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Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Two Myths about the relationship between Christianity and Science

This is the third 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.

When I started this blog about a month ago, I stated that the current relationship between evolution and evangelicalism can best be characterized as warfare. While this particular statement is true, I would like to address two popular myths that are extrapolations on the statement above. The first is that the relationship between modern science and religion can be described as one of continuous conflict. The second is that Evangelicals have, from the beginning, unanimously opposed both the scientific views of an old earth and of biological evolution.

Militant atheists claim that the warfare between Evangelicals and evolution is just one new battle theater in the ongoing war between religion and science that started during the Enlightenment. This is a myth in the sense that it is a story, created in the late 19th century, to support an agenda, in this instance an anti-religious (primarily anti-Christian) agenda. It is also a myth in the sense that the historical evidence does not support the claim. Modern science was born, grew, and flourished in a thoroughly Christian Western Europe. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the Christian worldview was a pre-requisite to the discovery and success of modern science, or that the relationship has always been harmonious, the worldviews have much more in common than the myth above would have us believe.

It is true that modern western Christians often regard claims of new scientific discoveries with skepticism. However, this is also true of the broader scientific community. That is the way science functions. “Show me the evidence” is that mantra that must be followed, particularly when the discovery radically shifts our understanding of how the world works. Wacky theories are constantly being postulated, theories that rarely jive with common sense, and are often simply nonsense. Occasionally, significant supporting evidence for these “wacky theories” is found and we start referring to them as “brilliant theories” instead. Being skeptical of the wacky, and supportive of the brilliant, (even when they describe the same theory) is simply good science.

It is also true that modern Christians have been troubled, not only by the fact that many scientific discoveries contradict “common sense”, but also how some seem, at least initially, to contradict the bible. Common sense confirmed that the earth was immovable, and the bible supported it (1Chr 16:30, Psalm 93:1). It was not only immovable, but also flat (Psalm 104). The Sun moved around this stable earth, and not visa-versa (19:4-6 and Eccl 1:5). The sky was a solid dome (Gen 1:6-8) and the physical location of heaven was just beyond the sky for that is where Jesus ascended. In each case, it was discovered through science that these ideas were incorrect. However, Christians generally assimilated the new scientific theories relatively quickly without abandoning a trust in scripture. Although the old “biblical” concepts of nature still have some recent adherents (check out notes on flat earth believers and geocentricists), the vast majority of Christians (including those who are strict literalists) now reject these ideas.

Christians that support a YEC stance will sometimes promote a second myth, that Evangelicals have historically been unanimous in their condemnation of both evolution and an old earth. The objective is to portray Evangelicals that support either scientific theory as abandoning core Evangelical beliefs. The historical facts also contradict this claim.

As the science of geology developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, estimates for the age of the earth increased rapidly from about 75,000 years old to many millions of years old. Although Evangelicals at first grappled with the implications of a very old earth, they rapidly came to accept the fact that the earth was more than 6000 years old, the age of the earth calculated from a “literal” reading of Genesis. Even Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, the two conservative Princeton Theologians who were primarily responsible for formulating the modern doctrine of biblical inerrancy, accepted the fact of an old earth. The two most popular methods that Evangelicals used to reconcile Genesis 1 with an old earth were the day-age theory (each day was not a literal 24 hour day but rather a very long period of time) and the gap theory (the insertion of a very long gap between Gen 1:1 and Gen 1:2). As the dawn of the Fundamentalist revolution approached in the early 20th century, very few Evangelical leaders still clung to the idea of a young earth.

Evangelical acceptance of the theory of evolution was much less prevalent. Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species” in 1859 and both positive and negative reactions were almost instantaneous. Those wishing to damage the Christian faith saw it as an opportunity to prove that the bible was composed of myths and fables; conservative Christians saw it as a threat to God’s role in creation. As such, even from the beginning, there were those on both sides of the debate that positioned evolution as inherently atheistic. By the early 20th century most Evangelicals may have accepted the fact of an old earth, but the majority of them were dead set against the theory of biological evolution.

