In this 45th essay in our series on “Is Christianity True?” I want to address the most popular “scientific” objection to Christianity. It is based on an inference from the theory of biological evolution. I am not a biologist, so I cannot and will not speak to the scientific soundness of contemporary theories of biological evolution. I am sure that my hesitation may provoke some readers to become suspicious of my motives or my “hidden” beliefs. But let me explain. In academic circles there are certain accepted marks of intellectual integrity and moral rectitude. I call them “politically correct confessions of faith.” And even if you have no expertise in an area—perhaps you are even appallingly ignorant!—you are supposed to defend vociferously the accepted consensus of the experts and denounce equally vociferously non-conformists. Failure to do so may result in “excommunication.”
Many of those confessions of faith deal with topics of gender, race and class. But they also include opinions about climate change, Big Bang cosmology, and biological evolution. If you say the wrong thing on these topics, you will be dismissed even by people who know nothing about science simply because you contradict the politically correct statement of faith. Hence I intend to speak only about what I know. I care very little for the politically correct creed. I care about the proper use of reason in seeking truth. And I know the difference between persuasion and coercion. And I know the difference between an ideology–a theory created to serve a pragmatic end–and a proposal motivated by a desire for truth and grounded in evidence.
Allow me to make another distinction. Objections to Christian belief that make use of evolutionary biology come in two distinct types. The first type objects to God’s action in the world in a way similar to those who use Big Bang cosmology object. Opponents of this type argue that successfully accounting for a natural event by prior natural events makes divine action unnecessary. In other words discovering the natural causes of events fully describes and accounts for them. It assumes that if God were to act in the world in creation and providence, God’s action would have to replace natural causes and create gaps in the network of natural causes. As science fills in those gaps, belief in God’s action and even God’s existence becomes less and less plausible. My response to this type of objection from evolutionary biology is exactly the same as my response to the Big Bang objections. Allow me to quote that response with the term “evolutionary biology” in brackets:
“There is absolutely nothing in the Big Bang [evolutionary biology] theory that explains away or rules out the action of God in calling the universe into existence, giving it the form it has, guiding it to the place it is, or leading it on to the destination God has in mind. The Big Bang [evolutionary biology] cannot explain or rule out the reality of the qualities we experience or the mind we possess or the freedom we exercise. It cannot explain or rule out meaning, truth, beauty or moral law. It cannot tell you who you are or why you are here. If you have other grounds on which to believe in the reality of God, our minds, the intelligibility of nature, the moral law, human freedom and creativity, and the meaning of cosmic history, the Big Bang [evolutionary biology] theory of cosmological [biological] development poses no rational threat at all to those beliefs. It’s simply a non sequitur, irrelevant, beside the point. As a cosmological [biological] theory, it’s elegant. As an objection to Christian belief, it’s lame.”
A second type of objection to belief deriving from evolutionary biology focuses not on God or God’s action but on the Bible. Some objectors to Christian belief realize that the argument from empirical science’s explanations of natural events to atheism is less than convincing; or at least they would like to employ additional arguments to make their case stronger. The Bible seems to describe the origin and development of the physical cosmos and of all the species of biological world in ways irreconcilable with modern cosmology and evolutionary biology. Much of traditional theology (not all!) and many contemporary Christians take the creation narratives of Bible (Genesis 1-2) as divinely revealed history whose intention is at least partly to describe quite literally what happened at the beginning of creation. A person wishing to use the conclusions of evolutionary biology to undermine Christian belief would reason something like this:
“Christians base the truth of the Christian faith on the complete trustworthiness of the Bible. That is to say, they believe what the Bible teaches because it teaches it, and they believe they should believe what the Bible teaches because the church told them to do so. And they believe in the church because the Bible told them to do so–a vicious circle! The Bible teaches that the universe began a few thousand years ago and was created in one instant or in seven days. All the species of the biological world were created separately. But scientists now know that the present cosmos has existed for 15 to 20 billion years and has undergone vast evolutionary changes. We also know that life has existed on earth for many millions of years, that millions of species lived, thrived and are now extinct, and that human beings are relatively latecomers to the biological world. Hence, contrary to the assertions of Christians for hundreds of years, the Bible is not scientifically or historically accurate in cosmological or biological matters. And if what it says about science is not reliable, traditional claims for the authority of the Bible, and therefore for all Christian beliefs, fall to the ground.”
As you can see, the objection from evolution turns on two issues: (1) does the Genesis really intend to describe “quite literally what happened at the beginning of creation” and (2) is the entire Christian faith founded on belief in the authority of the Bible? Interestingly, some believers agree with the first half of atheist objections, that is, the Bible teaches as literal history a view of origins incompatible with Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology; and, because they agree that acceptance of basic Christian beliefs is based on prior acceptance of the authority of the Bible, they agree that if the adherents of these sciences are correct, the entire Christian faith is defeated. Given these agreements, these believers have only one way out: to deny Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology. But how can you achieve this if you have no expertise in physics or biology? Other Christian believers do not believe that the first two chapters of Genesis were written to describe literally what happened at the beginning of creation. Instead, they were written as statements of faith in God as the Creator and Ruler of the world, constructed in dramatic form, which was the style of the day. Hence scientific objections to the biblical creation drama are completely misplaced.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a biologist (or a physicist!). Is climate change real? Is contemporary evolutionary theory sound science? Is Big Bang cosmology sound science? These are questions for scientists to debate. I have devoted my life’s energy to thinking about Christian faith and theology and about how we may make reasonable judgments about Christianity’s truth and responsible decisions to take up the Christian way of life. In my view, the way into Christian faith from unbelief does not begin with accepting the authority of the Bible. It does not involve forming an opinion about evolution or the Big Bang or climate change! It begins with coming to believe that God exists and accepting the testimony of Paul, Peter and other original Christians to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only after these two reasonable judgments does the Bible have any claim to authority. Only then does the debate over the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 have any relevance. It is an intramural debate about how believers should best appropriate the message of these great texts. I addressed the issue of the Bible in January 2015 (“This I Know For the Bible Tells Me So”) and in February 2015 (“What About The Bible? An Autobiographical Reflection”). You can find these essays in the archives under those dates. I highly recommend you read them in connection to this post.
Next time: We will examine the next set of objections to Christian faith: the moral objections. Contemporary critics of Christianity find certain of its moral teachings objectionable. On what basis do they make this judgment? What should our answer be?