Posts

Did the Christian Middle Ages Help or Hinder the Scientific Revolution?

James Hannam, in a guest post on the nature.com blog:

“Few topics are as open to misunderstanding as the relationship between faith and reason. The ongoing clash of creationism with evolution obscures the fact that Christianity has actually had a far more positive role to play in the history of science than commonly believed. Indeed, many of the alleged examples of religion holding back scientific progress turn out to be bogus. For instance, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway. Popes haven’t tried to ban zero, human dissection or lightening rods, let alone excommunicate Halley’s Comet. No one, I am pleased to say, was ever burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. Yet, all these stories are still regularly trotted out as examples of clerical intransigence in the face of scientific progress.

Admittedly, Galileo was put on trial for claiming it is a fact that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than just a hypothesis as the Catholic Church demanded. Still, historians have found that even his trial was as much a case of papal egotism as scientific conservatism. It hardly deserves to overshadow all the support that the Church has given to scientific investigation over the centuries.

That support took several forms. One was simply financial. Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organisation in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.

But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.

Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.”

Read the whole article.

For more about Christianity’s contribution to science, Hannam’s book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution is available now.

HT: Wintery Knight

Christianity, the Middle Ages, and the Birth of Science

The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery Publishing, 2011) is a new book by physicist and historian of science James Hannam that challenges the myth that the Middles Ages were a time of ignorance and superstition. He recently talked to The Daily Caller about the book:

 

Read more

Christian Pioneers of Modern Science

W. R. Miller has complied a fine list of quotes and resources in an Appendix over at Tektonics to emphasize the point that many of the greatest scientists in history were Christians or had Biblical presuppositions. Miller also points out that;

  • For most of these, their faith was the driving force behind their discoveries.
  • True self-sustaining modern science (not just engineering, logic or mathematics) was born within a Christian society.

Here’s the relevant section (read the whole thing here) :

Daniel Graves, author of Scientists of Faith and Doctors Who Followed Christ, writes: “Many of the sciences derive directly from the work of a Christian or were greatly influenced at their inception by a Christian. … It may seem an outrageous claim that Christians were seminal to much of what dominates modern scientific thinking, but it is true. There is hardly a science or scientific idea which cannot trace its inception as a viable theory to some Christian.”  A careful study of history reveals that technology and modern science was, in fact, pioneered by Christians.  The case is made by Dr. Ian Hutchison and Dr. Loren Eiseley (below) and at the essays found at the subsequent links.

Ian H.Hutchinson, Head of Department of Nuclear Energy.  Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Department of Nuclear Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA. ASA Conference, 4 August 2002.  “Science: Christian and Natural,” http://hutchinson.belmont.ma.us/asa2002/.

“Going further, though, I believe there is a constructive case to be made for the phrase Christian Science.

First, as represented by the theme of this conference “Christian Pioneers”, we should recognize that modern science is built upon the foundational work of people who more than anything else were Christians. Christians were the pioneers of the revolution of thought that brought about our modern understanding of the world. MIT, my home institution, the high-temple of science and technology in the United States, has a pseudo-Greek temple architecture about its main buildings. The fluted columns are topped not with baccanalian freizes, but with the names of the historical heroes of science (not to mention William Barton Rogers, the founder). A rough assessment was carried out by a few of us some years ago of the fraction of the people listed there who were Christians. The estimate we arrived at was about 60%.

Any list of the giants of physical science would include Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, all of whom, despite denominational and doctrinal differences among them, and opposition that some experienced from church authorities, were deeply committed to Jesus Christ.

Second, I observed over the years in my interactions with Christians in academia, that far from scientists being weakly represented in the ranks of the faithful, as one would expect if science and faith are incompatible, they are strongly overrepresented. The sociological evidence has been studied systematically for example by Robert Wuthnow [Robert Wuthnow, The Struggle for America’s Soul, Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, (1989), p146.], who established that while academics undoubtedly tend to be believers in lower proportion than the US population as a whole, among academics, scientists were proportionally more likely to be Christians that those in the non-science disciplines. The common misconception that scientists were or are inevitably sundered from the Christian faith by their science is simply false.

