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Monday, 10 September 2007

Dialogue, Debate, Silence, or Confrontation: How should we approach the topic of evolution?

I started my blog a few months ago with the following statement:

Dialogue rarely describes the relationship between evangelicals and evolutionary science. Perhaps debate, condemnation, or mocking, but rarely dialogue.
From my perspective, I believe the dialogue on biological evolution within Evangelicalism is both possible and desirable. First, it is possible because there is no inherent conflict between the science of evolutionary biology and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith. Second it is desirable, because the other options (debate, mocking, and condemnation) are injuring our Christian witness and causing division within the Christian community.

Roman Miller, the Editor of Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF) captures my view on the desirability of dialogue over debate in his March 2007 editorial called “Do we Debate or Dialogue Issues of Science and Faith?”. Miller proposes that Christians with different viewpoints abandon the debate mode and dialogue instead. He muses:
I wonder about the value of debate as a tool to create understanding. In my experience, debates have created more heat than light and have served to further entrench combatants in defending their position while attacking their opponent’s position. More and more, I am convinced that within the circles of the Christian community, we should avoid the “debate mode.” Rather, we should deliberately advocate a “dialogue mode.”
Miller states that dialogue works to enhance mutual understanding while debaters focus on winning the argument. Ironically it is dialogue, not debate, that is much more likely to “change minds”. And an attitude of humility, a topic Miller addresses in his September 2007 Editorial (not yet online), is a prerequisite for a successful dialogue. As a preview to this editorial, he states in the earlier column that:

Especially in these issues in which we “dimly peer through our varied perspective glasses,” it behooves us to admit that we do not know or understand with entirety and to hold our positions with humility and grace.
Participating in respectful dialogue, with an attitude of humility and grace, is the ideal for which we should all strive. This is especially true for a topic as contentious and complicated as the origin of life, biological diversity, and humanity, a topic that no one can claim they grasp completely. Unfortunately in the real world the ideal is not always possible. What if one group of Christians considers another group’s origins view not only wrong, but also diametrically opposed to the gospel? What if our origins view is condemned as heretical, and our accusers refuse to acknowledge that we belong to the body of Christ? How can there be any mutual understanding in this situation?

Maybe more importantly, I think dialogue is not always preferable even when it is possible. As I’ve indicated before here, and as Vance McAlister has written in “Creationism vs. Evolutionism: The Danger of Misplaced Dogmatism”, a dogmatic interpretation of scripture can damage the gospel. When Christian youth are abandoning their faith because they cannot reconcile modern science with the brittle scriptural interpretation mandated by their church community, and when seekers choose not to follow Christ because the gospel presented to them includes a version of science that is unsupported by the evidence, then I think we need to respond with urgency and vigor. We need to communicate that “The Gospel of a Young Earth” is no gospel at all, and is as erroneous as stating that "Only Evolutionists can be Saved".

There are other times when silence is the best option. In situations where origins science or the biblical interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts are clearly peripheral to the discussion, starting a dialogue on science / faith would be distracting at best, and probably even destructive. I would hazard to say that even in many situations where these issues are primary, starting a dialogue on evolution could still be damaging. As Gordon’s anecdote regarding missionary Anna Leonowens shows, even the truth can sometimes be a stumbling block.

I agree that dialogue, conducted in humility and grace, should be the primary mode of engagement in our discussions on the integration of faith and evolutionary science. However, I do not think dialogue is the best option in all cases. To promote Christian unity, there are times when we must simply remain silent. And there are other times, when the gospel is being damaged for instance, that we must choose confrontation, confrontation with humility and as much grace as possible, but still confrontation.

The question of course is this: When should we dialogue, when should we remain silent, and when should we confront? Each individual situation will require its own wisdom, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But are there principles that can help us make these choices, principles that will minimize the times we confront when we should be dialoguing, or dialogue when we should remain silent? How do we balance church unity against the need to correct potentially damaging ideas about science & biblical interpretation? How do we seek self-correction (for none of us have all the answers), when the correction being offered is an abandonment of the integrity of science or the scriptures or even of the gospel itself? How do we achieve dialogue when others are not interested in pursuing dialogue?

I’m still struggling with these questions.


Cliff Martin said...

“I’m still struggling with these questions.”

... and so am I. Within my own community of faith, I have chosen a path of more silence. But this came after some costly errors. I had attempted dialogue, thinking that certain individuals were ready for such discussions and would be open to considering the evidence. Most were. But some went instead into what felt to me like attack mode, marshaling support from other mutual friends, and wondering out loud if they could remain in fellowship with a group that tolerated less than an inerrant view of Scripture, particularly the early chapters of Genesis. So the discussion turned quickly into a lamentable debate.

