Millennial young people, whom we do not see in our church pews on Sundays, frequently complain that the Christian religion is anti-science right along with being anti-everything else they take for granted. When it comes to the people who do sit comfortably in our church pews, many take for granted that Charles Darwin was right on the evolution issue. Many other hymn-singing Christians, however, fear that Darwinian science conflicts with the Bible and the Bible, after all, is the Word of God. Most just find themselves confused.
As recently reported in Covalence, a Pew Study shows that 40% of adult Americans “see creationism, or the idea that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, as the way life on Earth began.” Where are these people? In our pews? In our pulpits? Or, in the church down the street?
For two decades now, I’ve been researching the evolution controversy with my friend and colleague, Martinez Hewlett. Marty’s a biologist who specializes in virus evolution. Without Darwin’s theory of evolution, Marty explains, he could not develop medical therapies to protect us from dangerous viruses. He’d never ask a creationist or intelligent design theorist to assist him in the laboratory. The theory of evolution is good science because it’s fertile, he says; it generates knowledge and even medical therapies. “Thank God for evolutionary science!” exclaims Marty, a devout Roman Catholic.
With this in mind, let’s try to clear up things for those in the confused category. Actually, most everybody is confused even if they don’t recognize it, even if they’ve already made up their mind.
Before we can trumpet the right position on the evolution controversy — our own position! — we should know something about the alternatives. Before we tell everybody else how they should believe, we should enable ourselves to understand what evolution looks like from multiple points of view.
This is important because of an aching need to correct one widespread misunderstanding, namely, the false belief that there’s a war going on between science and Christian belief. No such war is happening, because everybody loves and respects science. Science has no enemies here. Let’s make this clear.
There’s a culture war going on, to be sure. But, it’s not a war against science, at least not against genuine science. Even creationists and intelligent design advocates love science. So, if this is true, then who’s fighting with whom about what? To that we now turn.
Who’s fighting with whom about what?
There are at least five armies fighting in this culture war, and the smoke on the battlefield is so thick it makes it difficult to see just what they’re fighting about. Here is a map of adversaries Marty came up with.
Note what’s on each end of this “divine action” bar graph. We find belief in an interventionist God on one end and atheism on the other. The real battle is between belief and disbelief, not between faith and science.
Evolution? What is it?
Look initially at the second category from the right, evolutionary biology: the science only. Here we place Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution first published in 1859. What Darwin tried to explain is how one species evolves from another species. His explanation was and still is so very elegant in its simplicity: variation in inheritance acted on by natural selection (survival of the fittest) leads to some inherited traits passed on while others go extinct. Darwin had no idea how life began, but once life began it evolved over time into many different forms. Evolution may take a long time, but over deep time species change. That’s it. Simple, eh.
Let’s take a another look at that second category from the right, science only, a century and a half later. That’s where we put Marty’s laboratory where he studies the evolution of viruses. On weekday mornings when he’s not skiing down Taos Mountain, he attends matins at church. Following worship, Marty goes to the laboratory to search for one and only one thing, natural processes in virus evolution. Marty does not look for intervention by angels or divine providence. Does he believe in angels and divine providence? Yes, of course. But, in the laboratory he confines his research framework to that of natural causation, the only framework that could possibly lead to developing a vaccine. This is science only, uncontaminated by ideologies such as materialism or atheism.
Can we distinguish genuine science from atheism?
If you now look at the category on the far right, you’ll find the ideology we know as materialism, sometimes called scientism. As an “…ism,” materialism is the belief that only material things exist and, further, that scientists are the sole producers of knowledge. Anything that is not scientific is fiction, accordingly. Religious belief is fiction, according to this ideology. Where we find the venomous opposition to religion is in this camp of materialists who promulgate their atheism, pretending that science supports the denial of God’s existence. This is not science. This is ideology, even if its proponents wear lab coats.
The materialist army today is led by an atheist general, Richard Dawkins at Oxford University. “I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” (The God Delusion, 36) General Dawkins attacks “everything supernatural,” because, as a materialist, he believes only natural things exist. What contributes to the widespread cultural misunderstanding, is that Dawkins arms his attack weapons with ammunition he believes to be scientific. Even though it appears that we have a battle between science and religion, it’s actually a battle between atheism against religion.
Here come the Creationists!
Now, let’s jump to the far left end of our bar graph, to those who affirm that God intervenes in nature’s world. Here we find the notorious creationists. The creationists are by far the most interesting army in this battle. Never underestimate how fascinating and creative this group can be.
Creationist soldiers attack the materialists/atheists from two different flanks. The biblical creationists arm themselves with the authority of Scripture, especially Genesis 1:1-2:4a, the seven day creation. The Bible has authority over Darwin, contend the biblical creationists; therefore, we should believe the Bible and disbelieve Darwin. It’s important to acknowledge that biblical creationists do not reject all of science; they reject Darwinian evolution only.
On the other flank, the attacking army is made up of scientific creationists. Rather than appeal to the authority of the Bible, the scientific creationists appeal to scientific evidence. This army contends that a genuinely scientific examination of evidence drawn from geology and genetics will testify that the Earth is young, perhaps only 10,000 years old, and that all species were created as they are today. No evolution took place. Human beings and dinosaurs walked together, even if we survived and they didn’t. What is decisive is this: the scientific creationists rely on science, not Scripture, for their ammunition.
