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Jul28TueIt's been 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species. His theory of evolution still deeply divides Christians July 28, 2009 by Captain Amy Reardon & Dr. James Read
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Do you believe in evolution? That's the question a reporter for one of our major newspapers put to Gary Goodyear, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, back in March. The minister replied, “I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” The story immediately became front-page news in The Globe and Mail, and launched reams of comments from pundits.
Curious question. Curious answer. Curious that it was big news.
The professor at McGill University who heads up the Evolution Education Research Centre commented: “It is the same as asking the gentleman, 'Do you believe the world is flat?', and he doesn't answer on religious grounds.”
But is it the same, Amy? The minister was not asked whether he accepted as fact that life forms have changed over the history of the earth. That, I think, is irrefutable. I think the fact that there were once dinosaurs and there are none now is beyond doubt. The fact that flu viruses mutate in complex and unpredictable ways as they pass from pigs to people is incontestable fact. I accept that those assertions are like the assertion that the earth is not flat (despite what I see out my window in Winnipeg).
The question the science minister was asked, however, was whether he believed “in” evolution. And that's a question that sounds to me a lot like a religious question. People believe in God or they don't. People believe in showing respect or they don't. But people don't believe in gravity.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the journalist asked the question “because of rumours among some researchers that [Minister Goodyear] is a creationist.” What that really means is university science faculty are upset with what they judge to be insufficient government funding.
All the same, behind the political game-playing and the shoddy use of language, the clear implication is that a person cannot be both a serious Christian―confessing that God is Creator, Preserver and Governor of all things,―and a serious scientist. I sure hope that's not true. What would you say?
Let me ask the flipside of that question: Can you be a Christian and believe in evolution?
I don't believe in evolution. (By that I mean primates becoming humans. I don't think anyone doubts the evolution of flu viruses mutating.) But I wouldn't be prepared to say that if a person believes God used evolution as his means of creation, he or she is clearly unsaved. There are sincere Christians who believe that the creation story in Genesis 1–3 is an allegory. They would say that to call it an allegory is not to discredit the biblical story, because God always intended that it be understood as an allegory.
While many Salvationists would not agree with that stance, I'm not sure we have the right to question their salvation any more than evolutionists have a right to question Minister Goodyear's competency.
I read an article about the Goodyear controversy. I am saddened that the intellectual and political communities in Canada consider it a given that an intelligent person would swallow Darwin's dogma without question. I suppose that an American scientist might be mocked if he declared himself a creationist—though there are small, brave flocks of American scientists who are committed to a literal translation of Genesis. I was surprised, however, at what an issue this seemed to be in Canada, and the ridicule this faithful man has had to endure. I don't think it would play out that way in the United States.
To mock people for their literal understanding of the biblical account is arrogant. Who are we to say that the Bible is wrong and that we know more? Who are we to say that our scientific theories of evolution are infallible? I'm sure you're familiar with Psalm 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Today we could easily say, “Some trust in science and technology, but we trust in the name of the Lord.” Chariots and horses were never bad—in fact, they were helpful tools. So are science and technology. But to assume the historical, written Word of God is in error just because human scientific reasoning says so? No thanks.
I have been told, Jim, that any responsible scientist will tell you that evolution is only a theory anyway. It seems to me that the government, not being of any religious persuasion, should view both creationism and Darwinism as respectable theories. And Goodyear's personal convictions should never be under fire, as long as he does his job.
You are right—scientists will say that Darwin's account of biological evolution by means of natural selection is “only a theory.” But what do they mean by that?
Some of us think “only a theory” means “it's not really important” or “we're just having fun guessing here.” And so when scientists tell us they've got a theory of biological evolution or atomic structure or how the middle ear works or whatever, we think they're telling us how they spend their spare time.
That's not it at all, however. When scientists say something's “only a theory,” they mean that it's an explanatory and predictive device that is put forward as a provisional statement of truth subject to revision in light of new findings. Francis Collins, the committed Christian who was head of the U.S. section of the Human Genome Project, puts it better than I can in his book The Language of God: “Faced with a set of data that includes a puzzling and unexplained phenomenon, scientists construct hypotheses of the mechanism that might be involved, and then conduct experiments to test those hypotheses…. Over a long period of time, a consistent set of observations sometimes emerges that leads to a new framework of understanding. That framework is then given a much more substantive description, and is called a 'theory'…. One of the most cherished hopes of a scientist is to make an observation that shakes up a field of research. Scientists have a streak of closeted anarchism, hoping that someday they will turn up some unexpected fact that will force a disruption of the framework [theory] of the day.”
Dr. Read: “I think we need more Christians with Darwin's active curiosity about the grandeur, complexity and unknowns of God's creation”
There are two things about what Collins says that really jump out for me. One is the inner strength a person needs in order to publish a hypothesis or theory that she or he knows is not going to be the final word on the subject. The second is the intense curiosity that drives scientists to want to make novel discoveries in the first place. I think we need to see more of both characteristics in Christians, scientists or not!
Charles Darwin (whose bicentennial it is this year) strikes me as an admirably curious man. He noticed different species of finches, living on different islands in the Galapagos archipelago, and wondered why. Why the similarities, why the differences and why the populations were distributed the way they were. The theory he offered to explain it all might be flawed (no one accepts Darwin's original account without changes), but I think we need more Christians with Darwin's active curiosity about the grandeur, complexity and unknowns of God's creation.
To bring the matter close to home, I've just been reading a piece of research our territory has done on homelessness. Every night The Salvation Army provides emergency shelter for over 6,000 Canadians, about 25 percent of all the shelter beds in the country. It's made some people wonder just who is using these services, and whether different approaches would be more beneficial. But to get beyond wondering requires people with special skill in scientific research and the money to conduct the studies. It's great that this recent study was conducted. It's equally telling that it's the first such study in a long time.
My observation is that the Church hasn't really promoted science-based education in our generation. I don't have a theory to explain it, though. Do you?
Many people in the Church are afraid of science. What does that say about us? It implies that our belief system is fragile and intelligent thought might cause it to tumble. Can creationism hold its own in the face of Darwinism? On the other hand, can a Christian accept evolution as a means of creation without threatening everything else in which he believes? I think the answers are yes and yes.
There used to be a popular bumper sticker in the United States that read: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I believe everything in God's Word is true, but the attitude of that bumper sticker embarrasses me. It indicates that Christians don't think things through. My faith is real to me because I wasn't afraid to question it. I understand the spirit of the bumper sticker and I applaud it, but maybe it is time the Church visibly returned to its intellectual (and creative) heritage. Maybe we should let the world know that faith in God—Creator, Preserver and Governor—includes rational thought, valid research and serious contemplation. Nobody “disrupted the framework of the day” more than Galileo, for example, and he dedicated his work to the glory of God.
Of course, the Church didn't exactly stand up and applaud Galileo. But maybe that's the lesson we can learn from history. Let human progress be done in the name of God, and let the Church promote, not hinder, it. If we believe Christianity is the complete truth, then no scientific truth should be seen as a threat to it.
In this Talking It Over series, Dr. James Read, Executive Director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and Captain Amy Reardon, Editor of Young Salvationist, U.S.A. National Headquarters, dialogue about moral and ethical issues. Click here to read more debates in the Talking It Over series.