But I am with you, Steve, that at times such debate may be necessary. It could be a mistake to “humbly” enter evolution into the discourse as “one of several options” for understanding origins, when in actual fact the evidence for it is completely overwhelming. Such an approach lends undue legitimacy to those antiquated and doomed interpretations which are, even now, turning many away from faith. So the stakes are too high for feigned gentleness and “humility”.

Francis Collins strikes me as a gentleman, a man of grace and humility. But in his book, The Language of God, (which I review at http://cliff-martin.blogspot.com) he does not mince words when he confronts fallacious Creationism.

We would find it difficult to muster up humility and grace if we were dealing with the Aryan Nations, or the Flat Earth Society. I suggest that it is becoming equally difficult to do so with YEC.

VBM said...

A very good analysis of the situation, both in the original post and in cliff's comments. I would add that I, too, find that silence on the issue is most often the best approach among fellow believers in person. I have only seen a few occasions when I felt the need to speak my position, and then it was merely to state the idea that there was another position (which most don't seem to even realize!). I bit of debate ensued, but not too bad.

I think that what is more useful is getting the word out! Luckily, we have this worldwide communal forum for presenting the ideas and approaches in a non-confrontational way. People can search, and they will find the information, can consider and absorb and decide. And, there are places for discussion and debate, in areas that are designed for such debate and, thus, the participation is controlled and voluntary.

It is kind of like Mar's Hill or other debate forums in ancient times where these issues can be hashed out in a designated arena, rather than in the church lobby or the dinner table, where relationships can be damaged.

That is why I appreciate this site, Steve! Thanks for adding to the process of getting the word out and providing yet another area for discussion.

Jordan said...

I've entered into written and oral 'debates' (more like discussions) with my (ex-)pastor and other church members, and rarely has it ever proven fruitful. As Steve has mentioned, it has only served to harden the stance of anti-evolutionists, because when we hear something that we feel threatens our faith, our immediate response is often to stop listening and repeat what we know. Most laymen simply do not understand the scientific arguments for evolution anyway. For this reason, I refuse to debate the scientific merits of evolution with anti-evolutionists. Such debates should be carried out in the peer-reviewed literature, anyhow.
I have often pictured myself in a public lecture theatre, debating the merits of evolution with an outspoken YEC like Sarfati before a Christian audience. My opponent would empty a bag of YEC PRATTs in rapid succession. I would chose not to touch any of them, and instead calmly explain why the Bible was never meant to be read as a science text to begin with. Because as Gordon Glover has correctly pointed out, that's the root of the problem!
In my experience, the only people worthy of discussing evolution with are those who begin by asking questions. Only then will I know that they are receptive to hearing what I have to say. Otherwise, it's like talking to a brick wall.

Steve Martin said...

(First, I don’t mean the following analogy to be insulting – I realize it is very provocative – apologies in advance if anyone is offended. It really comes out of my belief that YEC can be very damaging).

I think one of the key factors in determining an approach is to distinguish between YEC “users”, “pushers”, and “drug-Lords”. Our attitude should be one of compassion for our Christian brothers and sisters, not one of adversarial confrontation. We are trying to save a fellow disciple from a dangerous addiction, one that can have long-term disastrous consequences, not convince them that we are right. At, the same time we need to look in the mirror and make sure we are not hypocrites, pointing out others’ specs and ignoring our own beams.

Note also that the line between “user” and “pusher” is sometimes a little gray. Ie. the pusher is just as much a victim and needs help too. Also, in formulating a strategy we should acknowledge that “cold-turkey” is many times an unsuccessful strategy, at least if we are looking for a long term “cure”. Finally, even the drug-lords can accomplish some good. I do not doubt that “ministries” like AIG actually do lead people to Christ, just like many drug lords provide huge benefits to local producers who would otherwise have a much more difficult existence.

So in this light, I think there has to be a multifaceted, multi-pronged approach to dealing with the problem of YEC. Simply providing more resources for “a more aggressive law-enforcement approach” (ie. better debating resources & shout/reason “opponents” to the ground) arguably makes the problem worse, and does not tackle the root of the problem.

As my post reveals, I certainly have more questions than answers as to how this should be approached. But, as each of you (Cliff, Vance, Jordan) have commented, we need to be very careful in our personal interactions. My questions: Is my analogy above helpful? Does it make defining principles for engaging other Christian easier? Or, is the analogy so potentially offensive that I should bury it? (I just thought of it last night while going to sleep so you are getting it pretty raw).

