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In 2009, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species” focused renewed attention on what many see as the challenge posed by science to Biblical Christian faith. “Darwin’s dangerous idea” is presented as having undermined belief in God, and if you listened to much of the media, you’d think people were simply divided into two groups: those with a rational respect for science on the one hand, all agreed on the mechanisms for evolution and rejecting God, and a bunch of fundamentalists on the other, all believing the world was made 6000 years ago and shaped by Noah’s Flood.
The polarisation has become all the more acute with the vociferous challenge posed by the ‘New Atheists’, campaigning actively against belief in God and criticising religion, often in intemperate and vitriolic terms. Professor Richard Dawkins, probably the best-known of the movement, has attracted a wide following by his articulate, if in the view of critics ill-informed, advocacy of an assertive, ‘proselytising’ atheism. Atheists and religious fundamentalists alike demand that a choice be made: science or faith; rational thought or God; your brain or your Bible?
But is that supported by the facts? Must you choose one or the other? And does Christian faith, built on the Bible, require you to throw science out of the window?
First of all, the claim that believers are a small minority among scientists, compared to the general population, is simply wrong. One US survey among academic scientists by Rice University sociologist EH Ecklund showed a pretty even split between believers, atheists and agnostics; while another survey showed about 40 accepting, and 40% rejecting, a personal God – interestingly almost the same proportions as in a similar survey 80 years before (Larson & Witham, Nature 386: 435-436, 1977). In the UK too, though religious belief is less common, it’s not difficult to find Christians across all the main scientific disciplines.
Those Christians, like others, take a variety of views about creation. Some suppose a series of creative acts spread over long ages, perhaps symbolised by the ‘days’ of Genesis chapter one. Some see Genesis as describing a series of ‘visions’ of aspects of creation over an unspecified period of time. Others point out that the Bible is concerned to tell us that God is ultimately responsible for bringing about the world and life on it, not to explain how He did it, and so have no difficulty in concluding that a long process of evolution was the mechanism through which He chose to work.
This “gradual creation” view is, of course, quite different from the fundamentalist view that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that creation was very sudden: the world made in a week. But the Bible doesn’t require you to believe that! In fact, the popularity of the “young earth” view is quite a recent thing, and early Christadelphians such as John Thomas clearly saw that the Earth is a great deal older than the 6000 years that “young earthers” propose. . Genesis nowhere says the planet is 6000 years old – which is just as well because towns like Jericho were up and running long before that - and it certainly doesn’t claim that rocks and fossils were laid down by the Flood. Those views may be popular with some fundamentalists, but they’re in danger of making Christianity look ridiculous.
So we ought to think a little more carefully about the subject and about Biblical belief. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphian movement, had some good advice:
“Investigate everything you believe - if it is the truth it cannot be injured thereby; if error, the sooner it is correct the better.”
First, what’s the Bible for? The 1970s environmental book, “Only One Earth” by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos, had the subtitle “The care and maintenance of a small planet”. It’s a description that could be applied to the Bible – because the Bible sets out how to run your life, how God wants His world to be run, and how believers can be part of His plan for the world. It’s above all practical; not just there to entertain or to amaze, but to guide what we do.
Then we need to think about what the Bible says – as distinct from what other people think it says, and from the various add-ons that have accumulated over time (extra beliefs for instance that may be common but aren’t actually supported by the text, or people’s interpretations of Bible passages). It’s more a library than a single book, and contains a rich mix of literal, figurative and poetic language: to insist on treating it as a sober historical account of events is often to miss the point.
Then think about why the Bible says what it does. If you ask “why’s the kettle boiling?” you might answer “Because some of the water molecules have acquired sufficient thermal energy to overcome hydrogen bonding and undergo a phase transition”. Or you might say “Because I fancy a cup of tea.” Both may be right – but the second explanation has more to do with purpose and practical usefulness, and it’s that sort of explanation that has more in common with the reason the Bible’s preserved for us.
One thing the Bible is very clear about is that faith is rational, not ‘blind’. The ancient Israelis were to trust God not just because he told them to, but because they could see what He had done for them and their nation in the past: much of the Old Testament rehearses the facts to prove that point to them. Faith in the Christian sense isn’t, as Mark Twain put it, “believing something you know ain't true”: it’s profoundly reasonable. Galileo was on the right lines when he said
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
A second thing the Bible makes plain is that the natural world, properly viewed, supports belief in God. Psalm 19 says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”. Romans 1:19-20 shows that study of the natural world should point us TO belief in God, not turn us away; and Psalm 111:2 encourages that study: “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.”
So if the natural world points to God, what are the facts about nature?
