Who would you trust the most? An astronomer guy who peers into his telescope in the wee hours of the morning? A physicist who draws up mind-blowing math formulas and rambles on about some Higgs Boson thingie? A chemist who mixes up crazy concoctions in her lab? Or a biologist who plays with frogs and fruit flys?
I was listening to the latest podcast from MoodyRadio’s Up For Debate program this week. The topic was “Should Christians Embrace Theistic Evolution?“ featuring a discussion between Dr. Ard Louis, a scientist at the University of Oxford, and Dr. Paul Nelson, a Fellow of the Discovery Institute. At one point during the program, the host of the show, Julie Roys, played the following clip from Phillip E. Johnson, perhaps the father of the modern Intelligent Design movement. Here Johnson argues that “evolution” as generally understood by the educational and academic community is inherently atheistic in orientation. In other words, theistic evolution is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
I get the impression that according to Phillip Johnson, he would pick and trust the astronomer, the physicist or the chemist over the biologist any day. Sorry frog and fruit fly lover!!
This raises an interesting set of issues and I will tell you why.
Why Biologists Do Not Get as Much Love from Christians as Opposed to Other Scientists
Greg Smith is a friend of mine who teaches at the College of William and Mary. His research area is in the Applied Science department where he studies the mathematical aspects of cell biology and neuroscience. Does that sound a little scary? Well, not so fast. Greg is a fan of Nickel Creek (love that Chris Thile mandolin!) and knows where all of the best Chinese restaurants in town are located. He has led me to some of the tastiest General Tso’s Chicken around that you can find. He’s a smart guy, but he is still pretty down to earth to me.
Greg hit me with a provocative set of thoughts recently. I will just quote him here:
It seems to me that understanding/acceptance of the biological sciences within the evangelical church is lagging behind the physical sciences. Perhaps because the “average person” believes they know more about biology than physics? Perhaps because the “old earth creationist” perspective doesn’t quite cover all the issues that biological science raises? The question of why Christian engineers and physicists tend to be more into intelligent design and old earth creationism, while Christian geologists and biologists tend toward evolutionary creationism is, I think, an interesting one… [Also,] churches seem to “buy” what the physicists say (e.g., old universe, general relativity, big bang) far more than they “buy” what the biologists say (e.g., common ancestry and descent with modification).
Yeah, OK. Greg is a thinker.
And he has me thinking.
When I look at that clip above from Philip Johnson about the general atheistic orientation of biology, I can clearly understand the concerns. But it is interesting that aside from the Young Earth Creationist community, you rarely find Christians who are concerned about the general atheistic orientation of theories such as the old age of the universe, general relativity, or the Big Bang theory.
I mean, one of the biggest complaints about evolution is the role of chance and randomness in the process. It substitutes the purposeful direction of a Creator God with a simple role of the dice, I have often heard. But I do not think I have ever known any Christian to complain about the role of chance and randomness in quantum mechanics. If there is any scientific theory that puts nearly all of its eggs in the basket of chance and randomness, quantum mechanics probably has more going for it than even biological evolution. Talk about being so-called “undirected” and “unguided”. You have it in quantum mechanics. You mean to tell me that an electron can be in two places all at once, and it is all a function of probabilities? Where is the “intelligent design” factor in that?
Now wait just a minute here….
How come I never saw this before?? Yikes!
Christians! Christians! Alert! Stand your ground! We have a new enemy! Raise the standard!! Man the ramparts!!
Waiting for the troupes of Bible scholars and theologians to arrive with their pitch forks to attack those infidel physicists…
I… do not… appear to be … hearing any movement.
(Mental note: talk to John Paine about how we can boost the readership up on the Veracity blog. Apparently, the word is not getting out too well…. )
Why Biology and Christianity Do Not Always Get Along:
Have you ever heard of Christians marching down to their local school board complaining about “evolution” in the classroom? Sure. But what about banning the teaching of quantum mechanics? Even when the Young Earth folks take up their banner, they usually lead off with the evils of evolution. They never lead off with the perils of that hideous Big Bang theory or speculative Copenhagen interpretation.
Mmmm…. now that is really odd if you think about it.
