Is There Really a Conflict Between Science and the Bible?

GojirasaurusThe Debate

It seems that more heat than light is being generated as some Christians square off against some atheists in the supposed battle between science and the Bible. This is certainly a turn-about because it was Christianity that gave birth to science.   The two ought to be friends, not enemies.

Stephen Jay Gould, the late great biologist who was not a believer, proposed a truce. In 1997 he published a paper that proposed the idea of non-overlapping magisteria. What he meant was that we should recognize that religion and science operate in two different spheres and they ought to leave each other alone. The natural and spiritual worlds are radically distinct so there should be no conflict. But the conflict never slowed down.

Frankly, I think it is unlikely that all controversy will ever end because Christianity and science are not non-overlapping magisteria. There are areas of unavoidable overlap. Both are interested in creation, in human psychology, and in sociology, just to name a few areas. If both sides handle themselves the right way, these overlaps could lead to fruitful discussions. There will never be real peace if scientists insist on slipping in naturalistic philosophical presuppositions and Christians keep discounting verified scientific findings. But if everyone respects the boundaries there is hope.

Does the belief in evolution contradict Christianity?

Not necessarily. The problem with the evolution-Christianity debate is (1) that under the cloak of “science” many evolutionists throw in a lot of unproven naturalistic philosophy, and (2) some Christians try to defend interpretations of the Bible that go beyond what it actually says.

It is good to remember that Darwin’s Origin of Species was not originally greeted with hostility by England’s Christian leaders. Some of them said, “So now we know how God created the different living things.” C. S Lewis, one of the leading recent Christian apologists, believed in evolution. There is now a sizable group of evangelical “theistic evolutionists,” most notably, Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. There are also some noted conservative scholars who accept evolution. Biologist Dr. Michael Behe, a Christian and one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement, believes in evolution. It seems the controversy comes, in part, from fighting the wrong battles.

There is no reason why geology and paleontology (the study of fossils) should not be considered valid sciences. Certain findings seem to be well established. A great deal of care is put into dating fossils and we have no reason to mistrust the conclusions reached. (This is going to be a problem for young-earth creationists, but I will talk more about that later.)  In addition, it also seems clear that the further back in time one goes, the fewer and simpler are the different species that existed. As a bare minimum, this suggests some kind of development over time. There is also no question but that species adapt to changing environments and that the fittest do survive better. Furthermore, now that genetic information is available, it is also clear that some species seem very closely related to others. This suggests a common ancestry.[1]

On the other hand, old earth creationists have nicely reconciled the biblical record with scientifically established dates. When one considers that the Hebrew yom (day), which is used in the biblical creation story, can be used to indicate long periods of time that we now call “ages” and that the biblical genealogies are incomplete, most of the problems about the ages of fossils or the age of the universe vanish. Old-earth creationists cite many other examples of where the Bible may have been over-interpreted to say things that may be beyond the author’s intent

In Where the Conflict Lies, Alvin Platinga, one of the world’s foremost philosophers and a Christian, makes the point that the conflict between some evolutionists and theists is not in the area of the fossil data or the pure scientific theory itself, but in some of the philosophical perspectives that get included. The issue is not so much what happened, but whether it was a random, unguided process or whether there was a divine hand guiding it all. In truth, these are philosophical issues that by their nature can’t be settled scientifically. We don’t have enough data to prove that completely unguided randomness in the given amount of time could have produced the wide range of plants and animals that we have today.

Having said this, I have to add that I do think evolutionists are a bit more enthusiastic about their theory than is warranted. Even as respected a non-Christian scientist as Stephen Jay Gould, mentioned earlier, did not see how classical evolutionary theory could account for the “Cambrian explosion.” This was an era during which not only many species, but many different phyla (a much higher classification of animals) appeared over a relatively short period of geological time. Furthermore, although there are now elaborate theories about the “ascent of man,” one expert admitted that the entire collection of bones that this is based on would easily fit into one shopping cart. Even with all the sophisticated measurements that can now be made, this is not a lot of evidence on which to construct a whole history. Even over the time I have followed this discussion, there have been important changes in how we classify these remains and our best guesses about how human development occurred. It seems to me that a little humility is in order.

