A Misguided Argument

I frequently encounter self-described agnostics and atheists who point to evolution as “the scientific alternative” to Christianity. They yammer on about the “indisputable” evidence for common descent and examples of  “evolution in action,” using it all to make a case against the viability of Christianity. These are the same types that sometimes stick those Darwin fish symbols on the rear of their car, in direct mockery of that particular faith. (It’s interesting to note that they have yet to come out with a Darwin car ornament that mocks Islam, another faith that believes divine agency is responsible for life…Oh yeah, that wouldn’t be politically correct. My bad.)

NEWSFLASH:

Christianity doesn’t stand or fall on biology.

This really should be common knowledge, since there are high-profile Christian scientists who endorse various versions of evolutionary theory. One example would be Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., who heads the NIH (National Institute of Health), directs the Human Genome Project, and authored the NY Times bestseller, The Language of God. Dr. Collins would describe himself as an advocate of Theistic Evolution (TE), which is a scientific and theological position taken by some members of the evangelical Christian community. TE proponents believe that Scripture is completely compatible with their scientific stance. Others disagree, arguing for a more literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. 

Whatever Christians’ views happen to be about the mechanism responsible for the complexity and diversity of life (and admittedly, there is heated debate among some concerning proper interpretation of scripture), all would agree that one’s status as an authentic Christian doesn’t hinge upon a denial of biological evolution.

So, the Origins-thumping evangelists of atheism will probably continue to accuse Intelligent Design (ID) proponents of being nothing more than religiously-motivated science heretics, but they fail to understand that Christianity doesn’t require that the theory of evolution (common descent via random mutations + natural selection + time) be false.

Here’s another thing that some may find surprising: there are actually ID proponents who accept common descent. Dr. Michael Behe, a major figure in ID, has said he is comfortable with common descent (though not dogmatic about it). What separates Dr. Behe from the TE camp is his scientific conviction that the origin of some molecular-level biological systems cannot be explained by a step-by-step formation process. Click here to read an interesting response Dr. Behe wrote to one of the TE proponents over at BioLogos (founded by Dr. Francis Collins) who criticized his book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.

Just for clarification, I am an ID proponent, but I don’t give the theory of common descent as much credit as Dr. Behe does; the sudden appearance–>stasis–>extinction pattern in the fossil record (which hard-core evolutionists such as Stephen Jay Gould have acknowledged) has me convinced that common ancestry is much more limited in scope.

Christians, don’t be intimidated by the subject of evolution. For the materialists, you need to recognize that arguing for evolution doesn’t automatically argue against Christianity, it only disputes certain interpretations of the biblical creation narrative–and I doubt you’re all that interested in correcting someone’s hermeneutics.

Ammendment to this post:

There’s a new collection of essays edited by Jay Richards in a volume entitled God and Evolution. The essential argument is that evolution (understood as chance variations accummulating over time to cause dramatic change) is incompatible with theism. This poses a problem for some versions of Theistic Evolution. I’m intrigued. Stay tuned for a review of the book!

36 thoughts on “A Misguided Argument

    1. I think those that feel that way must include chemical evolution in their working definition. I would agree that including an unguided, accidental origin of first life under one’s umbrella definition of “evolution” is incompatible with theism. Theistic evolutionists see the origin of first life as divinely guided, of course. The author of that blog article is correct about the aim of Darwin’s theory; he sought to remove the need for a designer for the apparent design in nature. While TE advocates hold to common descent, they don’t believe evolution proceeded blindly, with no intended purpose. Darwin would have vehemently disagreed. In fact, he did just that with Alfred Russel Wallace, whenever Wallace dared to commit the “little heresy” of arguing for intelligent agency behind certain aspects of nature (in a scientific journal, no less).

  1. The fundamental problem for much of evangelical Christianity in the discussion of origins, though, is not the evil atheists and evolutionary biologists who criticize it, but rather the perceived need (on the part of many Christians) to establish or describe ANY mechanism of creation.

