Saturday, 22 June 2013

James McGrath on Young Earth Creationism

NT scholar, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in NT Language and Literature at Butler University correctly regards YEC as a menace to Christianity. His latest blog post on the subject as usual hits the spot:

Young-earth creationists claim that the being who made the Earth and humankind is neither trustworthy nor honest. Their concept is of a God who makes the universe look like it is a particular age, and the Earth look like it is a particular age, even though they were created much more recently, and then condemns people for believing that evidence.
Young-earth creationists do not believe the Bible's testimony (in particular in Romans 1) that the Creator can be known through observation of and reflection on the created order.
Young-earth creationists believe that the Creator responded to human sin by introducing flesh-eating bacteria, killer viruses, hurricanes, tornados, floods, and carnivores into the world, just to name a few things.
Young-earth creationists believe that it is perfectly acceptable to repeat lies, promote misunderstandings, distort scientific publications, demean the character and credibility of Christians as well as others who work in the natural sciences.
You can read the rest here.

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 6

One strategy often used by special creationists is to assert that when the Bible is read literally, it provides scientifically accurate information about the natural world which was unknown at the time of writing. From this, they conclude that the Bible is indeed of Divine origin, and subtly imply that the creation narratives likewise are scientifically accurate.

Experimental physicist and YEC Richard Palmer utilises this argument in his 2011 talk "Bible and Science: Conflict or Consistency?" He asserts:

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Genetic Evidence for Human Evolution - Shared Genomic 'Errors' (B)

The evidence for human evolution: Shared genetic errors (B)

In part 2 we looked at the basic concepts behind the evidence for common descent as shown by shared 'genetic errors' such as pseudogenes, retrotransposons and endogenous retroviruses. A few examples will follow, in order to highlight why the evidence for common descent just from this branch of science is regarded as overwhelming.

Shared pseudogenes

The enzyme cytochrome P450 C21 is of critical importance in the biosynthesis of  steroid hormones. Humans have both a working copy of the CYP21 gene (which has eight exons)0 C21, as well as a pseudogene, which is damaged in three main ways:
  • An eight base pair deletion in exon 3 of the gene
  • A one base pair substitution at codon 318 of exon 8
  • A single nucleotide insertion in exon 7
Kawaguchi et al analysed the DNA of humans, orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas to clarify how and when the defects in the CYP21 pseudogene occurred:
The primary purpose of this study has been to determine the evolutionary origins of the three defects characterizing the human CYP21P gene. The study shows that the 8-bp deletion in exon 3 is present in the chimpanzee but not in the gorilla or orangutan genes, whereas the T insertion in exon 7 and the substitution generating the stop codon in exon 8 are restricted to human genes. [1]
In other words, the 8 base pair deletion occurred in a common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, while the substitution and insertion occurred after the human-chumpanzee speciation event:

Genetic Evidence for Human Evolution - Shared Genomic 'Errors' (A)

The evidence for human evolution: Shared genetic 'errors' (A)

If you were marking examination papers, and found that the papers from four students seated next to each other had exactly the same answer to each question, complete with the same spelling errors in the same words, you would conclude that they had cheated. The alternative explanation, that the students had independently arrived at the same answers and made the same mistakes, would be dismissed out of hand as preposterous. When we examine the genomes of humans and other animals, we find plenty of examples of shared genetic 'mistakes' at exactly the same place in their genomes. This is correctly regarded as overwhelming evidence for common ancestry, with the original genetic error occurring in a species ancestral to the currently living ones, and subsequently being inherited.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Genetic Evidence for Human Evolution - Chromosome 2 Fusion

The subject of evolution and the Flood have been recently  debated at the main Christadelphian Facebook page. Inevitably, human evolution has been raised, with one of the resident evolution denialists asking:
But your wholesale dodge of a really important question still requires address. I repeat: could you please clarify whether you believe Jesus (on his mother's side) is ultimately descended from the apes? [1]
Whether the question is meant in good faith or not, or simply meant to poison the well and make rational discussion impossible is beside the point. The question is one which is definitely on many people’s minds.
What do you mean when you say that all humans share common descent with apes? The only thing I can agree on is that God created both apes and humans but we do not come from apes. God formed man Adam from the dust of the earth. I don't know what genetic evidence you are referring to anyway. [2]
I am sorry but I believe in creation and that humans did not come from apes. If we did it would have been in the bible that we did. So I will never buy that. Oh and I do not believe that Jesus ever descended from apes. That is silly. I agree. [3]
OK. So if we are going for exact terms... Do you...believe that apes form part of our human ancestry. In otherwords if we go back far enough, do you believe that our great great great....... (n'th degree) grandfather was an ape...We share DNA with cabbages, but that doesn't mean we descended from them! Please clarify your response. Thankyou. [4]
Clarinda it is only when in creation that some say that we share some of the same DNA with apes when we clearly do not. To me that is the offensive part. In death humans and animals die the same death. We go back to the dust of the earth but the difference between humans and animals is that humans that have decided to follow Jesus have the hope of the resurrection as the animals do not. The only thing we have in common with animals is when we die and cease to breath and turn back to dust. [5]
Speaking as someone who actually knows something about human molecular genetics (that sort of knowledge comes with the turf when you're a medical doctor who has studied for post-graduate examinations) these responses betray a complete ignorance of the subject of human genetics and evolutionary biology by those making them. In the spirit of disabusing people of their ignorance, here is an outline of the evidence for human-ape common ancestry, which contrary to what many in our community think, is overwhelming.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Once again, my aims for this website

John  Bedson is a Christadelphian atheist (to use his term which I regard as something of an oxymoron, but nonetheless am willing to use as he prefers it) has made a few comments over at the Facebook page. In light of these, a summary post at the blog is indicated.

My goals here are fairly simple:

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Christadelphian theology has nothing to fear from evolution or the New Atheists. Here's why

There's an old saying which says that if you can only afford one newspaper, buy that of the opposition. Sound advice. For years I've followed sceptical / atheist blogs and forums mainly to see what they consider to be the 'killer arguments' against Christianity. Although it would be a mistake to consider your average internet atheist polemic representative of the sort of argument that would cause your average Christian to stop and ponder, [1] as these are the arguments to which your average young believer will be exposed, lurking at sites such as Freethought Blogs will give you a ready feel for the depth and nature of arguments that are trotted out.