Scientific theories about the origin of life still face huge obstacles. Even renowned atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, when asked, “How did life originate?” answered, “I have no idea.” In that he was honest. There are simply no accepted theories.

So maybe we can de-escalate the conflict a bit. Even if scientific evolution were completely true, it would tell us nothing about God’s existence or his possible role in it. On the other side, there is no longer a need to argue over dates and alleged unscientific assertions of the Bible. All this has pretty well been resolved, and not merely by writing off as legend what the Bible says, but by serious students both of the Bible and of science who have done a lot to resolve the apparent discrepancies.

Re-Interpreting the Bible

I would also plead with strident and well-intentioned defenders of the Bible who sometimes insist that their interpretation is the only valid one. In Galileo’s time people who took the Bible literally brought Galileo to trial as a heretic for saying the earth revolved around the sun.  In their view, I Chronicles 16:30, ruled that out: “Tremble before him, all the earth! The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.”  Today’s young earth creationists, who say the universe was created less than 10,000 years ago, do so in their own commitment to take the Bible literally. Yet most of them today accept that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.

Why did this very real battle disappear? The scientific finding got so well established that it led to a re-interpretation of the biblical passage. It has become accepted, even among most conservative Bible interpreters, that the Bible’s statements about nature were written from what is called a “phenomenological point of view,” in other words, how things would appear to the average person. This passage is making the point that though everything else might be shaken, trust in God is like the earth itself, which, relative to everything else, stays relatively firm. That is how an ancient person would have understood it. So the most ardent literalists today don’t interpret this passage literally in the strictest sense.

Another explanation that is given is that of a “frame of reference.” Even in the physics classes that I took, the earth was often considered stationary relative to whatever phenomena we were studying.

This same principle of phenomenological interpretation can also be applied to creation events. When they are imagined from the point of view of a hypothetical observer on the surface of the earth, a lot of the discrepancies between the biblical and scientific explanation vanish.

This is why fixed thinking about what the Bible says and how it is to be interpreted is somewhat dangerous. The history of biblical interpretation suggests that it has changed over the years. Thus my plea to young earth creationists is that they be a bit careful and not over-interpret things that even they, in later years, may come to admit was not the best interpretation.

I should add that this doesn’t mean that biblical data needs to be explained away or considered merely an outdated ancient way of thinking (as some theistic evolutionists tend to do about the first eleven chapters of Genesis). Nor should troublesome passages always be written off as poetic, although there are some biblical passages that are clearly poetic and should be interpreted that way.

You’re Always Changing Your Mind

The objection that naturalists have to this way of thinking, i.e., reinterpreting the Bible when it seems to conflict with science, is that if Christians keep changing their interpretations, how do we know that any of their interpretations are correct? I would suggest that scientists do the same thing. Both sides are revising and refining their conclusions as we gain more knowledge. My wife is a physician and it often surprises me to find that certain medical recommendations sometimes get completely reversed. But no scientist seems to worry about that. They say—rightly—that as our knowledge increases we are always refining and perhaps even reversing previously held recommendations. Why can’t the logic work both ways? Why can’t scientists and theists both admit that neither of us has the final answers even in our own field of specialty? We are all learning and changing.

Conclusion

What this all means is that although we might never get past some challenging discussions, there is no reason why there has to be a contest between “science” and “religion.” They are more compatible than we might think and maybe can even learn from one another. That will require some respect for one another, some civil conversation, and some restraint from making cheap shots and other inflammatory statements. Perhaps if we looked at each other as sincere seekers after truth we would make more progress.

——————

[1] Opponents say it doesn’t prove common ancestry. A hypothetical designer could have employed previously-used patterns to create different species. However, the common ancestry argument is bolstered by the appearance of “junk DNA,” genetic material that doesn’t seem to code any proteins even though similar sequences appear in closely-related species. One would wonder why a designer would have re-incorporated non-functional DNA repeatedly. This issue may not yet be completely settled because some investigators have now suggested that the junk DNA, or at least some of it, may have some purpose after Gojirasaurusall.

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