    I would argue that rather than trying to identify “mechanisms” for divine creation, we should rather attempt to recapture and re-inculcate within the Christian consciousness the foundational principle of orthodox belief regarding origins.

    Since the beginning, this foundational principle is that of creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothingness. Orthodox Christian belief does not define any particular “mechanisms” of creation; to the contrary, the category of “mechanism” is distinctly denied by the governing principle of creation out-of-nothingness. After all, if the “mechanism” of creation can be defined, there is no longer anything miraculous nor mysterious about it, and God is–as if often the case–reduced to the confines of human epistemology and experience.

    When Christians begin to search for mechanisms, they inevitably abandon the mystery and miracle of creation in their quest to establish this or that interpretation of the Genesis mythos on the basis of whatever scientific and philosophical paradigms might be popular at the time. But because they are driven by interpretation, they wander into arguments they are ill-equipped to handle, for it becomes patently obvious to their antagonists that the interpreter has abandoned the original principles they claim and are now on equal footing to be destroyed rhetorically and empirically. Without any recourse to the defining characteristics of Christian belief and mystery of faith, the only categories that remain for the poor interpreters are those in which their antagonists are much more well versed, for these are not laden with the burden of ultimately vacuous principles.

    So then, we must ask why there is such a frenzied search for “mechanisms” by so many Christians. I think the answer has a lot less to do with trying to be “faithful” to the biblical texts. Rather, I think it is symptomatic of the more or less complete capitulation that Western Christianity has made to the categories of modern philosophy. Western Christianity has attempted to co-opt this paradigm’s categories for its own ends, but has come to the bitter end of them and is left with very little of what might even be defined as the historical crisis of faith and belief which characterizes Christianity. In its search for truth and meaning through human philosophy, Western Christianity has abandoned the mystery and power of faith, and because of its near total capitulation, the road back to sanity is all but entirely obscured.

  2. “Theistic evolutionists see the origin of first life as divinely guided, of course.”

    and

    “…[TE’s] don’t believe evolution proceeded blindly, with no intended purpose.”

    Isn’t this ultimately a philosophical argument, then? If the difference between a TE and non-theist evolutionist is that one discerns “purpose” behind what exists and the other assumes no such purpose, the real argument is NOT whether God, or a power, or whatever is at work “behind the scenes”, but is rather one of a subjective nature in re: the individual and whether they attribute meaning and purpose to the phenomenon which they experience in the universe.

    And actually, this is what I have been arguing for years. If Christians would stop trying to find mechanisms, and stop trying to establish this or that bit of “science” from Genesis, we could get back to the real task of establishing the philosophical argument that the universe is full of meaning.

    The meaningfulness of the universe, after all, has very little, if anything, to do with how the universe works; whether God “pulls the strings” or whether physical processes operate “blindly” (whatever that means) is of no consequence. Rather, the meaningfulness of the universe is derived from the notion that God has created something–the universe–from nothing, that this act of creation was something that God willed and purposed to do–that is pleased God to create the universe rather than to not.

    In this way, then, the meaningfulness of the universe cannot ultimately be established on the basis of God’s suspected involvement in the physical processes of the universe, for the moment that we demonstrate “God” on the basis of that which is created is the very moment that we have definitively dis-proven God’s existence, for in such a scenario, we do not find God, but only ourselves.

  3. Can you substantiate the claim that theistic evolutionists think that the origin of life requires an intelligent, non-material cause detectable using the objective tools of science – apart from any subjective belief?

    I would not class Behe as a TE because he thinks that intelligent causes are detectable apart from faith.

    1. Here’s a little blurb taken from the BioLogos site:

      “Theism is the belief in a God who cares for and interacts with the creation. Theistic Evolution, therefore, is the belief that evolution is the way by which God created life…Darwinism is the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection. BioLogos accepts that evolution is true, and sees God as the author of this process.”

    2. OK, but this belief of theirs is identical with a child’s belief in Santa Claus. They have no scientific evidence to back it up, just like children.