Third, the question arises, why did modern science grow up almost entirely in the West, where Christian thinking held sway? There were civilizations of comparable stability, prosperity, and in many cases technology, in China, Japan, and India. Why did they not develop science? It is acknowledged that arabic countries around the end of the first millenium were more advanced in mathematics, and their libraries kept safe eventually for Christendom much of the Greek wisdom of the ancients. Why did not their learning blossom into the science we now know? More particularly, if Andrew White’s portrait of history, that the church dogmatically opposed all the “dangerous innovations” of science, and thereby stunted scientific development for hundreds of years, why didn’t science rapidly evolve in these other cultures?

A case that has been made cogently by Stanley Jaki [Stanley L. Jaki, The road of science and the ways to God, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, (1978).], amongst others, is that far from being an atmosphere stifling to science, the Christian world view of the West was the fertile cultural and philosophical soil in which science grew and flourished. He argues that it was precisely the theology of Christianity which created that fertile intellectual environment. The teaching that the world is the free but contingent creation of a rational Creator, worthy of study on its own merits because it is “good”, and the belief that because our rationality is in the image of the creator, we are capable of understanding the creation: these are theological encouragements to the work of empirical science. Intermingled with the desire to benefit humankind for Christian charity’s sake, and enabled by the printing press to record and communicate results for posterity, the work of science became a force that gathered momentum despite any of the strictures of a threatened religious hierarchy.

So I suggest that there is a deeper reason why scientists are puzzled about how one might pursue a Christian Science distinguished from what has been the approach developed over the past half millenium. It is that modern science is already in a very serious sense Christian. It germinated in and was nurtured by the Christian philosophy of creation, it was developed and established through the work of largely Christian pioneers, and it continues to draw Christians to its endeavours today.”

Dr. Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), a Professor of anthropology, a science history writer and evolutionist, concluded that the birth of modern science was mainly due to the creationist convictions of its founders.

“It is the CHRISTIAN world which finally gave birth in a clear articulated fashion to the experimental method of science itself … It began its discoveries and made use of its method in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a Creator who did not act upon whim nor inference with the forces He had set in operation. The experimental method succeeded beyond man’s wildest dreams but the faith that brought it into being owes something to the Christian conception of the nature of God. It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption.” [Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Centenary: Evolution and the Men who Discovered it, Doubleday: New York, 1961 p:62]

Kenneth Scott Latourette, Sterling Professor at Yale University, wrote,

“Across the centuries Christianity has been the means of reducing more languages to writing than have all other factors combined. It has created more schools, more theories of education, and more systems than has any other one force. More than any other power in history it has impelled men to fight suffering, whether that suffering has come from disease, war or natural disasters. It has built thousands of hospitals, inspired the emergence of the nursing and medical professions, and furthered movement for public health and the relief and prevention of famine. Although explorations and conquests which were in part its outgrowth led to the enslavement of Africans for the plantations of the Americas, men and women whose consciences were awakened by Christianity and whose wills it nerved brought about the abolition of slavery (in England and America). Men and women similarly moved and sustained wrote into the laws of Spain and Portugal provisions to alleviate the ruthless exploitation of the Indians of the New World.

… By its name and symbol, the most extensive organization ever created for the relief of the suffering caused by war, the Red Cross, bears witness to its Christian origin. The list might go on indefinitely. It includes many another humanitarian projects and movements, ideals in government, the reform of prisons and the emergence of criminology, great art and architecture, and outstanding literature.”

[A History of Christianity, Vol. II, originally published by HarperCollins Publishers 1953, revised 1975, pp.1470,1471].

Other links (provided by Miller) for further reading:

Eric V. Snow. Christianity, A Cause of Modern Science? Explains the historical research of Duhem, Jaki, and Merton. http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-298.htm or http://www.rae.org/jaki.html

David F. Coppedge.   The World’s Greatest Creation Scientists from Y1K to Y2K, http://creationsafaris.com/wgcs.htm

Christianity and the Birth of Science: Why modern science arose in Christian Europe and not in other cultures.  Dr. Michael Bumbulis proposes four evidences and anticipates objections. http://www.ldolphin.org/bumbulis/

Luther and Science: An essay on relation of Protestant thought to the advancement of science, and an important refutation of the claim that Luther and his followers ridiculed and repressed Copernicanism: http://www.leaderu.com/science/kobe.html

T. V. Varughese, Ph.D. Christianity and Technological Advance: The Astonishing Connection, http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-245.htm

Ben Clausen on the origin of science, and examples of believers, with bibliography: Christianity Aiding the Development of Science, http://www.grisda.org/bclausen/papers/aid.htm

Colin Russell, Professor of History of Science and Technology, The Open University, England; Chairman – Vice President, Christians in Science.  “Without a Memory,” http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1993/PSCF12-93Russell.html. From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 45 (March 1993): 219-221.

