Strange Bedfellows — Evolution and Christianity

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by Tim Widowfield

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955...

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955, depicting the Fall of Man, the scientific cause of original sin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grants for serious studies

Yesterday (13 February), James McGrath posted a congratulatory note to two winners of the latest Evolution & Christian Faith (ECF) grant competition. The ECF panel faced some hard choices. They fielded requests from scores of applicants, but had only about $3 million to shell out.

You’ll be happy to learn that a number of the fortunate grantees will be working on important projects related to “questions about Adam and Eve, the Fall, human identity, and Original Sin—some of the most critical interpretive issues for evangelical theology.

BioLogos: Who are these guys?

I suppose on the face of it, nonbelievers shouldn’t care if Christians want to embrace biological evolution. In fact, it sounds like a promising idea. However, if that embrace suffocates the scientific method, then we can hardly call it a victory. Indeed, if we look at the BioLogos charter do we find science and religion viewed as a partnership of equals? Hardly.

Under the heading “What We Believe,” they state:

7. We believe that the methods of science are an important and reliable means to investigate and describe the world God has made. In this, we stand with a long tradition of Christians for whom Christian faith and science are mutually hospitable. Therefore, we reject ideologies such as Materialism and Scientism that claim science is the sole source of knowledge and truth, that science has debunked God and religion, or that the physical world constitutes the whole of reality. (emphasis added)

All right. It isn’t something I would sign onto. And I confess I get a little uncomfortable when Christians use the term Scientism, since it’s clearly an invented derogatory term that doesn’t mean much outside their echo chamber.

Science is useful, as long as it conforms to what we already “know”

But it’s their deal. So if it gets them on board, “no harm, no foul,” right? Maybe not.

8. We believe that God created the universe, the earth, and all life over billions of years. God continues to sustain the existence and functioning of the natural world, and the cosmos continues to declare the glory of God. Therefore, we reject ideologies such as Deism that claim the universe is self-sustaining, that God is no longer active in the natural world, or that God is not active in human history.

9. We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent. Thus, evolution is not in opposition to God, but a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes. Therefore, we reject ideologies that claim that evolution is a purposeless process or that evolution replaces God. (emphasis added)

Oh dear. I’m afraid their concept of evolution has almost nothing in common with evolution as I understand and accept it. Their kind of evolution merely acknowledges the observed facts that the universe is billions of years old and that life forms evolve over time. Lamarckians did that, but they were wrong, too.

And the weirdness continues:

10. We believe that God created humans in biological continuity with all life on earth, but also as spiritual beings. God established a unique relationship with humanity by endowing us with his image and calling us to an elevated position within the created order(emphasis added)

So now we begin to understand the questions above about “Adam and Eve” and “the Fall.” Imagine believing that God created the first humans, but not out of mud. Instead, somewhere, eons ago, a non-sentient primate became “endowed” with God’s image.

Did Adam’s Grandpa have a soul?

Back on the grantees page, we learn that:

Pastor Michael Gulker and philosopher James Smith, leading a large team from The Colossian Forum, ask a related question: if humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin(emphasis added)

I might actually enjoy reading the results from that project, but then again I’m a big fan of science fiction. When and how did this transition take place? Did a separate group of hominids reach a certain point at which their brains could handle a “soul”? And where was the cutoff point? Can you imagine the heartbreak of knowing your mom and dad aren’t endowed with the image of God?

Try this on for size: “Grandma and grandpa aren’t going to heaven — not because they sinned, but because they were animals.”

Believe it or not, some people actually wonder if the first soul-endowed hominids were a group or just a pair — i.e., Adam and Eve.

Theologian Oliver Crisp of Fuller Seminary will take an analytic theology approach to ask to what extent a theological account of the origin of human sin depends upon the evolution of modern humans from one and only one ancestral pair—especially if that pair does not appear to correspond to what we would think of as modern human beings. 

I didn’t highlight any portion of the above text in bold, because it’s all equally absurd.

Are these our allies?