      What they actually KNOW about nature from their lab experiments is that nature is a closed system. Theistic evolution is in full agreement with the atheists on the narrative of how we got here. They agree that God did NOTHING that science can detect. Theistic evolution is another word for functional atheism. Atheism with a happy face painted on.

    3. I think the issue here is where the TE label can and cannot be used. I think it is employed much more broadly than is accurate, and based on what you’ve said, I think you would agree. There are lots of self-described TE’s that you would probably re-label as ID proponents.

    4. OK so you understand the difference between subjective God-talk with no basis in reality and no scientific backing (theistic evolution, biologos), and intelligent causes in the history of life that are revealed by lab experiments and consistent with the idea of God acting in history as a matter of objective reality.

      With respect to what happened in nature, TEs (biologos) and atheists agree – science cannot detect that God did anything. TEs just add some God talk that is the same as a child talking about Santa Claus – not rooted in scientific evidence. They are just saying “there is no evidence for Santa in science, but we believe in Santa anyway”. That’s theistic atheism. Er, I mean theistic evolution.

    5. One of my former biology profs from undergrad describes himself as TE, but he writes essays about why he believes chemical evolution is impossible. So for him, I guess, the fact that life is here at all is how he “detects” God in the natural world.

  4. I don’t really care that much about what TEs believe as a subjective belief. I only care what TEs think science shows. And what TEs think that science shows is that no intelligent agency was needed in the history of life. In that respect, TEs and atheists agree – GOD DIDN’T DO IT, according to what science can show. TEs just make an extra personal expression of blind faith which some Christians find re-assuring. But they agree that science shows that no intelligent causes are needed.

    I actually call theistic evolution “theistic atheism”.

    1. WK, a lot of TE’s (but perhaps not all) would disagree with you here. You might be surprised by how extremely diverse the TE camp is. Some of them argue for very little theistic involvement, other argue for a whole lot of manipulation throughout geological/biological history. In my last class of the semester, one of my fellow students was TE (she endorses the teachings of guys like Polkinghorne and Van Till), and she argued for so much theistic involvement that I indirectly mentioned on Blackboard that she would do well to describe herself as an ID advocate of Behe’s type (intelligent design + common descent). One point my professor, Dr. Cornelius Hunter (author of Darwin’s God and Science’s Blind Spot) really emphasizes is that the label TE covers a multitude of views.

      It sounds like you’re thinking of a sharply deistic version of TE–that a higher intelligence set things into motion and what we see now is all the result of natural law acting on matter in a random (but perhaps foreknown) manner. I would argue that these types of TE proponents still hold that natural law can only be a product of God’s mind, making His involvement ongoing, a sort of “fully gifted” Big Bang, as Van Till (et al) often describes it.

    2. I explained to you what the dividing line was. Behe is not a TE, Collins is. Behe thinks that not only did God DO SOMETHING, but that we can KNOW IT using science. That makes him not a TE. That is the central question of origins. Does science show us that nature has the ability to do its own creating, unassisted by intelligent causes. TEs and atheists say yes. Design theorists say no.

  5. As I understand it, those that take a more literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 would by young earthers, and those that read the days of creation as not literally six 24 hour days would be old earthers. But both would deny theistic evolution; that God started the process of evolution. Wouldn’t an evolutionist simply look at a theistic evolutionist and say, “If we both agree in Darwinian evolution, what exactly do we need God for?” Its like Greg Koukl said, “Imagine someone asked you how to boil water, and you said, ‘OK, you heat the water to 212 degrees Celsius, you put the lid on the pot, and you add a leprechaun.’ The person would say, ‘Wait…do we need the leprechaun?’ And you said, ‘Well….no,” wouldn’t he be justified in asking, ‘Well then what do we need him for?”

    1. Jeff, there are many nuanced views involved with the interpretation of Genesis. The young-earth advocates use the most literal view, but the old-earth advocates are on a literal end of the spectrum in relation to where TE proponents fall.

