Thursday, 23 February 2017

When science and faith clash - losing and finding faith

I have a confession to make. Even when I was a dogmatic YEC, a small part of me sensed that there was more to evolution than the creationist parody of evolutionary biology that my creationist books routinely dismissed. In retrospect, when I had my first crisis of faith in 1985, a large part of that sudden collapse of belief was due to long-suppressed doubts finally breaking free. When that happens, the positive feedback loop of doubt eroding faith creating more doubt can very quickly destroy faith. Ironically, this collapse often is more dramatic among the young believer from devout, conservative faith communities who are highly invested in their faith tradition and have spend an inordinate amount of time in apologetic activities. The ones who seems the strongest often fail the most dramatically.

As the anecdotes I've shared on this site from former fundamentalists whose faith was rocked by this issue show, this is a depressingly common pattern. The latest anecdote from BioLogos, from Sarah Lane Ritchie, a PhD candidate in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh shows this:
I grew up in a very conservative evangelical church, and my family was involved: church every Sunday (twice!), Wednesday night Bible study, choir practice, vacation Bible school—you know the type. Church was our life, and so it was unsurprising that my beliefs about the world were shaped there. Sure, these beliefs included lots of doctrine and theology, but they also included a lot about the world itself—including science. I learned to be wary of scientists, as they were likely to be atheists living in willful disobedience against God. But not all scientists—I could trust the scientists that were explicitly providing “scientific” theories supporting a literalist interpretation of the Bible.

