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Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Evangelicalism and Evolution: Why the Discussion Matters

This is the last of four posts that provide an overview of the history & character of Evangelicalism, its historic response to evolution, and why the discussion of evolution matters today.

Is it important for Evangelicals to soften their anti-science stance and discuss the topic of evolution? Does it really matter? In one way, it’s not really that important at all. Understanding and agreeing to biological evolution is no more important than understanding and agreeing to other scientific theories that are supported by significant evidence. One can get along quite nicely without understanding gravity, stellar evolution, or quantum mechanics. (Everyone prior to Newton did). One can be a humble follower of Christ, participate in his kingdom work, and attract others to the Way without agreeing with any of the these scientific theories. So why do I even think that discussing biological evolution is important let alone relevant? Why not just ignore this controversial topic, and concentrate on primary concerns like spreading the gospel, making disciples, serving the poor, and creation care?

From my perspective, it is not actually the theory of biological evolution that is significant, but Evangelicalism’s misguided response to it. Not understanding how God created life is one thing; insisting that God could not have achieved his purpose through biological evolution is quite another. Adding anti-evolution beliefs and an anti-science attitude to the gospel is no addition at all, but a corruption at least on par with the early Jerusalem church’s insistence on continuing the observance of Jewish law. I believe there are four specific dangers to this antagonism to evolution: First, it discourages Evangelicals from participating in science and celebrating the wonders of God’s creation. Second, it is instrumental in causing many to abandon faith in Christ. Third, it promotes and “end-justifies-the-means” attitude to science and encourages Christians to compromise their integrity. Fourth, it prevents many from coming to faith in Christ.

Problem #1: Anti-evolutionism discourages Evangelicals from studying science

As I mentioned in my welcome note, I avoided certain academic disciplines when I was in school (particularly biology) because I dreaded what they would do to my faith. That evolution leads to a loss of faith is an adage repeated constantly YEC organizations, and this repetition enhances the intimidation factor of the evolution bogeyman. From anecdotical evidence, it appears that the fear generated by this claim is a key reason why many other Evangelicals avoid academic disciplines that deal with human origins. (For example, see this article lamenting the fact that there are so few Christian anthropologists). This propagates a vicious cycle. A dearth of Christians in these scientific disciplines make it all the more likely that non-Christian philosophical interpretations of the evidence will abound.

Problem #2: Anti-evolutionism causes many to abandon faith in Christ

YEC organizations often claim that the theory of evolution is causing youth to abandon faith in Christ. I believe that this is an incorrect assessment and that the responsibility lies not with the scientific theory, but with YEC organizations like Answers in Genesis, The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and Creation Ministries International (CMI) which shackle the gospel with an outdated theory of science. Far from “defending the bible from the very first verse” as AIG claims, the YEC version of the gospel causes many to reject the biblical message because it is poisoned with YEC nonsense. The insistence that abandoning a YEC interpretation of Genesis is equivalent to abandoning the authority of the bible, and ultimately the authority of God, is a horrible travesty. Unfortunately, many Christians have swallowed this YEC version of the gospel, and their faith is shaken when they encounter the evidence for real science.

The testimony of Glenn Morton is instructive. He became a follower of Christ during his college years through the witness of a Christian campus ministry and was told his new faith mandated that he believe in YEC science. To Morton Christ’s life transforming power was authentic, and if YEC beliefs were part of the package, it too must be authentic. As a geo-physicist, he became active in ICR and published many articles that attempted to reconcile the scientific evidence with a YEC interpretation of the bible. Over the years however, he found it increasing difficult to ignore the evidence for a very old earth. Eventually, he was forced to abandon the YEC scientific view. Because his faith was so tightly coupled with the YEC scientific view, he nearly abandoned his faith as well.

Problem #3: “Creation Science” compromises our integrity as Christians

The scientific evidence points overwhelmingly towards an old earth. Even YEC scientist Kurt Wise admits this. He states that:

"I am a young-age creationist because the Bible indicates the universe is young. Given what we currently think we understand about the world, the majority of the scientific evidence favors an old earth and universe, not a young one. I would therefore say that anyone who claims that the earth is young from scientific evidence alone is scientifically ignorant”.