      All of the TE material I’ve encountered seems to argue that evolution couldn’t have happened without theistic initiation and/or various degrees of theistic involvement. As I mentioned above, even some of the more deistic versions of TE see natural law as a product of God’s mind, one that couldn’t exist otherwise. Some of them would argue that theistic manipulation ended at the Big Bang, but that everything was “built-in,” preordained to happen exactly the way it (theoretically) did.

      Now, I don’t agree with TE mainly on scientific grounds. I actually used to endorse it, myself. It wasn’t theology that changed my mind, it was learning more about paleontology and the limitations of biochemistry. I do believe it is more challenging to reconcile Christian theology with TE compared to ID, though.

  6. “Wouldn’t an evolutionist simply look at a theistic evolutionist and say, ‘If we both agree in Darwinian evolution, what exactly do we need God for?'”

    Nothing, because God’s relationship to creation has nothing to do with “mechanisms.” It is this quest for mechanisms–whether magical or “scientific–that has eroded the fundamental understanding within Christianity of God as Creator. Rather than Creator, God has become an engineer, and more and more creative explanations have to be devised to show where the engineer actually fits into the machine’s operation.

    1. I would agree with this in relation to TE, but not ID. Intelligent Design looks for hallmarks of intelligence (information, specified complexity, etc.); a “signature,” rather than a mechanism or process.

    2. I’m glad, but I must still fight theistic evolution because it causes Christians to be lulled into a false sense of security, so that they stand by while good men like Bill Dembski, Guillermo Gonzalez, etc. suffer the equivalent of an academic witch hunt and martyrdom. I will not stand by and allow TEs to claim that evolution (atheism’s creation story that excludes God as an a priori) is compatible with theism. That just causes Christians to abandon the Dembskis and Gonzalezs to the lions more easily.

    3. I suppose this all relates to my tactic when it comes to scientific apologetics with non-believers. Evolution is often such a barrier for them. If I can circumvent that and get them to recognize the plausibility of Christianity despite what they think about biological origins, I can then move from there to the ID argument. However, if I begin with the ID argument, the conversation is usually fruitless.

    4. I kind of see your point there, but I am always up front about my doubts of naturalistic evolution. I think macro-evolution is flat-earthism, and you can get to that point just by being open to being convinced by them and asking questions to see their evidence. They may start confident, but I just ask for the evidence.

    5. But this ultimately comes back to the subjectivity of human thought. One person’s “magic” will be another’s normal biological process; that which appears “complex” to one will be easily ascribed to non-intellectual processes by another. In such a scenario, finding hallmarks of the divine on the basis of the “complexity” of the cosmos (which is really just a reflection of particular paradigms of understanding regarding the universe, not the universe-as-it-is) is only as good and compelling as the context in which the same subjective valuation is made. Apart from the presuppositions and hegemonies under which the “complexity” is defined, the classifications would appear to have no sustaining power.

      So unless one’s goal is merely to convince a particular population within a particular period of time and cultural hegemony that “this” or “that” bit of naturalistic phenomenon is proof of a divine intelligence, this approach cannot be a serious long-term approach to either human epistemology OR the preservation of faith.

  7. 1) TE has serious implications for the biblical view of sin and salvation if thought through seriously and consistently.

    2) Your last sentence strongly implies that hermeneutics is not important. What do you mean here?

    1. 1) Yes, I agree.
      2) I do believe hermeneutics is extremely important. The point I was trying to make was that when an atheist/agnostic uses a scientific (rather than philosophical) argument for evolution as an argument against the truth of Christianity, they are only arguing against certain interpretations of the creation narrative. I believe a person who endorses TE can still be a true Christian (though I do think they have to jump through some major theological hoops). The atheist/agnostic must resort to a philosophical argument about evolution if they want to use it against theism.

    2. 1.) Like what? Moreover, other perspectives have the same implications, and I would argue that they produce worse results than TE does. This is, BTW, coming from someone who has explicitly thought through the implications of each.

    3. The biggest one–and the entry point to terrible theology on a whole–is that ID theory inevitably produces a thoroughly materialist understanding of God.

