Saturday, 8 June 2013

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]

As with any area of science, there are still unanswered questions. Evolution is very much an area of active research, but the focus of research is not on whether evolution occurred – this is no longer in doubt – but how it occurred. Gregory again:

Is evolution always gradual, or can it follow a more punctuated pattern? Are chance mechanisms such as genetic drift ever as important as the nonrandom process of natural selection? Does natural selection operate only among organisms (or genes) within populations, or can it occur at other levels such as among groups or species? Did mammals diversify as a consequence of the extinction of dinosaurs? Is the primary divide among groups of organisms between those with and those without nuclei, or are there deeper splits? Are wholescale genome duplications common in evolution, and if so, are they associated with major evolutionary changes? Can complex features ever be regained once they have been lost from a lineage? Is a substantial fraction of noncoding DNA functional, or is most of it simply “junk” or “parasitic”? Was Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”) a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens or a member of a different hominid lineage? Debate over these questions of theory and path can become quite acrimonious within evolutionary biology, but in no case do they raise doubt about the fact of evolution. As Gould noted, “facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them.” [2]

One approach taken by special creationists to evade the weight of evidence is to simply claim that no amount of scientific evidence can overturn a literal reading of the Bible. The special creationist organisation Answers in Genesis makes this explicit in its statement of faith:

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. [3]

Apart from the fact that Biblical evidence is also always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information, this argument could equally be used by Christians to defend geocentrism [4]. What special creationists need to do is justify on purely internal grounds why references to a solid firmament in Genesis are ignored [5], while references to six days of creation are taken literally. Special creationists are inconsistent in their literalism, and this inconsistency alone makes it impossible to take their exegesis seriously.

Fideism is a faith hazard.

The fundamental problem with the approach championed by AiG and other creationists is that theirs is a fideistic approach. Fideism is the belief that faith and reason are opposed, and that faith is superior to reason in arriving at truth:

Alvin Plantinga has noted that fideism can be defined as an “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth”. Correspondingly, Plantinga writes, a fideist is someone who “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious” and who “may go on to disparage and denigrate reason.” [6]

Fideism is difficult to reconcile with any belief system that takes an evidential approach to apologetics. By that, I mean one that seeks to show the reasonableness of its claims by appealing to evidence. Fideism is arguably difficult to reconcile with the Bible:

Judges 6:36-40:  Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised –  look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.
Psalms 19:1-4: “The heavens declare the glory of God;   the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words;   no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,  their words to the ends of the world. John 21:4-6:  “Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” Acts 1:3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. Rom 1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Not only is God not unhappy to provide evidence to justify claims, He has expected people as Rom 1:20 says to use their God-given reason to examine the world which as Psalms 19 tells us constantly declares God’s glory. The world view proclaimed by special creationists in which a (selectively) literal reading of the Bible without regard for its genre or context trumps hard physical evidence from the natural world is one alien to the Bible.

Christadelphian Fideism

Fideism has unfortunately infected the Christadelphian community, resulting in the widespread advocacy of young earth creationism and open science denialism. One example is found in a Facebook page set up by one young Christadelphian set up in response to the Facebook analog of this blog. [7] It has zero credibility as it is written by someone who not only is simply parroting special creationist cliches, but has not even read in detail the articles on my site:

These are a set of articles by a Christadelphian explaining his views on evolution and how they fit the bible. I haven’t read every single article and every single point he makes, but I have tried to address his main points. (Emphasis mine) [8] 
With these words, the author has trashed his credibility. Any critic who freely admits that he has not read every single article or point made is simply not in a position to claim with any honesty that he has addressed the main points. The main problem however with this site is the fideistic approach adopted by the author:

Before we start this section, I want to remind you of a few things we have established. Firstly, we established that you don’t need to go to university, study science and spend years of your life studying fossil records to understand whether evolution is true. The bible has already told us how God created man, so even if there was 100% evidence in the natural world for evolution, we wouldn’t accept it, because the bible tells us it is wrong.  (Emphasis mine)  [9]
I am embarrassed and enraged to see that our community has betrayed this young man by bringing him up in an ecclesial environment where YEC and open hostility to science are the norm. What this young man has advanced  is fideism - blind faith privileged over hard evidence. The bitter irony is that this approach would not have been tolerated in the early Christadelphian community, as it is antithetical to the reasoned approach towards science that the first generation advanced. As early as 1864, one Christadelphian reminded his readers that:

The inconsistency spoken of between nature and scripture, arises not from antagonism, but from the misinterpretations of both. It is man’s interpretation of the one set against man’s interpretations of the other. It is not nature versus scripture, but false science against true theology, or false theology against scientific fact...Some scientific men, we believe, view the Scriptures through the distorted medium of “confessions of faith” and doubt them, and theologians view science and call it false, because it does not take to their turn‐pike road." (Emphasis mine) [10]

Approximately fifty years later, C.C.Walker, the second editor of The Christadelphian responded to a correspondent who claimed that not only was the earth flat, but that those who denied this were compromising belief in an inspired Bible. This writer asserted that:

"...the veracity and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures are denied by many on the basis of the revolving globe earth theory...‘The globe‐earth theory is essentially pagan in its amount of ingenuity has yet succeeded in...harmonizing it with the cosmogony of the Bible...what about those who allow themselves to be led by the vapourings of scientific theorists while pondering over the plainly worded inspired narrative of creation?..The wrong is there all the same, and its effects become manifest when he who has swallowed the morsel finds, as the logical outcome of an adopted bastard theory, that the Bible and modern science are at variance, and verbal inspiration a farce...Is it not the teaching of Scripture that the earth, that is, the dry land, is a stationary body, founded upon the seas, and established upon the floods, and with its foundations in the deep?...‘Is it not the plain testimony of Moses that sun, moon, and stars, were made and set in the heavens on the fourth day of Creation week?’ (Emphasis mine) [11]

