Science (my chosen academic field) and Christianity (my chosen religion) have had a long and entangled relationship. Sometimes they have worked really well together, but other times not… This post is targeted at Christian scientists, non-Christian scientists, Christian non-scientists, and even non-Christian non-scientists.
“Christianity versus science” is too simplistic
Christian creationists believe that God created (and is creating) the universe, that He created (and is creating) humanity in His image, and that this gives us a unique position of authority and responsibility. These essential tenets of Christian creationism are orthodox and important components of the Christian faith. But in this day and age, ‘creationism’ is more often associated with a silly belief in anachronistic dinosaurs:
Oh dear. Literal ‘7-day’ creationism is tarred as pseudo-science, and rightly so. It’s also terrible PR for Christianity, which has been (and still is) the religion-of-choice for legions of scientists and Nobel Prize laureates.
Now 7-day creationists are certainly Christians, and they hold beliefs about the physical universe that, not too long ago, would have been fairly harmless. If you didn’t have any reason to think differently, why not believe the universe appeared over the course of seven days, around 6000 years ago? No one else had anything more scientifically rigorous to suggest. But scientific advances have disturbed some Christians who simply relied on the Bible for all things cosmological and biological. Some of these Christians try and keep it simple, by repeatedly insisting that it’s just a matter of believing what you read, because Scripture is inerrant.
But regardless of whether or not it’s true, hiding behind a scriptural inerrancy doctrine ignores the fact that Scripture is always read out of a hermeneutic framework. Not every single verse, or even every single book, is of equal importance; and plenty of early Christian writings didn’t make the cut. The ‘interpretation’ can of worms is already well and truly open for older questions like “what does the Bible mean by ‘sexual immorality’?” and “who are the elect?”and Christians must either try to defend their chosen position, or say “I don’t know”, or “it doesn’t really matter”. 7-day creationism wants to make things a simple choice between Christianity and science when other (more defensible) positions are available.
Reinforcing this dumbed-down dichotomy, but from the other end, we have Dawkins and co. (the ‘new atheists‘). The result is toxically polarised mess. Even here in little New Zealand I can sense the confusion radiated by some of my fellow science students when they hear I’m a Christian — or by some of my fellow Christians when they hear that I accept evolution. So I’m going to bypass all that rubbish, and discuss what I see as the real relationship between Christianity and science.
Science and Christianity are separate pursuits (of course)…
Science is thought of as an objective ‘realist’ pursuit, meaning that scientific findings stand true regardless of who it was that discovered them. Subjective Postmodern critiques can inform the history and philosophy of science, but can say nothing about the truth of scientific findings themselves. So even if a scientist was old, white, rich, bourgeois, straight, cis-gendered and male (as most eminent scientists have historically been) that would have nothing to do with the validity of his results.
Christianity on the other hand, is mostly seen as a personal and subjective pursuit. Christians don’t often impress with their objective truth-claims: “I’m telling you, Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says he did, and the Bible is actually pretty reliable on this point!!”. Rather, Christians impress with what they do (e.g. the Salvation Army) and with their subjective faith experiences (everyone loves the idea of being ‘spiritual’). Therefore, in the eyes of many, the validity of a Christian’s ‘results’ are down to their personal conduct, not their intellectual achievements.
…but they still inform each other
Despite being different pursuits, there is still plenty of interaction between science and Christianity. 7-day creationism is an unfortunate result of this interaction, and Christians need a better way of incorporating humanity’s new objective knowledge of the material universe into their faith (more on this later).
Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum either. For a start, it can get very expensive. As soon as human resources and money become involved, highly non-scientific concepts like ‘morality’ become involved. The Large Hadron Collider cost €7.5 billion. NASA spent about $109 billion (2010 dollars) on the Apollo programme from 1959-1973, which works out to about $18 billion for each of the six moon landings. Biology has the virtue of usually being cheaper than physics, but studying living things often requires killing them. Pharmacology is both expensive — taking a new drug through clinical trials costs about $1 billion on average — and potentially lethal for any rats or chimpanzees involved. It’s pretty sobering to think of the staggering amounts of money, human resources and animal suffering that have fuelled our precious scientific advances. I like to think that scientists everywhere are keenly aware of this, and spend many sleepless nights either justifying these decisions to themselves, or repenting of them.