Here’s a serious question: Is it better to believe that God created the universe 6,000 years ago with everything in place, and made it look old?  Or is it better to believe that God created the universe in the Big Bang, around 13.77 billion years ago, then guided it until humans evolved (i.e., subtly overseeing the mutation of our ancestors), and finally “endowing” them with his image?

Both of these world views tell science to take a back seat. The second world view might even be more noxious, because it pretends to be scientific, but allows for the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design. I’m not invoking a slippery slope here. It’s in their own writings (caution: link leads to PDF). Denis Lamouruex writes:

Does not the evolutionary creationist portrayal of the Creator provide the most magnificent reflection of intelligent design? This is how I see design in evolution. Yet despite differences between Christians on how intelligent design arose in the world, we must never forget that we stand united in affirming that nature clearly reflects the designing intelligence of our Creator.

These people reject natural selection and embrace ID. They are, by their own admission, “creationists.” They just believe that the creation time scale is very long and the creation method is somewhat less direct.

So I ask you, are these creationists our allies?

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  • 2013-02-15 13:13:14 UTC - 13:13 | Permalink

    I don’t understand how Christians can genuinely believe in the scientific theory of evolution. Evolution does not predestine any species or assign any species as teleological. Yet Christianity must assume this very thing about humans if it is to have any meaning at all. Christianity and evolution on that point alone are incompatible. Humans are here by chance and are destined to be made extinct and replaced by/evolve into other species. Potentially we may become smarter and of a different sort of nature from what Jesus was supposed to have become. Will they have to meet a higher God with a superior Son to save them? Or does God send a son to save each subdivision of hominid? Someone on this blog — an otherwise intelligent person — seriously said it was not ridiculous to imagine God up there guiding meteors to earth to keep evolution in the right direction to produce a being “in his image” — whatever his image is. Or does intelligent life doom itself so we are replaced by much more peace-loving grasses?

    The whole effort of Christians to profess belief in evolution strikes me as just one more PR exercise to show they are “up to date” and “relevant”. Too bad they don’t demonstrate the same fundamental adherence to the facts of science when it comes to the basics underlying all the ethical questions relating to modern biology.

    • 2013-02-15 13:40:20 UTC - 13:40 | Permalink

      They clearly don’t believe in a scientific theory of evolution. Have you ever watched curling in the Olympics? That’s kind of the way I think some of these “enlightened” Christians view evolution — God with a broom, frantically sweeping in front of the sliding stone, guiding it to its “preordained” spot on the ice.

    • Willie Buck Merle
      2013-02-18 05:07:36 UTC - 05:07 | Permalink

      NG, your def of “Christians” is narrow. To me “Christianity” is more of a language IMHO.

  • 2013-02-15 16:56:36 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

    Why Science and Religion are Incompatible

    The video opens with a reference to Biologos — referenced in this post.

    Percentage of Americans who believe in evolution with God having nothing to do with it — that is, with the scientific theory of evolution? Answer: 16%

    Jerry Coyne says James McGrath is a Creationist. McGrath gets upset and says Coyne does not understand religion. I suggest it is McGrath who does not understand science.

    How many religionists have studied the experiments that indicate we make our decisions before we are ever aware of them? (This has hard questions for the notion of ‘free will’ — about 22 mins.)

    How many existentialist Christians are there? How many can accept the message of science that there is no over-riding meaning to life, existence and the universe and hold on to their faith?

    • David Hillman
      2013-02-16 00:37:17 UTC - 00:37 | Permalink

      I think there is a nice anti-symmetry between the attitude of the heretic Newton to mechanical materialism and the attitude of the holy inquisition to biblical literalism.

      The mechanistic philosophy (associated with Descartes dualism and Hobbes’ politics) considered material reality to consist of separable,ponderable, inpenetratible objects which could only exert forces on each other by touching. Newton, partly because of his peculiar religious beliefs but even more because of his scientific attitude was able to distance himself from such dogma.

