Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

What Christian isn’t a creationist?

February 25, 2016

O.K., my headline is slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’m well aware that “creationist” is a technical term that means not simply that God designed and created the world in which we live, but that he did so in a way that is consistent with a particular interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2.

I almost wrote “he did so in a way that is consistent with Genesis 1 and 2.” But if I put it that way, then that would make me a creationist, and I don’t want to be one of those! I might be lumped in with the Ken Hams of the world. Never mind that Ken Ham knows a lot more about biology than I do (and nearly any other Methodist minister who shuns the label “creationist”), having learned everything I know from a ninth-grade textbook I only half-understood at the time. But if I reject Ken Ham then I’ll be one of those “respectable” kinds of Christians—wink, wink—who “knows better” than to take the Bible’s creation account seriously—and who is “smarter” than those bumpkins who call themselves creationists.

I bring this up on the heels of yesterday’s post because of a controversy surrounding Dan Walker, a popular television host with the BBC, who came out last week as—gasp!—a creationist! His condemnation in the news media was swift and severe. How can he be trusted to read news off a tele-prompter if he holds these beliefs?

Even many Christian op-ed writers were alarmed: “We’re Christians,” they assured the public, “but not that kind of Christian.”

Nevertheless, David Robertson, who frequently appears on the excellent Unbelievable! radio show and podcast, leapt to Walker’s defense with this opinion piece:

This may come as a shock to the British journalistic community but those who believe in God tend to believe that he created everything. The question – which apparently they have neither the intelligence or the courtesy to ask – is what kind of creationist is Mr Walker? There are Christians who are theistic evolutionist creationists, old earth creationists and young earth creationists. On the basis of one statement from a spokesperson, many journalists made the assumption that it was the latter that was being spoken of.

And why is this news at all? Who cares? He is a TV presenter! The only people who care are those who want to introduce American style culture wars into the UK, and who view creationism as a bogeyman which enables them to vent their anti-religious prejudice and feel self-righteous while doing so.

For the record, I am a creationist. I believe that creation happened according to Genesis 1 and 2. To believe otherwise undermines one’s belief in the authority of scripture—including the credibility of Christ’s own words. As for how it happened, I’m somewhat agnostic on the question: I would say that there are a number of faithful ways in which we can interpret Genesis 1-2. But people who are more literalistic on the question than I am are not my enemies, and I am not morally superior to them. In fact, I don’t disagree with Archbishop Cranmer, when he says the following (in response to the Dan Walker controversy):

Beyond scientific doubt, the earth is many millions of years old. Radiocarbon (and -uranium and -potassium) dating tells us that Bishop Ussher was wrong: the earth was not created in 4004BC. But don’t some creationists hold to the Apparent Age theory? Adam was created on the sixth day. On the seventh day, how old was Adam? 33 years or just one day? Forget whether he had a navel or not, you see the point: God reveals Himself through His created universe in very many and mysterious ways. It may offend against common sense, but the God who can raise a man from the dead is perfectly capable of creating trees with rings in them.

William Lane Craig does an outstanding job assessing various biblically faithful alternatives to interpreting Genesis 1-2 in this series (21 episodes!) of podcasts: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/s9

Who (among Christians) doesn’t believe in intelligent design?

February 24, 2016

Recently, our very own United Methodist Church made news by preventing Seattle-based intelligent design advocacy group, Discovery Institute, from sponsoring an information table in the exhibit hall of our upcoming General Conference in Portland, Oregon. This is the first year that the UMC has allowed outside organizations to have such tables. These organizations help foot the bill for a very expensive conference.

Apparently, the Discovery Institute’s message is so dangerous that the UMC has to protect conference-goers from being exposed to it.

And what is that message? According to the Discovery Institute itself, the message is that “life and the universe show evidence of being the result of purposeful design rather than unguided processes.”

Taking the Discovery Institute’s claim at face value, what Christian doesn’t believe this? Who (among Christians) doesn’t think that the universe offers evidence of purposeful design? What’s wrong with an organization that attempts to make that case?

The committee responsible for the decision appealed to our Book of Discipline’s Social Principles, one of which (¶ 160 § F) says:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

Among other things, something called “science” doesn’t make authoritative claims about anything; scientists do. Inasmuch as scientists say that geology, biology, and cosmology can account for the creation of our universe and the origin and development of life independent of a Creator, these scientists are wrong. Indeed, they are making “authoritative claims about theological issues,” which also violates our Social Principles.

If officials at the UMC don’t think that scientists often make these claims, they’re not paying attention.

I get it: any scientific description of “how we got here” will leave God out. Because the scientific method excludes the metaphysical by definition. Therefore, while any such scientific description may be truthful as far as it goes, it will never go far enough.

Again, what’s wrong with saying so—especially to an audience of Christians?