Christianity is for Weak, Stupid People? – The Role of Reason for Christians http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/reason.html

Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth

This month’s issue of the Investigate Magazine features a great article by Matthew Flannagan on the Flat-Earth Myth. It is common assumption in popular discourse and even within public education that, prior to Columbus, the Church taught that the world was flat. However, in his column, Matthew argues that this idea was fabricated by opponents of Christianity in the 19th century and is actually a historical revision. He maintains that the Flat-Earth myth has been thoroughly debunked by contemporary historians.

I recommend either getting a hold of the issue or reading it online here. If you’ve been following my recent “Conflict for the conflict thesis” posts, Matt’s article dove-tails nicely with that series and my central claim: Christianity encourages and does not oppose science or its success. Even apart from that, go read it – Matt’s writing is never dull, and his well-reasoned arguments are easy to comprehend.

Conflict for the Darwinian Dispute

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) is often portrayed as a believer struggling with doubt, reluctantly yielding to rational thinking in light of the evidence he found while journeying on the HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands. Wiker[1] points out that while Darwin’s ideas are well known, much of the story of his life is either unknown or mythical. To summarize just a few of his more relevant points;

First, evolution was less innovation and more popularization, having been believed by his father before him and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. During Erasmus’ time there was a resurgence of interest in the philosophy of the ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucrecius, who propounded evolutionary ideas. Evolutionary thinking was already a part of the ethos of the age we call Modernism and Charles Darwin was a man who set out on the Beagle to find proof of evolution, rather than someone who reluctantly came to accept the idea because of the weight of the evidence.

Second, Darwin’s brief tenure studying theology was less from conviction or faith in God, and more to maintain a social acceptability by conforming to what was then considered to be stabilizing cultural norm – the church. His departure from that institution was less from lack of belief, and more to follow his true interest – the study of nature.

Third, Darwin’s thesis was not the bombshell it has been made out to be.[2] Many Christian’s of the day, including Charles Lyell (1797–1875)[3] easily accepted evolutionary ideas and yet remained critical of the Darwinian posturing toward God no longer being necessary to explain the origin and diversity of life. Darwin’s associate and co-discoverer of evolutionary theory Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913) became convinced that natural selection alone – without God – would not suffice. The beauty and intricateness of such a process, he thought, was too grand and astounding, and still could not explain human morality, rationality and even physical nature.[4]

Fourth, the idea that there was a thoughtless rejection of evolutionary theory on behalf of the church when Origin of Species (1859) and the Decent of Man (1871) were published is mainly rhetoric. Christian thinkers, both scientists and theologians, were for the most part civil and maintained friendly dialogue. Asa Gray (1810-1888), the American botanist at Harvard and Evangelical was one of these: a friend and long-time correspondent of Darwin who saw design and order in the natural world of evolution progress. Moore writes,

“There was not a polarization of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of learned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organization apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.”[5]

In order to understand the avid rejection of evolutionary theory by some Christians one needs to understand that another science appeared in the nineteenth century. Higher criticism leveled its gaze on the orthodox view of scripture and with the philosophical assumptions of the Enlightenment and Modernism challenged much of Christian belief. There was no official response given by the church on Higher criticism, Evolutionary theory or Darwinism, however individuals within the church did deem to respond to these intellectual challenges. Responses were indeed inevitable if merely by virtue that these ideas became engrained in the culture. These responses can be categorized into four distinct groups: the Liberal response, the Neo-Orthodox response, the Evangelical response and the Fundamentalist response.

The Liberal response to Higher criticism was acceptance. Liberals rejected the authority of the Bible and traditional Christian orthodoxy and therefore did not consider conflict with science possible[6] – science and religion were non-overlapping magisteria. The Neo-orthodox response was dialectical, and so to a lesser extent did the same as the Liberals and accepted the insights.

