Saturday, 8 June 2013

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]
Livingstone notes the significance of Warfield’s acceptance of some form of evolutionary theory:
The significance of Warfield’s proposals is not inconsiderable, especially in view of his defense of biblical inerrancy. He plainly held that there was no conflict between evolutionary science and belief in scriptural infallibility. If there was any conflict between science and Christianity, it was centered on the issue of design. And it was Warfield’s willingness to renegotiate the design argument…that facilitated his presentation of a Christian evolutionism that had theological as well as apologetic value. [3]
Livingstone continues by nothing that this early 20th century rapprochement between science and faith was 
not limited to a tiny number of believers:
It is clear that the advocates of the old Princeton theology, scientists as well as theologians, had by the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century achieved a tolerably comfortable accommodation of organic evolution. [4]
Far from being universally opposed to evolution, the response of 19th century Christianity was widely varied, with both conservative and liberal Christians supporting an evolutionary origin of the species. There is of course little doubt that in the lay Christian mind, evolution and atheism are paired, and there is no shortage of quotes from atheistic biologists to fuel that assertion. Arguably, the best-known is from the ethologist Richard Dawkins:
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. [5]
It is quite easy for both sides to frame this issue in terms of evolution versus creation. Viewed exclusively this way, Christian opposition to evolution is almost inevitable, since every piece of evidence that supports evolution will be perceived as undermining the very basis of belief itself. This is readily apparent whenever the subject is even remotely alluded to. One correspondent in a recent edition of The Christadelphian writes, in an attempt to answer the evidence for evolution provided in the latest book by Richard Dawkins:
Nevertheless it is necessary for us, who believe in the Creator, to address the points made by Dawkins…Why did creatures exist in the past that can be arranged, gaps notwithstanding, in the sequence we see printed? Why do modern organisms have the particular similarities and differences in their anatomy, biochemistry and genetics that permit him to make that claim?
I suggest we can find an answer to this in the Garden of Eden. The first couple’s religious duty was to obey a simple command not to eat the fruit of a particular tree. There was also present the serpent to offer a different point of view so that the choice to obey or not to obey was a real one. When the woman ate the fruit she did so believing that she had a sound rationale for her choice (Gen 3:6). So it was that the first evidence-based decision made by humans was the wrong one. (Emphasis mine) [6]
This is dangerously close to the AiG assertion that observed evidence is invalid if it contradicts Scripture. In fact, it is verging on fideism, the belief that faith and reason are at best independent of each other, or even in opposition. This view is guaranteed to create a crisis of faith in those of us who pursue higher education in medicine or the life science, and discover how strong the evidence for evolution really is, as well as how pathetic the special creationist arguments against evolution are. That a denomination such as ours which has a long and noble tradition of appealing to facts when others resort to tradition and credal confession has come to a position where a solution to the evolution-creation dilemma such as this could even be intimated is worrying.

