Can you be a Christian and… accept Evolution?

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People of faith have a problem with evolution. Some of them can’t seem to see it, but the Theory of Evolution is a significant encumbrance to faith, as it has been since Darwin first proposed it in 1859.

There are essentially four ways Christians (and those from other religions) deal with evolution.

1) There are those who recognise that evolution and faith are incompatible and consequently compartmentalise them both to avoid thinking about the problem: ‘Yes, evolution probably happened but my faith is important to me so I’m going to pretend it didn’t.’

It’s impossible to argue with this head-in-the-sand position, so let’s not bother.

2) Others insist that evolution is ‘just a theory’ and as such is in conflict with what the Bible teaches about the creation of life. But this is a double misunderstanding: of what ‘theory’ means in science, and of what the Theory of Evolution proposes. It has nothing to tell us about how life began, but how it developed. Nonetheless, it contradicts the order of creation found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.

Some believers are content to dismiss evolution on these grounds: a theory, in the popular sense, that is trumped at every turn by the Bible’s accounts of creation. Ken Ham and the laughable Answers in Genesis hold to this position:

The real issue is one of authority—is God’s Word the authority, or is man’s word the authority? So, couldn’t God have used evolution to create? The answer is No. A belief in millions of years of evolution not only contradicts the clear teaching of Genesis and the rest of Scripture but also impugns the character of God. He told us in the book of Genesis that He created the whole universe and everything in it in six days by His word: “Then God said … .” His Word is the evidence of how and when God created, and His Word is incredibly clear.

Hammy and his acolytes do accept what they call micro-evolution, the small incremental stages made within a species over time. Macro-evolution, as they like to call it, when one species gives rise to another over significant amounts of time apparently never happens. Why? Because the Bible says so (but good luck finding where.)

3) Still others extend this dismissal on the basis of ignorance: they are positively hostile to the idea of evolution. Street preachers who set up shop in my home town from time to time are always accompanied by a sign that says ‘Evolution is a Hoax’ (see above.) These kind of believers are not content simply to dismiss evolution as ‘theory’, nor do they accept that it occurs within species. They rail against evolution and disparage the vast amounts of evidence that exist for it. Evolution they declare over their megaphones, is not only a hoax, it is of the devil, who uses it to deceive people and lead them away from God. This is ignorance of a more wilful sort.

Christians in both these last two camps would themselves say that one can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. Actually, they’d say one can’t ‘believe’ in evolution, a word I’ve avoided. Evolution can no more be ‘believed in’ than gravity (itself a theory in the scientific sense.)

4) The fourth way Christians have of dealing with evolution is to attempt to marry the theory with their faith. They acknowledge that evolution has occurred, that life on earth has developed much as Darwin proposed and that the evidence from paleontology, geology, genetics and developmental biology fully substantiates this explanation.

Where then to fit God when he is superfluous to the explanation of life’s development, in much the same way the tooth fairy is superfluous to dentistry? This doesn’t stop these believers finding a place for him. They regard the apparent randomness (their term) of evolution impossible to accept and see a place for God in countering it. As Greg Allison puts it on Desiring God, without a hint of irony, the ‘entire process (of evolution) was undirected and purposeless, without God.’

Consequently, Christians who accept evolution have come up with a couple of ways of injecting God into the process, regardless of the fact he is not needed and there is no place for him. So-called Theistic Evolution, in both its forms, is the belief – and it’s nothing more than a belief – that God set evolution in motion and then let it take its course. One school proposes he occasionally gave it a nudge so that it went in the right direction, the other that he just sat back to see what would happen, though presumably he knew this from the start, being omniscient and all that.

This a hopeless compromise; the prevalence of suffering, death and extinction as drivers of evolution discount any involvement of a benign creator. Such a being’s disinterest in the constant struggle for survival of his created pets, every one of which perishes once past reproductive age (if they reach it in the first place) does not point to a loving God. Paul, who of course had no understanding whatsoever of evolution, believed that death entered creation only when Adam first ‘sinned’. Yet death and suffering existed eons before human beings first appeared. The ‘Evolutionary Creationists’ at BioLogos have a hard time trying to explain this one away. (Spoiler alert: they can’t.)

