Saturday, February 18, 2006

Evolution of my Thoughts on Evolution


The creation / evolution debate is alive and well in the United States. My experience of it is illustrative of the current issues, so let me recount it.

I grew up in a protestant evangelical Christian household. My parents disliked evolution saying things like Darwin invented it to avoid the moral requirements of a creator. I had access to plenty of creation science literature which was filled with "evidence" against an old earth and evolution. When I started college I recall that my roommate asked me if I believed in a literal 7-day creation, and I said I did. During university days I learned some about cosmology and the Big Bang theory, and so I started seeking interpretations of the creation story which were compatible with an old Universe -- such as perhaps the days of creation were long periods of time. I still didn't consider evolution of humans as compatible with my faith.

The first time I really worked through the issues was when I taught a one-semester course on evolution and creation to the teenager class at the church I went to. For that I did a lot of reading on the creation/evolution debate and I sought to present both sides of the argument. In addition to library material, I sent off for materials from the Institute for Creation Research. My findings are summarized below:
  • Evolution is not a finished theory yet; there are still plenty of holes and things are are not explained yet. But contrary to various creation science claims, that does not mean it is false, just incomplete.
  • The evidence for an old earth (~4 billion years old) is overwhelming. Claiming that it is only 6000 years old is like claiming that the sun revolves around the earth. How anyone who looks at the evidence can deny an old earth and actually teach their children that is beyond me.
  • What surprised me most was that creationists continued to use arguments against and old earth and against evolution that were known to be false. (Things like extrapolating the recent decay of the earth's magnetic field backwards and concluding that the earth can be at most 10,000 years old -- ignoring the fact that now there is plenty of evidence of the earth's magentic field flipping polarity multiple times). I was shocked that Christians who professed to be seeking the truth, and were commanded not to lie, would be so misleading and deceitful to children. Their arguments against evolution are filled with a multitude of misrepresentations. I suppose what matters to them is the end-product: that people's belief in the Bible is strengthened, even if it takes untruths to accomplish this.
Since that time I have continued to consider the evidence for evolution. The more I read, the stronger the case becomes that all of life is decended from a common ancestor. In particular the genetic evidence for this seems compelling.

So if the case for evolution is so strong, why are Christians (especially evangelical ones) so reluctant to accept it? Here are the reasons I see:
  • There is a strong focus on the Bible as the ultimate authority for one's faith. The bible is what sets evangelical Christian beliefs apart from other beliefs. This entails taking it as literally as possible, otherwise one can take all sorts of liberties with the text. For example, if Adam and Eve aren't our literal ancestors as Paul thought, then maybe his condemnation of homosexual activity is also mistaken. Without a strong literal interpretation it is much harder to split the world into good and bad, black and white.
  • Some basic theological teachings depend on a literal Adam and Eve as our ancestors. In particular the doctrine that Paul taught that sin entered the world through Adam's disobedience and is inherited by us. Then Jesus is the second Adam who brings forgiveness of our sins through his death and resurrection. If Adam wasn't a literal person or our literal ancestor (as evolution implies), then Paul was mistaken, and perhaps he was also mistaken about Jesus having a literal resurrection? If there isn't original sin, maybe people of other faiths aren't going to hell, and maybe Christians aren't going to heaven? A host of difficult questions ensues, and there isn't an unambiguous authority to answer them. Perhaps that is why the Catholic church isn't so worried about evolution, because it still maintains that the church has this unambiguous authority on matters of faith.
  • Evolution raises questions about what makes humans and animals different. In particular it casts doubt on humans have a non-physical spirit or soul that lasts after they die. This brings into doubt basic Christian doctrines on an afterlife.
So for Christians and the church what seems to matter most is authority, as this is crucial to maintaining their faith and its distinction from other faiths. For me what matters most is truth. I am not willing to sacrifice truth for authority or even for faith. For protestants who look to the Bible as the basis of their faith, accepting evolution entails developing a much more liberal faith. What exactly this is faith is I'm not sure, and I would like to consider this more.

10 comments:

  1. I think the problem is that Christians are not sure what to do about the Bible anymore. The stronger modern science becomes, the more we cannot take the millenia-old stance that the Bible is inerrant. So what do we do? I don't know whether there needs to be a dramatic turnover in theology (some big international Council as in the days of old), or whether the change couldn't happen more gradually, with Christians realizing that the Bible is more of an allegory with important lessons for us, rather than a source of inerrant truth.

    Regardless, I think science will win out, and it is the Bible (or in any case, literal interpretation of the Bible) that has to retreat. The big advantage science has over religion is that one can prove things, and the way in which things are proven is consistent with the sense of logic that each of us has within us, even if we ourselves couldn't design the experiment. This is why people eventually accepted the Copernican and Galilean models of the universe over the earth-centric view, even if they were reluctant at first.

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  2. What to make of the Bible is a difficult question for people seeking enlightenment and truth. I suppose the liberal church is leading the way in allegorical understandings of the creation and similar stories. But I think most people don't care about compatibility of science and faith but rather want a religion that gives them moral and epistemological certitude; consider the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the US and around the world. I doubt that evidential or scientific reasons are going to sway many of those minds bent on maintaining their faith.

    --Daniel

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  3. But it doesn't matter if these fundamentalists are swayed, does it? Most of them are not scientists, so it is not as though they would be trying to corrupt science in the first place. They can continue to keep their heads buried in the sand if they want, while the rest of us go on with our modern lives and technologies. I just wish they would stay away from the voting booths. But surely anyone who is smart or shrewd enough to become a President must to some extent embrace science. If their actions do not seem to embrace science, it is probably not because of religion, but because of political reasons.

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  4. Why would a president need to embrace science? What he really need to embrace is faith in God so that he can govern his country with righteousness and justice. Science is not infallible, it has made mistakes and it keeps changing its mind all the time. Now it believes something and next day something else. Who can keep up with scientific discoveries and re-discoveries? It would drive us crazy if our lives were dependent on scientific discoveries for everything, given the lack of reliability of its continuous "findings".

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  5. In other words: "Since we can't know most things for sure, let's ignore the evidence and believe what we want to believe."

    Daniel

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  6. What you call evidence is what I referred to as always changing scientific findings. Today science says one thing and tomorrow it says exactly the opposite.

    If you believe in scientific evidence alone, then you will never possess any true and reliable knowledge since Science is neither infallible nor definite or absolute.

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  7. To Daniel,

    It all depends on what YOU consider as "evidence."

    Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant minds that has ever existed, said:

    "Cosmic laws reveal such a Superior Intelligence that compared to it, every human thought is insignificant."

    Einstein knew that in spite of his own high IQ and because of it, he could never match the intellect of God, the creator of ALL things.

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  8. I'm really quite glad that I'm Catholic. Catholics are allowed to accept evolution...

    I simply have one question: if God is almighty, as most evangelical Christians would say, wouldn't a day to Him be more than 24 human hours?

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  9. Hmmm, I'm not sure if the days in Genesis are 24 hours. It seems to imply it by the refrain "and there was evening and there was morning -- the [n'th] day".

    Yes, it seems Catholics don' have quite the same insistence on Biblical authority and literalism. But then they often instead rely on Church or Papal authority. So why do you say that you are "allowed" to accept evolution. Surely one should accept it on the evidence, irrespective of what the church or pope or even Bible allows...

    Daniel

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  10. hi thank you so much for writting this i have been searching for answerxs like this for a long time you see my teachers at school are trying to make me belive in evolution and monkeys and things but like that it just soo hard to know what and what not belive so keep writing things like this it give teens like me answers that weve been looking for {hollie w 13}

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