      Newton believed that his pantocrator, no doubt a brilliant mathematician, could by being omnipresent ensure that the inverse square law of gravity was generally obeyed. He was not able to posit a mechanistic explanation of gravitation (fingo no hypotheses) but was content that the mathematical form of the inverse square law was sufficient to explain the system of the world, including the way the planets move. God, he said, would prefer to exhibit a mechanistic cause but if it were not possible would be content with a mathematical law.

      Similarly the holy inquisition agreed that truth was one and that there could be no conflict between science and faith.They claimed that their conflict with Galileo was because he had no overwhelming scientific proof of his heliocentric hypothesis – and that if he had they would have been very willing to give up on the literal truth of some biblical statements (in Joshuah and Psalms). We should prefer, they said, to take biblical statements literally but if there was overwhelming evidence against this then would be equally happy to take them as metaphoric, poetic, or condescending.

      Well, materialism is not restricted to a particular version of mechanistic philosophy. And the bible is not a work of science, nor a history. But scientists never believe in punishing people for their beliefs.

      Long live poetry.

    • 2013-02-22 13:54:27 UTC - 13:54 | Permalink

      “How many religionists have studied the experiments that indicate we make our decisions before we are ever aware of them? (This has hard questions for the notion of ‘free will’ — about 22 mins.)”

      This kind of nonsense, false and garbage science is a wet-dream for Calvinists. Are you kidding me? The only good thing about Theistic Evolution in my estimation is that it erodes the notion of ‘original sin’ and brings Christianity more into line with Judaism, which of course does not teach that everyone is born damned or without free-will as a result of Adam eating an apple. Theistic Evolution tends to result in “Adam was not real, so original sin is false” type of thinking. This is good. But its good precisely because its the opposite of what atheists like you want. It is good because it gets rids of Christian denial of free-will. Let the devil-worshiping scientists who are so hell-bent on destroying religion that they lie about how the brain works all get the worst diseases imaginable and live the rest of their lives in abject suffering. God damn them to the full extent in this life, and make their lives a living hell, and the same for the Calvinists. Amen.

      • 2013-02-22 14:05:05 UTC - 14:05 | Permalink

        I trust you’re being tongue-in-cheek. Very droll imitation of the anti-scientific religious mind-set.

  • 2013-02-15 17:30:50 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

    ‘Theologian Oliver Crisp of Fuller Seminary will take an analytic theology approach to ask to what extent a theological account of the origin of human sin depends upon the evolution of modern humans from one and only one ancestral pair—especially if that pair does not appear to correspond to what we would think of as modern human beings. ‘

    Why do you need money to ponder such a question?

    • 2013-02-22 13:56:54 UTC - 13:56 | Permalink

      You need money to pay for the time taken to find lots of quotes to fill your book with footnotes and make it look scholarly.

  • David Hillman
    2013-02-15 21:31:26 UTC - 21:31 | Permalink

    Those who still think there is any overall purpose and meaning in the universe have not taken on board the huge challenge to traditional ideas that Darwins theory makes. No great chain of being, no teleology,no inevitable progress. As you have shown children are born with a moral sense. From our own particular nature individuals of our species,and some other species,

    find themselves able to learn a language, be selfish or unselfish and find meaning in life.But stars meteors and bacteria can be neither moral or immoral. Morality and meaning, like art, is particular and contingent. Contingent nature endows us with the ability to learn a language but does not settle one on us. Our purpose, art and morality is no less real for being learned, discovered and created from our fellowships.No less real for not coming down from on high from any g-d or from the universe as a whole.Nor is God in the details – though what we make of life is.

  • 2013-02-15 23:58:06 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

    “Theologically”, only the Marcionite god is compatible with evolution.

  • Blood
    2013-02-16 02:28:31 UTC - 02:28 | Permalink

    So I ask you, are these creationists our allies?

    Was that rhetorical? No, these people are creationists, and thus are enemies to the scientific method, reason, empiricism, etc. They’ve hit upon the clever idea of pretending to be the third rail in the so-called debate: Creationists who “believe” in evolution and an old earth, not like those discredited Young Earth Creationists. It’s pathetic.

