David Brown's website
Science and faith is one of those issues that can turn Christian congregations from the supportive and considerate environments that they should be, and usually are, to something very different and very unpleasant. The transition can be rapid, and the collateral damage considerable.
Having experienced such a transition, a brief personal reflection may serve to warn others who refuse to place faith and science as irreconcilable opposites, and who may as a result be targets for those with a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible (though ‘fundamental’ is something of a misnomer in a religion where the fundamentals are supposed to be sacrificial love and compassion, not dogma).
The background: some two years ago I was a member of a Christadelphian church in the West Midlands, normally a friendly enough community albeit somewhat averse to change, and a congregation of which I and my family had been part for some seventeen years. For the earlier part of that time, I had taken a sceptical opinion of evolutionary science, but gradually came to the view – largely in response to the overwhelming evidence of modern genetics – that evolution is indeed the mechanism by which the diversity of living things came to be. That view is one I voiced in discussion and in a talk, stressing and supporting my conviction that acceptance of science, evolution included, and Biblically-based Christian faith are fully compatible provided that one took a non-literal interpretation of the early chapters of the book of Genesis together with allusions to those chapters elsewhere in the Bible. I was also able to show that the Bible itself, in a number of ways, supports just such an interpretation.
The reaction was appreciation, indeed relief, from some, but furious opposition from others (usually expressed to third parties). A covert visit by a small delegation to the church committee, wanting my views suppressed, found a ready hearing in the secretary of the congregation (in the absence of a professional ministry, the lead figure in the administration of the church), who proceeded to mount a personal campaign against me. Having first, reasonably enough at first, asked a member of more balanced outlook to look into the matter calmly, he then concealed the outcome from a church meeting in order to secure my exclusion from any active part in the congregation until "certain questions" had been discussed. It was took two months for the committee to decide exactly what they wanted to ask me, and when they did manage to make it clear, a prolonged series of discussions and exchanges took place before matters were resolved with a view to my resumption of normal participation.
That proposal was to be put before the next business meeting of the congregation in the expectation that it would be endorsed. To widespread surprise, the secretary broke ranks shortly before that meeting and circulated an inflammatory document urging people to vote for my exclusion, stepping down from his position as secretary, though not from the church committee in order to do so but. It later became clear that the secretary had family reasons for becoming agitated about the evolution issue, since his son, once a Christadelphian, had become an outspoken atheist and opponent of religion, authoring a vitriolic blog to voice his views.
The result of this behaviour were to prove divisive. A tied vote ensued and a group of members, surprisingly including the secretary himself, were asked to try to find a way forward. I was kept out of the picture until some weeks later, two earnest individuals arrived at my door to hand me a copy of a ballot paper that had already been despatched to members of the church. It asked them to vote in support of still more extensive restrictions on what I could so and say, outside the local congregation as well as within it; sandwiched that proposal between others to which virtually no-one could object, much along motherhood and apple pie lines: and then asked for one ‘Yes’ to the lot. A move reminiscent of the more dishonest political ploys: but of course, successful, and I found myself excluded from any active part in the church.
My critics however were not idle. It transpired that some were "lurking", looking at material I posted online and in discussion forums and a website which I maintain as a place to make a variety of papers available on matters of science, Christian faith and related topics. Critics particularly seized on the view that one should "give other Christians the benefit of the doubt": a view which is by no means exceptional among Christadelphians but was objected to by extremists who view the denomination as having a uniquely true understanding of Christian faith and of biblical teaching. I was accused of speaking "with scorn and contempt" about the Christadelphian church and its use of the term ‘the Truth’ (to apply to the denomination itself), an allegation which was never substantiated and on which my challenge to cite text from the website that contained such criticism received only obfuscation in response. Eventually, a proposal was made by the committee that I should be expelled from membership, although by this time one honourable member of the committee had resigned and subsequently joined another congregation. An open meeting of the church held to discuss the matter voted to hold a ballot on throwing me out; a move that would have split the congregation and made useful involvement impossible, whatever the result – so it seemed more realistic to leave.
The most apposite comment on the final meeting came from one elderly member who likened it to a lynch mob: he and his wife shortly afterwards left the church and the denomination altogether and were last heard of happily established among the Methodists.
My unfortunate spouse, who had relied much more heavily than I on the church for her friendships and social contacts, was (and is) devastated by the rejection that in effect, applied to her too, as if she was tainted by association with a ‘heretic’. Some – though happily not all – of those she had regarded as close friends dumped her along with me, and the emotional and psychological damage continues. She had, unwisely as it turned out, confided in two of the committee members about her feelings of hurt and rejection, only to find them, in a Biblical phrase, ‘broken reeds’.
The lesson is not to avoid questioning, debating and examining matters of belief: to do so would be to yield to fundamentalism and religious dogma. Neither is it to abandon reconciling science and faith – God’s world and God’s word, the ‘two books’. But it is to anticipate the possibility of a ‘witch hunt’, and to be saddened but not surprised when friends start keeping you at a distance or worse, and a supportive, friendly church becomes a disturbing and unsettling – and sometimes an impossible – place to be.