The Evangelical response was that of accommodation. This was in the tradition of Calvin and in-line with Augustine who advocated perceived conflicts could be reconciled with better interpretation of either the Bible or of nature. John Calvin (1509–1564) the French theologian gave to science two gifts. First, he encouraged the study of nature. Nature demonstrated the wisdom of God and provided proofs of his glory.[7] Second, he removed the need to interpret the bible literally. By offering people a hermeneutic of “accommodation” he made the emergence of the natural sciences possible[8] and firmly grounded a tradition within evangelicalism allowing science to be integrated with the scripture.[9]

Evangelicals therefore attempted harmonization with the insights of Higher criticism, which would eventually yield new insights in theology, and breakthroughs in historical Jesus research. For evolutionary biology harmonization meant a variety of differing positions like Theistic Evolution[10] and Progressive Creationism.[11]

It was the reaction of Fundamentalism that was to have the most profound influence on the way the relationship between science and Christianity were perceived. Higher criticism and Darwin’s popularization of evolutionary theory elicited a negative reaction by some who felt that society was becoming more and more depraved in their thinking. Fundamentalism, distinguished by cultural isolationism and a dogmatic biblical literalism, decided to judge science by the Bible. Evolution is therefore a fraud. This response represents a “circling of the wagons” and as evolutionary theory gained prominence it created a siege mentality. This is why many describe Fundamentalism as obscurantist, insular and militaristic.

Essentially Fundamentalism is Evangelicalism on the defensive, though there is a range of responses to both sciences encapsulated by the term.[12] All refuse the Grand Evolution story for its atheistic implications, but there are a great variety of opinions to the extent which evolution has played a role in the development of the diversity of life. Some criticize evolution on the basis of flaws in theory, others dogmatically refuse in principle and offer no more explanation. Some in the twentieth century sought to re-interpret the evidence without the Rationalist and Materialistic presuppositions and developed Creation Science, which for the most part that militantly rejects evolution in favor of a young earth and a literal 24-hr/six-day creation period.

It is Fundamentalism that fueled the Creation/Evolution controversy in the twentieth century, and this is nowhere more typified by the Scopes Trial (referred to now as “The Monkey Trial”) in 1926. John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution, and backed by the ACLU,[13] lost when the Tennessee law was upheld, but the fall-out from media sensationalism at the time lent credit to the Conflict Thesis. The influence of that media storm made it the subject of a play Inherit the Wind (1955) later adapted to a movie in 1960. The idea that science and religion are at war is still very much a part of the general public’s consciousness, even though it is not “religion” as such, but one specific branch of Christian belief that insists on literal interpretations.[14]

Today the relationship between science and Christianity is very healthy. It is believed the renaissance of Christian philosophy over the last fifty years has been so successful the effect has been the resurrection of Natural Theology, including powerful refurbishment of the teleological arguments.[15] The increasingly powerful Intelligent Design movement can be viewed as an effect of this renaissance in Christian thinking. The so-called “New Atheism” is an aberration to the general trend (perhaps also a reaction to it) and represents a movement out of touch with the higher echelons in academia that rejects the Conflict Thesis.[16] There are many other models that are used to describe the relationship between science and religion, but as Brooke says “general theses are difficult to maintain.”[17]

Alvin Plantinga views Christian belief as fundamentally congruent with science and only peripherally hostile.[18] Gary Ferngren summarizes,

“While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule”[19]

Concluding then, Christianity has been an overwhelming boon to the scientific endeavor.[20] Kenneth Samples writes:

“Conflicts between scientific theories and the Christian faith have arisen through the centuries, to be sure. However, the level of conflict has often been exaggerated, and Christianity’s positive influence on scientific progress is seldom acknowledged.”[21]

Christianity provides a philosophical foundation for the success of science and today enjoys a fruitful conversation that has endured since the seventeenth century. Although many people presuppose and implicitly if not explicitly accept the Conflict Thesis, this is largely dead in academia. A particular type of Christian belief, namely Fundamentalism, remains reactionary towards a particular type of science, namely evolution. The broad mainstream accepts science as useful to theology, particularly in supporting the project of Natural Theology. When difficulties arise harmonization with a hermeneutic of “accommodation” can be attempted. The relationship is best described as a flourishing dialogue rather than with militaristic terms.