The most obvious example was evolution—we kids were explicitly taught that evolution was a lie from the devil, and that embracing “liberal” science was the quickest way to lose my faith. It was imperative that I guard my mind against scientists, atheists, and liberals who wanted to brainwash me. To that end, I consumed all the apologetics material that I could get my hands on, soaking up all the pseudoscientific theories I could to inoculate myself against my science teachers.
And I did love science. I loved learning about the natural world and was insanely curious—and the more I learned, the more an uneasiness grew inside of me. It was fairly clear to me that the world of science had little use for the defensive tactics of my conservative congregation. So why did I continue to ignore that growing uneasiness, to keep quiet about my doubts about God’s existence, to repress my gnawing fear that I had accidentally discovered scientific knowledge that disproved all of Christianity? After all, I could have simply turned my back on Christianity altogether—the “evangelical-turned-atheist” narrative is not an uncommon storyline. (Emphasis in original) [1]
Her story strongly parallels mine; frequent church and church-related attendance (two to three times per week), a distrust of evolution (challenging high school teachers, letter to the editor of the local paper), insatiable appetite for Christadelphian anti-evolution material to act as a bulwark against high school biology, all while being absolutely intoxicated with science, particularly astronomy. The latter proved to be one of the main sources of uneasiness, as I could quickly see how astronomy offered evidence for a universe vastly older than the 6000 years my YEC worldview demanded. I never completely resolved that problem, alternating between ignoring the problem or maintaining (despite the obvious scientific and Biblical problems with it) that the Earth was created in six days 6000 years ago while the rest of the universe was ancient. Needless to say, you can do this only for so long before the stress becomes unbearable. As Ritchie eloquently put it:
And yet, that gnawing sense of uneasiness continued to grow: because my faith community was not engaging with science (other than defensively denying scientific claims), I was continually forced to choose my allegiance. God or science, science or God—I was increasingly terrified that I had secretly discovered God’s non-existence. And this broke my heart. (Emphasis in original)
Ritchie's loss of faith was precipitated by the tragic death of her mother when she was sixteen, and completed when she attended a Space Camp not long after, and after seeing a visual presentation of the vastness of the universe felt that "everything—my life, my family, my hopes and dreams, my community, my world, my faith—that everything was utterly meaningless and insignificant." My initial loss of faith lasted weeks before I solved the problem by accepting an old earth and latching onto a superficial form of the argument from design. In reality, I'd merely resolved a superficial issue, and pushed the main problem away for a few years before it bubbled to the surface in 1992 leading to another loss of faith which I resolved by adopting a form of fideism, and actively ignoring the problem. If you have anything resembling intellectual honesty, you can only do that for so long before you lose respect for yourself, and realise you need to answer the question honestly, irrespective of where it leads. Doing do in complete isolation and without any help from your faith tradition is not something you would wish on anyone, and I completely empathise with Ritchie when she says:
Through years of studying science and theology and committing myself to the embrace of truth wherever it is found, I have stepped into a faith that is vibrant, deep, and unafraid of truth. But this was (and is) a long, slow, heartbreaking process that (quite frankly) I wouldn’t wish on anyone. (Emphasis in original)
A large part of what led me to create and maintain this website is the desire to ensure that others who are walking down the same path don't have to endure the same long, slow, heartbreaking process alone without any help. However, refutations of dire YEC anti-evolution arguments and fundamentalist eisegesis of Genesis is only part of the process. By far the biggest question is how to create a metanarrative that allows the believer to integrate a robust faith in God with the fact of an ancient, evolving creation. 
The creationist metanarrative which in part is predicated on natural beauty as a 'proof' of special creation is guilty of a very selective reading of the book of nature. As my recent post on the crypt keeper wasp shows, much in nature is anything but beautiful, and the book of nature flatly refutes the desperate YEC attempt to explain away predation and parasitism by asserting that this all happened 6000 years ago as a consequence of the Fall. The YEC metanarrative, which at heart is a theodicy, is superficially appealing as it neatly explains all suffering and ugliness as a despoiling of an original beauty by a single human act, but as a fossil record thousands of millions of years old shows, the YEC metanarrative is stillborn. As Ritchie says:
Rarely do church leaders discuss the “theological significance” of the fact that the vast majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct, or that chaos, ugliness, and entropy are as much a part of the natural world as order and beauty. And hardly ever do we discuss the fact that science seems wholly up to the job of fully explaining the origins of life and even human consciousness.
As I've said many times, by applying the insight given by the free-will theodicy - that God has granted humans free-will [2] and has bound himself to accept that - to the natural world, we can see that "chaos, ugliness, and entropy" are indeed just as much a creation of God as order and beauty. Evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala puts it perfectly:
The theory of evolution provided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil. As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design: the features of organisms were not designed by the Creator. [3]
Studying the book of nature makes us appreciate that natural disasters such as tropical storms and floods are simply a consequence of a planet with an ocean, and atmosphere, and a thermal gradient. Even earthquakes (and tsunamis) are an inevitable consequence of plate tectonics which on earth is of critical importance in regulating the planet to make it hospitable for life [4]. Granting the natural world complete freedom in order to bring forth life inevitably creates both the exquisite beauty of life, and the tragedy of disaster, but in a very real sense, the latter is inextricably linked with the former.

One of course would not expect the Bible to comment on science as much of it was written in a pre-scientific era. Having said Paul's words in Romans 8:18-21 take on a strange new life when read against how natural evil and life appear inextricably bound together, and allow one to see how an evolutionary metanarrative can be constructed that allows the Christian to, as Ritchie puts it, "explore the natural world in all its messiness"
The Church is free to explore the natural world in all its messiness; perhaps, after all, “nature is always more than the natural. - See more at:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
verything—my life, my family, my hopes and dreams, my community, my world, my faith—that everything was utterly meaningless and insignificant? - See more at:


1. Sarah Lane Ritche "When Science and Faith Clash: My Story of Losing and Recovering Faith" BioLogos February 21, 2017
2. While I regard libertarian free-will as incompatible with neurophysiology, from a theological perspective, a compatibilist approach to free will strikes me as sufficient to maintain a free-will theodicy.
3. Francisco Ayala, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, (2007: Joseph Henry Press) p. 4–5.
4. Marcus Woo "The unexpected ingredient necessary for life" BBC Earth 12 January 2017
Sarah Lane Ritchie now calls Scotland 'home.' She is a PhD candidate in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh - See more at: