Beyond the Primordial Ooze
“Real” Americans and the supposed divide between science and religion.
Jeff, John, Eldon, Dave, Ben, and Bruce meet most weekdays around the back table at the only McDonald’s in Ravenswood, West Virginia, chomping sausage McGriddles and swapping theories about why “it has all gone to hell.” One reason, they tell me, is because the aluminum plant south of town has shrunk from 12,000 to fewer than 1,000 employees, and another is that “people nowadays simply have no common sense.” The men offer a variety of examples, focusing on out-of-town visitors who can’t drive, don’t think, and huddle mindlessly, blocking the fast food eatery’s back entrance.
The six of them are retired, having once earned their livings as electricians, aluminum smelters, mechanical engineers, and dairy farmers. They seem inordinately proud of the fact that Ravenswood is said to have once had more churches per capita than any other town in America.
“We got one on every corner,” John boasts.
“We’re in the Guinness Book of World Records,” Jeff adds, while the rest of the men sip their coffee and nod.
It is a chilly late-March morning and I’m an out-of-town visitor as well, on a road trip to explore the notion that America’s current political divisions are tied somehow to conflicting attitudes about science and religion, rationality and faith. Ravenswood, with its many churches and dying aluminum industry, seems a likely spot to ask some questions.
Jeff jumps right in, all too happy to oblige my curiosity.
“Science and the Bible go together just fine,” he reassures me. “They’re finding that more and more once they track the DNA. In fact, they’re finding that the people who were in Egypt actually came from Europe.”
Jeff—mid-sixties, stubble-faced, sporting a US Marine Corps ball cap and green plaid shirt—speaks at a dizzying pace, rattling off more ideas than my pencil can handle. But from the looks of him, he’s just warming up.
“A lot of people don’t know this,” he continues, “but Einstein got his theory of relativity directly out of the Bible. Of course, he was threatened not to talk about it because the powers that be wanted to push evolution. Science and religion used to be the same thing, before the Tower of Babel. You know that, right?”
Jeff’s theories on Einstein and Babel are news to me, but the others just chuckle and smirk, like maybe they’ve heard all of this before.
Dave leans forward. “Listen, if you want to know about Bigfoot and UFOs, that guy right there’s your best source.” He points to John, a red-faced, thickset man in dungarees and a stained white T-shirt. “He got them both up his holler.”
I’ve clearly lost control of the conversation, and we’re only a minute or so in.
John puts down his breakfast sandwich, scowls in Dave’s direction. “They’re just trying to get my goat, trying to make me mad.” Then he turns back to the out-of-towner, the scowl widening into a friendly grin. “But I’ve … never … been mad … a day in my life.”
“Oh really,” Bruce counters. “Not a day in your life? How many marriages you had?”
“Three, I think.”
Eldon, tall, lanky, and pushing 80, scolds John. “Now you tell this man the truth about those Bigfoot stories.”
“All he saw was the hair,” Jeff intervenes. “Some hair on a tree. He didn’t see no Bigfoot.”
“He did,” Dave insists. “He just couldn’t get close enough.”
And then silence, the Sasquatch thread apparently finished.
Until Jeff decides to fill me in on John and the UFOs.
“He was out taking a pee and he chased the aliens away. He saved the world.”
For the past year, I’ve been part of a project titled Think Write Publish: Science & Religion, an attempt to use the tools of creative nonfiction to explore the idea that faith and rationality can coexist just nicely, thank you, despite various brouhahas over where we came from, how we got here, and whether the human species is or is not in the process of destroying the planet.
As of late, thanks no doubt to a horrifically contentious election cycle pockmarked by extended, often hyperbolic skirmishes over both science and religion, Americans appear even more divided, locked away in separate, seemingly incompatible camps. That’s the dominant narrative in the media, at least, but my instinct is that it can’t be quite so simple as all that. I’m guessing the truth of it all is more complex, less predictable.
Which led me to Ravenswood, and to other small towns in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and central Ohio, where I had a series of conversations with so-called “real” Americans: folks outside of politics and professional punditry, and apart from the expert, analytical academic bubble where I—a tenured professor, professional skeptic, and inveterate agnostic—spend most of my time.