Unfortunately, from my reading, most creationist scientists do not have this kind of integrity and honesty when dealing with the scientific evidence. In an effort to bolster the faith of their followers, they will insist that the scientific data actually points to a young earth. When someone identifies the flaw in a specific scientific interpretation, they tend to move on to new claims and new evidence. Rarely, it seems to me, will YEC promoters admit to their followers that their former claims were invalid, even when the claims have been irrefutably contradicted. (For a growing list of answers to creationist claims, see: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/)

For Creation Scientists, science is not about examining the evidence to reach a conclusion. Rather, their science is about choosing data that can be interpreted to meet a pre-existing conclusion. This is Morton’s view as well. As he grappled with the geological evidence, and tried to discuss this evidence with his fellow creationists at ICR, he found out that:
“… my fellow young earth creationists were not willing to listen to the problems. In general they were not interested in discussing the difficulties and they did not want to read any material that contradicted their cherished position”

God is the creator of all things, the creator of nature, the creator of science. God is not afraid of the data and we should not be either. A dishonest portrayal of the evidence neither honours nor defends God.

Problem #4: Anti-evolutionism prevents many from even examining the claims of Christ

Not only does marrying Creation Science with the gospel cause some to abandon their faith, it can also prevent spiritual seekers from even considering the claims of Christ. For those who are scientifically literate in particular, the patently ridiculous claims of “creation science” are a definite obstacle to acceptance of the gospel.

Preston Jones, a history professor at a Christian university, had an interesting email discussion with Greg Graffin, an atheist and member of the punk rock band “Bad Religion”. In a Christianity Today article, he comments:

In those months of dialogue I also saw the devastation wrought by the passion for pseudo-scientific theories on natural history among some Christians. Many of my students believe that six-day creationism is an essential Christian belief—that if the first chapters of Genesis can't be taken literally, then the whole Bible is a fraud. What tragic nonsense!

Before Greg and I corresponded, I didn't care. "You wanna believe the earth was created six thousand years ago? Whatever." But Greg helped me see that this kind of gaping ignorance promotes the perception that theologically conservative Christians are the enemies of learning.

It is this (often true) assumption that evangelicals are “enemies of learning” that can conceal the truth of the gospel. I like 11th century theologian Anselm’s motto “faith seeking understanding”, meaning an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God. We seek to understand because we have faith, not in order to have faith. When we abandon an attempt to understand, we diminish faith, not enhance it. And unfortunately, our “faith seeking understanding” turns to “faith without understanding”. This can be easily distorted into “faith because there is no understanding” by those opposed to the Christian gospel and finally to “faith because of ignorance” by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins.


Anonymous said...


Once again you have posted something that I agree with, which makes it difficult to write an interesting comment. I’m glad you mentioned that it’s not the theory of evolution that is important, but how we as Christians respond to it. I think this can be extended to other apparent conflicts between what we understand as Biblical truth and what our modern world tells us is truth. I was watching Daily Planet the other day on the Discovery Channel, and they were interviewing the director of the Vatican Observatory. I found it fascinating that it is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. They spoke very briefly about how the church excommunicated Galileo for his claim that the earth moved around the sun, but then after many years, the church changed their stance and become the leading institution in astronomy. So, I guess there may be some hope for evangelicals embracing evolution, but we may have to wait another hundred years or so before that becomes reality.

I was watching the Dr. Who Christmas Special with my kids the other day (CBC finally got around to airing it). At one point, the Doctor goes back in time to the birth of the earth, (about 4.5 billion years ago) watching hunks of rock and gas collect into a planet. My eldest daughter (almost 12 now) asked me where God was during this, and my answer was that He was there directing the rocks and gases where they should form and what they should become (you over there, make like the sun and you over there, you can be mars etc). She accepted that explanation quite readily, which I took as a good sign that she sees no real conflict between scientific explanations and Biblical explanations. Hopefully she will remember my response to that question and keep working toward a better understanding of both science and scripture.