      This happens necessarily because the fundamental assumption of ID theory is that the eternal, ineffable God of the universe is somehow discernible and demonstrable within the non-eternal, created phenomenology of the universe. But the problem with such a perspective is that the mechanism for correlating this or that phenomenon of nature with God is the subjectivity and boundary-limitations of the human mind and experience. Since we are, in an epistemological sense, incapable of accessing objective reality apart from the inherent subjectivity of mind, any evidences of “God” within the universe are ultimately incapable themselves of achieving objectivity as well.

      So when we suggest that X natural phenomenon is somehow the expression of the objective, transcendent God, we are being disingenuous, for the nature of human epistemology categorically prevents such statements from obtaining. And if we yet insist on making the claims, we fall into the trap of conflating a materialist understanding of deity-in-the-universe with the objective, ineffable, non-demonstrable God of faith. After all, if God cannot be expressed nor determined by phenomenological or epistemological evidences, any of these that we yet persist in trotting out much necessarily be an materialist conception of God that we have erected to replace the ultimate reality of God that cannot be fathomed.

      If we want a epistemologically discernible God, we can have it…but do not be surprised if it looks surprisingly like us. And once we have gone down this road of imposing human subjectivity upon the eternal nature of God by materializing it to the point that we can discern and demonstrate it on the basis of epistemology and phenomenology, there remains very little impediment to further extensions of this error into whatever theological enterprise we might later engage.

    4. You’ve given a philosophical objection to ID theory here, not an example of a Christian theological problem posed by ID theory. In Christian theology, human beings are image-bearers of God with the capability of knowing and understanding some objective truths. I need no clearer proof of this than Romans 1:20:

      For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so they are without excuse.

    5. The creation does reveal God (Psalm 19), and it is biblical to use such evidence, but it is a mistake to think that such evidence by itself will convince a person who is already in rebellion against God. Romans 1:20 does indicate that the existence and attributes are seen via creation and that such revelation is sufficient to render a person without excuse, but read all of Romans 1:18-23. God reveals Himself via creation, but sinful man suppresses that revelation and exchanges the truth for a lie, which is why he is without excuse. It is also important to remember that every person interprets evidence through presuppositions (we all have them), and so those must be addressed as well.

      Only God can change the unrepentant heart. It is a Christian’s job to preach and defend the gospel in obedience to God’s command and to do so in a biblical manner. Ultimately the result is in God’s hands (John 6).

    6. TE creates problems for:
      1) A biblical view of the representative headship of Adam
      2) Which in turn creates problems for the biblical view of the Fall
      3) Both doctrines form an important foundation for the biblical view of salvation

      (Romans 5; 1 Cor. 15:21-22).

  8. I agree that a TE can be a Christian, but I would argue he has not seriously thought through the implications in a fully biblical manner. TE may not defeat Christianity, but it does compromise a truly biblical understanding.

    What do you mean by not wanting to correct someone’s hermeneutics?

    1. 1) Yes, I agree.
      2) What I mean is, the atheist/agnostic is NOT interested in scripture interpretation, they’re interested in trying to debunk Christianity. Ironically, when they use a scientific argument for evolution as an argument against Christianity, they are really only arguing against conservative hermeneutics. Many of them don’t recognize this. They believe that if evolution is fact, Christianity cannot also be fact. I believe this is a false dichotomy. I do not believe macro-evolution is fact, though.

  9. Ok, I thought you might be downplaying hermeneutics. It seems I misread you there.

    By the way, you may be aware of the recently announced discovery of microbes that can take in arsenic and defy common some concepts of biology. Yesterday James White commented (during his podcast) on atheists’ use of that story. I think you will enjoy it.

  10. TEs don’t think that an intelligent agent did anything that can be detected in an objective way. They think belief in God is literally the epistemological equivalent to belief in Santa Claus. That you just say the words “Santa is real TO ME” and then you just don’t care that all the physical evidence denies that Santa Claus does anything. I.e. – what actually happens is that the parents put the gifts under the tree. What a theistic evolutionist would say is that Santa Claus puts gifts under the tree, but what we can actually see with our own eyes is parents putting gifts under the tree.

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