I will give Phillip Johnson the benefit of the doubt on this. Yes, there are plenty of biologists out there who have atheistic agendas. Some do use evolution as a synonym for atheism. However, you can find physicists and chemists out there who have those same agendas, too. So is it really fair to say that evolution in the “scientific culture” inherently assumes atheism as Johnson suggests, implying that you do not have as much of this bias in other disciplines?
Perhaps Greg Smith’s set of provocative thoughts can be explained by Johnson’s claim about the overloading of atheistic thinking within the discipline of the biological sciences. Well, frankly, I do not buy that.
It is because of the confusions associated with Johnson’s otherwise fair observation that I really do not like the term theistic evolution. It makes about as much sense as saying that someone believes in theistic quantum mechanics or theistic electromagnetic theory. It is as though some are insecure about what “evolution” is so we feel the need to throw the “theistic” qualifier in there to make it sound okay. I am much more at home with the notion of Evolutionary Creationism instead, which simply means a view of Scripture and science that says that the God of the Bible used common ancestry and decent through modification instead of non-contiguous acts of special creation to produce complex life forms, including human beings. (NOTE: The question of whether Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, or Evolutionary Creationism provides the best explanation of natural history is something we have covered elsewhere here on Veracity. That’s not what I am trying to get at here).
If there is any truth to Phillip Johnson’s critique of evolution as atheistic biology, I think it might be better explained in other ways. Here are a few ideas:
- The number of biologists in the sciences far exceeds the number of scientists in other disciplines. For example, at the College of William and Mary, the biology program is the most popular scientific major for undergraduates on campus. I do not know the numbers off-hand, but it could simply be that there is more atheistic thinking among biologists because there are simply more biologists running around, and therefore more atheistic biologists than in the other scientific disciplines.
- I do not have a reference handy, but Hugh Ross at Reasons to Believe, the premier Old Earth Creationist think-tank, says that the reason why biologists see so little evidence for God as compared to the astronomers and the physicists is because biological life came so late in the creative process. Astronomers and physicists look at things in the far distant past, whereas life is comparatively recent. For example, the Big Bang theory is a bonus to the theist but a thorn in the side of the atheist, happening right at the beginning of the Creation. Ross argues that most of the biological diversity we see today happened towards the last few days of Creation and more so even after that, after the sixth day was over. Since God stopped creating on day seven, our current “day”, we should not be surprised to find little evidence for creation in biology since the Creator stopped his strictly creative work at the end of the sixth day.
- I think Greg Smith is onto something. Things that have to deal with the biological sciences intersect with our lives everyday; such as with health and medicine. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle, on the other hand, is not something that I come up against that much when I blow the leaves out of my driveway onto my neighbor’s lawn with my leaf blower. We think we know a lot about things like health and medicine, so we are more inclined to trust our own instincts about our knowledge of biology than those experts within the biological sciences. When it comes to physics on the other hand, it all just goes over our heads so we just nod and say “Okay, I’ll go with that theory of relativity stuff. Do you have any more coffee?“.
Those are just some random thoughts. I would like to know yours.
But I do feel a little bad for those biologists out there now. Maybe I will go and find one and give ’em a hug. How about that?
Which science do you trust?
February 1st, 2014 at 12:41 pm
Yeah right…and pots and pans evolved from spoons?! 😉
I heard a fascinating presentation from Dr. Norman Geisler on this topic at the 2013 National Conference on Christian Apologetics (don’t miss this conference in October, 2014; if you register before 2/28/2014 you will get all of last year’s presentations on a thumb drive). The topic of Dr. Geisler’s presentation was “Theistic Evolution and Evangelicalism: Are They Compatible?” I was a bit taken aback by the provocative title, but it was a well-composed and doctrinally sound presentation. The gist of his presentation is summarized in this post.
Dr. Geisler’s doctrine is sound, and his argument may be correct. But is it necessary? Put another way, does holding to a Theistic Evolution (or Evolutionary Creationist) view preclude one from being a ‘Christian’? In my mind not at all. Is Theistic Evolution the best or most valid interpretation of the Bible? I would have to agree with Dr. Geisler on this point—as I do with so much of his teaching. He gets into lots of controversies with people who disagree with his theology, but I do find my heart and mind in alignment with his doctrine.