In recent decades, it has been the intelligent design [abbreviated ID] army on the front lines. Like the scientific creationists, ID’rs appeal to science rather than Scripture to argue that Darwin was wrong. Why was Darwin wrong? ID soldiers accept that evolution including speciation has occurred, but they deny that variation in inheritance acted on by natural selection can account for speciation.
If Darwin’s explanation was wrong, what’s the right explanation? Intelligent Design. Here’s the argument. Organisms are complex. The whole organism has properties that none of the parts individually or together possess. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This complexity of the whole organism evolved over time. Evolution goes from the simple to the complex. Human beings are the most complex of Earth’s organisms. And, human beings must have been designed.
Let’s try this again. For simple things to make up a complex machine with new properties it takes an engineer. To make a complex machine such as a Toyota Camry, it takes intelligence to design it. Toyotas could not possibly evolve on their own by natural selection. Complex organisms such as human beings, like a Toyota Camry, require a designer to become as complex as they are. Intelligent design better explains evolution than Darwin’s theory of natural selection. That’s the sum of the argument proposed by ID. ID offers better science, not religion.
Who is that designer? Thomas Aquinas would answer, “why, God, of course.” How would the ID’rs answer? They would say: “We don’t know.” What!? They don’t know? The problem with the term, God, is that it risks sounding religious. Yes, contend the ID’rs, complex organisms were designed by an Intelligent Designer that some people call God. But, because ID’rs want to be scientific and not religious, they withdraw from making theological judgments.
Critics of ID contend that they are in fact religious, even if ID’rs try to hide it. It appears that religion is a disease that nobody wants to catch.
On one occasion Marty and I took some students to spend a day with the scientific creationists at the Institute for Creation Research. The so-called “Bull Dog” of creationism was Duane Gish, who held a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California. Gish asked us a rhetorical question: “Do you know what’s more dangerous than a godless atheist?”
“No,” we responded. “Tell us.”
“A theistic evolutionist!” he trumpeted.
Marty and I looked at each other. “I think he’s talking about us,” I thought. Marty read my mind. Eventually Marty and I began to call ourselves, theistic evolutionists.
Theistic evolutionists, the middle item on our bar graph, dress in minimalist and maximalist uniforms. The minimalist accepts Darwinian theory buttressed by more recent discoveries in genetics as good science, as indisputable. But, that’s all. Fundamenalist theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary a century ago, such as B.B. Warfield, were minimalist theistic evolutionists.
A maximalist theistic evolutionist constructs a grand worldview driven by evolutionary principles that fully integrates all of Christian teaching with the science. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist who discovered Peking Man in 1929, provides an example. Teilhard continues today to inspire both Roman Catholic theology and New Age spirituality.
Marty and I along with those who invite us to their barbecues fit somewhere in between the minimalists and maximalists. We affirm that Darwinian evolutionary theory buttressed by molecular biology is fertile science requiring theological acceptance if not celebration. We, like so many of our colleagues in this school of thought, affirm that God works creatively and redemptively in, with, and under the natural processes that make up evolution. We further affirm that much of what we Christians believe about human nature could benefit from using evolutionary theory to amplify and expand it.
The leading Lutheran theologian marching in the theistic evolution platoon is Philip Hefner, author of the excellent book, The Human Factor (Fortress).
If you’re inclined to join the forces of theistic evolution, visit the Clergy Letter Project website for resources. Note that each February this organization sponsors an “Evolution Weekend” when church congregations can discuss these matters.
Many of our colleagues in the theistic evolution army are very impatient with creationism and ID. They tend to ally themselves with the materialists/atheists because they believe in defending the intellectual integrity of science. I hesitate to designate the creationist and ID armies as enemies. Because this culture war seems so unnecessary, I hesitate to increase the smoke on the battlefield and I certainly would like to lessen the number of casualties. Where are the peace-makers when we need them?
In summary, a culture war is raging, to be sure. But, this is not a war between science and faith. Everyone, including soldiers fighting for creationism or ID, love science. Science has no enemies, except perhaps the atheists who distort what science is in order to co-opt it for their ideology.
Within our churches, I recommend we treat none of these armies as our enemy. Each position attracts supporters for some reason, and we need to understand this reason. Each position, even atheism, exhibits some level of coherence and meaning. Our churches should provide open and accepting forums where individuals can explore without condemnation their convictions and lines of inquiry.
When we fight the good fight of faith, don’t mistake science for the enemy.
With regard to resources, let me mention three. First, my website, TedsTimelyTake.com, offers many resources on evolution and other related topics. Second, one of the books Marty and I co-authored, Can You Believe in God and Evolution? (Abingdon Press) is very readable and informative. Third, if you can handle a lengthy and detailed description of the evolution battlefield, visit my You Tube Voice Thread, “The Evolution Controversy.”
Ted Peters is a pastor in the ELCA and Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science for the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. He is author of God – The World’s Future (Fortress, 3rd ed., 2015) and editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF Press, 2019). More of Peter’s work can be found on his website, TedsTimelyTake.com.