Footnotes

[1] Benjamin Wiker. The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (2009)

[2] Dr. Matthew Flannegan argues evolutionary theory, if correct, only undermines a specific teleological argument for God’s existence and the rest of Christian theism is still on solid ground.

[3] The eminent scientist and founder of modern geology

[4] Talk with Greg Koukl and Dr. Benjamin Wiker, Stand to Reason.

[5] Quote found at God and Nature: p7-8, quote from Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies

[6] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 14.

[7] In order than no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place them in our view, in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him. . . To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advances proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them. (Institutes I.v.1-2)

[8] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 11

[9] “Prior to the nineteenth century there was a widespread agreement in the West, particularly in Protestant Christian circles, that resolution to these questions could be achieved by combining insights from both science and Scripture in a unified field of knowledge. If such an integrated view on the level of method and reference was established, it would become the focal point on which the understanding of life depended. Consequently, science and the Christian faith were presumed to be on the same die, mutually compatible, and dealing with the discovery of truth through a uniform epistemology.”

Diepstra, George R. and Gregory J. Laughery. “Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1-3” European Journal of Theology, 18:1, p. 6.

[10] There is a wide range of opinion encapsulated in this broad category, but generally means God created the first life and got the evolutionary ball rolling, but then left the process alone.

[11] Again, this is a broad category, but generally means God was involved and intervened in the process of creation.

[12] The term is also employed to describe a quagmire of other things, such as theological positions and hermeneutical methods, social agendas and political associations, etc., which make the title an honorific, a slur, and without context too vague for proper use.

[13] American Civil Liberties Union

[14] Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 22.

[15] The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp. 69-85. Ed. M. Martin. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2007  also Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.

[16] “God Is Not Dead Yet.” Christianity Today. July, 2008, pp. 22-27.

[17] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 5

[18] He also convincingly argues that it is naturalism that is fundamentally hostile and only peripherally congruent. (Science and Religion: DVD, Naturalism ad absurdum).

[19] Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. p. ix

[20] Kenneth Samples, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (http://www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/christianscience.shtml; Retrieved 27 Jan, 2009), 1998.

[21] Ibid., See also Stuart McEwing, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2009/the-historic-alliance-between-christianity-and-science/; Retrieved 27 Nov, 2009)

Conflict in the Newtonian Worldview

In the first article of this series I gave a history of the Conflict Thesis and described its origin. In the second I have shown how Galileo’s role in the Copernican controversy is not a good example of conflict between science and religion, any such attempt being an overly simplistic and therefore a wholly inadequate description. This article will briefly sketch – very briefly – the period from Galileo in the seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of the supposed conflict between science and region.

Stephen Hawking lauds Galileo as the person responsible, perhaps more than any other single person, for the birth of modern science.[1] Galileo’s influence on science was more than a beleaguered theory. Gonzalez explains;

“…Galileo proposed . . . a strictly empirical and mathematical method for the observation of the universe. This was probably his greatest contribution to the development of modern science.”[2]

It was Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who went further than Galileo by applying the same empirical and mathematical method. He managed to show that a broad range of observational data conformed to certain principles. Like the cogs of a clock the universe was a grand machine[3] running according to “laws of nature.” The theological entailments of the “mechanistic” worldview that came to be attributed to Newton were two sided.

First, it cleared the path for Deism, for it was seen that the direct and miraculous intervention of God was no longer needed to explain the universe.[4] Rationalism and skepticism were already a part of the milieu of the age, and Deism was the application of these to religion. There were Deists present before Newton, such as John Locke (1632-1704), but their thought gained in influence when this Newtonian ethos was also imbibed in the culture. The result was thinkers like and David Hume (1711-1776) in Britain, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778) in France, and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in America – all famous Desist. Philosophies that were anti-Christian in flavor, such as Scientism and Empiricism found in this new age of scientific discovery a modicum of credibility, which led to an increasing disengagement with ecclesial authority and Christian doctrine; especially on revelation, miracles and the divinity of Jesus. Brook notes;

“In an age when unprecendented confidence was placed in the power of human reason, the methods and achievements of the sciences were a powerful resource for those who, with a variety of motives, launched their assault on established Christianity. But to reduce the relations between science and religion to a polarity between reason and superstition is inadmissible, even for that period when it had such rhetorical force. It was often not the natural philosophers themselves, but thinkers with a social or political ax to grind, who transformed the sciences into a secularizing force.”[5]