Ultimately, who has the correct interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 is not as important as practicing John 13:35. That’s not to say the interpretation of the biblical text (hermeneutics) is unimportant, just that we shouldn’t throw rocks at people who hold to different interpretations. Neither does it mean that anything goes. Theology and doctrine are very important—and very interesting. Thanks again for laying it out with gentleness and respect!
February 1st, 2014 at 8:11 pm
Hey, John, are you poking fun at my great-grandparents, grand-aunts and uncles in that photo? 😉
Norman Geisler’s argument that Genesis 1 is “literal” and not pure Hebrew poetry has a lot of strength to it. But it may not be entirely that clear cut.
Here I am quoting from just a small part of Tim Keller’s excellent paper on the BioLogos website from page 4:
Click to access Keller_white_paper.pdf
“So what genre is Genesis 1? Is it prose or poetry? In this case, that is a false choice. Edward J. Young, the conservative Hebrew expert who reads the six-days of Genesis 1 as historical, admits that Genesis 1 is written in ”exalted, semi-poetical language”. On the one hand, it is a narrative that describes a succession of events, using the wayyigtol [Clarke’s note: this is a fancy Hebrew term] expression characteristic of prose, and it does not have the key mark of Hebrew poetry, namely parallelism….
On the other hand, as many have noted, Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song. There are many examples, including the seven-time refrain, “and God saw that it was good” as well as ten repetitions of “God said”, ten of “let there be”, seven repetitions of “and it was so,” as well as others. Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened. In addition, the terms for the sun (“greater light”) and moon (“lesser light”) are highly unusual and poetic, never being used anywhere else in the Bible, and “beast of the field” is a term for animal that is ordinarily confined to poetic discourse.All this leads [C. John] Collins [another conservative Bible scholar] to conclude that the genre is:
‘…what we may call exalted prose narrative. This name for the genre will serve us in several ways. First, it acknowledges that we are dealing with prose narrative…which will include the making of truth claims about the world in which we live. Second, by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that…we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text.’ “
So while Norman Geisler’s efforts are to be commended for working to undercut the tendency to de-historicize the text among “theistic evolutionists”, it does not fully address the question of genre. Furthermore, Norman Geisler enlists Walter Kaiser for support and while Kaiser does say that Genesis 1 is a type of historical narrative and not poetry, he is also careful to say that it is not “history” in the ordinary sense that we understand it today in our modern culture (Hard Sayings of the Bible, p. 89).
My main criticism is that the understanding of the genre of the first part of Genesis is something that conservative Bible scholars have been debating for years. When Norman Geisler says that Genesis is to be understood “literally”, what does that “literally” mean? If the answer to that question was crystal clear, why is it that conservative Bible scholars in the tradition of Young, Collins and Keller still continue to debate this?
Norman Geisler makes a very plausible positive case for an Old-Earth reading of Genesis, but his critique of “theistic evolution” only further demonstrates why I think the term “theistic evolution” is confusing. First,I am not entirely clear how Geisler defines “theistic evolution”. He evidently considers Michael Behe to be a “theistic evolutionist”, even though Behe has spent much of his career trying to distance himself as an Intelligent Design theorist away from theistic evolution:
Secondly, it is true that there are Evolutionary Creationists (as I would describe them) who feel compelled to dismiss the historicity of Adam, etc., but there are others who strongly resist attempts to de-historicize Adam (such as Tim Keller), and others who are agnostic about the issue. What drives these differences among Evolutionary Creationists is partly the science, but it primarily goes back to the question on genre with respect to Genesis and how it fits in with the narrative of Scripture as a whole, a point that I think Dr. Ard Louis eloquently made in the MoodyRadio Up For Debate podcast mentioned earlier in this post.
Thanks for bringing up the Norman Geisler perspective. This is really important to the debate.
Where are we going to lunch tomorrow??
February 2nd, 2014 at 12:52 pm
Great post. I do not think any branch of science is inherently anti God. Many use science as a way of replacing God.The theory of evolution however has been used more than any other theory to get God out of the equation which is why biology gets such a bad rep.
February 4th, 2014 at 10:01 pm
For those of you who want to know more about my friend Greg Smith and his specific views on this topic, I think the following selection from Greg’s “Jesus Loves Darwin” blog adequately states his case, and he mentions Phillip Johnson, too!
HT: David Thompson