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. 

The Conflict Hypothesis Revisited

While the 'conflict hypothesis', which asserted that religion and science have always been in mortal conflict has long been refuted in its traditional form, [2] one could forgive the average Christian for thinking that it was anything other than a myth based on the interminable evolution versus creation battle.
Richard Dawkins, writing in “The Blind Watchmaker” said:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. [3]
George Gaylord Simpson was one of the leading palaeontologists of the 20th century. His work was critical in forging the modern evolutionary synthesis, or neo-Darwinism as it is often called. He commented that “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind,” [4] a quote which like Dawkins’ has been much abused by creationists in order to equate evolution with atheism.

Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and a recognised expert in evolutionary genetics and speciation. Like Dawkins, he is an atheist who believes that religion and science are mutually exclusive. In a recent opinion piece in USA Today, he asserted that:
Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it's not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science. [5]
Due in no small part to comments like these, many lay Christians believe that evolutionary biologists are uniformly opposed to Christianity. This is incorrect. The historian of science David Livingstone points out that many Christian botanists, geologists and zoologists accepted Darwin's claim (if not his proposed mechanism of natural selection) that life had arisen via an evolutionary process [6] because they accepted the evidence he marshalled supported such a claim. Furthermore, some of the main figures involved in forging the modern evolutionary synthesis in the early 20th century such as Ronald Fischer, Sewall Wright and Theodosius Dobzhansky were Christians who saw no problem in reconciling evolution and Christianity. Even today, scientists such as the cell biologist Kenneth Miller, invertebrate palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, medical geneticist Francis Collins and palaeontologist Keith Miller are active in defending both evolutionary biology against creationist attacks and Christianity against claims that it is intrinsically opposed to science.
Despite this, such voices are often drowned out by special creationists such as those from the organisation Answers in Genesis who argue that any scientific conclusion that contradicts a literal reading of the Bible is wrong by default. In fact, the Bible is considered by special creationists to be the foundation for all science. The AiG approach to science is best summarised by their assertion that:
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.” [7]
This assertion can be criticised on two points. The first is that AiG simply assume without justification that the creation narrative is meant to be a scientifically and historically accurate account of the origin of the universe, a position which many theologically conservative Old Testament scholars regard as mistaken. [8] Well before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, educated Christians had realised that the Earth was significantly older than 6000 years and a universal flood could not be responsible for depositing the geological strata. [9] The second point is that the Bible is also "subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information” which leaves special creationists open to the criticism that their interpretation of the Scriptural evidence, being made by fallible people may likewise be “flawed and unreliable.”

Atheists such as Dawkins and Coyne insist that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world, with science helping religion only by refuting one by one its tenets. Conversely, special creationists such as Ken Ham claim that a literal reading of Genesis can never be contradicted by science and is the ultimate guide to reality. Ironically, while both groups are fundamentally opposed to each other, they agree that the creation narratives are to be read literally. Special creationists reject science because it conflicts with a literal reading of Genesis, while atheistic biologists such as Coyne and Dawkins reject Genesis, and therefore the soteriological core of Christianity because a literal reading of Genesis is refuted by science. [10] By linking Christian faith so tightly with science, special creationist organisations have unwittingly framed the debate in such a way that if any of their followers discover that the scientific basis for special creationism is non-existent, they may well abandon not only special creationism but Christianity.


1. There are some Christadelphian ecclesias that list evolutionary biology as a doctrine to be rejected. A medical professional such as myself, whose professional background makes the reality of common descent and the utility of evolution in areas such as rational antibiotic prescription hard to deny would be placed in an intolerable position were I to visit such ecclesias.

2. Hannam J "God's Philosophers" (Icon Books 2009)

3. Dawkins R "The Blind Watchmaker" (Penguin 1986), p 6

4. Simpson GG "The Meaning of Evolution" (Yale University Press 1967) p 345

5. Coyne JA "Column: Science and religion aren't friends" USA Today 11th October 2010

6. Livingstone DN "Darwin's Forgotten Defenders" (Eerdmand 1984) p xi-xii

7. The AiG Statement of Faith

8. Waltke B, Yu C “An Old Testament Theology” (Zondervan 2007)

9. Young DA “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part Two)Westminster Theological Journal (1987) 49:244-304

10. Coyne J "Adam and Eve: theologians squirm and sputter" Why Evolution is True September 8th 2011

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