Have the New Atheists driven a stake through the heart of Christianity? Well, that depends on what instantiation of Christianity you are talking about. If your theology is contingent on the literal descent of every human being alive today from two people who lived 6000 years ago, maintains a penal / satisfaction theory of the atonement and believes in the innate immortality of the soul, then you do have problems. However, as Christadelphians, we are in the position of having a theological position which not only is unaffected by evolution, but is not logically or morally incoherent.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 6

Christadelphian physicist Richard Palmer, in his 2011 talk "Bible and Science: Conflict or Consistency?" argues that  God's ability to predict the future demonstrates that He is truly God, then asserts that:
This is highly relevant to the idea of science because people would say that you establish truth or veracity in science by making predictions on the basis of your theory, and those predictions are proven or disproven by experiment or observation. This is something which is never done, by the way, in connection with the theory of evolution. You never find evolutionists saying, "Here's the theory of evolution, and this is what it predicts."It just never happens, which goes again to show that the theory of evolution doesn't belong in mainstream science; which by the way is a highly radical view, and I wouldn't expect most of my colleagues in the university to think that by any means, but it doesn't mean that it's not true. (Transcription mine)
Leaving aside the fact that Palmer fails (as do all Christadelphian evolution denialists) to differentiate between evolution as fact, and evolution as theory, Palmer's assertion betrays a complete ignorance of evolutionary biology. His assertion that evolutionary biologists never claim that evolutionary theory makes predictions is flat-out wrong, and undermines his credibility as an informed commenter on evolution.

Cain did not marry his sister: correcting Christadelphian misunderstandings on palaeoanthropology

Special creationists insist that Cain married his sister, but the evidence for this view is completely lacking, and is driven entirely by an a priori belief that the entire human race descended exclusively from Adam. Its ultimate motivation is of course the doctrine of Original Sin, which falls to pieces if monogenism can be shown to be false. This is indeed the case given that the genetic evidence shows that the entire human race could not have come exclusively from two people living 6000 years ago. Cain did not marry his sister.

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 5

John Pople's interpretation of Genesis: literalism and the ANE context of Genesis

Pople's assertion that the universe was created with the appearance of age is not new. It was popularised by the 19th century marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse, but received poorly by his peers. Charles Kingsley's response to Gosse is representative: 
Shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt, and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this — that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes Deus quidam deceptor [‘God who is sometimes a deceiver’]. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in the one single case of your newly created scars on the pandanus trunk, your newly created Adam's navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason, but my conscience which revolts here... I cannot... believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind."  (Emphasis mine) [1] 
Kingsley was correct. To create a planet with the radiometric and stratigraphic signatures of old age that do not in fact correlate with its actual age when there is no valid reason to do this (rocks unlike trees never reach adulthood) is to make God a deceiver. Pople's argument turns God into a trickster, and for that reason alone should be abandoned.

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 4

A Christadelphian advances the 'creation with the appearance of age' argument.

While our community has only recently started moving towards accepting an evolutionary origin of life, up intil the mid-20th century it accepted the overwhelming evidence of ancient Earth, progressive appearance of life on Earth and a geographically local flood. Evidence for this position positively abounds in our early literature. Robert Roberts, the first editor of the flagship magazine The Christadelphian stated that: 
‘It is a demonstrable fact that the earth has existed for ages. To adopt a view that appears to make it begin only 6,000 years ago would create a difficulty. There is no need for adopting such a view. The Genesis account itself admits of these antecedent times and states which science has proved. It begins by recognising the earth’s actual existence in a chaotic state before the work of the six days began. Why should we refuse this manifest concession to everything that can be discovered as to the age of the earth?’ [1] 

Examples of Christadelphian quote mining

How not to attack evolution:  Quote Mining

Quote mining is a logical fallacy in which a passage of text is selectively quoted in order to alter its meaning and provide an apparently authoritative quote to support a position advanced by the person making the quote, Special creationists are notorious for this practice, and have justly earned the contempt of mainstream scientists for engaging in this intellectually dishonest behaviour. [1]

One classic quote mined by special creationists is Darwin's comment on the evolution of the eye. One often sees this quote from the Origin of Species:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
What special creationists often fail to do is finish the quote, which when given in context gives a completely different meaning to Darwin's words:

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 4

BSCE and John Hellawell - The Darwin Delusion

Many Christian sects used the 150th anniversary of the publication of the 1st edition of Darwin's The Origin of Species to attack evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, our community did not resist the temptation to gatecrash the party. John Hellawell, a retired freshwater ecologist who has written at least one anti-evolution tract [1] gave a number of talks timed to coincide with the celebrations [2]. One of his talks, given at Redditch in the United Kingdom was attended by members of the British Centre for Science Education, an anti-creationist organisation. The report of his talk and the Q&A session afterwards makes for depressing reading. [3]
The talk started with a glowing introduction to Dr Hellawell informing us how qualified a biologist he was and how the guy introducing him couldn’t even pronounce what his PhD was in. That suggested to me that those who’d invited him wouldn’t be qualified to know if he was telling the truth or not.

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 3

Christian attempts to sabotage the teaching of evolutionary biology are unsurprisingly being challenged by defenders of mainstream science [1] who take exception to religiously-motivated attacks on science education. Unsurprisingly, Christadelphian lectures attacking evolution have been targeted by such defenders of mainstream science, suggesting that such lectures are potentially bad publicity for our community, as they result in us being linked with the more extreme elements of fundamentalist Christianity.

Three examples of adverse publicity arising from Christadelphian anti-evolution public lectures will be cited, not as a shaming exercise, but rather as a plea to our community to stop this form of preaching, as it does more harm than good. Not only does it link us with discredited fundamentalist organisations such as Creation Ministries International and Answers in Genesis, but the negative effect on young people in attendance seeing those lectures torn apart is incalculable.

1. The Panda's Thumb: An Open Letter to John Bilello

Public lectures attacking evolution given by emeritus professor John Bilello, from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan [2]  in 2005 were systematically taken apart by Jeffrey Shallit, a professor at the School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, Ontario [3] who is a well-known defender of mainstream science and critic of intelligent design.[4]

Shallit did not pull any punches when criticising Bilello's lecture:

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 3

The Testimony magazine [1] is a Christadelphian publication dedicated to Biblical study and apologetics, and along with the flagship journal The Christadelphian is considered something of an institution within our community. Unfortunately, its coverage of scientific questions relating to the Bible is frankly embarrassing. While our community has traditionally remained opposed to evolutionary biology, up until recently it accepted the evidence for an ancient earth [2], The Testimony  has included articles which advance long-refuted young earth creationist attacks  on radiometric dating [3] or seriously entertain the belief that non-avian dinosaurs coexisted with human beings, and inspired the stories about dragons found in many cultures [4]. Intellectually debased  material such as this is an embarrassment to our community.

