Evolving Perspectives

I was a creationist in Britain, where it’s hard. Where disbelief in biological evolution is considered the same as disbelief that the earth is a globe. Where with only a few exceptions, Christians tend to say that God created the world but He probably used evolution to do it. Where believing in a literal six-day creation is considered as fundamentalist and unbalanced at the Taliban and Westboro Baptist Church.

In that kind of a milieu, you’d better have good reasons for doubting the prevailing orthodoxy, and be prepared to back them with hard science.

Worse, my degree is in biology. The question was not “how can you call yourself a Christian and believe in evolution?”, but “how can you call yourself a scientist and not believe in evolution?”

However, I consider my creationism to be more or less scientifically-based. There was no conscious decision that I had to accept that the Biblical creation account was historically and literally factual. I simply got to the point where evolutionary theory was asking me to accept so many one-in-a-million chances and improbabilities in the origins of life that it finally just became less improbable to postulate a single act of special creation.

Interestingly enough, one of the main spurs toward this intellectual position was my reading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dawkins, he’s one of my country’s leading biological scientists and one of my country’s leading proponents of atheism. He makes a logical case for evolution underpinning atheism, or rather, undermining faith in God, but his willingness to accept biological millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance in his quest to bolster the idea that God wasn’t needed as an explanation just got to the point where it crossed my threshold of disbelief. This was too much improbability.

I was initially quite a reluctant creationist. As a dinosaur-loving child, I’d somehow absorbed the idea that believing in an act of special creation meant you had to discount all of palaeontology as a lie, that there were no dinosaurs (the fossils were probably put there by God to fool scientists or something), and that the world has always been pretty much like it is today in terms of species range. Creationism wasn’t scientific; it was the product of a mind in retreat; a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately trying to make new gaps. A deliberate step away from knowledge. I didn’t initially want very much to do with it, but I found that evolution wasn’t believable any more.

Then I encountered the Creation Science movement. It’s very fringe in the UK; you almost have to go looking for it. But at least here was a way that I could reconcile my scientific disbelief in evolutionary theory with still being a scientist. There might be some evidence that the long ages required by evolutionary theory need not necessarily have been, or that, as the Intelligent Design scientists maintain, biological and physical systems show the mark of being the work of an organising Intelligence. As a result of finding these guys (in the Creation Science movement), I got quite into it. I even went to a talk given by Ken Ham (an Australian who founded Answers in Genesis and is one of the movement’s leading lights). I’d bend people’s ears about it at the slightest excuse.

Being a vocal creationist in Britain, it’s you, alone, against the world. Even those who share your faith in Christ probably aren’t going to agree with you on this one, but will instead look at you suspiciously as if you’re some sort of lunatic or dangerous fanatic.

So you might think that moving to the United States, where in Christian circles the idea of creationism is practically mainstream, I’d be rejoicing in the company of like minds.

Not so much.

I’m actually uncomfortable with most of US Christian creationism. It often seems way too close to how I initially characterised the idea of creationism – a rejection of science, a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately seeking more gaps. I don’t like this. Really don’t like it.

The “God of the gaps” idea is that “we need God in order to explain those questions science can’t answer”. This, to my mind, is backwards. For me, science isn’t an alternative to belief in God but a result of it. I can do science because the universe is the rational creation of an intelligent Mind, not a chaotic result of random processes. Science is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”; the whole enterprise has theistic underpinnings. Because we believe that the universe is a real, good creation of a rational God, subject to His rules, we can study the world. We can do experiments, because we are studying a real, good creation rather than trespassing on the domain of some malicious little sprite or trying to study something fundamentally illusory. We can make useful observations, because the universe is ordered, not a random product of blind forces. We can do science. It’s a result of Christian worldview.

I don’t believe in a God of the gaps; I believe in a God of science who is a Revealer of mysteries. We can find things out and make discoveries because there is a God, not in spite of there being a God. God’s domain does not shrink with every scientific advance; instead, human knowledge inches closer to God’s perfect Knowledge. All truth is God’s truth, even if it doesn’t look that way at first.