David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

December 21, 2013

devils_delusionYesterday, I read The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. It’s a polemical, savagely funny response to the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al., whose unlikely author is himself an agnostic and secular Jew. Why did he, of all people, write a book mostly for Christians like me? Because he noticed that no one else had written it! One’s soul can only withstand so much indignation, after all.

The book clarified my thinking on several ideas I’ve blogged about in the past, including Dawkins’s argument against God, necessary versus contingent things, the mulitverse (or “Landscape”), the universe’s apparent fine-tuning, and attempts by Stephen Hawking and others to explain it away using quantum cosmology. Of the latter he writes the following (which gives you a sense of his writing style):

The details may be found in Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, a book that was widely considered fascinating by those who did not read it, and incomprehensible by those who did. Their work will seem remarkably familiar to readers who grasp the principle behind pyramid schemes or magical acts in which women disappear into a box only to emerge as tigers shortly thereafter.[1]

After describing the work Hawking did to explain the origin of our universe, Berlinski says that the universe that Hawking found is, unsurprisingly, just the universe Hawking assumed he would find. “If what Hawking described is not quite a circle in thought, it does appear to suggest an oblate spheroid. ¶ The result is guaranteed—one hunnerd percent, as used-car salesmen say.[2]

Berlinski continually highlights the same problem with these guys that I’ve highlighted a few times on this blog. Even if what they say is true (which he doesn’t believe for a moment), they haven’t answered the question, “Why something and not nothing.”

That’s all well and good… What I wasn’t prepared for in this book was his frontal assault on something that I never talk about on this blog: evolution.

In part, I don’t talk about it because I don’t understand it. No one I know understands it. I mean, we may remember some things from our tenth-grade biology textbook, but nothing that would pass muster these days. When the average person says he believes in evolution, all he’s really saying is that he takes on faith that really smart people haven’t misled them on the subject. And none of us wants to appear to be stupid.

Or sometimes when people say they believe in evolution, they’re saying something about a God they no longer believe in, or a church whose doctrines they’ve long since abandoned.

Even before reading this book, I’ve wondered why it’s necessary to talk about “believing in” evolution in the first place? Either it happens or it doesn’t, like any other phenomenon in the realm of science. Why use religious language to describe one’s assent to its “doctrines.”

Berlinski has an idea: because the theory makes little sense, and it’s supported by little evidence.

If the facts are what they are, the past is what it is—profoundly enigmatic. The fossil record may be used to justify virtually any position, and often is. There are long eras in which nothing happens. The fire alarms of change then go off in the night. A detailed and continuous record of transition between species is missing, those neat sedimentary layers, as Gould noted time and again, never revealing precisely the phenomena that Darwin proposed to explain. It is hardly a matter on which paleontologists have been reticent. At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

By the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies… If species have an essential nature that beyond limits cannot change, then random variations and natural selection cannot change them. We must look elsewhere for an account that does justice to their nature or to the facts.[3]

Berlinski also argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail “when they are honest and succeed when they are not.” When the results of one such simulation came in, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, “with solemn incomprehension, ‘the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.’ Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect… What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: ¶ There is a sucker born every minute.”[4]

In a recent paper published by an evolutionary biologist named Joel Kingsolver, the author said, “Important issues about selection remain unresolved.” “Of those important issues,” Berlinski writes, “I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.”

Finally, I had a laugh at this:

Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.[5]

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 98.

2. Ibid., 106.

3. Ibid., 188-9.

4. Ibid., 190.

5. Ibid., 191.

Another thought on my previous post about evolution

November 21, 2012

I appreciate that there are Christians who reject evolution because it contradicts their understanding of scripture, especially Genesis 1 and 2. Alongside my denomination and most of the universal Church, I don’t share that understanding, as I said in my earlier post. We must agree to disagree. I don’t believe science, the Bible, or Christian theology are incompatible. Indeed, they are allies, or they should be. Science gets into trouble is when it goes beyond its boundaries and tries to speak metaphysically—about that part of reality to which science has no access.

And of course we Christians get into trouble, I believe, when we do the same in reverse.

I fully support our United Methodist position on the topic of science and faith (from the Book of Discipline, ¶ 160 § F). I’m underlining the sentence that I believe is especially relevant here:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

While I don’t agree with them, I’m sympathetic with Christians who reject evolution on biblical grounds. Nevertheless, I don’t think that Christians should reject evolution on the same grounds that many atheistic evolutionists reject believing in God. In other words, either evolution explains how we got here, in a naturalistic sort of way, or God explains how we got here, in  a supernatural sort of way. The two explanations are mutually exclusive: it’s either God or science but not both.

If we Christians accept that premise, then we have more to worry about than just evolution. If we’re sick, go to a hospital, receive treatment, and get well, are we any less healed by God because doctors and medicine and medical technology intervened in our healing? I don’t think so. I believe it’s God at work through this intervention—and isn’t it amazing that God gives us bodies capable of being healed in this way?