I wanted to speak to people who were neither steeped in political rhetoric nor provoked into shouting by the presence of television cameras, and my questions were as simple as I could make them: Is the rift between those who favor science and those who follow religion as real and as wide as some suggest? Is there room for more complex, more nuanced views? If so, what do they look like?
One damp winter evening, I visit the Mills family in central Pennsylvania, a conservative swath of largely white, religious counties that consistently challenge the liberal vote tallies emanating from large urban outposts such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The Mills are devout evangelical Christians, meaning for them the Bible in the ultimate authority on all matters, every word true, a direct message from God. I join the parents, Don and Rhonda, and two of their three children in the family’s living room, in chairs prearranged into a conversational circle.
The two sons are just home on spring break from Grove City College. The older of the two, Samuel, plans to follow his father into engineering, while the younger, Isaac, a sophomore, is double majoring in biology and Biblical and Religious Studies, a combination I admit to finding surprising.
“Science and religion go hand in hand,” Isaac assures me. Confident and well-spoken, Isaac has close-cropped blond hair, the wide, square shoulders of a disciplined weightlifter, and just the hint of a beard. “There have always been strong Christians who are strong scientists. And those scientists could prove the theories that they came up with.”
He looks over at his brother and they both nod.
“In more recent history, though, there is the idea that you don’t have to prove what you believe in order for it to be true,” he continues. “Darwin, for example. He really was never able to prove each step in what is called evolution.”
Rhonda leans forward. “In today’s day and age,” she interjects, “opinions weigh more heavily than truth. Well, I hate to be a bearer of bad news, but not everybody’s opinion matters.”
“People follow what seems more exciting,” Isaac continues. “You know, is it exciting to think that something came out of the primordial ooze and changed to this and changed to that, as opposed to something being created? I mean, yeah, it seems exciting, but there’s not the evidence.”
I could argue that the idea of an all-powerful, white-bearded Creator waving his hands and fashioning all of this in seven days is just as electrifying as the idea of protohuman tadpoles crawling out of ancient muck. They’re both rather amazing, when you come right down to it. Isaac’s idea, on the other hand, that those who support evolution are merely caught up in the allure of the idea, seems to ignore most of what science knows about biology.
Isaac’s older brother, Samuel, anticipates my unspoken objection, jumping in to point out that scientific certainty can change over time. “During the Middle Ages, people thought mice came from grain, because whenever they opened a sack of grain, they saw mice running out. Today, that idea seems silly.”
“Another good example would be the Ptolemaic model of the solar system,” Isaac follows. “We thought the Earth was at the center, and then Copernicus came along, had the exact same data, but came to a different conclusion.”
Grove City College advertises “an academically excellent and Christ-centered learning and living experience,” so I feel safe guessing that Isaac and Samuel are presenting ideas learned in the classroom. They’ve paid attention, obviously, a fact that warms my professorial heart.
“Science is right, and the Bible is right,” Isaac explains further. “If they seem to disagree, it’s because our interpretation of the data is wrong.” He pauses briefly. “Or maybe our interpretation of the scriptures is wrong.”
This is some of the nuance for which I’ve been looking. Isaac is perfectly at ease with science, yet still holds the firm faith of an evangelical. Whatever problems that poses can be solved, in his view, with patience.
The father, Don, has been sitting quietly at the edge of the room, watching and listening. But when Samuel, a few months from graduation and looking locally for jobs in engineering, expresses disappointment that there are no openings at the plant where his father works, Don finally joins in:
“Yeah. The last administration did a lot to destroy the industry.”
“Coal?” I ask.
Don nods. He works as an engineer in the nearby town of Tyrone, making particle reduction machinery for the mining industry: “We crush coal, basically.” Samuel perks up, offering various examples of inconsistencies in “the data you see from Al Gore and that crew.” Climate data goes back only to the mid-1600s, he explains, “and they try to draw conclusions from ice cores, but I don’t think it’s enough.”
“Do you know where Al Gore’s family money comes from?” Don asks me.
I shrug, having no idea.