Current science editor David Burges often invokes an unsophisticated form of the design argument in the magazine when attempting to rebut evolution. One example was the neck of the giraffe, which special creationists try to claim poses a major problem for evolution. After a cursory review of giraffe anatomy and physiology, he asserted that:
Everything about the giraffe points to a creature whose anatomy and features are unique and designed as a complete package. The authors of the most recent study, in dismissing sexual selection, conclude: “Better explanations for neck elongation must be sought elsewhere”. That ‘elsewhere’ is in the Word of God, which assures us that “God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and . . . saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:25, NRSV) and that He created all things for His (and our) pleasure (Rev. 4:11). [5]
Burges' conclusion was driven by the argument from personal incredulity, hardly grounds for such a cavalier dismissal of evolutionary biology. The origin of the giraffe's neck is still an area of active research, but the absence of a satisfactory evolutionary explanation does not mean one will never be found. More to the point, although we do not have a universally agreed evolutionary explanation for the neck of the giraffe, the fossil record is consistent with an evolutionary origin of the giraffes.

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 2

In 2009, the scientific world celebrated the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of his landmark book The Origin of Species. Christian opponents of science education likewise took the opportunity to commemorate the event by holding public lectures criticising evolutionary biology, or writing numerous anti-evolution articles aimed at reassuring the faithful that despite what evolutionary biologists stated, evolution was really a ‘theory in crisis.’

John Morris, writing in the Nov 2009 edition of The Christadelphian [1] sought to reassure opponents of evolution in our community that there were “many challenges to put before an evolutionist.” His article however was riddled with straw man versions of evolutionary biology, and far from helping the young Christadelphian creationist combat evolution, would potentially erode the faith of the young believer when a knowledgeable opponent duly tore apart the list of “challenges”. People have left our community after being taught that evolution is incompatible with faith and then discovering for themselves that evolution is indeed well supported by the evidence. This is a completely avoidable tragedy, one that can be averted by pointing out where Morris and other Christadelphian anti-evolutionists go wrong in their criticisms of evolutionary biology.

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 1

The problem with making attacks on evolution part of our preaching campaign is that scientifically literate interested friends are hardly going to take our theology seriously when they see we are so hopelessly astray on the science. The warning Augustine issued over 1500 years ago in "The Literal Meaning of Genesis" still is topical in the 21st century:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

Common Christadelphian attacks on evolution exposed

Most of the attacks on evolution made by Christadelphian evolution denialists have been rebutted endlessly. To avoid needless repetition, they will be listed here and referenced appropriately.

1. Failure to define evolution correctly

Incorrectly defining evolution is a common special creationist mistake, and is one that invalidates their attempts at rebuttal. If you fail to define something accurately, then you have shown that you do not understand the subject you are attacking. Common errors include:
  • Failing to differentiate between the fact of evolution (common descent and large-scale evolutionary change for which the evidence is copious [1]) and the mechanism proposed to explain it.
  • Conflating evolution to include unrelated areas such as abiogenesis and cosmology.
The standard approach creationists use in this attack is to assert that difficulties (real or imagined) in the mechanism proposed to explain evolution (the modern synthetic theory) or unrelated areas of science such as cosmology prove evolution never occurred. This ignores the fact that the evidence that evolution has occurred (common descent and large-scale evolutionary change) does not go away even if there are difficulties in the currently accepted theory of evolution.

Losing Faith - How Christadelphian evolution denialism harms our community

In 2011, the Barna Group, a Christian market research firm released the findings [1] of a five year long project looking into how teenagers and young adults maintained their faith in a rapidly-changing world. One of their findings was that nearly 60% of Christians after the age of 15 leave the faith either permanently or for an extended period of time. Two of these six reasons are directly related to the phenomenon of evolution denialism:
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

Understanding God's Word Through His Creation - 10


While the conflict between science and religion is a 19th century myth invented to serve as an anti-religious polemic, the conflict between theologically conservative Protestantism and militant atheism, based on the former’s rejection of evolution is very much real, and is leading to the loss of faith of those who are well aware of the evidence for evolution, but believe that there are only two options – evolution and atheism on one hand, and special creationism on the other.

Framing the debate in this way is misleading, as it ignored both the historically positive reception accorded to Darwin by late 19th century evangelical scholars, as well as the fact that today, the overwhelming majority of evangelical biologists and geologists accept evolution and have no problem accepting science and the Bible. While our community has never accepted evolution officially, it has traditionally had an open mind towards science. The example of CC Walker is instructive here in that not only did he accept mainstream science as an accurate witness to the natural world, he recognised that the creation narratives were not given to teach science, but emphasise that it was God, and not the false deities who created the world. In other words, Genesis was given to tell who created the world and why, not how.

Understanding God's Word Through His Creation - 9

Adam and Eve: the first members of the Covenant Community

If Gen 4 is referring to other humans living contemporarily with Adam and Eve, then it is possible to advance the hypothesis that Adam and Eve were de novo creations of God who lived around 8-10 thousand years ago, but created in a world already populated by human beings who had evolved like every other form of life. This provides a ready answer to the identity of those whom Cain feared would kill him, where he obtained his wife and who would have provided him with the assistance to build a city.

Adam and Eve would not be the first members of the species Homo sapiens to walk the earth, but rather the first people with whom God entered into a covenant relationship. While human beings had been living and dying well before Adam and Eve were created, the concept of sin – as transgression of the divine law – was simply meaningless as God had not revealed Himself prior to then. They died simply “as the beasts that perish” and returned to the dust of the ground. It is trivially true to say that Adam introduced death to the covenant community as it consisted at that time of two people specially created who had never seen human death. [100] More importantly, their transgression introduced not only a poor example into the world which every human since has followed, but also the spectre of eternal death as the punishment for failing to follow God’s law.