As to the broader interaction, I think Vance has a very good point. A key part of combating the dangers of YEC is simply making sure the information is available. Part of my goal on this site is to do that. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on what information should be provided, or how it should be presented. As well though, I know that we are very, very small fish in this pond. How do we mobilize a better shared message? For me, I think this is through the ASA (I’m a relatively new member – around 2 years). I really think this organization has the ability to play a much more important role in this discussion. If one member scientist (Francis Collins) can do so much, think what a whole group of Evangelical scientists can do. More thoughts on that in the coming months.

And Jordan. I know this shows how green I am in this discussion, but I had to go to wikipedia to learn that PRATT is a “Point Refuted a Thousand Times”. I guess I was already using a list of these (http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/index.html ); I just had no idea it was a PRATT. You learn something new every day!

Anonymous said...


I’m sure some will find your analogy offensive – I’m not personally offended by it but I’m sure the YEC crowd would not be pleased to be compared to drug users, drug pushers, and drug lords. And if our goal is to engage in meaningful dialogue with them, perhaps it is unwise to refer to them in this provocative manner.


Steve Martin said...

Thanks Jac,

Let me clarify what I mean and hope I don’t dig myself deeper into a hole :-) :

1. My concern is not with those who believe that Gen 1-3 needs to be interpreted literally, or with those that believe the earth is young. My problem is with those who dogmatically insist that a literal interpretation is the ONLY valid interpretation for a Christian, that a Young earth is the ONLY valid conclusion if you trust God and his Word. The key is the dogmatic interpretations, and the judgment of others that result from these dogmatic interpretations.

2. These dogmatic interpretations that virtually cut all other Christians from fellowship with Christ (Henry Morris compares Christians who believe in evolution to Christians who are criminals) are in my view poison. They literally sap strength and health from the body of Christ. So, I think that comparing recreational drugs that can poison the physical body, to ideas that can poison the spiritual, and indeed the corporate body, is somewhat of a valid analogy.

Anonymous said...


The analogy may be valid and completely accurate, but I still feel it is not appropriate. If we want to begin a meaningful dialogue with those who would condemn us, with those who hold extreme views, with those who compare us to criminals, I believe it is much more productive to begin by treating them with dignity and respect, even if they don't deserve it. Stooping to their level and comparing them to drug dealers is not likely going to convince them that we really care about them as brothers and sisters and we want to talk with them.


Cliff Martin said...

How about "koolaid drinkers"?

jordan said...

I think it's worth echoing the same comments we've made so far. There was a YEC on a local radio talk show last night and I had to call in. With this discussion in mind, my intent was not to debate, but rather ask why, if creation "science" is so strong and evolutionary theory so weak, is the former not being practiced in labs around the world. It took some coaxing, but the answer finally came: "spiritual conspiracy".
I had gotten the answer I wanted, and probably should have hung up then, but the host and guest took exception and wanted to debate with me, asking me for "proof" of evolution. Things just turned ugly after that, and we ended up just speaking past one another. I got sucked into a debate when I should have just stuck to my guns. Live and learn, I guess.

On the topic of equating YECs with drug dealers, I understand Jac's concern, but I also completely agree with Steve's analogy. It has nothing to do with drugs, and everything to do with the hierarchy established. Jac's right, though. It may be useful to think in those terms, but I would be leary about ever bringing it up with a YEC.

Steve Martin said...

I guess my primary motivation for the drug analogy was to help build some principles for engaging those that hold YEC ideas. It was not meant to demean others, but to spur ideas for those of us that are grappling with the concerns in this post. For me it seemed to highlight the fact that we should not approach all Christians who hold young earth ideas in the same way. There may be an approach that works best with those that believe in a young earth, but have never been presented with anything else, and are more inquisitive (or even leery) than judgmental. But this approach should change when we engage those who have read a little YEC literature and are convinced that a young earth doctrine is as critical as an acceptance of the resurrection. Our approach in dealing with congregants who have just heard an AIG presentation at their church needs to be radically different from our approach to the presenter himself. And our approach to vocal YEC proponents who are parroting the popular writings of scientists that participate in YEC “research” (like the RATE project), should not be the same as our approach to those same scientists who selectively choose what information to feed to their flock.

But maybe I should think of another analogy that highlights this need for a diverse engagement strategy but does not cause offence. Thanks for the feedback.

Jordan: Thanks for the personal anecdote. We can all learn from eachother's experiences.