And let’s not even mention sex; sexual reproduction is a massive problem for the creationist.

As Greg Allison concedes, one cannot be a Christian and subscribe to a theistic model of evolution. Having considered the possibilities, Greg concludes that neither form of theistic evolution is compatible with faith. In this he is right. He comes back to the scriptural accounts of creation as the best explanation of life’s development. In this he is wrong.

No doubt there are commenters out there who think that some form of compromised Christianity and a diluted evolutionary theory are somehow compatible. They have no doubt discovered a way to put God at the heart of evolution or have a misunderstanding of the theory that somehow leaves room for him. Such arguments are unconvincing. Evolution and God are incompatible. One is true (as in observable, supported by evidence and predictive), the other imaginary. There’s no need to pollute the former with the latter.

Metaphor, Hyperbole and Context

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A moderate and self-styled ‘intellectual’ Christian told me in a online discussion recently that ‘most of the bible is metaphor’. When I asked what it was a metaphor for, he decided it was time to end the discussion. A metaphor signals a deeper or alternate meaning; the bible cannot be ‘mostly metaphor’ without there being something else – what Christians might regard as a ‘greater truth’ – the metaphor is intended to convey. So, yes, I can see that the Genesis creation stories might be interpreted metaphorically (though symbolically might be a better term) as the inclination of all humans to rebel against God… but then that’s only one of many interpretations, and not actually what the text says. If the bible is mostly metaphor then understanding what God is supposedly communicating through it becomes a matter of personal, subjective interpretation, which is why there are so many factions and sects within the Christian brand.

Similarly, when I challenged Dave Armstrong on Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, about why Christians don’t take everything Jesus said literally, he told me it’s because Jesus was fond of hyperbole and it’s the point underlining his hyperbole that matters. I knew, of course, that Jesus liked to exaggerate so I asked Dave how we know which of Jesus’ remarks are hyperbole and which are not. He declared that this was ‘obvious’. Perhaps it is, in sayings like ‘when your eye offends you pluck it out’, but it’s less apparent with pronouncements like ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ or ‘abandon everything and follow me’. Again, it becomes a matter of subjective opinion, however learned that opinion might consider itself to be, about which of Jesus’ words are hyperbole and which are meant to be followed to the letter.

When I made this point, Dave decided that, rather than it being ‘obvious’, it actually takes years of study to know which is which: ‘It’s by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation).’ Jesus as the incarnation of the God of the Cosmos, and the gospels in reporting him, could surely have made it clear. Instead, it seems, it takes armies of theologians and commentators, and years of study to work it out.

The third way Christians (of all stripes) manoeuvre around the bible’s shortcomings is to say that anything they’re keen to disregard is ‘context-bound’. There are some matters, they say, that are of their time and ancient place and are therefore no longer applicable today.

There are things in God’s timeless Word that pertain only to the time in when they were written? Who knew?

So, instructions like ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ (which Paul advocates four times in his letters: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26); ‘women should always have their heads covered in church’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and ‘heal the sick by anointing with oil’ (James 5:14) are now generally considered to be context-bound. This, however, creates the same problem that arose over Jesus’ hyperbole. How do we know which of the bible’s pronouncements are context-bound and which are still of significance today? Answer: we don’t.

It could be argued that, just as ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ is a custom anchored in the first century, beliefs like

the world is populated by demons,

humans are capable of living forever,

and

incantations (that Jesus is the Saviour) work

are equally context-bound. We know categorically in the 21st century, that demons don’t exist, humans cannot live forever and magic spells don’t work. Only those in a pre-scientific age, dominated by superstition, thought so (together with those today who buy into these same ancient beliefs.)

Once believers start claiming – and it’s Christians themselves who do this – that significant parts of the bible are metaphor, hyperbole or are context-bound, then they’re acknowledging that the bible frequently makes little sense, and that significant portions  lend themselves to whatever interpretation suits the individual reader. Some parts can even be dismissed altogether, which is precisely what Christians do with them (how many Christians do you know who believe they can move mountains or heal the sick by laying on of hands?) What this shows is that they don’t really believe the bible is God’s Word, either in the literal, evangelical sense, nor in a moderate, quasi-intellectual way.