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 8

No Original Sin? No Problem. Why we should have no problem with evolution

In defence of conservative Evangelicals who refuse to accept the evidence, one needs to remember that those who take Original Sin seriously as a doctrine are obliged to defend universal human descent from a primal pair. As Davis Young notes:
“At issue is the doctrine of original sin. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant confessional statements on original sin have incorporated the historic view that Adam and Eve were the very first human beings and the product of a special divine creation. Reflecting that view, the formulations of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, and Baptist churches repeatedly use such expressions as "first parents," "first man," "hereditary evil," "hereditary disease," "by propagation of a vicious nature," "derived or spread from our first parent unto us all," "our first father Adam," "posterity," "inherited damage," "by propagation, not by imitation, transfused into all." Perhaps the most explicit statement is that of Answer 16 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression." [93]
Any Protestant who maintains an adherence to the letter of the Westminster Confession will be faced with this problem, which makes the present controversy running through the Evangelical world understandable. Modern evolutionary biology contradicts certain clauses of the Wesminster Confession – reconciling both is simply not possible. Jerry Coyne is uncomfortably close to the truth (for Evangelicals at least) when he asserts:

“Science continues to invalidate the claims of faith. First special creation went by the board, so theologians—at least the rational ones—were forced to show that of course God would have used evolution to fulfill his Big Plan to Produce Humans. Now Adam and Eve have also become metaphors, leading to all kinds of humorous theological speculations about who were humanity’s parents and what, exactly, was the nature of their Original Sin.”  [94]

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 7

Adam and Eve - representatives but not ancestors

Hostility towards evolutionary biology in Christadelphian circles owes much to the perceived connection between evolution and atheism. However, it is perception that evolution destroys a historical Adam that arguably lies behind much of this antipathy. As Davis Young notes though, the problem remains acute even if evolution is rejected:
”What intrigues me, however, is that most evangelical Christians seem to be unaware that a rejection of the idea of human evolution and an insistence on a non-evolutionary creation of the human race do not thereby adequately protect biblical anthropology from possible erosion. Even on the presumption of the special creation of humanity there is other scientific evidence that has the potential for affecting our understanding of the doctrine of original sin. Arising out of Warfield's "fundamental assertion" are his two additional subsidiary questions concerning the antiquity and the unity of the human race. Although these questions were discussed vigorously in the 19th century, Warfield admitted in 1911 that "neither of them can be said to be burning questions of today." Given the explosion of extra-biblical evidence bearing on the antiquity and unity of the human race since Warfield's day, however, it is striking that these questions have received relatively little recent analysis within the evangelical community. Although anthropologists have pondered the two questions, Christian scholars in general and theologians in particular seem poorly informed about the pertinent extra-biblical evidence and its implications for Christian theology.” [77]

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 6

Evolution - More than "Just a Theory"

The considerable fossil evidence for human evolution is a topic many Christians prefer to pretend does not exist. Geologist and evangelical Christian Davis Young observes:
The modern evangelical church is extremely sensitive about open discussion of scientific issues that bear on Genesis 1-11. Enough Christians are so afraid of what might turn up in such discussions that anyone who does try to explore the issues is in ecclesiastical jeopardy. The prevailing atmosphere of fear tends to squelch attempts to deal with these issues. The issue of the origin of humankind is especially sensitive. It seems that the church is afraid to look into paleoanthropology. Where is the curiosity about the physical history of human beings? Among the multitude of evangelical commentaries on Genesis, hardly any of them address the problems of anthropology. Geology is often discussed. Some of the commentators have admitted the possibility of a local flood; others are not yet sure of the legitimacy of geological findings. But virtually all of the commentators assume the anthropological universality of the flood without any engagement whatsoever with the archaeological and anthropological data relevant to the question of the flood's impact on the human race. It's as if the hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient human sites around the world didn't exist. [41]
For Christians who believe as a matter of faith that Adam and Eve were the ancestors of the entire human race and were created approximately six to ten thousand years ago, the considerable archaeological and palaeoanthropological evidence of human existence extending back to nearly 200,000 years ago is often treated by ignoring it. As Young lamented however, any attempt to understand how this evidence can be reconciled with the Genesis account, or even to mention that it exists often places the questioner in “ecclesiastical jeopardy.”

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 5

The Literal Meaning of Genesis – An Early Church Father Speaks the Truth

Christian obscurantism is hardly new. Augustine of Hippo noted much to his displeasure that not a few Christians were bringing disrepute onto the Christian movement by a similar pattern of behaviour:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

Understanding God's Word Through His Creation - 4

A Flat Earth Christadelphian - Correcting false theology with true science

A striking example of how a nuanced reading of the “two books” can correct a flawed reading of nature and the Bible is found in The Christadelphian magazine nearly 100 years ago. A brother T Griffiths argued that the world was flat, and both heliocentrism and a spherical earth were pagan ideas that threatened the doctrine of inspiration. Bro Griffiths argued:

DEAR BROTHER WALKER.—Referring to your brief eulogium on Sir Robert Ball’s speculation as to the “dots in the heavens” (The Christadelphian, July, page 316), I shall be glad if you will condescend to reply to the following queries through the columns of The Christadelphian.
Seeing that the veracity and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures are denied by many on the basis of the revolving globe-earth theory, even to the extent of rejecting the ascension of Jesus into the heaven of heavens as a “geometrical impossibility.” the matter surely cannot be set aside as of no importance, and beyond the province of a magazine devoted to the defence of Biblical teaching and the overthrow of pagan and papal dogmas.
The globe-earth theory is essentially pagan in its origin, and no amount of ingenuity has yet succeeded in harmonizing it with the cosmogony of the Bible.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 3

The Two Books of God

Ronald Numbers, in his history of the modern creationist movement [25] has documented that the modern young earth creationist movement is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Christianity, owing much to the work of the Seventh Day Adventist amateur geologist George McReady Price. Prior to that, creationism was very much an old earth phenomenon. This is reflected in the early Christadelphian writers, who while maintaining opposition to evolution were entirely happy to accept the scientific consensus of an ancient earth. John Thomas was entirely within the mainstream of educated conservative 19th century Christianity when he wrote in Elpis Israel:
The Mosaic account is not a revelation to the inhabitants of other orbs remote from the earth of the formation of the boundless universe; but to man, as a constituent of the terrestrial system. This will explain why light is said to have been created four days before the sun, moon, and stars. To an observer on the earth, this was the order of their appearance; and in relation to him a primary creation, though absolutely pre-existent for millions of ages before the Adamic Era.
Fragments, however, of the wreck of this pre-Adameral world have been brought to light by geological research, to the records of which we refer the reader, for a detailed account of its discoveries, with this remark, that its organic remains, coal fields, and strata, belong to the ages before the formation of man, rather than to the era of the creation, or the Noachic flood. This view of the matter will remove a host of difficulties, which have hitherto disturbed the harmony between the conclusions of geologists and the Mosaic account of the physical constitution of our globe. [26]