What is interesting to note however, is that this opposition within the Evangelical community was not nearly unanimous. Some Evangelical leaders were able to reconcile the theory of evolution with a high view of scripture. The noted botanist Asa Gray, an Evangelical from Harvard University, was the most influential initial supporter of Darwin’s theory in America. Benjamin Warfield mentioned above, as well as other Evangelical theologians and clergy, also supported the theory of evolution. Even several of the authors of the Fundamentals, the series of books from which the name “Fundamentalist” derives, either supported a form of evolution or were willing to accept it “if it could be proved on scientific grounds”. Before fundamentalism, the acceptance of evolution certainly did not mean banishment from the Evangelical club.

The obvious question is this: Why today, with the availability of significantly more scientific evidence to support an old earth, have many Evangelicals rejected this claim? Why are they abandoning the theological positions of past Evangelicals that came to accept the evidence for an old earth, just as earlier Christians had accepted the evidence for a round earth and a heliocentric view of the solar system? The rise of “Creation Science” and “Scientific Creationism” is a story in itself, so it will have to wait for a future post. However, I do find it ironic that in the 1960’s while America was pouring resources into science so they could launch a rocket to the moon, Evangelicals began poring resources into creation science so they could launch a counter-attack on the theories of an old-earth and evolution.

These two myths, the myth of constant conflict between science and religion, and the myth of unanimous Evangelical rejection of an old earth and evolution, are being used today to promote opposing agendas. Militant atheists see it as a tool to help them meet their objective of eradicating religion. Militant creationists use it to prop up their credibility as defenders of the faith. Neither have any interest is seeing these myths exposed. And the objectives these myths prop up can be dangerous, dangerous to our faith, and dangerous to our mission. That will be discussed in my next post.

Recommended Further Reading:

“Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders”, byDavid Livingstone: Livingstone provides an overview of the Evangelical response to biological evolution, from the publishing of “On the Origin of the Species” up until the fundamentalist controversy in the early 20th century. As noted in my post, the response was occasionally positive, and the negative response was often understated.

“The Creationists”, by Ronald Numbers: If you are captivated by in-depth, heavily footnoted historical research (136 of 624 pages are footnotes), and fascinated by creationism, then this is the book for you. Ronald Numbers has written the definitive study on the movement. Although rejecting the conclusions of Creationism (it was the claims of Creation Science that caused him to abandon his faith), he writes an honest and thorough account that is at the same time respectful to the Creationist cause.

“When Science and Christianity Meet”, by David Lindberg & Ronald Numbers. A series of essays on the interaction between science and Christianity. The central theme of the book is that the relationship is complex, and that the characterization of the relationship as one of “constant conflict” is not accurate. An academic book, but an excellent volume. I particularly found the essay on Galileo interesting, as it showed the conflict was primarily political rather than religious.


WTM said...

God bless B.B. Warfield. If only evangelicals would realize that the father of inerrancy was down with Darwin!

Anonymous said...


I have one theory that might provide some insight into your question "Why are they abandoning the theological positions of past Evangelicals that came to accept the evidence for an old earth, just as earlier Christians had accepted the evidence for a round earth and a heliocentric view of the solar system?" I have noticed in several churches of different denominations a "back to basics" movement. Basically, using the Bible as the only acceptable book to teach from and rejecting everything written and agreed to by previous generations of Christians. I think this occurs in some cases as an overreaction by people who have noticed their congregation has been too focused on the "writings of men and women", instead of the writing of God - the Bible. So they put aside all essays, research, and even denominational publications and just use the Bible. They develop positions about things like the age of the earth (even whether the earth is flat or whether the sun moves around the earth) based solely on what they read in the Bible, rejecting all the work done by countless Christians before them. I definitely don't agree with this, but I have met some people who refuse to read any "religious" book or publication other than the Bible. It makes it tough to have an intelligent conversation with them about things like evolution and the age of the earth if they won't even consider reading opinions and conclusions reached by many of the writers you refer to.

You'll probably cover all this in a future post, but I wanted to earn my gumball of the week and post something.


D.W. Congdon said...

Very nice post. Thanks for laying out the history of these myths. You'll notice I've given you some press over at my blog (a week ago or so). Keep up the great work!

Steve Martin said...

Hi D.W.,
Welcome. I saw your post over at http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/. Thanks. When I get some time, I'm going to go through your "The Heresies of American Evangelicalism" posts. Those look very interesting. I also read your guest post "Encounters with tradition: from evangelical to post-evangelical " at http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2007/06/encounters-with-tradition-2-from.html. Once I get my act together here on this blog, I'll definitely add it to my "favourite posts".