“Mining. I wonder if he’s going to give that money back.”
For a moment, I fear our conversation is going to veer into politics, marooning us on either side of the MSNBC/Fox News abyss. I’m also unsure how and to whom former Vice President Gore would return the family fortune. And then, Samuel surprises me.
“We heat our house with sustainable energy,” he announces proudly.
Isaac joins back in. “We actually heat it with the sun and the air, right?”
I look puzzled.
“We have a wood-fired furnace,” Don explains, pointing out the window to the tree-covered acreage behind the house.
“… and a very efficient wood burner,” Samuel overlaps. “We get our heat from the woods, and our syrup from the trees in the spring, and we’ve found a good balance of how much of our resources we use to maximize the efficiency of our property.”
I have liberal friends, environmentalists in their own minds, who do less than the Mills are doing. Whatever their views on global warming and fossil fuels, it is clear the boys enjoy how their steps toward sustainability prove wrong those critics who might want to equate climate change skepticism with energy gluttony.
About then it occurs to me that the house I’m sitting in, a crisscross of wooden posts and beams tying together the first floor with the second floor, and connecting the walls with the ceilings, might be part of the family’s sustainability effort as well.
“Did you build this?” I ask Don.
He smiles, glad that I came around to the realization. “Started excavating in 1995, the day Samuel came home from the hospital. In 1998, the day Isaac came home, we raised the frame.”
Isaac and Samuel joke some about growing up in the handmade house, how the network of posts, beams, and pegs formed a perfect climbing playset for two restless young boys. For a moment, they seem ready to jump up out of their chairs and illustrate.
But it is time for me to go, so the Mills can have their dinner. Rhonda walks me to the door, says she will be praying for me and for the success of the article I am writing.
“I don’t have all of the answers,” she shares, as I duck out into the chilly evening. “We can’t have all the answers, because God is God and we are not. And I’m fine with that.”
I’m fine with that, too: I’m not God. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I even feel about God. I turned my back on organized religion in my late teens—like Groucho, I’m suspicious of any club, or church, that would have me as a member—but all of this had to start somewhere, right? You know, if there really was a Big Bang, who lit the damn match?
It seems clear—to me, at least—that neither science nor religion has the ultimate answer to the gargantuan question “Where exactly did we come from?” So, maybe a modicum of both faith and rationality are in order.
Or as Samuel Mills rightly points out, many Renaissance scientists were motivated by the desire to understand God’s plan in nature. Why can’t the two views simply coexist?
Thirty or so miles down the road, at Standing Stone Coffee in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, I meet Deb Grove. Huntingdon is a railroad and manufacturing town, besieged, like most of the region, by the disappearance of blue collar jobs, but the coffeehouse sits near enough to Juniata College to have a hip campus feel.
Deb, with a PhD in biochemistry from Ohio State, worked a while in cancer research, then went on to direct Penn State’s Genomics Core Facility for 20 years. She is also a lifelong Baptist and identifies as evangelical.
“I was brought up in Ohio, with two hundred years of Baptists behind me,” she shares in a flat Midwestern accent. “Back in the ’60s and ’70s, being Baptist meant you weren’t allowed to dance and you weren’t allowed to have alcohol.”
Deb wears jeans, a striped shirt, a fleece vest sporting the American Birding Association’s logo, and the aura of someone who’s done taking crap from anyone. But then again, listening to Deb’s life story, it doesn’t sound like she’s ever had much tolerance for crap-givers.
The simple act of going off to college was, she explains, “a bit of a rebellion” for a Baptist girl in central Ohio in the 1970s. The idea of an advanced degree in biology was even more unusual, given her strong evangelical roots.
“Frankly, though, once I was I grad school, I got more grief about my gender than I did around my religion,” she tells me. “The chairman of a department I was applying to told me, ‘I don’t think women should go to grad school at all. I have daughters and I don’t think they should do this.’”
But she persisted, as the saying goes. On the day we talk, Deb has been retired for almost a year, trading in days spent sequencing the DNA of coral, ancient bison, and bacteria at the Penn State genomics lab for wandering nearby forest land in search of scarlet tanagers and golden-winged warblers.
