Fury broke out in East Kilbride, Scotland last week when it was discovered that a local evangelical church (a Church of Christ congregation) had given elementary school children religious books as part of a chaplaincy program. Pilfering a Facebook photo of one of the church’s young ministers painted up as the pirate Jack Sparrow, a local tabloid newspaper published (screamed really) the story of an outraged community calling the church an extremist U.S. cult bent on brainwashing local children.
The offending books? Exposing the Myth of Evolution and How Do You Know God is Real?
The story about the church was quite exploitative (as UK tabloids tend to be) and painted the group as a scary American cult that dresses up like Johnny Depp and leads little kids astray with nefarious intentions. Church members in Scotland and in the U.S. have responded with righteous indignation and understandable defensiveness.
Peel back the extremism, however, and there are several important observations about this whole brouhaha. Together, the two books given out by the church have a not-so-subtle message: “God is real” and “evolution is not”.
In other words, if you believe in God, you don’t believe in evolution. If you believe in evolution, you don’t believe in God.
In his defense of the books, the minister of the East Kilbride church said, “We believe the teachings of the Bible, which tell us evolution is a myth.” Again, a definitive statement about truth: either the Bible is right and scientists are wrong, or scientists are right and the Bible is wrong.
Is There Such Thing as Truth?
Postmodernist thought says that truth is an illusion – there are no permanent or ubiquitous truths. A postmodernist might say that what we think are eternal truths are really just assumptions people make about their own local situations and time.
Virtually all scientists reject the claim that there is no such thing as truth (The Language of Science and Faith, p. 105). Scientists believe certain fundamental truths about the physical universe are always true, even for distant galaxies (E=mc2, for example). This has a very important ramification: if humans can definitively discern truth in the physical world, then truth exists; and if truth exists, it is reasonable to pursue truth in other areas such as theology and ethics.
Does Science Conflict with Scripture?
For a believer, any answer to this question that tosses out the Bible is not acceptable. What to do, then, when given the either/or truth dichotomy of science or the Bible? It is important to remember that the Bible is not a scientific text and was never meant to be one. Every one of the Bible writers lived long before science existed. The writers of the Bible were authentic members of their own time and were not modern scientific thinkers. When the Bible is read using the context of the writers’ understanding of the natural world we don’t learn about modern science, but we do learn about God. The kinds of answers we find in the Bible are usually non-scientific because the Bible is not trying to teach science. The Bible gives us the answers to the Who and why of creation; science answers the how and when.
How Can We Trust Science? Isn’t Science Always Changing?
Defenders of young earth creationism and others who deny evolution and/or an old earth often cite the changing nature of science as their rationale for rejection. After all, if scientists can’t get their story straight, why should we trust the story? That’s why it’s called the theory of evolution, right? It’s “just a theory” and not fact.
Actually, once significant and central scientific ideas are established, these ideas are often tweaked and refined, but they are not changed. When Copernicus originally demonstrated that the sun was the center of the solar system, he thought the orbits of the planets were perfect circles. Years later the shape of orbits was determined to elliptical – a tweak in the idea, but hardly a death-blow. In the same way, geologists who age the earth have refined their dates, but the evidence continually points toward a very ancient date – around 4.5 billion years.
…science, while always advancing, is actually not so much changing as it is improving (Language of Science and Faith, p.113).
Science ideas that are firmly established and are refined but not changed are called theories. This does not mean they are guesses likely to be discarded. Gravity is a theory, as is germ theory and atomic theory. And yes, evolution is a theory.
God and Evolution
It is common to say that God sends the rain, the seasons, day and night – and we thank God for those gifts. A Christian can believe in the water cycle, the orbit of the earth around the sun, and the rotation of the earth on its axis without compromising his/her faith. God does not step outside of natural laws to give us rain, seasons, day, or night. Parents thank God for the “gift” of a child with the complete understanding that this gift is a nine-month embryonic development process.
Nature is not sustained by miracles (actions outside natural laws), but by observable and predictable natural processes.
Theistic evolution (called BioLogos by Francis Collins) is the belief that with the exception of the establishment of natural laws, God’s creative work went forward through the laws of nature.
…once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity, and humans are a part of that process. Moreover, once evolution got underway, no special supernatural intervention was required (p.115).
The BioLogos position is consistent with what God has revealed to us in the natural world and what has been discovered by science.
God and the Grand Explanation
About 25% of the Americans who claim no religion say they believe in a “higher power”, but not in a personal God. This is very much like deism – a belief that God created the universe and then abandoned it.
BioLogos is not deism. BioLogos affirms “a God who is at all times involved, yet still allows a degree of freedom to the creation” (Language of Science and Faith, p. 117).
Note: If you’re a Big Bang Theory fan, you can take Sheldon’s seat on the sofa because you’re about to feel very physics-smart.
Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), called the greatest scientist of his era, disproved a previous notion that angels pushed the planets around in their orbits when he gave the world his laws of motion. Newton’s laws proved to be constant, reliable, and inflexible. On one hand, such laws might point to a rational and consistent Creator. But on the other hand, constant and unchangeable natural laws might support the idea of a world that has no need of any kind of ongoing care or intervention by its Creator.
Enter quantum physics.
At the level of the very very small – inside the atom at the electron level – things aren’t quite so cut-and-dried. Electrons, to a surprising degree, “do their own thing”, not following prescribed paths or predetermined behaviors. While bigger things (like planets) predictably follow laws of motion and gravity, things at the subatomic level (like electrons, quarks, neutrinos, and the recently famous Higgs boson) do not. Physicists call this “quantum uncertainty”.
This uncertainty does not mean that the universe might just suddenly fly off the handle – the moon isn’t going to reverse its course and objects aren’t going to start falling up. The big laws of nature are standardized, predictable, and reliable.
But within the crannies of this orderly world, tiny bits of freedom lurk (Language of Science and Faith, p. 119).
Put simply – the quantum level of physics allows for flexibility. Because the actions of particles at the quantum level are random, it is possible that God could influence his creation in subtle ways, undetected by scientific observation. It is therefore completely consistent with science for our Creator to intervene and influence his creation without breaking any natural laws.
Nature is reliable enough to reflect God’s faithfulness, yet flexible enough to permit God’s involvement, just as it is open to our involvement and the involvement of all creatures (Language of Science and Faith, p. 120)
In his book Coming to Peace With Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology, Darrel Falk describes his early struggles as a young man who wanted to be a scientist, yet was conflicted because of his Christian faith. Initially, Dr. Falk purposely avoided biology so he would not have to face the conflict of his fundamentalist faith upbringing with evolutionary science. In Coming to Peace, Falk maintains that God’s command to bring all creation into existence doesn’t mean God created everything separately and uniquely. Here’s Falk:
God’s Spirit guides the progression of life. His presence is never far from creation, just as it is never far from the events of my life. Nonetheless God respects my freedom and (I suspect) values freedom in the rest of creation as well (pp. 102 – 103).
This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and observations.
I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.