Second, it immediately suggested design, and provided a philosophical foundation for the Natural Theology that would blossom in the nineteenth century.[6] William Paley (1743-1805) was one among many who was impressed with Newton’s work and the idea of the universe working as a clock works unaided. Set against the background of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and people’s interest in machines, Paley rescued the Newtonian clockwork metaphor that was hijacked by Deists and argued that watches require watchmakers. Rather than implying Deism, Paley saw that mechanism implies contrivance: watches require watchmakers: laws need lawgivers. His Natural theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1805) is widely regarded as the most significant contribution to the teleological argument.[7] It had a profound effect on English culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was required reading for Cambridge University applicants until the twentieth century.[8] Paley’s arguments and other publications were direct responses to David Hume’s (1711-1776) critiques. These employed observations of the world as demonstrations of divine agency.

There was a mixed response, therefore, to the “mechanistic” worldview. Science was being used by Christians to help prove – or at least demonstrate the plausibility of – the theological thesis of God’s nature and existence. Science was also used being used in conjunction with anti-Christian philosophies accompanying the Enlightenment to disprove theological theses – or at least demonstrate their implausibility. The conflict between science and religion then (if it ever existed) historically was only because science combined with philosophies that were surplus and separate to it.[9] For Newton the notion of a conflict between science and religion was alien, for he viewed both as complimentary interests. The mechanistic worldview that was given the name the “Newtonian” worldview because it was produced by his achievements, was not one held by him.

This is evident in that Newton distinguished himself with more than scientific and mathematical genius; he was also a dedicated theologian who hoped his work in natural philosophy (or scientific studies for the modern ear) would encourage people to believe in a deity. The motivation for his work, it is argued, was to show God’s activity in the world[10] rather than an absentee architect. He was like Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who famously said;

“I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”[11]

Moreover, Newton had a profound impact on the philosopher, America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who was no small enthusiast of observing and investigating nature and saw no conflict there. Many Puritans in the New World like Edwards were impacted by Newton, and went on to make significant contributions to science, their Christian faith providing the motivation, conceptual framework, and ethical values required for the scientific endeavor to succeed. This was also true for the culture as a whole, for Christians built the first universities providing higher learning and education for a broad range of people to whom it was previously unavailable.

So it is more the case that science was grown and nurtured by Christians rather than pitted against religious thinkers. Newton and Edwards, among many others intellectuals the Enlightenment, understood that seeking scientific truth was a Christian enterprise that showed not only the beauty and wonder of God’s creation but, by extension, God Himself.[12] Dissenting voices were not entirely absent – there were those who thought science disproved religious claims, but theirs was a science wedded to dispositions and ideologies that were anti-Christian to begin with.

The next installment in this series will be on the great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1822) and on the response to evolutionary theory.


[1] Stephen Hawking “Galileo and the Birth of Modern Science.” American Heritage’s Invention & Technology, Spring 2009, Vol. 24, No. 1, p. 36

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[3] “Newton was able to demonstrate that a cast range of observational data could be explained on the basis of a set of universal principles. Newton’s success in explaining terrestrial and celestial mechanics led to the rapid development of the idea that the universe could be thought of as a great machine, acting according to fixed laws.” Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 17

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[5] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 13

[6] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 18

[7] Ibid. p. 99.

[8] Willaim Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics, Third edition. (Grand Rapids, Ill.; Crossway 2007) p. 256.

[9] Religion, specifically Christianity, also combined with philosophies that were separate and surplus to is as well. For example, in “Conflict for Copernican Controversy” it is explained that the Catholicism made itself the guardian of Aristotelian philosophy and Ptolemaic geocentricism.

[10] Richard L. Gorsuch, Integrating psychology and spirituality? (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002) p. 16.

[11] Alan L. Gillen, The Genesis of Germs: The Origin of Diseases and the Coming Plagues, (New Leaf Publishing Group, 2007)

[12] To work in the sciences, for the Christian, imbibes a spiritual dimension that could be seen as worship. Nature reveals God in a sort-of third testament.

Metastasizing the Christ Myth

What is the relationship between ‘myth’ and the art of following Jesus? Ought we to treat the reports we have in the canonical gospels in the same way as we may treat the tales of Thor, Osiris or Hercules?