Her LinkedIn page lists her “current” job description as:
- Stay in Bed as long as I want
- Get up and have some coffee
- Get some exercise
- Go Birding, Go Birding, Go Birding
- Try out my “new” used golf clubs, visit the local bowling alley, etc etc etc
I overcome a momentary surge of jealousy to ask how she managed to strike a balance at work between the empirical, evidence-based nature of science and the Christian acceptance of revelation and faith.
“I’ve never had a problem with being a scientist and a believer. I don’t see any contradiction, though a lot of people do,” she answers.
Even the concept of “creation,” one of the stickier issues separating people of faith from scientific orthodoxy, doesn’t cause Deb any sleeplessness. “For me, the idea in the Book of Genesis was that there was a Creator, and that’s as far as it goes. The Creator did this, the Creator did that. The details aren’t that important.”
“Microevolution is easy to see. The problem with macroevolution is that you can’t set up an experiment to prove it. So, you look at what evidence is there and you draw your conclusions.”
The conclusion she has drawn is that evolution makes sense.
“For some people in the church, my views are wrong. But I believe we are created in God’s image, with certain characteristics, and one of those is intelligence. The pseudoscience and antiscience people are driving me nuts. I want to tell these people, ‘You’re not using the intelligence God gave you.’”
I ask her if she was open about her faith among her coworkers and fellow scientists over the years, or if she primarily kept it under wraps.
She closes her eyes a second, as if tallying up, before answering.
“Well, I did keep it secret, sort of.”
She pauses again.
“I mean, if you call yourself evangelical you should be witnessing all of the time.” By witnessing, she means sharing the good news of the Lord with everyone she meets. “But I guess my approach was: if people want to talk with me about it, fine.”
She pauses, considers her answer even further. “God is going to direct people the way they need to go. I’ve seen that in my own life … in the ways that I’ve been directed.”
One more pause, and a nod.
“So, okay, maybe that’s more supernatural than a scientist would normally be, but that’s my spirituality. It’s a leap.”
Later that day, I leap across the Juniata River to meet Jeff Imler, a biology teacher for 34 years at Williamsburg High, home of the “Blue Pirates.” Jeff is in his late fifties, a bit baby-faced despite the gray whiskers peppering his goatee. He lines up nicely with my stereotype of how a high school science teacher should look: blue dress shirt (the school color), a blue-and-silver tie with slanted stripes, thick aviator eyeglasses, and a pen or two tucked into his shirt pocket.
Williamsburg is part of “The Cove,” a narrow valley nestled into Pennsylvania’s Bible Belt, and deeply conservative. I enter the room laden with questions as to how one negotiates teaching biological science—and accepted scientific views on evolution—in such a school district.
Jeff startles me, however, by insisting right off the bat that there’s no problem at all. “None,” he smiles. “Never had a parent complain or a kid complain regarding that subject area.”
“Thirty-four years is a long time,” I say. “Zero complaints?”
“Never had any trouble.”
“Really?” I’m struggling to imagine how this could be. “Not once?”
I attempt to nudge Jeff’s memory with a rather insipid joke about parents storming the classroom with torches and pitchforks, but he just shakes his head. “I think the only teachers that get into trouble are the ones that hammer evolution and tell the kids that there is no God. I’ve never done that. I’ve always taken the position with the kids that I’m not here to tell them what to believe.”
“So,” I ask, “what do you believe?”
“I believe in God, and I’ll share that with the kids. I’ll tell them that I don’t like to believe that I came out of some primordial ooze somewhere. I’d rather believe there was a divine entity that made all of this happen.”
The primordial ooze again. I’d always thought the notion that humans were directly descended from lowly, jibber-jabbering monkeys was the objectionable part of evolutionary theory, not the bubbling mud. The idea that primordial ooze, or to be precise, “primordial soup,” was a petri dish for life was put forward a full half-century after Darwin’s writings, and it is just one of several theories as to where it all might have begun. But the idea rankled Isaac Mills, and it rankles teacher Jeff as well.
“So, you don’t actually believe in evolution?” I ask.