Understanding God's Word through His Creation -2

Special Creationism is a threat to belief

This is hardly uncommon, as even a casual examination of the internet reveals. [11] One of the most common themes in the deconversion anecdotes of ex-Christians is how the refutation of their creationism by scientific evidence led to their loss of faith. One such former Christian is Gordon Hudson, an Edinburgh-based charity worker whose involvement in special creationism was hardly minor, having been active in promoting one of the first tours to the UK of Ken Ham. He’s fairly emphatic in pointing out the role YEC had in his loss of faith:
“My own faith was shipwrecked by this issue because I had been told time and again that belief in a young earth and creation of the species as they currently are without evolution was essential to being a proper, soundly converted, bible believing Christian. When I started to doubt creationism I also began to question all the other things I had been told about God. I felt lied to, and ultimately I found I no longer believed in God. In hindsight if I had been in an environment where it was possible to believe in the Gospel message without having to accept creationism I would probably still be a Christian, or at least have some level of faith in God. Although it’s unlikely that this level of faith would have made me acceptable to evangelicals as a “real Christian”. [12]

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Understanding God's Word through His Creation - 1

Despite possessing an honourable tradition of intelligently engaging with the best of modern scholarship, our community over the last half century has become increasingly reluctant to continue this exercise, as shown by the growing influence of young earth creationism and the hostility displayed by some Christadelphians towards science. While salvation is independent of how accurately one’s knowledge of the mechanism behind creation matches reality, there is a very real risk that by overtly supporting pseudoscientific concepts such as flood geology and recent creationism, and attacking evolutionary biology in public lectures, we run the risk not only of discrediting our unique theological message, but alienating scientifically literate potential converts as well as placing members who are well aware of the evidence in favour of evolution by dint of their professional background in an intolerable position. [1]

The slogan “back to the pioneers” often carries with it the baggage of a reflexively conservative community seeking to stifle enquiry by restricting the boundaries of thought. This is unfortunate because those early writers demonstrated not only a familiarity with the science of their day that is sadly not seen by some of their modern contemporaries, but in their willingness to interact with mainstream scholarship and regard science not as an enemy but as an ally, they left us a legacy of intellectual flexibility that is not as well known as the body of works they left behind. It is in this sense that I argue the best way to resolve the conflict between evolutionary biology and Christianity is to go back to the pioneers and re-engage with modern scholarship. 

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 6

In the last post, I demonstrated that special creationists are inconsistent in their literal reading of the creation narratives and the parts of the Bible which they believe are making fact-statements about the natural world. If they were entirely consistent, they would be insisting that the Earth was flat, covered with a solid firmament and was the centre of the universe.

This inconsistency not only makes it impossible to take their hermeneutical model seriously as there is no reason advanced as to why the references to a six day creation should be taken literally while the references to geocentrism explained away, but also hints that the Bible accommodates a pre-scientific world view, as the cosmology found in the early chapters of the Bible is consistent with that held by the Ancient Near Eastern contemporaries of the ancient Hebrews.

One of the most compelling demonstrations that Biblical literalism is a failed method of interpreting the creation narratives is the flat-out contradiction that exists between the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 when both are interpreted as literal, chronological accounts of creation. 

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 5

Opponents of evolution appeal to a literal reading of the Bible in order to defend their position, ignoring the fact that a consistent literal reading of the Bible not only advocates a pre-Copernican view of the universe, but makes the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other. By recognising the Ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis and reading the creation narratives through ancient eyes, not only does this tension vanish, but the creation-evolution debate ceases to have any relevance for understanding the narrative. In this first article, I will look at how contemporary Biblical literalists are inconsistent in their literal reading of the Bible's references to the nature of the universe.

One hundred years ago, a bro Griffiths argued on Biblical grounds that the Earth was not a sphere, and maintained that the very inspiration of the Bible was being threatened by endorsing what he called a theory that was pagan in origin:

Evolution, original sin and the origin of death: John Piper gets it wrong

In Romans 5:12 Paul states that "just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." While many Christians argue that this means human death was unknown prior to Adam's sin, there are others who take this one step further and claim this means no living creature died prior to Adam's sin. 

The very existence  of the fossil record rules out this argument, as it is is a record of predation and death stretching back thousands of millions of years, well before the appearance of primates, let along hominids or anatomically modern human beings. Claims that radiometric dating is unreliable are demonstrably false [1] while the argument that the Earth was created with an appearance of age is an assertion incapable of disproof, and therefore worthless. It also ignores the fact that the argument rocks are created mature is incoherent, given that rocks unlike plants or animals are not living creatures. Death and predation predated Adam by hundreds of millions of years, while human death predated Adam by at least 180,000 years (assuming we date Adam to the Neolithic Revolution), and that completely rules out any interpretation of Rom 5v12 which seeks to exclude all death prior to Adam's sin.

Evolution is a problem for Christianity only if you believe in Original sin and an immortal soul

While some Christian opposition to evolution is driven by a visceral loathing of the idea that humans and apes share common ancestry, by far most of it is driven by the fact that some mainstream Christian doctrines are incompatible with an evolutionary origin of the human race. Not all Christian sects have theological problems with evolution. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has no essential problems with evolution for one reason: it does not have a doctrine of Original Sin in the same way that the Roman Catholic and Reformed Christian churches do. However, for those in the Reformed and Catholic traditions, evolution poses a major problem for their theology. 

Mike Aus, a former Lutheran pastor who went public with his atheism on television last year [1] has written an article [2] in which he outlines the reasons why he believes Christian theology is ruled out by evolution. His two trump cards? Original Sin and the immortality of the soul:

Evolution and Original Sin - 2

Paul and Original Sin

Romans 5 is frequently cited as evidence that the entire human race exclusively traces its ancestry from Adam and Eve. In particular, Rom 5:12 is regarded as teaching beyond doubt that human death began with Adam, implying that the entire human race first began with Adam:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. 
Of course, the scientific evidence will force any intellectually honest observer to admit that whatever the theological message of Romans 5 may be, it simply cannot stand as an anthropologically accurate statement, and at the very least, what we have here is yet another example of Divine accommodation. However, such a brute-force approach to solving this problem is always going to leave some Christians uneasy. A more satisfying approach would be to show that interpreted in its own context, Romans 5 does not teach that the consequences of Adam's sin was genetically inherited by his descendants.