This question intrigued Clive Staples Lewis, a professor at the Oxford University and an expert in the elaborate myths of Scandinavia; the ancient tales of gods and men, Yggdrasil and Asgard. For much of his adulthood, Lewis was a spiritual skeptic, but eventually became captured by the claims of Christianity. He came to view the ‘good news’, centered on the person of Jesus and clearly rooted in the time and space of first century dusty Palestinian villages as a true fulfillment of the stories found in so many human cultures. He concluded that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

To many readers, Lewis is famous (and in some circles infamous)  for incorporating numerous aspects of the Christian story into works of fantasy for children; the Chronicles of Narnia. I read them often as a child and near-completely missed the religious references. Now, of course, these stories make more sense. It was, however, in the process of making sense of them that I was able to understand the brilliant Oxford scholar’s understandings of God’s story and, through his insight, make more sense of the world.

That, of course, is one of the benefits of art. Myths, poetry and art are able to speak to the core of a human person in a way which cold equations and data tables seldom do. Does this mean we should reject rationality and objectivity? I do not believe so. Most people would accept the legitimacy of using a metaphor to add depth to a description and most would acknowledge the need for art and poetry. Eric Metaxas has rather delightfully written:

“For me, the main purpose of art is transportation. I’m not talking about murals on the sides of buses. I’m talking about the singular ability of art to pull us, Alice-like, through the Looking Glass and into other realms.”

In considering Christianity and myth, it is worth explaining a well-known and slightly blurry distinction between myths and legends. Myths are cultural stories unconnected with history, while legends have some kernel of truth concerning distant events buried within them. Perhaps the figure of Jesus, so clearly located within our own world, should not be treated as myth but instead regarded as a legend? Could the details of his exploits simply be clever stories devised with dodgy motives and no more historical than the stories of, say, Maui or King Arthur? This is, perhaps surprisingly, not a difficult question to answer. In a world befuddled by and besotted with claims of subjectivity and religious inclusivism, we can forget that when we turn to the New Testament we are dealing with historical writings which make historical claims of a factual nature. Yes, many claims are difficult to substantiate from outside these pages, but some key ones are not. Was Luke, for instance, the careful historian that he claims (Luke 1:3) – when he talks about historical people, places and happenings? The answer, from various archaeologists and experts on the Roman world, appears to be yes. If Luke, for instance, can be trusted in the small things of geography and government, we are not justified in simply dismissing his claims concerning God and His specific actions in history.

There are of course other objections. Some claim that the details of Jesus’ life sketched in the gospels are clearly derived from earlier pagan sources; a couple of Egyptian gods are prominent, as is Buddhism and other eastern religions. It is argued that the resurrection and accompanying details can be derived from the Mystery Cults widespread in the first century of the common era. There is a quite a bit of scholarship on the topic; for ease of access, there is a good digest of the different arguments on this page at Tekton. To summarise: many of the claims are bogus; a few are most likely a result of Christian influence on other religions; the primary sources for the more-impressive claims are not recorded and there is often a reliance on superficial appearances of etymological similarity without any reason for supposing a real causal link between certain names or themes.

If we are to treat the gospels not as myth or legend but as rooted in history, we should ask how the gospels compare in the essentials with other historical works of the time? Even a cursory look into Classical Studies will show that the records of great leaders such as Alexander the Great are beset by many problems resulting from widely differing sources – yet they are still deemed essentially historical. The broad lines of Jesus’ life have attestation from numerous accounts including many secular references. In the Gospel and other New Testament records we have an embarrassment of riches[1] compared to any comparable secular writings. For the majority of ancient historical works there is a massive gap between the earliest manuscript copies we have available and the original written text. The NT radically breaks this pattern with numerous fragments and even whole manuscript-books from the second and third centuries AD. The once-popular claim that various items in the canon were written in the late second century have fallen foul of papyriological and other evidence. The gospels were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses – period.

