biblical duty to keep it a secret. We were to consult with our pastor to find out how we could please our husbands best.
I want to take a moment to make a disclaimer for the sake of my parents who will be reading this. Here is my official disclaimer that NO, my childhood was not a sad and horrible experience. NO, people reading this should not look at my parents like they are terrible people. My parents have changed their minds about more things than most people do in their lifetime. So, while they may have spent time in circles they now disagree with, their growth is a testament to their humility and intellect. There are definitely experiences from my childhood that I am recovering from, but I am ultimately thankful for the insight they have given me. Despite how it may sound, even at their most conservative my family was more tolerant than many on the religious right.
I want to emphasize how difficult it is to leave anti-science schools of thought. The people around me treated my stance on evolution like it determined the fate of my soul. Even when people have the power to educate themselves—whether it is through school, the internet, experience, or dialogue—they risk losing their family and friends if they become dissidents. I was told that we were different from the rest of the world. We were better. We were smarter. We were like an underground resistance fighting against people who hate God and who hate Christians. Between having this mentality beaten into my brain my entire life and the risk of losing those closest to me, the only way to silence all my anxiety seemed to be to ride along with my community on the Trump train back in 2016.
My dad was always reading, and after years of exposing himself to different viewpoints, he realized how much he disagreed with the people surrounding us. When watching Donald Trump respond to the leaked recording of his infamous “grab her by the …” comment, he stood up and said he could not believe what the country had come to. Our move to Arizona catalyzed even more change for my family, as we removed ourselves from the anti-science voices we had been surrounded by for so long. My family and I began to embrace our new views as we wrapped up the school year connecting with our homeschool co-op in Pennsylvania online. The following year, I attended a local private Christian school and came face-to-face with some of the beliefs that I had evolved beyond.
My principal senior year told me that going to Colorado College would be a disaster. “They are a secular school,” he warned me. “They hate people like us.”
“Eve, you need to focus on what’s important for a girl like you: how to be a good wife and a good mother.” He stopped there. That was it. That was all I needed to be focusing on. Every one of my senior year teachers discouraged me from coming to CC. They perpetuated a victim complex where they claimed that Christians are hated by everyone outside of the church. Perhaps to their surprise, I have not been chased with pitchforks by my classmates at CC. If anything, I have found this space to be much more open and tolerant than any of the Christian environments I found myself in as a kid. I am only a first year, so I have not been here long or had the typical first year experience, but I do not see my atheist friends as wolves in sheeps’ clothing trying to snatch me away from God. No one leaps for my throat when I say I am religious, as I was warned they would when I was a child.
I thought that by coming to college I would be able to transform into a new person unaffected by my past, but I have realized my old church will always be a part of my story. The words of that guest preacher live inside my mind along with all the other voices I have been trying to silence for years. Even here at CC, I am not free from the influences of my former 12 anti-science community. But these stories do not have to be a weakness. The point of this article is not to incite pity for me or shock at how I grew up.
While my friends here love and accept me, my childhood sounds pretty weird compared to many of theirs. The ideology I was raised on was rather one-sided, so it is easy for me to say that I was sheltered. But if you have lived your whole life surrounded by the same ideas, you are sheltered in those ideas no matter how true or tolerant they are. So, I encourage anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with the anti-science movement and the community that surrounds it to take a moment to consider the mindset and experiences behind it.
The shame of having once been a part of such a toxic culture sticks with me. It is still hard for me to wear short skirts. It is only within the past few months that I have mustered the courage to wear crop tops. Even when I am just with my family, I will find myself changing out of my single spaghetti strap top the moment I put it on because I feel ashamed. I feel like I’m being watched. I feel like I could be touched or grabbed or raped at any moment because of my outfit. Growing up, that is what I was taught.
Even writing this article is difficult. I cannot just sit down and rant about my experiences because I have to protect myself and my family from losing our friends and being called heretics. It has been a painstaking process trying to choose which stories I can and cannot share in an attempt to both depict the reality of the brainwashed mindset so many science deniers have and to protect the people I care about. This process has made me realize how brainwashed I really was. It is still difficult for me to gauge which stories are worth sharing and which have rhetoric that is too harmful to repeat because I was desensitized to all of it for so long.
People outside of anti-science communities, myself included, love asking how on earth anyone could believe COVID-19 is not real, or that the CDC is lying to us as part of some conspiracy against Donald Trump, or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Growing up, I had a sense of pride in my victim-complex. Most of my community felt like we had uncovered some secret trick—a trick that proved we were the ones who had it all figured out, not the scientists. The people I know who claim evolution is not real are not trained in science, they are afraid of it. They deal with their fear by trying to convince themselves that they do not need science because they are somehow above it. People feel like they are irredeemable. Many cling to their outlandish beliefs because the chasm of shame and guilt they know they would have to cross in order to get to the other side feels too large. I am indescribably thankful for my family’s change of heart, so if I can help bring that to even just one more person, all of the uncomfortable conversations I have had will be worth it.
There are still 12-year-old girls sitting on their floor and praying in the glow of the street lamp outside their window, not realizing that someday they will be able to stand up and leave. I thought I was all alone. I thought that no one would accept me if I changed my mind on issues I was convinced would determine my salvation. As I sat there staring at my street lamp, countless other kids of all kinds of political beliefs and religions were perhaps staring at theirs, wondering about the world and their place in it. We can all stare at the same thing and draw completely different conclusions. While the street lamp outside of my dorm room can trigger unpleasant memories, it reminds me of how far my family and I have come. It gives me hope for the friends we have left behind. For all of the pastors and teachers who seem unwilling to change their minds, there are a lot of people who someday just might. There are street lights everywhere.
Great read. I can relate to many of your sentiments, having being raised in a similarly YEC environment as a kid. I hope more people with upbringings similar to us see this piece.
I am shocked and so, so sorry that your environment discouraged you from studying the Scriptures; in all my years in Presbyterian churches I never encountered that and am so horrified on your behalf! My dad didn’t let my sister major in theology like she wanted to, though. I was homeschooled and pop radio was not allowed. Dating was suspect in favor of “courtship” for marriage. Romance was a dirty word or a laughingstock. Your account of outright rape culture was horrifying but it is certainly pervasive; I’m about to turn 30 and will be wearing my first real two-piece bathing suit this summer. Modesty culture was difficult to get out of my head and I blame myself for not getting over it sooner like others did. You’re not alone; there are so many of us with you on this journey. Here’s hoping the shame fades into lightness of heart and excitement for the journey ahead into this big beautiful world!