My involvement with the ASA web site and the ASA email list goes back to the beginning. In 1992 I, had written a review of Phil Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial for The Banner, the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, who owns and operates Calvin College, where I was then a professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. While on sabbatical at Texas A&M during the 1993-94 academic year, I began to engage Phil Johnson and a group of mostly scientists sympathetic with his critique of evolution via the “evolution reflector” which Phil ran out of Berkeley. The result of those conversations was an invitation to speak “opposite” Mike Behe at a symposium at the 1994 ASA annual meeting at Bethel College. (If you’re interested in some of that old stuff here are links to the on-line versions: Darwin on Trial review; Behe critique.) At that particular ASA meeting I had my first encounter with Jack Haas, who was then the editor of PSCF. Jack roped me in to becoming a member of ASA (only after I had conned him into giving me the previous four issues of the journal for free). It was at that meeting that Jack called an informal gathering of folks to discuss how the ASA might take advantage of the internet and the newly created World Wide Web. I had “mastered” HTML while on sabbatical and went back to Calvin with Jack’s blessing and guidance and by spring of 1995 created the first ASA web site hosted on my desktop Mac Classic and called asa.calvin.edu. You can still see early versions of those pages at web.archive.org. The email list started at about the same time with 278 posts between May 1995 and February 1996. For some reason I don’t have those earliest posts but I’ve discovered them as well at web.archive.org (kind of scary, isn’t it?).
Starting in February 1996 we set the list up using the majordomo server at Calvin College. It has continued operating from there since that time. Posts are archived by Calvin, but we have moved the older archives to the ASA web site.
The graph below shows the steady growth in the activity on the ASA email list over the past decade or so.
I am confident that we would have set a record and hit over 1000 posts for December 2009 had we not taken our holiday hiatus.
When I think back on the history of the list or browse the archives, I’m impressed with how little progress we’ve made. Origins is by far our most frequently discussed topic and even with pleas from some members that we talk about other things, we never get too far from it. We also don’t make much progress. The same basic conversations are repeated over and over–of course, not always by the same people. But it’s pretty clear that we as a group haven’t resolved anything on this topic. Intelligent design advocates, theistic evolutionist advocates, old-earth creation advocates, and young-earth creation advocates stake their claims and there seems little movement.
That’s not to say that there is no benefit. At any one time on the list there are usually around 200 subscribers, but only 20 or 30 active posters. I’m guessing that there is little actual persuasion occurring among the active posters. However, the lurkers, the 90% who are subscribed but not actively participating, are influenced by the discussion that they are listening to. One of the chief benefits of the list that I have observed over the years has been that it’s a place where folks find out for the first time that there are people who take their faith seriously and who embrace the results of mainstream science. We have seen plenty of folks come on the list as recent “converts” from young-earth creationism to something more “progressive” and find that there are Christians who take their faith very seriously who think similarly. This often is a revelation. We on the list watch as they sort through these issues in a friendly environment, one that they don’t always find in their church or their school. We have watched some folks move from young-earth creationism to skepticism and atheism. Of course, this is disconcerting, and we hope that God will bring them back to a sincere and honest faith.
Issues of the environment and creation care also get a fair amount of time on the list. But even there, I’m not sure we’ve come very far. In 1995 and 1996 we encouraged discussion of some recently published PSCF articles that discussed environmentalism and evangelical responses to environmentalism. Virtually the same two sides exist now 15 years later with little progress having been made on coming to an evangelical consensus on those issues. This issue more than any other, probably because of the nature of our national debate, seems to bring out lots of emotion among list participants.
Overall, I think we have been successful in maintaining an on-line place for respectful discussion of controversial issues. Over the years we’ve tried to nip flame wars in the bud and promote Christian dialogue about controversial issues. We do occasionally slip into politics and social issues where the ASA represents not only divides that exist in our broader culture, but divides that exist in the church. Sometimes we can get hot-headed about those things. In many parts of the internet that hot-headedness translates into a viciousness and meanness that probably wouldn’t happen if you were talking to someone in the same room. ASA’s on-line discussion has been able to avoid that rancor for the most part.
For about 15 years now we have had our discussions via email. Every once in a while there have been calls to adopt a more “modern” internet technology than email (the grandaddy of them all). The last time an informal poll was conducted, now over two years ago, more than half desired to move to some other format, such as a web-based forum or blog. After over a year of discussion, planning, trying things out, etc., we’re going to take the plunge. We hope that this blog, ASA Voices, will replace the ASA email list. We’re going to try it for a while and leave the list turned off. We’re also introducing two other blogs, one devoted to discussion of PSCF articles, perhaps with the authors themselves, and one devoted to review and discussion of faith-science related books.
So please join in the conversation via blog comments. We will try to direct the discussion more actively in ASA Voices, but there will always be a thread that will feel like a little like the old list.