Evolution and Original Sin - 1

The inability to reconcile Original Sin as classically taught by the Christian world and what evolutionary biology has shown us about the origin of the human race is arguably the main reason behind the rejection of evolution by many Christians, particularly those in the Reformed tradition. The specific details of how Adam's sin affected the human race varies between the denominations [1] but there is broad agreement that the consequences of Adam's sin have been transmitted in a genetic way to the entire human race.

 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The consequences of Adam's sin for humanity 
402 All men are implicated in Adam's sin, as St. Paul affirms: "By one man's disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners": "sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned." The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men." 
403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the "death of the soul". Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin. 
404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam "as one body of one man". By this "unity of the human race" all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" - a state and not an act.

Reason and Faith are complementary (or, why science denialism is lethal for your faith)


One commonly taught special creationist falsehood is the claim that evolution is a ‘theory in crisis’, propped up only by a conspiracy of atheistic scientists. Couple this with the belief that evolution and Christianity are mutually exclusive, and you are priming a generation of young believers for a lethal crisis of faith when they look at the subject in more detail, and realise that evolution is a theory which is extremely well supported by the evidence. If you repeatedly tell them that evolution and Christianity are irreconcilable, then you should not be surprised when they leave the faith when they discover everything their church has told them about evolution is a lie.

The simple truth is that the evidence for common descent and large-scale evolutionary change is overwhelming, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying, or poorly informed. As the evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory has said, there has been no serious debate in the scientific world for over one hundred years about whether evolution has occurred: 
In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent.
Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. [1]

The theological benefits of evolution

Many accept the fact of evolution with a sense of unease, not so much at the fact that they share common ancestry with apes, worms and yeast, but that there seems to be little theological benefit in the process. That’s not true. Evolution gives us an insight into a number of troubling theological questions.
  1. Theodicy. The question of why God allows evil in His world remains one of the more troubling questions for Christians. The free-will defence coupled with the ‘cost of creation’ argument answers many questions but is incomplete without evolution. Predation and parasitism make sense if life has been given the freedom to be fruitful and multiply. If God elects not to intervene in this world in order to preserve free will, it’s not unreasonable to argue that God likewise does not intervene in nature to stop the evolution of predation and parasitism. The cost of allowing the evolutionary process to produce a species capable of reflecting the image of God is the emergence of smallpox, HIV and tapeworms.
  2. Evidence for the hand of God in natural history. We’re fond of pointing out how improbable the survival of the Jews over the last 2500 years has been and claiming that this shows the hand of God in human history. The same could be said about how improbable the emergence of the human race has been. The Permian mass extinction nearly wiped out the line leading to mammals, while it could be argued that if the dinosaurs were not wiped out at the end of the Cretaceous, the explosion of mammalian life which resulted in the evolution of primates would not have been that likely. It’s hard to avoid thinking that the hand of God has also been at work in natural history, in altering key evolutionary events to allow the emergence of man.
  3. Support for some of our theological points. In Christendom Astray, Robert Roberts appealed to aspects of neuroanatomy to help refute the idea of innate human immortality. Evolution does the same for other doctrines. Original Sin as taught by the western Church can’t survive evolution, as it really does require humanity to be descended from one man in order to inherit the effects of Adam’s sin. With respect to the concept of innate human immortality, one is entirely justified in asking mainstream Christians who accept evolution at what point in human evolution did God insert immortal soul. These mainstream Christian doctrines will not survive in their present form once the implications of evolution are realised.

The days of Genesis 1 cannot refer to consecutive creation events

The central core of young earth creationism - the belief that God created the entire universe in six consecutive 24 hour days 6000 years ago is false. We know that the Earth is around 4600 million years old [1] while the universe is around 14 thousand million years old. This alone invalidates young earth creationism as it asserts that the Earth is older than the sun, moon and stars, a position which is simply untenable in light of what we know from astronomy.

Well before Darwin published his landmark book "On the Origin of Species", geologists had uncovered enough evidence to show that the Earth was much older than 6000 years, and the sedimentary deposits could not have been deposited by a global flood. Contemporary special creationists not only are wrong, but are ignorant of the history of geology which would have shown them that the ideas they advance today were dismissed well before Darwin's thesis. The evangelical geologist Davis Young observes:
The speculations of modern creationism, like those of seventeenth century diluvialism, know no bounds. While seventeenth and eighteenth century cosmogonists can be pardoned as children of their times who had little empirical data to constrain the bounds of speculation, current scientific creationist ideas are puzzling in view of the abundance of empirical data that invalidate them. Although today’s literalism presents a semblance of scientific sophistication, it has largely ignored the vast wealth of empirical geological data that have come to light during the past 300 years that rule out a global deluge and a recent creation. There is no way that the literalistic approach to Genesis 1–11 can be sustained without appealing to miracle at every point at which scientific data conflict with a literal rendering of the biblical text. [2]

Divine Accommodation - Adapting the Biblical Discourse to Common Usage

Special creationists are inconsistent in their Biblical literalism, as the Bible when consistently interpreted literally not only lends support to the recent creation of the universe, but also shows that the Earth is fixed in space, and lies underneath a solid firmament in which are set the stars. It is impossible to take special creationism as a credible interpretation of Genesis when it is not used consistently. Modern geocentrists may well be completely wrong in their belief that the Earth is fixed, but they are arguably more consistent in their literalism than the YEC movement.

Needless to say, the fact that a literal reading of the Bible supports a view of the natural world that is demonstrably wrong has implications for the concept of an inerrant Bible. Doubtless this has motivated YECs to try to deny the clear references to geocentrism and a solid firmament, in order to preserve an inerrant Bible, but this won’t work as the evidence shows a literal reading really does reflect the pre-scientific world view of the ancient Hebrews.

For the person who takes the Bible seriously rather than literally, the fact that the cosmological view of the Bible reflects that of the ANE raises the possibility that God accommodates His revelation to the limitations of the target audience, rather than try for a level of scientific accuracy that arguably would have been hard for an audience who had no reason to disbelieve what their eyes told them about the natural world.

The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

 One of the biggest mistakes we make when encountering ancient stories is to read them through modern eyes, and ignore the original context of those stories. Difficulties in understanding ancient texts go well beyond the language, as anyone who has read Shakespeare would realise. For example, while the universal nature of love makes Romeo and Juliet accessible even to school students, without an understanding of English history, the subtleties of the historical plays are easily missed.