There’s also a more individual side to it. As professional academics, scientists need to ask themselves hard, personal and subjective questions on how their careers should be spent. Is it all about ladder-climbing, publishing as many papers as possible, and getting tenure somewhere? Or should it all about some ‘big cause’ like species conservation, or climate change mitigation? Should you climb down from your ivory tower and try to engage the public on important issues? Or should you just keep your head down, work hard, and try to enjoy yourself along the way?
So the subjective and personal aspect of science is extremely important. There are lots of capable scientists out there and some of them will be Christians trying to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to the academic world of research.
Evolution for Christians?
So if you’re a Christian who finds evolution convincing, but would like to keep on being a Christian, what should you do? When discussing biblical interpretation earlier, I mentioned that one could either take up a position and defend it, admit you don’t have all the answers, or simply dismiss it as a trivial distraction (“guys, let’s just go feed the poor ok”). My own view is a mix of all three, and I’ll summarise it below.
(And if you’re not a Christian, I’m sure you’ll find this interesting too… prepare for some profound insights into the tortured and cognitively dissonant mind of an evolutionary theist!!)
Defend a position — evolution is mostly deterministic, which is good
In Genesis 1, God first made the universe, the Earth, the plants and the animals. He looked at everything and said that “it was good”. Then He made mankind in His image, took a second look at things, and said that “it was very good”. How can this be reconciled with a picture of evolution where everything is the product of random capricious processes?
First, note that evolution isn’t actually random. If it was, scientists would be far less enthusiastic about it! Allow me to explain with some basic biology… For every gene in your genome, you have two copies (alleles). These get packaged into separate gametes (i.e. sperm or eggs), so if you have a child then each allele has a 50% chance of being inherited. It’s the same odds as to whether your child will be a girl or a boy — the father’s X and Y chromosomes have an equal chance of being inherited. In an evolutionary context, this is called genetic drift, and it is the only aspect of evolution that is actually ‘random’ in any sense. This kind of randomness isn’t too disconcerting. Humans are pretty used to the whole ‘is it a boy or a girl’ thing, as well as the uncertainty of whether their child will end up with Mum’s nose, or with Dad’s eyes.
Darwin didn’t know about alleles, but the modern evolutionary synthesis views evolution as the change in the frequency of alleles, in a population, over time. Small differences in allele frequencies between Europeans and Asians make us slightly dissimilar, but larger differences between the human and chimpanzee populations make us far more dissimilar. Genetic drift is one of four ‘forces’ that determine the frequency of an allele in a population. The other three are migration (alleles leaving and entering), mutation (produces new alleles) and natural selection (encourages ‘good’ alleles and removes ‘bad’ ones). While very hard to find and measure, these other three forces are properly deterministic (yes my doubting friend, perhaps even mutation!) Complex and tricky? Yes. Random? No.
It’s nice when you find that something is deterministic. Scientists pummel the universe in the hope of finding intelligible rules and consistencies, and Christians look for the order which God created from something that was “formless and empty”. In fact, any scientific evidence of determinism stands a good chance of being picked up by natural theology — which is the attempt to demonstrate truths about God solely on the basis of reason and nature (as opposed to using revelation). While basing one’s faith on natural theology alone may be unwise (i.e. it can turn people into deists), it’s still fun as a hobby. If King David and Thomas Aquinas weren’t above indulging every once in a while, then it can’t be too bad!
For modern-day natural theologians (like this guy), convergent evolution is intriguing. The evolutionary lineages of sharks (Gnathostomata) and dolphins (Tetrapoda, or Osteichthyes for the cladistic purists) have been separate for about 400 million years, but they’ve come up with the same streamlined shape, distinctive dorsal fins, and position in the food chain completely independently. A second example is the striking similarity in eye construction for vertebrates and cephalopods (i.e. octopuses and squid). These lineages have been separate for about 540 million years, but each have managed to come up with functionally identical image-forming eyes.
