Proponents of materialism argue that religion and science do not mix. They claim that evolution refutes the Bible and thus undermines Christianity. Are they correct for thinking so?
A few months back I began looking at the claim that science is in direct conflict with the Bible. I took the most well-known example of this conflict, the creation account in Genesis 1, and built a thesis based on ancient thought and literature. The conclusion, based on the findings of professor John Walton, was that it was meant to be read as a functional account as opposed to a scientifically material account. The practice of reading modern science into an ancient text results in an interpretation that we cannot support unless we twist science to fit into it. On the other hand, if we read Genesis as an account of functional origins (the process of God establishing the cosmic temple, so to speak) then it presents no direct conflict with modern science because outside of an earthbound view of the world it has no relationship to it whatsoever. Readers can find more in links 1 and 2 below.
So how do we approach science today? How do we respond to those who claim that theories such as evolution refute the Bible?
Walton notes that modern skeptics caught in the perceived conflict between the Bible and science view God and science in terms of a pie. Presumably, it begins with man’s total ignorance of the natural world and thus God, being used as an explanation of the world, takes up the whole pie. As man discovers more and more of how the natural world functions, God’s piece becomes smaller and smaller. If we understand how pregnancy works, for example, there’s no need to evoke a God to help us understand the process. Therefore, science will eventually take over the pie and God will, in theory, become an extinct, ancient idea.
This kind of thinking is called the god of the gaps fallacy. If we don’t understand how something works the perpetrator of the fallacy will immediately evoke “God did it!” as an answer. In response to this many Christian apologists will say that we aren’t finding God in what we don’t know but rather what we do. While this may be a sufficient answer (and yes, I do believe modern science is consistent with the Bible’s portrait of God) it doesn’t fully reflect the thoughts of those who wrote the Bible. For the ancients, there were no primary and secondary causes. There was no distinction between the natural and supernatural. In fact, the concepts themselves would have been foreign to them. Going back to the pregnancy example, take David’s words in Psalm 139:13,
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”
Like us, the ancients knew that to create babies there needed to be sexual intercourse. They knew the basics although we obviously know a lot more about the process than they did. Does this mean David’s words are no longer true? Not at all, because for them, diety and the observable world was intertwined. There is no natural process, just processes sustained and guided by a deity. If David were on the earth today he would respond with a shout of joy, praising God for His marvellous creation and work.
Here’s an even clearer example. Genesis, 1:24 says,
“And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind….”
From our perspective, we could read this as a natural account. The “earth,” or the material world, brought forth life. Yet the very next verse continues this with,
“And God made the beast of the earth….”
Another example can be found in Psalm 104 which contains a lot of what we would call “natural phenomena” and attributes each to the hand of God. The idea that the more we understand the material world the less need we have to evoke God as an explanation is an entirely modern and unbiblical one. For the ancients, God was never created or evoked as an explanation for the material world. Those who believe so use a faulty theology that says that God can only create by divine fiat and once He has created He ceases to operate. According to the Bible, God is the sustainer of the material world and continually keeps everything running through His power. Our understanding of the material world does not change this.
Going back to Walton’s pie example, he notes that the correct way to view science isn’t a pie but a multi-layered cake. On the bottom layer, we find the scientific method and our understanding of the material world. This is the realm science works in and it does not and cannot subtract from God or His work. On the top layer, we find the work of God. This covers the bottom layer, for each discovery science makes is only another step in understanding how God sustains and orders the material world. Science, by definition, cannot touch the top layer for it is constrained to work within the purely observable realm. Thus when a skeptic says he can find no empirical evidence for God it is a thoroughly unconvincing position for science is ill-equipped to even find such evidence in the first place.
The top layer addresses purpose (the reason God sustains the universe) and ultimate causation. The bottom may be able to theorize that a purposeful design is the best answer logically but it can do no more than that: theorize. The same thing can be said in regards to evolution. It may acknowledge no purpose from a strictly physical sense but it also cannot assert that there is no divine purpose outside of a metaphysical conclusion that God does not exist by those using it. As Walton notes, it must remain neutral on that point because if it reaches for either a yay or a nay it steps out of its layer and reaches for the top. That is something it cannot do for it would be stepping outside of science. The bottom line is science cannot assess God. It cannot establish or falsify His existence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Finally, many scientists do acknowledge a top layer (John Lennox, Alister McGrath, etc.) and this in no way changes how they do science.
This is why I mostly refrain from using scientific apologetics. It has its place and I have great respect for those in the field, however, I don’t find it the most convincing way to God. If we rely solely on science as evidence of God’s existence, what do we do if that science changes or new discoveries are made? Re-write our interpretation or try to refute it? In our generation, science is a massive step to finding the truth and when a Christian tries to brush it away, we’re only putting stumbling blocks between the genuine seeker and God. Christians who try to write off evolution as absurd, as if the existence of God hangs on whether it is true or not, are doing no favours. If evolution falls it needs to be at the hand of science itself. Christianity is established by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not evolution. Neither does it stand on inerrancy, Adam and Eve, or anything else critics may object to in the face of modern science. This is not to say I think evolution is true but that I’m neutral either way.
In closing, for those who believe science poses a threat to your faith, you needn’t worry. At most maybe your idea of inerrancy needs some reevaluating. If you wish to argue against evolution or any kind of science that you believe threatens your faith, my only advice to you is to make your argument a thoroughly scientific one. If you present your argument as a conflict between the Bible and science you will convince no one other than those already on your side. You can love science and the Bible. There’s no battle between the two.
Link 1 (forming the thesis)
Link 2 (responding to objections from a fundamentalist atheist who believes the Bible must be read in scientific terms)