    • 2013-02-16 02:58:23 UTC - 02:58 | Permalink

      No, I didn’t mean it rhetorically. I was hoping for people to chime in.

      I’m not sure if “third rail” is the right metaphor. Third rails are electrified and thus off limits. On the contrary, they believe they come off as “sophisticated” because they have (they think) reconciled science and religion. But it’s a bad compromise that gives privilege to something that is unverifiable and continually proven wrong.

      McGrath likes to bash Young Earth Creationists all the time, but I don’t see why Old Earth Creationists are any better.

      It reminds me of an old joke. A guy walks up to a lady who’s sitting at a bar. He sits down and buys her a drink. He asks, “Would you have sex with someone for a million dollars?” She thinks a minute and says, “Probably, yeah.” He says, “How about 10 bucks?” She shouts, “What kind of woman do you think I am?!” He says, “We’ve established what you are. Now were just haggling over the price.”

      These “evolutionary creationists” are still creationists; they’re just haggling over how long it took.

      • Ed Jones
        2013-02-20 01:32:23 UTC - 01:32 | Permalink

        The following extract may be of interest to anyone not already familiar with the book: The Mind of God by Paul Davies, Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He was awarded the Templeton Prize for the book.

        “In later years I began doing research on the origin of the universe, the nature of time and the unification of the laws of physics, and I found myself trespassing on territory that for centuries had been the near-exclusive province of religion. Yet here was science either providing answers to what had been left to dark mysteries, or else discovering that the very concepts from which these mysteries draw their power were actually meaningless or even wrong. My first book God and the New Physics was a first effort to grapple with this clash of ideologies, the Mind of God is a more considered attempt. – – My inclination is to assume that the laws of nature are obeyed at all times. But even if you rule out supernatural events, is it not clear that science could in principle explain everything in the physical universe. There remains the old problem about the end of the physical universe.”

        Is there a route to knowledge == even “ultimate Knowledge” – that lies outside the road of rational scientific inquiry and logical reasoning? Many people claim there is. It is called mysticism. In fact many of the world’s finest thinkers, including some notable scientists such as Einstein, Pauli, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Eddington, and Jeans have espoused mysticism. Mysticism is no substitute for scientific inquiry and logical reasoning so long as this approach can be consistently applied. It is only when we are dealing with ultimate questions that science and logic may fail us. = = they may be incapable of addressing the sort of “why” (as opposed to “how”) questions we want to ask. Maybe the mystical experience provides the only route beyond the limits to which science and philosophy can take us, the only possible path to the Ultimate.”

        • 2013-02-20 06:44:56 UTC - 06:44 | Permalink

          Paul Davies does not speak for all or even most scientists, fortunately.

          Ed has posted this passage before and he once again he posts it where it is irrelevant to the topic in hand, but in my inconsistency I’ve let it through again this time. The reason — to take the opportunity say something about the “big questions” that impress so many people.

          Humans have evolved with the ability to ask reasons for things, and to bias their answers towards finding an cause that possesses “conscious intent”, and this no doubt has had major survival benefits. So when a hunter assumed a rustling in the grass was caused by a stalking tiger he had more chance of survival.

          Consequence of sophisticated language: we also have the ability to frame quite meaningless questions like, What is the meaning or purpose of this rock? A rock has no meaning. It just is, of course.

          Similarly, life itself “just is”. It has no meaning in itself. It simply exists and seeks to enhance itself for improved survival prospects. It’s as much a product of meaningless natural forces as is the rock.

          The big questions are, I suggest, as nonsensical as asking “what is the meaning of this rock?” or “what is the metaphysical purpose for which rocks exist?” The questions are meaningless misapplications of the “why” question.

          • Ed Jones
            2013-02-20 12:43:22 UTC - 12:43 | Permalink

            At the very least it is an irrefutable fact of hiistory across the centuries, up to and including our present science dominated age: A thiet is signifinantly represented among the world’s finest rational thinkers as testimony to the truth of Ultimate Reality with its language of mysticism – true religion. Religion quailfied by “true” because of its corruption from having been so conflated with “Christian”.

            cnflated with “Chriatiaan”.