“I do. Any organism, whether bacteria or a large mammal, that adapts to its surroundings, survives, continues to reproduce, and passes its genes on to their offspring, that’s evolution. If students want to believe that that happens by divine inspiration, that’s up to them. If they want to believe it’s by happenstance, that’s okay, too.”
Jeff stops and lifts his eyebrows, gauging my reaction.
“So, what about human evolution?”
“I don’t believe, personally,” he answers, shrugging and looking down, “that that happened.”
Though fossil evidence of early humans, such as Cro-Magnon man, is clear enough, Jeff clarifies, he doesn’t think those early ancestors are the result of evolution at all, but were instead put directly on the planet by divine intervention.
“If my students want to believe that all of this happened because of God and creation, that’s fine. If they don’t want to believe that all of this happened because of God and creation, that’s fine, too,” Jeff finishes. “Me? I just don’t want to think I came out of the blob millions of years ago.”
It becomes clear to me just how little I understand about how high school biology is taught in the twenty-first century. I thought the “scientific findings prove evolution to be true” approach was fairly standard, but I was wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, a survey of nearly one thousand public high school biology teachers showed that more than half—labeled “the cautious 60 percent” by the survey authors—present both the creationist side and the evolution-as-fact side and let the kids sort it out themselves.
I like Jeff and appreciate his candor, but he seems a bit hard to pin down. Evolution at the cellular level is easy to accept no matter what your faith, but as to the deeper question—how did humans happen to arrive on the planet—his answers seem evasive at best.
Maybe that’s necessary if you teach in The Cove, or maybe it’s because I’m sitting in front of him, notebook in hand, doing my best thoughtful interviewer nod, and asking questions that are none of my business. Whatever the reason, Jeff clearly fits somewhere in the middle of the supposed unbridgeable divide, proof that simple answers and strict categories will never capture the full picture.
My roundabout search for folks who inhabit some middle territory in the science-faith debate eventually leads me to Pete Yoder. He farms 1,600 acres of corn and soybeans just outside of London, Ohio. The corn is sold for use in making ethanol and corn sweetener, while most of the soybeans end up as tofu.
It is a large operation. Pete, cheerful, energetic, and commendably fit for a man in his late fifties, takes me on a brisk tour of the barns and outbuildings scattered across his sprawling property, stopping to explain each of the many machines he employs to run his farm: small tractors, large tractors, combines, headers, cultivators, grain conveyors, harvesters, ammonia spreaders, and even a pair of hopper-bottom 18 wheelers. He might as well be a kid showing me his Matchbox car collection, except these vehicles are real, and massive.
Many of them are GPS-guided, allowing him to track what has been planted, what has been fertilized, all of it cross-referenced with previous years’ yields, field by field, row by row. Pete clearly enjoys what he does, using the term “fun” repeatedly as he articulates how seed is fed into the spreader, how corn is cut, or how ammonia is “knifed” down into the soil.
After the tour, we retire to the maroon-sided farmhouse where he and his wife, Mary Ette, raised three now-grown children. Pete’s office, just off the family dining room, has a window looking out on a birdfeeder, populated by hungry grackles and a red finch or two.
“I’m a Christian, a person of faith, and I have no problem reconciling my faith with science,” Pete tells me as we sit on opposite sides of a large desk covered with farm catalogues. “Probably where I have incongruencies with my practices and what I believe—where those two don’t meet—is more in my political views. I find myself at odds with a lot of my fellow farmers.”
That’s an understatement, given the mainstream conservatism running through rural Ohio, and given Pete’s decidedly progressive views. A “Black Lives Matter” sign sits in a flower patch in his side yard, conceivably the only such sign in all of Madison County.
I ask what the neighbors think, and he laughs. “They’re used to me by now.”
Pete and his family are practicing Mennonites, a Christian denomination that runs from highly conservative—Old Order Mennonites share many practices with the Amish—to more modern. Traditionally, the more conservative Mennonites reject climate change, but Pete is part of a nascent Mennonite progressive movement embracing conservation and sustainability.