In practice, even to most Christians, the bible is a book of no particular merit.

God’s Very Good Creation

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I’m recovering from a viral condition that’s affecting people in these parts. It’s set me thinking about how many diseases and conditions humans are susceptible to. An online search suggests the figure is unquantifiable. There are, for example, over 5,000 viruses known to affect human health, including the 200 that cause various versions of the so-called common cold. Of these 5000, we understand only a few hundred. There are also some 6,000 diseases caused by single-gene defects, and even more by other genetic disorders. In case that’s not enough, there are also hundreds of infectious diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and parasites. While some of these cause only minor discomfort, it remains the case that almost every one of us will die, or has already died, from one or other of these diseases, conditions or illnesses.

How does Christianity account for all of these horrors? Here’s the cerebrally challenged Ken Ham to explain:

We need to start with the fact that God created everything perfect, and this perfect creation was then marred by sin. This is the only way the gospel makes sense. You need the foundation of the history in Genesis in order to fully understand the gospel!

Yup, God made everything perfect and a pair of mythical humans messed it up by ‘sinning’. Everything that’s bad about the world is the result of Adam and Eve’s one-off disobedience. That single act opened the floodgates not only to all of the illnesses to which we and the animal kingdom are prone, but also to natural disasters and the brutality we inflict on one another.

But don’t worry, God has a cunning plan! Ken wants us to teach our children about it:

Teach them about God’s original “very good” creation. Instruct them that mankind’s sin broke God’s creation and brought death and suffering into it. Teach them that we needed someone to pay the penalty for our sin, and that’s why Jesus stepped into history… and now offers the free gift of eternal life to all who will put their faith and trust in him.

You see, as Ken likes to say, only this explanation makes sense of our susceptibility to disease and illness. Only this explanation makes sense of the gospel too; the good news that Jesus sacrificial death will put everything right.

                   Eventually.

                            No rush.

                                   Whenever…

It also demonstrates what a complete and utter bastard the biblical God is, that he condemns his ‘very good’ creation to a disease ridden, disaster stricken existence, simply because he himself made the first humans as fallible as he did.

But no. Neither this explanation nor its concommitant ‘gospel’ makes any sense, whichever perspective you look at them from. The development of innumerable diseases, and the viruses, bacteria, parasites and genetic conditions that cause them, are clear evidence of evolution; of an unsupervised arms-race in which the best-adapted invader or host survives to reproduce/replicate. Having then had the chance to transmit their DNA/chemical data, their purpose is served. They die. They stay dead.

The men who created Genesis 1 & 2 did not know about evolution, microbes or viruses. They did, however, see the deficiencies of the world in which they lived, the struggle for existence, illness and death, and found these impossible to square with the benign creator God they imagined existed. And so were formed the Genesis myths of a perfect creation spoilt by the only agent whom these men believed capable of causing such havoc; they themselves. There is no denying their accounts have been remarkably influential, and also completely wrong.

No gospel is needed to put right a fallen creation. It isn’t fallen, it is what we should expect if life evolved; if each species, organism and virus that exists today has spent millions of years constantly adapting in order to survive. Jesus’ supposed sacrifice has no bearing on any of this; it is superfluous, unnecessary and entirely irrelevant. The salvation myth is a virus in its own right, existing, like the meme it is, merely to perpetuate itself.

Jesus can’t save you from the common cold, let alone death.

How the Bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 1

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Scripture is under attack! Yes, really. Answers in Genesis says so, so it must be true. The Enemy with a capital letter is out to undermine its authority. That Satan and his school-boy pranks! What will he think of next?

It doesn’t, though, need an all-powerful personification of evil to undermine the bible. It does it all by itself. In any aspect we might care to mention; scientific, medical, historical, moral, psychological – even how the universe operates- the bible is mistaken, confused and just plain wrong. The truth is not in it.