Tom said...

I appreciate this blog and the intent here. I had my own questions about God, but as a fundamentalist, when I understood the reality of evolution, I grappled with how to reconcile God and evolution. I just couldn't do it, chose atheism, and have been feeling my way since, mostly by diving more and more into biology. This was over ten years ago. Come visit my blog which I just started where I will explain my course and opinions.

I am very much like and unlike you guys. Most atheist blogs are religion bashing, and I'll have some of that too, but above all, I want a dialog and debate, not silence or confrontation (although public web sites open themselves to confrontation).

I cannot discuss evolution with my relatives. My brother home-schools his kids and is feeding them young-earth books. They see through me that evolution does, indeed, lead to atheism which scares them even more.

I will say this. Use the creationists voice. The book "Climbing Mt. Improbable" by Richard Dawkins, I found amazing. As a zoologist, he repeatedly takes beautiful examples of nature and tells the story of their evolution with the same awe and wonder as any pastor would marveling at God's creation. It was familiar and non-confrontational. In fact, I did not even know that Richard Dawkins was such an ardent atheist until some time after I read the book!

That said, if you find a way to talk to young earthers about evolution in a meaningful way, let me know! Also, if they can't balance the two and choose atheism, send them my way for support!

Tom said...

For some reason my info was not available with my previous link. Try clicking on my name now...

Anonymous said...


Greetings. I will indeed check out your site - it sounds like there should be a lot of good info there.

I recently wrote a book about science and faith, called "Beyond the Firmament" that takes readers (target audience = conservative Christians) by the hand and walks them through the same journey I had to make when confronted with the facts of natural history.

As far as Christians go, I am about as conservative as they get. My 3 kids were homeschooled for 6 years, and now attend a Classical Christian School. I believe that the Bible is God's word, given to us without error or deceit, and I believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, was cricified and raised from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of God the father almighty.

But I also can not honestly look at creation and accept the notion that it was all brought into existence in its current state, with an very detailed and coherent record of facinating and awe-inspiring events that never actually took place. So I began the journey. Once you "leave the fortress" of creation science, your path quickly forks into two very different choices.

Option 1: You are faced with the possibility that the God of the Bible is an ancient Near Eastern invention, pieced together from the pagan religions of the surrounding nations, and hopelessly dated and constrained by the conceits and misconceptions of the past, or that if He is real, He is incapable of articulating Himself and actually knows less about the universe than do we.

Option 2: Perhaps there were other reasons, besides those proclaimed by the "creation science" movement, for God to have told the story of creation the way He did. Perhaps science CAN be trusted, and the wisdom of God can be seen in the way in which He accommodates His revelation to man particular circumstances. In other words, the story of creation, the fall, and redemption (the central message of Scripture) could have played itself out on any cosmological stage. But the cast, characters, and props used to act out this drama must have been native to both the original author and his original audience, or none of if would have made any sense.

All of this is to say that what you have asked for (a way to talk to young earthers about evolution in a meaningful way) is exactly the purpose of my "minisry" if you want to call it that. Please visit my site: http://www.beyondthefirmament.com and see if you can't get your friends and family to pick up a copy of my book.

I also have some videos on my site that they can watch for free. These are designed to "take the edge off" of science by demonstrating its tentative nature, while at the same time showing how powerful scientific models are at explaining the facts of nature. I also show how Christians throughout history have been on the wrong side of science/Bible conflicts and that as long modern theories continue to bear out in Laboratories accross the world, scientists will continue to use them - as they should.

And lastly, I have no greater joy than when somebody who has been "burned by creation science" - who has accepted the rediculous ultimatums issued by the YEC crowd, found the evidence for an old earth and common descent overwhelming, and left the fold because of it - actually reconsiders the theistic worldview after reading my book or hearing a lecture. I've actually only heard of one such instance, but it made the entire year I spent working on this project worth it. So, brother, I would also encourage you to poke around my site, and pick up a copy of BTF. Even if you choose to remain an atheist, which is understandable given the current climate, you will at least have some good arguments to use on your YEC friends and family members that are not contrary to their belief in God, or the Bible as God's Word.


Tom said...

Thanks Gordon. Your book sales just went up by 1! I look forward to the read and more conversations with you. I've also got a link to your site on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I added your blog to my blogroll as well. Loved the "dog" post by the way!


James Goetz said...

Antievolutionary creationism versus theistic evolution in evangelical circles needs a patient dialog. Both sides need to respectfully present their biblical and scientific defenses of their views.