The problem becomes even more pronounced when we go back thousands of years in time to the ancient near eastern world in which Genesis was written. This was a world in which the evolution / creation argument would have been incomprehensible. The question of whether the universe was created by a divine being was never in doubt. Rather, the question would be who created the world, and why.

This obliges anyone who wants to understand Genesis as the ancient Hebrews would have understood it to enter that world. This is not to say that Genesis is simply a ‘cleaned-up’ version of ancient Babylonian creation myths as some 19th century scholars argued. The reality is far more nuanced, as OT scholar John Walton notes:
“…we are not looking at ancient literature to try to decide whether Israel borrowed from some of the literature that was known to them. It was to be expected that Israelites held many concepts and perspectives in common with the rest of the ancient world. This is far different from suggesting literature was borrowed or copies. This is not even a case of Israel being influences by the peoples around them. Rather we simply recognise the common conceptual worldview that exists in ancient times. We should therefore not speak of Israel being influenced by what world – they were part of that world.” [1]

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 4

The firmament in Genesis is solid

For Biblical literalists, the Bible is a science textbook. More to the point, in the opinion of the young earth creationists, it is the only credible one. Henry Morris has written:
The biblical record, accepted in its natural and literal sense, gives the only scientific and satisfying account of the origins of all things. The creation account is clear, definite, sequential and matter-of-fact, giving every appearance of straightforward historical narrative. [1]
Morris' view remains a fundamental tenet of young earth creationist belief to this day [2]. The implication of this is that the Bible is the “supreme authority” in areas such as astronomy and astrophysics. Therefore, in areas of conflict between a literal interpretation of Genesis and modern astronomy, such as the fact that the universe is much older than 6000 years, the findings of modern astronomy and astrophysics are deemed a priori to be incorrect. Not only is this not scientific, it is dangerously close to fideism, the belief that faith remains independent of reason, or that both are opposed to each other.

There are many problems with this approach. The most important one is that he Bible is not a science textbook [3]. Any exegetical approach that employs this principle will run into the same problems as would a literal interpretation of the NT book Revelation. Special creationism is hopelessly insensitive to genre in Genesis. Another problem is that a literal approach proves too much, since there are passages which if interpreted literally require the exegete to believe aspects about the universe which even YECs regard as wrong.

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 3

Geocentrism in the Bible

Recently, the first Annual Catholic Conference on Geocentrism [1] was announced, much to the amusement [2] of many sceptics and disbelief of laypeople who were astounded that 400 years after Galileo, educated people would still claim that the sun revolved around the Earth. Geocentrism is of course false, as anyone will realise just when considering satellites in geostationary orbit. Satellites in geostationary orbit move around the earth once a day. Therefore, they appear from the point of an observer on earth to be fixed. Now, if the Earth was fixed, then any geocentric satellite would not be orbiting the Earth, but would in fact be suspended in space approximately 36000 km above the equator. Gravitational attraction would inevitably draw the satellite down towards Earth. The fact that I can watch live cricket from the UK via satellite is indirect testimony to the falsity of geocentrism.

While elaborate scientific justifications for geocentrism have been formulated, the ultimate motivation for geocentrism is Biblical literalism. The Biblical Astronomer (formerly the Tychonian society) makes this plain in its credo:

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 2

While the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming, no amount of evidence will persuade a creationist who has decided that a literal interpretation of Genesis trumps any scientific evidence, particularly if they see evolution as being synonymous with atheism.  For the scientifically literate believer who is aware that the evidence for common descent is overwhelming, this can be not a little frustrating when trying to disabuse the lay Christian of the mistaken belief that evolution is a “theory in crisis” or something that is lethal to faith.

The irony lies in the fact that a number of scientists who made pioneering contributions to evolutionary biology were believers. The American botanist Asa Gray, who did much to advance Darwin’s work in America was also a Christian who saw no contradiction between his faith and evolution. His book Darwiniana [1]  is a collection of writings in which he attempts such a reconciliation between science and religion. Three of the main figures behind the forging of the modern synthetic theory in the first half of the 20th century were Christians:  Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and Theodore Dobzhansky (Anglican, Unitarian and Russian Orthodox, respectively).

Furthermore, while popular views on the 19th century religious response to Darwin is characterised by the Huxley - Wilberforce debate, the truth is that conservative theologians and Biblical scholars were not universally opposed to evolution. Benjamin Warfield, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is well known for his work on the inspiration of the Bible. What is often forgotten that he was not entirely dismissive of evolution. The historian David N Livingstone notes:
It is clear that Warfield believed he was perpetuating orthodox Calvinism even while conceding the possibility of a human evolutionary history. In his 1915 exposition of Calvin’s doctrine of the creation for the Princeton Theological Review, for example, he made much of Calvin’s insistence that the term “creation” should be strictly reserved for the initial act of creation. Subsequent “creations”, he argued, were not technically creations out of nothing but rather modifications of the primeval “indigested mass” by “means of the interaction of its intrinsic forces. [2]

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 1

For over one hundred years, there has been no doubt in the scientific world that evolution has occurred. As the evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma has pointed out: 
Darwin provided abundant evidence for the historical reality of evolution—for descent, with modification, from common ancestors. Even in 1859, this idea had considerable support. Within about 15 years, all biological scientists except for a few diehards had accepted this hypothesis. Since then, hundreds of thousands of observations, from paleontology, biogeography, comparative anatomy, embryology, genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology, have confirmed it. Like the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus, the hypothesis of descent with modification from common ancestors has long held the status of a scientific fact. No biologist today would think of publishing a paper on "new evidence for evolution," any more than a chemist would try to publish a demonstration that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. It simply hasn't been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century. [1]

Friday, 7 June 2013

The flood was geographically and anthropologically local

The Genesis flood and universal human descent from two people created 6000 years ago are arguably the most difficult events related in the Bible to integrate with the evidence from the natural world. For Christians whose faith is rooted on a literal interpretation of Scripture, there is a strong psychological motivation to dismiss this evidence, even if they have never examined it. For those who have examined it and found the evidence compelling, the motivation to reconcile these events with the evidence from the real world is quite strong, but it does require an abandonment of literalism. For literalists, this is difficult at best.