Here’s a more relatable explanation of convergent evolution. Imagine you’re an early cetacean applying for the highly competitive position of ‘fast versatile pelagic predator’ at apexpredators ltd. As a mammal, you make use of your inherited ‘advantages’ (breathing air, having a high metabolic rate and a big brain) and work on bringing yourself up to speed in other areas (limbs become fins, you use your vocalisations as sonar). Your CV impresses, and you well enough in the interview that your employers decide to partition the job between you and old Mr Shark (who used to have it all to himself).
But where did this ecological ‘job’ (niche) come from? Well to have predators you need to get prey, and to have prey you need to get photosynthetic organisms, and in order to have photosynthetic organisms you need to get a whole lot of stuff. Niches can be thought of as ‘emergent properties‘, arising as side-effects from an underlying system, but having the ability to feed back into their underlying system and influence it. Pretty cool.
Well, I could go on about convergent evolution and emergent properties all day, and hopefully you understand my excitement (if nothing else). My point here is that — as with the Big Bang theory — these scientific concepts are a godsend (haha) for natural theology. Science generally shows order and determinism triumphing over randomness and chaos.
Admit you don’t have all the answers — problems with evolution are just like problems with evil
Even if evolution is deterministic it can still seem cold and indifferent, or worse, cruel and capricious. Think of all the ‘failed experiments’ who died out, the ‘unfit’ animals who got eaten, the unrelenting need to reproduce… When you think about it, this is evilness, and it’s no different to humanity’s other experiences of evil. To name just a few of these experiences, we have climate change, the latent threat of nuclear destruction, 9 million Syrian refugees, inequality, poverty, religious persecution, insurmountable relationship problems, ruinous workplace environments, poor physical or mental health, the death of loved ones, and finally, our own mortality.
Christianity is no stranger to evil. I’m not talking about rotten things done in the name of Christ (that’s a separate issue for another time), rather that Christianity comes equipped with two ways of coping with the meaningless evil stuff in our lives. The first is the theological attempt to answer the question “how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely good God allow bad things to happen to us?”. Many answers, or theodicies, have been proposed and the best of them is probably the Irenaean one. However, abstract theodicies on their own are usually of little comfort to people who are suffering.
Fortunately the Bible sans theology manages to deal with evil very candidly and cathartically, where no matter how bad things get there is always good cause for hope (see Job 14: 13-17 and Lamentations 3). And where do Christians find cause for this nutty hope? From their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 7: 24-25).
So by virtue of their faith, Christians are actually rather well equipped to deal with the unforgiving nature of evolution specifically, and of the world in general. Non-Christians and non-religious people in general sometimes characterise belief-motivated hope as a ‘security blanket‘, or as some sort of self-administered placebo. Well… I reckon they’re right in saying that hopeful and optimistic people are generally healthier and happier than the gloomy cynics. But if they go one step further and equate the belief that ‘Christ is risen’ with the belief that ‘it will be sunny tomorrow’, then that’s where we’ll start to disagree.
My point here is that the Christian faith is well suited to dealing with evil, and the thought of evolution taking place over billions of tough, cruel, attritional years should pose no problem. The years we face today are no kinder, and yet we still manage to enjoy ourselves.
A trivial distraction — Christians have better things to do
Does that heading sound a bit anti-intellectual? Good, it’s supposed to. Now it’s true that learning and speculating about all of this can be fun and edifying. It’s also a way of making one’s faith intelligible to people who’ve always assumed that Christianity and science have nothing to say to each other. But as with natural theology, getting too invested in it leaves you prone to abstract detachment and navel gazing or worse, arrogance and hubris. Having an excellent knowledge of biblical scholarship and theology is all very well, but Christians should not “merely listen to the word, and so deceive [themselves]. Do what it says” (James 1:22). The intellectual side to one’s faith is a tool (or a weapon) and so it’s always going to need a bit of care and maintenance. But it also needs to be used.
So, I think I’ve said what I had to say. Thanks for reading!