            • 2013-02-20 13:29:28 UTC - 13:29 | Permalink

              Rubbish. That a minority of scientists still cling to some form of primitive religious notions is of no significance whatever except to the publishing industry and the modern day relics of cave-man superstitions found among true religious believers today.

        • 2013-02-22 01:41:21 UTC - 01:41 | Permalink

          He was awarded the Templeton Prize for the book.

          Far from being an indication of one’s scholarly merit, a recipient of ‘a’ Templeton prize (there is no ‘The’ Templeton prize) has just accepted lucre from a religious organization dedicated to the ridiculous and propagandistic position that science and religion are philosophically compatible. In other words, that there is still a place for superstition in a universe now understood to be without rational need for such claptrap.

  • 2013-02-16 06:41:09 UTC - 06:41 | Permalink

    I wouldn’t be so hard on these guys. No one asked them to defer to the scientific method, but just to the results of science. Even though it seems kinda odd that they would accept the results and not the methodology; the methodology, obviously, favors no god involved in the process. But to actually point that out means trotting out things like hypothesis testing, probability theory, and Occam’s Razor. From the whole Jesus Myth debacle, it seems that methodology in general is stuff that they are hostile to.

  • Solstice
    2013-02-16 10:55:51 UTC - 10:55 | Permalink

    Think about this: Natural Selection (evolution) has made humans with a strong drive for life and an aversion to death. Christianity taps into this by offering us a way to immortality after physical death.

  • 2013-02-16 15:05:10 UTC - 15:05 | Permalink

    As once a member of the now defunct/splintered Worldwide Church of God I felt a certain pride that I was able to affirm that our faith was in conformity with the findings of science. The reason was that we taught the first sentence of Genesis allowed for a time gap of millions of years from the moment God created everything (perfectly, of course) to the moment it all fell into a state of “chaos and void” (at the rebellion of Satan). So we weren’t like those crackpot Creationists who argued the earth was only a few thousand years old. Our faith was sophisticated and scientific — they were anti-scientific idiots.

    The various hominids remains being discovered turned out to be evidence that God was experimenting with his final creation — trying out a few humanoid prototypes before deciding on the one that would be just right for Adam and Eve.

    So we were able to accommodate an old universe and the evidence for human evolution.

    The arguments we used were clearly rationalizations. But the claims of many Christians to believe in evolution are likewise unscientific rationalizations. When pushed to explain they are forced to admit they do not believe in evolution as it is understood by the scientists.

    I have spelled out here how we were able to justify our compatibility with science and it sounds ridiculous (because it was ridiculous). We did not spell it out publicly very often for obvious reasons.

    Christians who profess to be also believers in evolution do not spell out how they rationalize their contradictory beliefs very often, and I suggest for the same reasons.

    Jerry Coyne is right. The McGraths are as much Creationists as are the Creationists they oppose. The only difference is they stretch out the time of creation to cover a longer span, as Tim said.

    • 2013-02-20 02:40:54 UTC - 02:40 | Permalink

      “The McGraths are as much Creationists as are the Creationists they oppose.”

      But doesn’t that imply that by his own assertions, McGrath argues like a mythicist? ;D

      • KevinC
        2013-02-20 21:31:05 UTC - 21:31 | Permalink

        Alternatively, one could point out that most, if not all Creationists are members of the historicist camp. They just think that every letter and serif of the Gospels is historical fact, rather than this or that scrap thereof.

  • James D. Williams
    2013-02-24 05:09:24 UTC - 05:09 | Permalink

    Questions are raised here that need to be hammered out but are not germaine [sp] to the Jesus Myth. Oh, for a redirect url !

    Examples: 1) “The Soul” is a myth. 2) This wasn’t an Anthropomorphic Universe until [400,000] years ago. 3) …and so on.

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