The subject has changed, but the logic still remains; a literal reading of the Bible without regard to its genre or cultural context is elevated over the clear testimony of the natural world. C.C. Walker's response is worth quoting at length:

We would not discuss this matter were it not that our brother does himself and others an injustice in proclaiming the well settled belief of so many of his brethren a “wrong” and “bastard theory” and so forth; and quite unfaithful to the Word of God. This is not the case at all. Speaking for ourselves: before we learned “the truth” we were quite well convinced of the spherical figure of the earth from perfectly candid study of natural phenomena, and of navigation, which certainly “works” on the spherical basis. And we have found nothing in the Scriptures to unsettle this conviction in the least. Quite the contrary. In fact, the “enormous distances and magnitudes” which appear to be a stumbling block to our brother, are to us only the fitting suggestions of the Infinite and Eternal. And this is the impression of many of the brethren, as it was of the late Dr. Thomas and brother Roberts.
Admitted that “the globe‐earth theory” is of “pagan” origin, it is not therefore untrue. Much natural truth is of “pagan” discovery. We do not reject it on that account.
‘Moses’ testimony is not so “plain” that it cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history.’ Without committing ourselves exactly to the figures named, we may say that what our brother calls an “unproved assumption” is with us a well-settled conviction, for reasons which may be found in any good work on astronomy... (Emphasis mine) [12]

Let me be clear. C.C. Walker and the other Christadelphian cited did not accept evolution, but that is not the reason for quoting them. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the fideistic apprach naively advocated some contemporary believers was alien to the first generation of believers who recognised that:

The natural world is equally a revelation of God, and if hard evidence from nature contradicts a human reading of the Bible, then that reading needs to be adjusted in the light of the revelation of the natural world.

Modern science can provide us with a reliable source of information about the natural world which can be used with profit

What some call the 'plain teaching of the Bible' is not as plain as they would claim, and can readily be misunderstood

Genesis was written not so much to teach ancient Israel about exactly how God made the world, but in order to remind them that it was Yahweh, and not the gods of the other nations who created the universe.
Since C. C. Walker wrote his reply, a century has passed, in which considerable changes in evolutionary biology have occurred. The fossil evidence has exploded, the modern synthetic theory of evolution has been forged and is the currently accepted theory of how evolution occurred, while the evidence from molecular biology and comparative genomics - sciences utterly unimaginable to C.C. Walker and others of his time have provided powerful evidence for common descent. Evolution denialism is no longer a rational, credible choice

When uninformed believers assert that 'evolution is wrong, even if  there is 100% scientific support for it', not only are they reinforcing the atheist stereotype of Christians checking in their brains each time they enter church, they are continuing to perpetuate an environment in which believers educated in the life and earth sciences who can see for themselves the solidity of the evidence for an ancient earth and common descent feel that they can no longer remain a member of their ecclesia, and accept the evidence of the natural world which shows the reality of evolution.

This is a real problem for Christianity, and is one of the main reason why nearly 60% of young people leave their churches by the age of fifteen. The Barna Group, a Christian market research firm has recently researched this problem, and notes that Christian hostility towards, and ignorance of science is lethal to faith:

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. [13]

Demonising science is not the way to answer the genuine questions young - and not so young - believers face when confronting the fact of evolution. The long term results this approach will be a shrunken, insular, anaemic  ecclesial world.


If a believer asserted "even if there was 100% evidence for the earth revolving around the sun, we wouldn't accept it, because the bible tells us it is wrong", it would be hard to find a single Christadephian who would not dismiss that claim as nonsensical, given that the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against geocentrism. This is even though a literal reading of the Bible provides evidence for this views. Church history shows that for geocentrism at least, people resisted astronomical evidence against heliocentrism by citing the literal meaning of Scripture, and did so until the scientific evidence became too obvious to ignore.

History is repeating here with evolution.  When a believer likewise rejects evolution, and says that he would reject it even if the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports it, he is  making the same fallacious claim, one grounded in a fideism. To say that this attitude is unhelpful is an understatement. By tying our faith to hard-line opposition to evolution, a position which given the evidence is simply untenable, we run the risk of destroying the faith of those whose work of study exposes them to the evidence for common descent and large scale evolutionary change.

An honest faith will always be willing to test its claims in the light of the natural world, and adjust them accordingly. If we believe that God is the creator of the universe (irrespective of how he created it) then there will be no contradiction, provided that the Bible is properly interpreted.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Gregory T.R. “Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path” Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46–52

2. ibid, p 51

3. The AiG Statement of Faith 

4. See for example  in which belief for geocentrism is deduced from a literal reading of the Bible.

5. Enns P “The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point” Science and the Sacred Jan 14 2010 

6. Amesbury, Richard, "Fideism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

7. Creation – A Christadelphian Persspective.”

8. Creation – A Christadelphian Perspective “Introduction”

9. Creation – A Christadelphian Perspective “What Science Says

10. WDJ "The Bible as a Law of Life and Immortality" The Ambassador of the Coming Age, (1864) 1:93

11. Walker C.C. "‘Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?’" The Christadelphian (1913) 50:346-349

12. ibid, p 347-349

13. Barna Group "Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church" September 28th 2011