Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Christadelphian website "Life's Big Questions" gets it wrong on science and the Bible. Part 1

When done poorly, Christian apologetics ends up completely destroying the credibility of those advancing bad defences of the faith, and worse still, the message they are trying to proclaim. Given that creation evangelism is increasingly popular in our community, this means that many Christadelphian apologetics / preaching efforts are fatally compromised by their evolution denialism.

One example is the Life’s Big Questions website, which in its section Has Science disproved the Bible? makes the mistake of assuming a literal reading of the creation narratives is the only was in which one can read the Bible, thus automatically generating a conflict between Bible and science which would never have occurred if those behind the website had not chosen such a flawed hermeneutic.

Furthermore, it makes the usual long-refuted special creationist errors such as not understanding what is meant by theory and fact in science, failing to grasp what science means by evolution, relying on the argument from personal incredulity to deny that evolution could ever occur, and making the tired claim that the fossil record does not support evolution. Worse still, it indulges in fairly blatant example of quote mining, in which a scientist is quoted completely out of context.

This is not how to preach the gospel.

Life’s Big Questions (LBQ hereafter) section on science begins badly by immediately framing the discussion in terms of conflict between science and the creation narratives:
Many of us think that it's not possible to take science seriously and still believe what the Bible has to say.
Some people believe that scientists have proved that the universe started with a 'Big Bang'. The same people might also think that the Bible contradicts this.

Many people also believe that scientists have proved that all the variety of life evolved. If this is true, then the Bible would be wrong in talking about life having being created.
LBQ makes a number of fundamental errors, such as assuming a literal reading of the creation narratives and presuming Genesis 1 is concerned with material origins rather than functional origins. As I’ve noted many times, a number of OT scholars state that Genesis 1 shares the ancient Near Eastern concern with functional origins rather than material origins, which means that we distort the meaning of Genesis 1 by interpreting it as a scientifically accurate account of origins.

In addition, it presumes that those who accept scientific answers about the origins of the universe and how the diversity of life on Earth appeared will inevitably think that this falsifies the Bible. LBQ makes the mistake of starting its section on Bible and science with the false dichotomy of special creation versus atheism, ignoring the fact that many people recognise that accepting evolution and modern cosmology does not require one to cease believing in the God of the Bible. For example, the 20th century Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhanky, one of the main figures behind the creation of the modern theory of evolution declared that:
It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.[1]
Evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak likewise argues forcefully against the false dichotomy that one can accept either Christianity or evolution:
A purely scientific interpretation of evolution does not lead to an argument against the existence of God. Scientific atheism is a metaphysical position, which goes beyond a scientific interpretation of the available evidence.
God is not only creator, but also sustainer. God's creative power and love is needed to will every moment into existence. God is atemporal. In my opinion, an atemporal Creator and Sustainer lifts the entire trajectory of the world into existence.  For the atemporal God, who is the creator and sustainer of the universe, the evolutionary trajectory is not unpredictable but fully known.[2]
Palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, writing in Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe not only makes explicit his belief that faith and evolution are compatible, but outlines what he regards are the main facts which make evolution and creation synonymous:
In essence, we can ask ourselves what salient facts of evolution are congruent with a Creation. In my judgement, they are as follows: (1) its underlying simplicity, relying on a handful of building blocks; (2) the existence of an immense universe of possibilities, but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work; (3) the sensitivity of the process and the product, whereby nearly all alternatives are disastrously maladaptive; (4) the inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the rearrangement and co-option of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se; (5) the exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence; (6) the inevitability of the emergence of sentience, and the likelihood that among animals it is far more prevalent than we are willing to admit."[3]
Christian acceptance of evolution is not recent; as historian of science David Livingstone notes. Shortly after Darwin advanced his theory of evolution by natural selection, one of his most ardent supporters was a theologically conservative Christian:
Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history.[4] (Emphasis mine)
By immediately framing its Has Science disproved the Bible? article in terms of a facile ‘Christianity versus evolution’ false dichotomy, LBQ not only ignores the fact that the options available to Christians are not simply special creationism or atheism, but shows a remarkably facile grasp of the issues, a damning failing given that theologically conservative Christians have been exploring how to reconcile faith and evolution for well over a century, leaving a considerable legacy in the process.[5]

Furthermore, by reinforcing the fundamentalist false dilemma that one can accept either evolution or the Bible, LBQ will ensure that any believer thoroughly inculcated in this worldview more than likely will abandon faith when they do find out that the evidence for evolution is beyond dispute. Far from answering the big questions, LBQ runs the risk of catalysing unbelief because of their stance on this issue.

[1] Dobzhansky T “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” American Biology Teacher (1973) 35:125-129
[2] Nowak M “How Might Cooperation Play a Role in Evolution?” Big Questions Online (Accessed 20th January 2016)
[3] Conway Morris Simon Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (2003: Cambridge University Press) p 329
[4] Livingstone D.N. “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii
[5] See ref. 4 for details.