 Some special creationists have argued that no evidence from the real world can be allowed to contradict a literal reading of the relevant verses in Genesis. [1] One suspects that those who argue this have never examined this evidence. A full elaboration of it is beyond the scope of this article, but a brief discussion will suffice to show why ignoring it is not an option.

Robert Roberts recognised that the distribution of animals argued strongly against a global flood. In The Visible Hand of God, he wrote:
The question of how much was necessary involves the question of the area to be covered: in other words, was the flood universal in the sense of covering the entire globe? Considering the comparatively limited extent of the human family at the time, and that it was confined to one small district of the globe, it would seem reasonable to conclude from the principle already looked at—the divine sparingness of means—that the flood was co-extensive only with the Adamically-inhabited portion of the globe.

There are facts that compel such a conclusion; and as all facts are of God, they must be in agreement. The animals of New Zealand are different from those of Australia. The animals of Australia, again, are different from those of Asia and Europe. These again differ entirely from those of the American continent: all differ from one another: and the fossil remains on all the continents show that this difference has always prevailed. Now if the flood were universal in the absolute sense, it is manifest that these facts could not be explained, for if the animals all over the earth were drowned, and the devastated countries were afterwards replenished from a Noachic centre, the animals of all countries would now show some similarity, instead of consisting of totally different species. The animals taken into the ark in that case would be the animals of the humanly-populated district only—a comparatively small district in relation to the face of the world at large. If we suppose that only the district populated by the human race was submerged, there would be no difficulty, because in that case, the outlying parts of the earth would not be interfered with, and the state of the animal life in these parts would continue to be what it had been in previous times.

Evolution or Creation: a false choice

God wrote two books

One of the fundamental Biblical doctrines is that the universe owes its origin to a creative act by God. This point is repeatedly stressed throughout the Bible, no more so than the opening verse of the Bible, which succinctly makes this point. Another first principle, arguably of equal importance is that the Bible too is divine in origin, being a work inspired by God Himself. Every other Biblical first principle is directly or indirectly based on these two fundamental precepts.

As God is therefore the author both of the book of Life and the book of Nature, a careful examination of both not only will reveal the character of God and His plan for His creation. As both are the product of one Mind, they cannot be in disharmony when correctly interpreted. The emphasis on a correct interpretation is deliberate, as many problems in the vexed area of properly relating the “two books” of God arise from a failure in this area.

That raises the question of how do we accurately read these two books. As a detailed reading of the natural world needs scientific expertise that either did not exist in the past, or is available after some training and study, the only book that has been readily accessible (if not always understandable) has been the Bible.

Historically, the Christian world has read Genesis literally, believing that the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago, with the human race beginning with Adam and Eve. Although some scholars such as Origen postulated allegorical readings of Genesis, a plain reading of the narrative has been the norm up until the emergence of science as a discipline in its own right provided us with a reading of the book of Nature that was at variance with a plain reading of the book of Life.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Evolution's Christian Defenders

The fact of an evolutionary origin of the species has not been seriously challenged for over 100 years. Multiple independent lines of evidence from fields as diverse as biogeography, embryology, comparative anatomy, palaeontology and molecular biology provide overwhelming evidence for the reality of common descent and large scale evolutionary change. The evolutionary biologist TR Gregory notes that:
In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent.

Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma…notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.[1]
Gregory’s statement is representative of the overwhelming number of mainstream professional biologists and palaeontologists who unlike religiously motivated laypeople are the best placed people to comment authoritatively on the subject. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center shows that only 2% of American scientists are creationists.[2] This number, small as it is, includes scientists from all disciplines, not just the life and earth sciences, and therefore includes those without any professional expertise in biology or geology and who are likely unaware of the evidence against the position they hold. Their acceptance of special creation carries no more significance than that of a molecular biologist who denies general relativity or an electronics engineer who does not accept plate tectonics.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Biblical Literalism and Genesis

For many Christians, Biblical exegesis can be summarised with the popular line, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” It is particularly popular with fundamentalist organisations such as Answers in Genesis, who promote a literalist interpretation of Genesis that posits a young earth and special creation. Needless to say, such organisations are aware that a literal interpretation of Genesis is directly contradicted by science, which has amassed a huge body of evidence in favour of an ancient universe and an evolutionary origin of the species. Their response has been to use one of two approaches. The first is to rebut the evidence for an ancient earth and common descent. The second is to argue that a literal interpretation of Genesis will always trump scientific evidence, no matter how strong.

This approach is in fact part of the foundation clauses of creation science organisations. For example, in the AiG Statement of Faith (point 6 section 3) they assert:
By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information. [1]
In short, this is little more than the popular slogan “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” expanded. While no Christian who takes the Bible seriously would ever quibble with the general concept that genuine Divine revelation ought to settle dispute, it is not unreasonable to argue whether a literal interpretation of Scripture is the correct way to interpret the creation narrative. When one examines literalism, huge problems quickly become apparent.

Yet another blog on evolution. Why?

This blog is written from the perspective of a practising Christadelphian who not only accepts the overwhelming evidence for large-scale evolutionary change and common descent, but does not regard it as posing any problems for mainstream Christadephian theology. The reason for this is fairly simple. As classically formulated, the Reformed and Catholic versions of Original Sin imply universal human descent from Adam in order to inherit a post-fall change in human nature. As Chapter VI of the Westminster Confession of Faith notes:
  1. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. (Gen. 3:13, 2 Cor. 11:3) This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. (Rom. 11:32)
  2. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, (Gen. 3:6–8, Eccl. 7:29, Rom. 3:23) and so became dead in sin, (Gen.2:17, Eph. 2:1) and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. (Tit. 1:15, Jer. 17:9, Rom. 3:10–18)
  3. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; (Gen. 1:27–28, Gen. 2:16–17, Acts 17:26, Rom. 5:12, 15–19, 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45, 49) and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. (Ps. 51:5, Gen. 5:3, Job 14:4, Job 15:14)
The doctrine hinges on monogenism, and if this was true, we would expect to see a sharp genetic bottleneck in the human genome. We do not. As the evangelical Christian and geneticist Dennis Venema points out:
Taken individually and collectively, population genomics studies strongly suggest that our lineage has not experienced an extreme population bottleneck in the last nine million years or more (and thus not in any hominid, nor even an australopithecine species), and that any bottlenecks our lineage did experience were a reduction only to a population of several thousand breeding individuals. As such, the hypothesis that humans are genetically derived from a single ancestral pair in the recent past has no support from a genomics perspective, and, indeed, is counter to a large body of evidence. [1]