OPINION: On faith and science

If the words “faith” and “religion” are unclear, the words “science” and “evolution” are vastly more so. Attempting to speak of “science” as a monolithic institution is a foolhardy endeavor. That one word covers such a range of disciplines that greater clarity is essential to avoid saying something absurd.

When reading the Religious Herald the other day, a headline caught my eye: “Study says faith, science not at odds.” Opening the page I was greeted with a review of a recently published study out of MIT declaring the divide between faith and science to be in actuality much smaller than is popularly imagined. Alas, as I kept reading, once the slate of intentionally vague buzzwords had been filtered and interpreted, what I found was a study whose goal was to send the message that if only the few remaining religious zealots would join the majority in embracing Darwinism we could finally end this silly stand-off.

Jonathan Waits

Now, if you’re not quite with me, let me make my observations clearer. When the words “faith” or “religion” are thrown around in a context such as this one (and in the spirit of clarity, I mean a study out of the academy, not places known for their warm and fuzzy feelings toward orthodox Christianity), the usual target is all the major world religions. This results from the assumption, widespread at major research institutions today, that all religions are basically the same. Such a view is only held by people who are either profoundly ignorant regarding world religions or else are being intentionally deceptive.

This all leaves one wondering: If the authors could not be bothered to be clearer when speaking of matters of religion, could there be any other equally problematic unclear language? 

As a matter of fact, this is where the real problem in their language lies. If the words “faith” and “religion” are unclear, the words “science” and “evolution” are vastly more so. Attempting to speak of “science” as a monolithic institution is a foolhardy endeavor. That one word covers such a range of disciplines that greater clarity is essential to avoid saying something absurd like “the Christian faith is broadly at odds with ‘science.’” For this conflict to have received the attention it has, though, there must be a real divide somewhere. Where is it? 

In order to get to an answer for that question, we must turn our attention to the final buzzword: evolution. What is evolution? Defined at its most fundamental level, evolution simply refers to changes that take place over time. I don’t know of any people of any faith, who challenge this idea.

We find ourselves getting closer to the issue when we get more specific about the definition of evolution. One of the two major branches of evolution is macroevolution. Macroevolution deals with changes over long periods of time and which may involve entire species of animals. At the risk of oversimplifying things, this was Darwin’s proposed mechanism for how the various species on earth today arose.

One problem: There is no hard, broadly accepted, empirically verifiable evidence that this actually took place. Oh, and Darwin’s mechanism was specifically designed from the bottom up to exclude involvement of a divine force of any kind in the process. Darwinian evolution was designed to be propelled by blind chance and natural (i.e. god-less) selection. No gods need apply. God was later retrofitted onto the mechanism by Darwin’s more religiously inclined and culturally astute followers, but he defended the essentially god-less nature of his mechanism to his death.

One more thing: this mechanism is the only accepted scientific dogma in the academy today. 

Here is the real locus of the debate. If there is a divide between “faith” and “science” this is it. It is between those who would embrace historical, orthodox, evangelical Christian theology and its explanation of human origins, and those who would embrace an explanation designed specifically to offer an atheistic alternative to this narrative, although it has often been superimposed with God. With this in mind, for the authors of this study to have spoken of a divide between faith and science broadly gives readers the sense that it is not possible to be a scientifically-minded person and accept the claims of orthodox Christianity. This is patently absurd and the authors of this study should be embarrassed to make such an implication.   

Now let’s get to the heart of the matter at hand. In the second half of the article, we read that the study finds four lines of division between Christian groups who would support Darwin’s mechanism and those who would reject it in favor of creationism. These so-called dividing lines are riddled with problems. The authors seek by clever use of language to highlight two takes on the origin of species, and present them as the only possible understandings of the issue. People either embrace the scientifically valid position of Darwinian evolution or else they are fundamentalists who are mired in their religious dogma instead of thinking rightly about the issues.  In other words, you either fully accept Darwinism or else you are a religious extremist.  

Let’s get right down to it. The conclusion of this study that the debate is really between “a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science” is misleading and, frankly, false. The implication here is that unless your particular faith tradition embraces Darwinism, you and your tradition reject science.

This is ridiculous. Being deeply committed to a traditional, orthodox, evangelical approach to the Christian faith has no bearing on our acceptance of science. Let us not be deceived. The truth is that beyond revealing the pro-Darwin bias of the group doing the study, their findings reveal absolutely nothing about the conflict between faith and science. That’s not a conflict there anyway. The real conflict is the result of a clash of worldviews: Christian theism and Darwinian naturalism. These two worldviews have and will always be at odds. One can’t accept both and there’s no middle ground between them.

Take heart, Virginia Baptists, Christians can and should embrace good science. Perhaps, though, the “science” being subtly pushed by this study isn’t actually good science at all. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Jonathan Waits (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, Va.