What many opponents of evolution overlook is that by framing the debate in terms of evolution/atheism versus creation/theism, they risk forcing scientifically literate believers into making a choice between observed reality and a particular interpretation of Scripture, which can have devastating consequences for those believers. The physicist and Christian Karl Giberson writes:
Most parishioners probably think evolution is false, but mainly they just don’t need to think about evolution at all. Why should a pastor engage a topic that seems irrelevant when it will certainly lead to controversy? 
Despite these perspectives I think evolution is far more important than most Christians appreciate. The reason why it may seem like a back burner topic is that the people with the questions have left the church and taken their questions elsewhere. If they, and their questions were still in the church then their voices would be heard and the issue would seem more pressing.
Most evangelicals grow up believing that evolution is a “creation story for atheists.” This is exactly what Kirk Cameron told students on college campuses in mid-November when he and Ray Comfort were handing out their doctored version of The Origin of Species. This is the message preached by several influential organizations—Answers in Genesis, The Institute for Creation Research, Creation Science Evangelism, and even some of leaders of the Intelligent Design movement. This message, if taken seriously, is disastrous for people raised in the church. Take E.O. Wilson, for example, arguably the most important scientist of the last half-century. Wilson was raised a Southern Baptist and was quite devout as a child. But he was taught that his faith and evolution were incompatible. He went off to study biology at the University of Alabama and learned, to his surprise, that the evidence for evolution was compelling and, like virtually all serious biologists, he accepted it. This, of course, meant he had to reject the Christian faith of his childhood...
Anecdotes like this are abundant but, unfortunately, no data exists as to how common Wilson’s “deconversion” experience is. There is data, however, that hints that it might be very common. Evangelical Protestants make up at least 28% of the general population in the United States but they represent only 4% of the scientific community. What happened to the other 24% of the evangelicals along the way? There are most likely two explanations, both of which are concerning:
1. Evangelicals are raised with a negative image of science and are thus unlikely to choose it as a career;
2. Evangelicals, like E. O. Wilson, who go into science lose their faith, and cease to be evangelicals.
For either of these reasons, evolution deserves more attention than it is getting. If evangelicalism wants a place at the cultural table, it needs to make peace with science, including evolution, so that its young people are excited to go off and study the world created by the God they were raised to worship. And, when they learn that the biologists are right about evolution, that revelation needs to fit comfortably within their Christian worldview.
This is why we should care about evolution. [7]
The dichotomy observed by Giberson in my person experience is found in our culture. The irony here is that early Christadelphian writers, from John Thomas and Robert Roberts onwards were not afraid to interact with the best science of the day. Thomas' acceptance of an old earth and Roberts' willingness to consider a local flood are of course well known. A case could be made that some in our body are not as willing to engage with the best science of our day, but insist on an exclusively literal interpretation of Genesis.

So long as this subject is viewed as a literal interpretation of Genesis versus science, then there will always be conflict, since it is impossible to harmonise both. A literal reading of Genesis teaches a recent creation in six days, with the entire human race descending from two individuals created thousands of years ago. The scientific data show that the universe is ancient, with humans tracing their ancestry back millions of years into the past. As Giberson pointed out, many educated Christians when confronted with this choice drift into unbelief.
As mentioned before, it is difficult to engage those who have simply concluded a priori that evolutionary biology is wrong, no matter how strong the evidence. However, what many literalists overlook is that literalism as a method of interpreting the Bible proves too much. Literalism as pointed out teaches a recent creation in six days. It also teaches that demon possession causes mental illness and teaches a geocentric cosmology [8].
Not every Christian who adheres to a primarily literalist means of interpreting the Bible would make all these claims. A geocentrist would quite likely argue that the Bible teaches all three ideas. Evangelical Christians such as those in AiG would argue that the verses cited by geocentrists as proof for their cosmology are to be interpreted as phenomenal language, while still arguing that the Gospel narratives plainly interpreted teach demon possession. Christadelphians who reject evolution would however reject a literal reading of those verses that are used to teach the reality of demon possession.

One cannot help but think of the AiG comment, “evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information” given that all three groups differ markedly in what verses are to be interpreted literally. Making this problem even more acute is that those who reject literal readings of the verses that are used by others as support for demon possession and geocentrism rely on medical science and astronomy to reject the literalist view. This immediately leads onto the question of what objective means are employed by the interpreter of Scripture to determine what is literal, and what is not if one is not allowed to appeal to science. Another way to put is is whether one could derive a modern scientific view of astronomy, medicine and biology from the Scriptures alone.The question of what a consistent literal reading of the Bible would oblige its readers to accept will follow in the next posts.

This article first appeared at my Facebook page here


1.  Gray, Asa. Darwiniana: Essays and reviews pertaining to Darwinism. (1888 New York: D. Appleton) Retrieved 28th December 2011  

2.  Livingstone DL Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Regent College Publishing 1997) p 119

3.  ibid, p 121

4.  ibid, p 121-2

5.  Dawkins R  The Blind Watchmaker (Penguin Books 1991)

6.  Letters: "Darwin or the Gospel" - Michael Crawford The Christadelphian   Dec 2009

7.  Giberson K "Evolution Matters"  Science and the Sacred Feb 15th 2010 Accessed 28th December 2011.   Geocentrists still exist, and they appeal to a literal reading of the Bible to justify their position. See for example   Arguably, they are more honest in their literalism than YECs who ignore the many references in the Bible to a fixed earth.