He employs a “no-till” method on his land, for instance, planting soybeans between the previous year’s corn rather than cutting the stalks and plowing them under, limiting erosion and chemical runoff. What becomes clear to me as we talk is that Pete’s focus on state-of-the-art farm machinery and fancy GPS guidance systems is not just farm-nerd gadgetry but connects directly to his wish for sustainability: each acre he doesn’t till, each row that requires less chemical treatment, every step that allows him to use less horsepower in his machinery and burn less fuel, is an environmental act.
He shrugs when I ask about this: “My farmer friends all laugh at the idea that a fifteen- or twenty-thousand-dollar addition to a tractor is going to save the world from climate change. They just scoff.”
Pete’s sustainable farming practices are based in science, but for Pete the practices are a spiritual matter as well. He was among the first in his part of Ohio to place an agricultural easement on his land, guaranteeing that it will remain a farm in perpetuity. Though he deeply loves farming, he constantly worries about the long-term effects.
“Just the other day I removed a fence row,” he explains, meaning he turned a patch of wild, uncultivated land into land that could be planted. “But I know that I was also removing habitat for animals and birds. I look out at this landscape here and know it was once wooded, yet I continue to take down trees.”
His voice softens. “I used to want to own a farm, but the older I get the more I think of myself as just a caretaker.” He motions out the window, to the field across the road, a vast expanse of flat land and dried corn stalks. “I know I’m going to be out of here someday. I’m trying to think about what I’m leaving behind.”
My attempts to verify that Ravenswood, West Virginia, had so many churches per capita that it was once listed in Guinness come up empty. It may be just another myth, like Bigfoot, or the idea that America’s views on science and religion can easily be pigeonholed.
Nor are the two approaches necessarily at odds. Science and religion are both modes of inquiry, and both can help us to experience our world in richer, deeper ways. Choose one, choose the other, or if you can, choose a bit of both.
Yet for many people, evolution seems to be the sticking point. How did we get here? The idea that an all-powerful divine architect simply waved his hand and created us from nothing has a certain appeal. But to some of us, it is unacceptable, based too much in faith and unprovable religious teachings, what some call myths, going back thousands upon thousands of years. And of course, it raises the question “Why?” What did this divine architect have in mind? What’s our purpose here?
The pure evolutionary perspective, the similarly sticky “primordial ooze,” has its own shortcomings. It is scary, for one thing. Are we out here on our own, undirected, no divine plan? The idea of unorchestrated evolution also suggests we are not actually so special. Not chosen. What’s to keep the orangutans from hitting the genetic adaptation lottery one day soon and jumping the line?
Humans have been wrestling with these questions for as long as they’ve been stringing two thoughts together one after the other. I’m guessing the riddle of it all won’t be resolved anytime soon.
It takes some prodding, but I eventually get my retiree friends at McDonald’s to weigh in on the evolution dilemma.
Eldon, the eldest and one of the quieter of the men crowded around the table, firms up his mouth and shakes his head. “I’m not going to answer that.”
Bruce agrees. “Not a thing I really want to talk about.”
But Jeff, true to character, just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” he chuckles. “We don’t believe in evolution.”
John takes the final bite of a fried hash brown. “My ancestors didn’t swing from no trees by their tails. They used their hands.”
The men are enjoying themselves. That much is clear.
“Yeah,” Jeff snorts. “Maybe so. But they still flung their poop like a monkey.”
Finally Dave enters the fray, his tone more serious. “I do believe in the Bible, and I believe in evolution. Evolution is simply the improvement of the species. Well, if you know anything at all about animal husbandry, the hog … You look at the hog, and you can see it has changed in my lifetime. It used to be shaped like this in the back—” he makes a small arch with his hand “—and now they’re flat. That’s evolution.”
“Huh,” John counters. “Science just went and made those hogs longer ’cause they wanted more pork chops.”
Jeff nods. “Yeah. And more bacon.”
There is, for the moment, enthusiastic agreement that science and religion are both fine, as long we have more bacon. Then my Ravenswood comrades commence downing their last sips of coffee, pulling on jackets, and making for the door.
Breakfast is over, until tomorrow.