Let’s take look at some examples:

The bible’s scientific blunders

According to the bible:

the Earth was created before the sun (Genesis 1:9-16)

Stars are points of light in the canopy – ‘the firmament’ – that surrounds the Earth (Genesis 1:16-17)

Beyond this canopy is water (water comes for the sky doesn’t it? I guess the canopy leaks. God opens its ‘windows’ during Noah’s flood) (Genesis 1:6-7)

The sun moves, though it can be made to stop in its tracks with the right magic (Joshua 10:12-13)

Genetic characteristics can be changed by whatever animals look at while they’re copulating (Genesis 30:37-39)

Hares and coneys chew the cud (Leviticus 11:5-6) and flying insects sometimes have four legs (Leviticus 11:20-23)

The value of Pi is 3 (1 Kings 7:23-26)

More here if you can bear it: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/science/long.html

The bible’s historical inaccuracies

The ‘history’ of the Old Testament is largely fabricated. Much of it is myth and legend, created centuries after the events it purports to describe. There is no evidence, for example, that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, wandered the wilderness for forty years and then invaded the land of Canaan. Historians are now fairly sure that the people who would later fashion themselves as the Israelites were rabble-rousers within Canaan and that they set about eliminating, by one means or another, other populations that lived there. The ‘great kings’ of Judaism – David, Solomon – were no more than tribal leaders; think ‘Taliban commanders’ and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of what they were really like.

There’s no evidence either for Noah’s ark and a global flood, the events of the tower of Babel, Joshua’s destruction of the walls of Jericho, Daniel’s adventures in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar… you name it. Each and everyone of these stories was created to make theological points, to aggrandise the people who created them.

There are similar problems when it comes to the historicity of Jesus’ life.

The bible’s medical ignorance

According to Jesus – God Incarnate, no less – many disabilities and diseases are caused by demons:

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech… Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” (Mark 9:17 & 25)

The way to cure illness therefore is to ‘drive out the unclean spirits’ that cause it. Jesus does so many times (Matthew 12.22 etc) and sends his chums out to have a go as well (Matt 10.1). Now, is this because God knows that sickness and disease really are caused by supernatural baddies, or is it because Jesus’ understanding of illness was as limited as that of any other first-century peasant? You got it – Jesus (and his later script-writers) merely reflect first-century ignorance about the causes of illness. However, if, as today’s Christians believe, Jesus was somehow God himself, then why don’t they opt for exorcism every time they’re ill? There are some nut-jobs who do, of course, but why don’t all of them trust their lord and saviour on the matter?

There’s equally ludicrous medical advice elsewhere in the New Testament: James 5.14-15 tells us that the cure for any ailment is prayer:

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.

Sure enough, some believers have taken this ridiculous advice seriously. Instead of medical treatment, they’ve done as the bible commands and prayed for their sick children, frequently with fatal consequences.

More next time…

 

The God of Reason

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The next three posts will look at the claim Christians make for their God being the God of Reason. The fact that he is, they say, demonstrates how inconsistent those who see no evidence for a deity are when we use his very attributes – reason, logic and rationality – to make a case against him. Here’s Dr Jason Lisle on Answers In Genesis:

…there is an absolute standard for reasoning; we are to pattern our thoughts after God’s. The laws of logic are a reflection of the way God thinks… Laws of logic are God’s standard for thinking. Since God is an unchanging, sovereign, immaterial Being, the laws of logic are abstract, universal, invariant entities. In other words, they are not made of matter—they apply everywhere and at all times. Laws of logic are contingent upon God’s unchanging nature. And they are necessary for logical reasoning. Thus, rational reasoning would be impossible without the biblical God.

The materialistic atheist can’t have laws of logic. He believes that everything that exists is material—part of the physical world. But laws of logic are not physical… The atheist’s view cannot be rational because he uses things (laws of logic) that cannot exist according to his (Godless viewpoint).

Similarly, Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God argues that the fact humans can reason is evidence both of God’s existence (because reason has to come from somewhere) and of our being made in his image.

According to Christians then, God is the only reason we can think rationally at all.