When God answers our prayers, after all, that “answer” isn’t usually like the parting of the Red Sea: it’s usually through otherwise natural, fully explainable circumstances. Whether it’s by evolution or some less controversial means, God usually works in a mundane, natural sort of way. But we Christians still believe it’s God at work.

Do I believe in evolution? It depends

November 20, 2012

Like Carolyn Arends, who wrote this thoughtful column on the subject in November’s Christianity Today, my view of the inspiration of scripture (shared by the United Methodist Church) does not require a literal six-day Creation. I don’t believe that scientific explanations for the origin of the universe and our place within it are at odds with a Christian understanding of Creation.

I also agree with Arends that arguing over the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 can become a rather depressing exercise in missing the point. The point is not to say how God created, but that he created and what it means. The genre of biblical literature matters:

[T]he Bible is not a book; it’s a library containing books of many different dates and genres. That’s why it’s not inconsistent to read Genesis 1 and 2 as an (inspired) ancient Near Eastern cosmology that poetically declares Yahweh to be the Creator, while reading the Gospels as (inspired) first-century, biographical-historical eyewitness accounts of events.

In other words, there’s no necessary relationship between rejecting a literal six-day Creation and denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As Arends points out, Genesis 1 and 2 are true and inspired, but not in the same way that New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are true. The difference is genre. Genesis 1 and 2 are true in the way that great poetry is true (but even more so because of the work of the Holy Spirit). As most of us know, poetry often speaks the truth more loudly and clearly than a dry recitation of historical (or scientific) facts.

Still, Arends rightly points out that “allowing the possibility of evolutionary creation is fraught with difficulty.” And she puts her finger on the biggest potential problem: that we have to distinguish “between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is).” In my view, it’s easy to underestimate the enormity of this problem—because science has a way of overstepping its authority without anyone noticing.

When someone asks me, for example, “Do you believe in evolution?” I have to ask them, “What do you mean by ‘believe in‘?” Do I believe in evolution in the sense that if evolution happened, then God didn’t also create the world and everything in it? Then, no, I don’t believe in it.

Often, the premise of the question is flawed: It says if evolution, then not God—as if God weren’t really transcendent, as if God were simply a bigger, stronger version of ourselves—one actor among others on this plane of cause-and-effect—as if God were in competition with his Creation.

If that’s what “believing in evolution” means, count me out. I reject the philosophical materialism that lies beneath the question. All Christians should, even those of us who have no theological objection to evolution per se.

On “believing in” evolution

November 18, 2011

My friend Paul, a physicist, has a blog post about teaching a class in his church on evolution. It has generated many comments. And since I spent far too much time and thought commenting myself, I want to pull out what I wrote there. It may help some of you, who knows?

I’m late to the party. Sorry! Here are a few of my thoughts. I’m pro-science. I have no problem accepting that evolution happened (and is happening)—except that I am taking on faith (loosely speaking) that biologists know what they’re talking about. I certainly can’t prove it to myself or understand it on my own. That’s the nature of modern science. Its many disciplines are highly esoteric and inaccessible to laypeople.

Before becoming a pastor, I was an electrical engineer. I learned the teensy bit about physics that I needed in order to have a clue about engineering (not that, once I graduated and got a job, I ever had to worry about it again!)—and I love the subject—but even after taking many college courses I don’t really know much about it.

When it comes to biology and evolution, the problem is even worse: I mostly only know what I learned from a high school textbook, which I hardly remember anyway. I don’t know anything about it. And the fact that I’ve lived 41 years of my life reasonably successfully without knowing anything about it suggests that knowing about it must not be very important. Right?

I’m sure that an evolutionary biologist would want to throttle me for saying that, but really… Even people who are closer to the subject than I am don’t need to know much about evolution. I doubt that my doctor would treat me any worse if he were a Creationist. I doubt that the pharmaceutical industry would be any less profitable if its scientists and researchers doubted evolution. It doesn’t matter very much for the vast majority of people.

Christians who don’t believe in evolution aren’t simply troglodytes because they’re too dumb to understand it. Very few of us understand it, and it doesn’t affect our lives anyway. At least our Creationist and Intelligent Design friends rightly understand that evolution isn’t something to which we owe any sort of ultimate allegiance. They rightly sense that it doesn’t “explain” in any ultimate or adequate way why we’re here. Even as someone who accepts evolution, I certainly go along with them on that. Evolution can only ever be a secondary cause—which the new atheists simply can’t get through their thick skulls. (Yet we believers are the dummies? Give me a break!)

Regardless, if accepting the reality of evolution means accepting philosophical (as opposed to methodological) materialism as one’s point of view—and, let’s face it, that’s the way it’s presented in pop culture and media—then I don’t “believe in” it, either. It’s not either God or evolution, but not both. It’s not “the more evolution does, the less God does.” No wonder that’s threatening to Christians! It ought to be! Fortunately, it’s not true.