Or perhaps, and more important, how not to talk about science and faith. Some thoughts from 50+ years as a Christian involved in a range of churches, and from 30+ years as an active scientist, 23 years as a professor.
1. Make Sure Your Facts are Straight.
There is no scientific controversy about the age of the earth. It is old, far older than 10,000 years. The few scientists who doubt this almost invariably do so for religious reasons, with Christianity being the most common. If you feel that the Bible teaches a young earth and thus hold this position, be honest in the way you approach it.
Ridiculous and easily falsified claims will undermine your credibility with anyone who happens to check, or who is exposed to science in more detail in the course of their education. Make sure you understand any science you use to support your position. Too often scientific results are twisted to support a young earth when, in fact, they say nothing about the age of the earth.
One of the most recent examples concerns the discovery of remnants of soft tissue (organic biomolecules) in fossils many millions of years old. (See here for a recent story.) This is a discovery that has been taken by some who hold to young earth creationism to indicate that the earth is far younger than we suppose. However – complete carcasses of animals have been found that are tens of thousands of years old, and soft-tissue remnants that are hundreds of thousands of years old are unremarkable. DNA sufficient to sequence a 700,000 year old horse and collagen fingerprinting of a 3 million year old camel fossil are among the more recent papers in the literature. Nothing about soft tissue remnants brings us anywhere close to an earth only a few thousand years old. This would require a massive revision of laws of chemistry, physics, geology and biology.
By the way, soft tissue remnants in dinosaurs were reported as early as 1966 (“Cells, collagen fibrils and vessels in dinosaur bone” Nature 211, 655, 1966). The new results suggest that these remnants are more common and useful than originally thought and don’t require exceptional preservation. The limits for preservation of soft materials are set by chemical degradation reactions. The newer fossil findings send us back to the lab to understand the chemistry better. What is the chemical environment and what are the chemical reactions that preserve these remnants? The results are exciting because the information provided by these remnants can greatly expand our picture of now extinct species.
Don’t take quotes out of context, don’t misrepresent and misinterpret others to “proof-text” your position. More damage is done by the way the position is defended than by the position itself.
Don’t accuse those who are Christians and scientists and who hold to an old earth (the vast majority) of bowing to materialism or trying to curry favor with the establishment unless you truly understand the evidence and can offer a coherent explanation of why the evidence points in a different direction.
If you are getting your scientific facts from resources provided by a creationist organization, please double check them. Find out why those of us who are Christians and scientists find this information misleading, incoherent, wrong, and even occasionally deceitful. Joel Duff at Naturalis Historia explains much of this quite carefully from the perspective of a Christian and a biologist. (And his most recent experience is troubling as he tells about it here.)
The only scientifically coherent approach to “Young Earth” is to postulate a mature creation with the appearance of age. Personally I think this position has theological problems and misinterprets the purpose and role of Scripture in Christian faith. I don’t think Scripture is intended to set us straight so that we know that the appearance of age in the world is an illusion, but others see things differently. We can have this discussion.
2. Consider Mechanism and History Separately.
That there was an evolution of life forms through history is entirely uncontroversial, almost as uncontroversial as the age of the earth. It doesn’t require a “materialist” perspective to see this. The segregation of fossils is sufficient, and the progression of life forms and extinction events. Dinosaurs and humans did not coexist. Tetrapods came after and now coexist with fish.
Either this apparent progression is another aspect of mature creation with the appearance of age or it represents real history. I see no reason, biblical or scientific, to deny that this is real history, but again others see things differently. We can have this discussion.
Many Christians have been at peace with this idea for decades. Some form of progressive creation, with God active in the process, was supported by Bernard Ramm in his book 1954 book The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe provide another example.
3. Robust Discussion of Mechanisms Does Not Undermine Evidence for Age or Evolution.
The origin of life is a puzzle.
There is an ongoing, robust, and occasionally heated debate about the mechanisms of evolution. Natural selection clearly plays a role, but other mechanisms are also at play and many scientists today would advocate a more holistic view of top down and bottom up mechanisms. There are good sound bites (quotes out of context) that can make the debate more serious than it really is. The debate isn’t about the fact of evolution, but about the processes of evolution. For some (parts of the Intelligent Design movement) this includes the possibility of divine action, for most scientists (even Christians) it is a discussion of “natural” explanations.
Even Intelligent Design, if it were demonstrated, does not shrink the age of the universe or eliminate evolution at the basic level of change with increasing complexity over time.
I think the balance in biological explanation for evolutionary changes will move away from reliance on the selfish gene alone, although I could be wrong. But this is a scientific discussion and it doesn’t send us back to a young earth, or even to progressive creation.
Again, don’t take quotes out of context. Look to the original source, understand the intent of the author. Unfortunately creationist resources frequently take quotes out of context and misrepresent the intent of the author. This casts all of us as Christians in a bad light. Please be careful. Nothing infuriates more than being intentionally misrepresented. The famous quote by Richard Lewontin concerning materialism that “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs“ is an excellent case in point. You can find the whole context here in Billions and Billions of Demons, his 1997 review of Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” (See below for more details on context, if interested.)
4. Focus on the Metaphysical Questions.
Here there is a real foothold, with significant questions and much disagreement. There is movement of individuals in both directions. We do not need to take the hard materialists as proclaiming scientific reality. Don’t use quotes from these people to characterize scientists as a whole.
Don’t buy into the misconception that “natural” processes and divine action are mutually exclusive. God works through “natural” processes, and occasionally outside of them. I’d limit the latter to specific actions in relationship with his people, created in his image, but not all agree here. That’s fine, this is a discussion that we, as Christians, should be having.
Science does not disprove the existence or action of God. As an intellectual discipline science can’t really address the supernatural at all. Science explores the “natural” world.
Science does not eliminate the possibility of a personal God active in history.
Science does not answer questions of purpose and meaning (except on a superficial level).
As Christians we know that people need to hear and experience the gospel. Please don’t damage this witness by introducing unnecessary elements as absolutes or by introducing or perpetuating dishonest scholarship (out of context misquotes, lies, defamation …). Do your homework.
5. Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.
In the discussion bear in mind that many of your brothers and sisters may have differing viewpoints. This is true for all of us, wherever we come down on questions of science, Christian faith, and the interplay between these. Let your approach be governed by gentle love rather than combat and conquest. Don’t rhetorically “other” those with whom you disagree. This shouldn’t be “us” versus “them”. Please listen.
Do you have anything to add to this list?
What clarifications or elaborations might you add?
What would you challenge?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If you would like to comment please see How to Talk About Science and Faith at Jesus Creed.
The (in)famous quote from Lewontin often used as an illustration of the way that a philosophical commitment to naturalism prevents a truly open-minded consideration of possible explanations:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Unfortunately this quote is taken out of context by almost everyone who uses it. The context makes it less incendiary and also makes an important point.
With great perception, Sagan sees that there is an impediment to the popular credibility of scientific claims about the world, an impediment that is almost invisible to most scientists. Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. … What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science …
I, like Sagan and Lewontin, accept the duality of light (not to mention the duality of the electron) as at the same time wave and particle. I find that this actually makes the doctrine of the Trinity less of a stretch, less absurd – I don’t expect things that are outside of the realm of common experience to agree with my common sense. But the famous quote was not a call to an unfailing faith in naturalism, rather it was an acknowledgement that there is an element of faith.
Lewontin goes on to reflect on complexity of science and how “in the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand.” I will finish with his conclusion to his review of Sagan’s book:
Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
As Christian teachers, preachers, and scholars, shouldn’t we be providing people with the power to discover the truth (God’s truth) rather than using rhetoric to form the mind of the masses?