First, it’s evident from a range of techniques that the earth has been around a long time – something like four and a half billion years. Geology reveals evidence of rocks laid down over huge ages in widely contrasting conditions; of continents drifting and colliding, and mountains forming; of the earth’s surface shaped by ice and rivers: while radioactive dating enables the age of different deposits to be estimated. Second, the physical laws of the universe look suspiciously ‘just right’ for life to exist – the world we live in would be impossible if key physical constants such as the strength of gravity, or of the forces that hold atomic nuclei together, were just a little different. And life as we know it would be impossible if, for example, water didn’t have the very unusual property of being less dense as a solid than as a liquid (if this were not so, ice would sink, the oceans would freeze, and the world would be a frozen waste). That’s consistent with the idea ‘that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology”, to quote the (non-Christian) astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle – in fact, consistent with a creative God.
And what about the diversity of life? What’s clear is that there are huge similarities between living things, past and present. Evidence from fossils points to animals and plants having developed gradually from common ancestors, and there’s even more compelling evidence for evolution now that we can read the genetic code in living cells, the ‘software’ that determines the make-up of plants, animals, and you and me. Your DNA is about 98% similar to a chimpanzee’s (quite a humbling thought...) and by comparing the DNA of different species today, scientists can build up a ‘family tree’. Evolution says that from a common ancestor, different species developed by a process of random changes followed by natural selection – the survival of the fittest, whereby a variant of some plant or animal that happens to confer an advantage in the struggle for food and reproduction gradually becomes dominant. According to Darwin, a long succession of such changes over billions of years led to the diversity of life today. Darwin of course didn’t know what caused the random changes, but we do – apparently accidental mutations or copying errors in the DNA, just as a typist might make accidental mistakes in transcribing this article.
Certainly there are many similarities between living things. Similar designs, perhaps. But are those similarities the result of descent from a common ancestor? To support the view that they are, scientists point to evidence in the fossil record (including, contrary to some claims, evidence consistent with intermediate species) and evidence in the genetic code. Now that we can read DNA sequences it’s possible to find what look very much like bits of genetic code ‘before’ and ‘after’ key mutations. Sometimes, evidence of the same mutation is present in the DNA of different species – chimps and monkeys, for example.
But does this evidence rule out a creative God? Not at all. While some may take the view that God used the same design elements time and again in successive acts of creation, it’s entirely possible that a creator – God – had a grand plan in place, and then allowed a process of evolution to occur, perhaps ensuring that some apparently “random” mutations took place at just the right time to ensure that over many millions of years, the forms of life took shape that conformed to the Creator’s grand design. Ironically, the intervention of a Designer makes it a lot easier to believe in such a gradual process – the odds against a succession of mutations that would lead to organisms as complex as you and me become a lot less forbidding.
Some believers don’t go as far as the fundamentalists, and take the view that while the earth is very old, God created each ‘kind’ (species or group of related species) separately, with only very limited evolutionary processes occurring afterwards. That leads to them being roundly criticised as ‘compromisers’ by some fundamentalists, but still facing a problem in view of the massive evidence that evolution has taken place.
It is, of course, tempting to some to read Genesis as though it were a sober, literal account of events. But the Bible is not a scientific textbook: since it was written for people throughout history, a scientific account of how God brought the world into being, accessible to all those generations, would have been inappropriate, indeed impossible. Instead, as we’ve seen, the Bible blends different sorts of language - literal, figurative and poetic - and to view Genesis as an entirely literal account leads to a wholly unnecessary clash with the evidence of the natural world – as though God had planted the evidence to mislead us into thinking that evolution had occurred! That should sound a warning signal, because if as we’ve seen, the natural world points TO God, the evidence won’t be there to mislead.
This matters, because insistence on the idea of a “young earth” and a sudden, recent creation has consequences. It is a real tragedy that some, told that the “young earth” theory is the only acceptable one for Christians, turn away from faith, unable to swallow a view that’s plainly at odds with science – whether evolutionary biology, geology or physics.
We cannot be sure about the processes the Creator used in bringing about the rich variety of life today. Some Christians will probably continue to think of creation as a sudden event, or a series of such events. But it’s also possible, with the same respect for the Bible, to view creation as a gradual process, spread over aeons of time but all ultimately destined to fulfil the purpose of a God to whom “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”. Does that detract from the awesomeness of God? Absolutely not. In fact, a God who can set up the universe ‘just right’ for life to develop, then know ‘the end from the beginning’ (Isaiah 46:10) over what for us is a span of billions of years is far more awesome than one who zaps the world into being in six days.
Fundamentalists and atheists would both like to force you to choose science OR faith - one or the other – with the tragic result that many are turned away from faith in God altogether. The truth is very different: science AND faith, evolution and a God who’s behind it all, are quite compatible
Brown [email protected]
This article also appeared in 'Endeavour' magazine, 2010 issue 2
Francis Collins, “The Language of God”, Pocket Books, 2007
Denis Alexander, “Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?”, Monarch Books, 2008
Darrel R Falk, “Coming to Peace with Science”, IVP, 2004
John C. Lennox, "God's Undertaker: has science buried God?", Lion, 2009
Bible quotations from the ESV