But then where did God’s rationality come from? Is he pure reason or is reason an attribute he acquired or evolved over time as we did? As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the only reasoning intelligence we know of is our own, and it is the product of evolution. If God’s ability to reason also evolved – and we know of no other way it could have developed – then he must intially have been incomplete. He could not have been the supreme intelligence Christians claim he is now. If, on the other hand, God is and always has been pure reason, there should be plenty of evidence for it. Let’s take look:

We first encounter God in the opening chapters of Genesis, where he puts two naked humans in a garden and tells them not to eat the fruit of a tree labelled ‘The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’.* He sets this tree right where they can see it and then he leaves. The two people, who have no concept of right and wrong (that’s the point of the tree) each take a bite of its fruit. While taking his evening stroll in the garden, God discovers what they’ve done and is not best pleased. (I hope you’re getting just how logical all of this is.**)

This deity, who, according to Dr Lisle and Tim Keller is the epitome of logical reasoning, doesn’t then take the trouble to explain to his creations, ‘Look, I’m sorry I made you without a sense of right and wrong; I’ll put that right. But you’ve got to promise me you’ll do as I say from now on because you won’t like me when I’m angry.’ No, he doesn’t do this; instead he throws a hissy fit. He punishes the couple, who until they’d tried the fruit had no idea disobeying him was wrong, and, just for good measure, he trashes the rest of Creation too – forever. Because of a single act committed by two naive individuals who didn’t know any better, he ruins everything and then, irrationally, blames the humans for the mess he’s made. That’s his reasoned, reasonable and rational response to their upsetting him – which, if he was the omniscient being Christians tell us he is, he’d have known was going to happen anyway.

Of course the whole set up and God’s reactions are not rational, reasonable or logical at all. They’re not considered, proportionate or insightful either. The God of Reason, the God who is Reason according to Answers in Genesis and Tim Keller, scores on this, his first outing, zero points on the scale of reasoned, reasoning reasonableness.

Maybe though God was just having an off day and he improves later on, once his intelligence has evolved a bit more. We’ll find out next time.

 

* All my examples of God’s great thinking skills and ‘reasonableness’ are drawn from the Bible; there are, however, simply too many to reference throughout this series of posts. I would be happy to supply them to any who feel the need to see them.

** Yes, I’m aware it’s a myth but a) many Christians don’t and b) even as a myth the story seeks to address how humans became alienated from God, ironically by developing the capacity to think for themselves. 

 

Is there anybody out there?

KenAnyone searching for extra-terrestrial life – NASA, SETI and so on – can stop now. We know definitively that there isn’t any out there. How do we know? Because Ken Ham says so. The Bible – Genesis specifically – doesn’t mention life on other planets so that means there isn’t:

(T)he notion of alien life does not square well with Scripture. The earth is unique. God designed the earth for life. The other planets have an entirely different purpose than does the earth, and thus, they are designed differently… where does the Bible discuss the creation of life on the “lights in the expanse of the heavens”? There is no such description because the lights in the expanse were not designed to accommodate life [this is utter gibberish; life within stars? Who has ever suggested that?] God gave care of the earth to man, but the heavens are the Lord’s. From a biblical perspective, extraterrestrial life does not seem reasonable.

But hang on a minute! The Bible doesn’t mention other planets, never mind whether there’s life on them. It doesn’t tell us anything about cultures outside of a small area in the Middle East, doesn’t mention the Americas or Australasia, doesn’t have anything to say about microbes, anti-biotics, computers or technology in general. It must follow, therefore – to use Ken’s logic – that none of these things exist either.

The reason the Bible doesn’t mention any of them, and a myriad of other things, is not because they don’t exist but because the primitive priests and ignorant scribes who wrote Genesis and the rest of Ken’s magic book didn’t know that they did. They had no concept that the Earth is a planet, let alone that there are others; they had no idea that the sun is a star, nor that other stars, which they thought were attached to the inner surface of a canopy surrounding the Earth, are suns. With such a limited cosmology, the possibility that there might be life on other planets was as alien to them as, well, aliens themselves.

Whether there is extra-terrestrial life, and whether any of it is intelligent, we may never know. But either way, Ham’s deity will have no bearing on it, nor it on the Christian God. The existence of aliens, like their absence, won’t breathe life into an already discredited idea.