I sympathise with the plight of the Intelligent Design folks, recognising my own journey in theirs. They’ve bravely come to the point where the evidence of some kind of designing Intelligence in the biological and physical world is so strong that they’ve had to doubt the evolutionary orthodoxy that it all happens due to random processes. They, like me, have come to the realisation that a designed universe implies a Designer, through their science, not in rejection of it. And then their theories are apparently hijacked by a load of science-rejecting ideologues (as they see it) and used to justify their rejection of science and what scientists tell them, whether that’s evolution or climate change or anything else.

Maybe I’m being a “creation snob”. Not everyone has a science background or really grasps the biology. Is it really fair to look down on fellow-believers just because they aren’t scientists?

Well, no, it’s not fair. I hope I can cope with the idea that not everyone’s a scientist, but we Christians have no excuse for being rejectors of science either, and I find way too much of that in a lot of US Christianity.

I still find the idea that the omnipotent God whose existence I acknowledge could have created the world in six literal days to require no great stretch of faith or imagination. I still find the level of improbability which is necessarily part and parcel of atheistic evolution to be frankly beyond my personal credulity. But equally, God could have chosen to work through the process of evolution, and the Biblical creation account could be as figurative as the Psalmist’s description of God having feathers, or as symbolic as Daniel’s description of four beasts. It doesn’t affect the Bible’s ultimate credibility to believe that Genesis 1-2 is something other than a historical record, any more than it damages belief in the Bible’s authority to recognise that the Psalms are poetry, not literal history, or that the book of Jeremiah contains both historical-narrative and prophetic genres.

For that matter, which Biblical creation account are we to accept as the literal and factual one? There are at least four (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Job 38 and John 1), and they don’t agree in all of the details. For example, Genesis 1 states that animals were created before people, whereas Genesis 2 reverses that order. If this part of the Bible is to be understood as a literal description of events, how do we reconcile this discrepancy?

For me, it’s still simpler to believe in an act of special creation by an all-powerful God than in the same all-powerful God working through a long-winded process of “natural” selection, but I recognise that God could have done it that way. It’s not a big deal either way.

So I find myself caught in the middle. I can’t make myself really believe in evolution again, but I can’t stand the apparent rejection of science that appears to characterise your average US Christian creationist. Some of these people really do look like flat-earthers or like they believe in a Ptolemaic cosmos with all of its epicycles and the sun going round the earth. As far as I can tell, they think modern science is “atheistic” and they want no truck with atheism. Safer to reject science than faith. The Bible is all we need anyway. Just believe it and close your mind.

I don’t really want to be associated with that. It’s the opposite of the way I came to most of my beliefs, scientific or Christian, and it looks dangerously unthinking. We don’t have the luxury of closing our minds. We have to worship God with them.

Why are we so dogmatic about how we should interpret this passage of the Bible? We none of us were there, as God reminds Job. Making dogmatic statements about things we have not seen seems a little like the hubris we accuse evolutionists of. A little less dogmatism and a little more humility might do us all a world of good.

And as for the Bible being all we need, why do we believe the Bible anyway? We believe it because there is good evidence for its reliability. It’s been proven time and again to be historically credible when it talks about stuff we can hold it to account on, so we are on solid ground when we believe it on more unusual events like miracles. We trust it because we believe it’s true, and there’s good evidence to support the contention that it is. If the Bible is demonstrably unreliable in what it says, we shouldn’t be believing it, so how dare we say that “the Bible is all we need”? We don’t believe things “just” because the Bible says them and we’ve decided to believe the Bible in spite of what our reason and observation tell us, we believe the Bible because we know that when it talks about things we can prove and observe, like historical events and human nature, it has a really good track record of accuracy.

The Bible isn’t, in a very real sense, all we need. We first have to be convinced that the Bible is reliable, and for that we must use the tools of science: reason and observation. Anything else is a blind “believing something you know isn’t true” faith of the sort atheists accuse us of having.

I’m not trying to weaken anyone’s faith. But questions of origins are difficult ones involving epistemology (how can we know anything?), several of the sciences, Bible interpretation and matters of faith. No-one currently living on the earth was there at the time and saw it happen, and we don’t always interpret the book written by the One who was there with perfect accuracy, so we ought to be cautious about making sweeping statements about what really happened. Sometimes it’s ok to not know.

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