Steve Martin said...

It is amazing how important the Catholic Church has been to astronomy. Most people focus on its initial negative response to Galileo, and not on it following positive contribution to astronomy.

re: a hundred years

I don’t think convincing Evangelicals to embrace evolution is all that important, but I do think that it is extremely important for us to halt our ferocious opposition to it - for the reasons I outlined in the post. And I do hope it doesn't take a hundred years.

re: understanding of faith and science

Amen to that. Passing on the faith to our kids has got to be right near the top of our priority list.

Steve said...


I'm with you most of the way.

Problem #4: Anti-evolutionism prevents many from even examining the claims of Christ

I would disagree with your phrasing, slightly. Instead of 'anti-evolutionism', I would narrow it to YEC-ism, if that's a word. I've heard many secular arguments against the evolutionary perspective. I'm an OEC, and though it's certainly within God's capacity to use evolution, I don't see the need for it, especially given its baggage.

Other than that, I think you're spot on. This is a critical issue that must be discussed, and not at a high volume. The shrill tone of most YECs would certainly turn me off if I were considering the merits of Christianity. This is absolutely not a salvation issue, though many try to make it one. Ig uess I misse dthat part of the Great Commission wherein we are told to go forth and make believers in Young Earth Creationism.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Steve,

I think you are right & in many instances I am conflating anti-evolutionism with YEC-ism. I certainly have a lot of respect for many OEC leaders, Hugh Ross in particular – he has managed to remain charitable when others have treated him in a most uncharitable manner. And the target of post is primarily “my-interpretation-or-you-are-a-heretic” YEC thinking. On the other hand, I have seen some OEC’s say the same thing about TE’s. Actually, I’ve seen some rather spirited debates between different versions of TE that border on accusations of heresy as well. I like the series of posts vancemac is doing over at euangelion.blogspot.com and his point that it’s the dogmatic interpretation that is the problem. And all of us have at times fallen into this same arrogant sin.

One of my main points is that, as Christians, we need to be open new ideas that may shed new light on our understanding of God’s creation. This is true whether those findings are from cosmology, biology, anthropology, or neuroscience. And as different Christians come to different conclusions while grappling with interpretations of scripture and science, we need to be sensitive & support one another in Christian charity. That doesn’t always mean agreement, or even lack of spirited debate. But it certainly means an attitude of humility and acceptance.

Martin LaBar said...

Great job. Thanks!

Jeffrey said...

What's your source for the Kurt Wise quote? I've heard a number of similar quotes from him, but never one so blatant.

Steve Martin said...

Jeffrey: re: the Kurt Wise quote, see: http://christianforums.com/t43741&page=12 - post#112.

Jeffrey said...

Thanks - I wanted to see it in context so I could repeat it in good conscience. I can see why you didn't post the link before - reading that whole discussion was both hilarious and agonizing.

Walt Carpenter said...


Just got introduced to your site. I assume you're familiar with the numerous books by OEC's Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana at www.reasons.org.

You're doing a great job. Keep on keepin' on!

Steve Martin said...

Thanks Walt .. and welcome. Yes I am aware of Hugh's site.

Anonymous said...

The May-June 2008 issue of Mission Frontiers focuses on "Losing Faith". (you can read it here: http://www.missionfrontiers.org/archive.htm) I found it interesting that Ruth Tucker's article listed these as two of the reasons why people lose faith:

1. Scientific and philosophical issues, particularly evolution
and naturalism.
2. Biblical perplexities and higher criticism.

It was interesting because they echo the problems #1 and #2 you have listed here.

You've done a lot of work here. I hope to find some good quality time soon to peruse your blog enough that I may be able to add to the conversation here.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Joel (IR):
Welcome. Thanks for the link – excellent article and I highly recommend it to other readers as well.

Steve Martin said...

Just correcting the link to the kurt wise quote above. It should be http://christianforums.com/showthread.php?t=43741&page=12.

MJ said...

Steve, You've done good work here. I've had time to read some of your stuff today. Thanks for the scholarly work. Mike