If we return to Lewis’ claim: how could a man, a mere human being, be the fulfillment of the inherently nonsensical genre of myth? Skeptics may even find the question nonsensical. But laying the issue of begging the naturalistic question aside, this could only be the case, it seems to me, if this man was in fact something more than legend or myth (empiricists take note: this is what the evidence suggests). In fact, the classical Christian defence, which still has worth today, has from the beginning been eager to refute the claim that the gospel has any association with fable, as Peter wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.” (2 Peter 1:16)

If we can admit where the evidence leads, we will see that the story of Jesus is not too good to be true. And neither is it too true to be any good. Novelist Dorothy Sayers reminds us of the awesome dramatic reality of this story:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like other men He had made, and the men He made killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p. 15).

It is good news: the Creator God is not indifferent to the human condition and has entered into the storybook of history. And he waits, ready to enter into the story of our own lives.

Notes

1. “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material… Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51, 126.

Conflict for the Copernican Controversy

Italy, in the early decades of the seventeenth century was the centre of the Copernican controversy. Today the perception of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is of a brilliant thinker unjustly persecuted and condemned by the church, the enemies of scientific progress. A champion of truth disgraced by those whose religious dogma is a hindrance to true knowledge of the world. But serious historians refuse to view the case as one of “science versus religion.” History is never so simplistic. It defies white-hat/black-hat renderings, as adherents of the conflict thesis try to make it out to be.

Galileo’s actions should be understood in relation to the volatile backdrop of the counter-reformation. By stridently defending the heliocentric model of the solar system with both observational and scriptural data, he embroiled himself in dispute with the Catholic Church. Catholicism had made itself the protectors of the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic view of geocentricism,[1] and at the time was reacting against the innovations of Protestantism that were undermining the church’s traditional magisterial authority. Conceding Galileo’s new biblical interpretation was to undermine their strongest polemic that tradition was unchangeable, which would lend credibility to the Protestant movement.[2]

His major defense of the Copernican theory was initially received with sympathy within certain circles in the church, partly because Giovanni Ciampoli, who was a papal favorite, held him in high regard. Galileo lost support when Ciampoli fell from power in Rome, and this opened the door for Galileo’s condemnation.

Part of the problem was Galileo’s prickly personality, but the crux issue at stake was how the Bible should be interpreted. The official response was based on two considerations. First, by affirming the Bible should be interpreted according “to the proper meaning of the words.” In other words with a more literal approach, instead of an approach of “accommodation.”[3] Each method of interpretation had had a long history of use and was considered legitimate, but the debate now came to bear on certain passages that traditionally considered should be interpreted literally. Second, by affirming that the Bible should be interpreted “according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and of learned theologians.” The argument here was that no one else of note in the past has adopted this new interpretation.[4] Thus it was dismissed as an innovation.

McGrath points out;

“Appreciation of this point is thought to have been hindered in the past on account of the failure of historians to engage with the theological (and more precisely, the hermeneutical) issues attending the debate. In part, this can be seen as reflecting the fact that many of the scholars interested in this particular controversy were scientists or historians of science, who were not familiar with the intricacies of the debates on biblical interpretation of this remarkably complex period.”[5]

The affair is one which historians and philosophers of science still debate regularly. There is now general agreement however that, though Galileo’s views were eventually vindicated, he was overstepping the line by insisting his model was the way reality really was. At the time he did not have the evidence to support that claim,[6] so the church wanted to moderate his idea as one interpretation that equally explained the phenomena.

Galileo may have been branded a heretic but his sentence was reduced to house arrest, which amounted to a comfortable retirement where he could entertain guests, carry on his scientific research and publish further works that solidified his place in the pages of history as the founder of modern physics. Not an altogether bad way for a 68 year old to spend the remaining ten years of his life.

This is no more than a brief summary of Galileo and his role in the Copernican controversy, but enough has been said to conclude that painting the affair as one battle in the war of “Science versus Religion” is inadequate. History is often a far more complicated and tangled web than is made out to be, and is not suited to oversimplifications such as those given by proponents of the conflict thesis – as Galileo might call them, Simplicio.[7]


[1] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 150

[2] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[3] As a nursemaid accommodates a small child by scooping him up to reach what is on the table, so the Bible accommodates with its language to speak so that every one can understand.

[4] In 1615 the Carmelite friar Paolo Antonio Foscarini published Lettra sopra l’opinione de’ Pittagorici e del Copernico (Letter on the opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus) which argued that the heliocentric model of the solar system was not incompatible with the Bible. Galileo adopted a similar approach of “accommodation”

[5] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[6] (Craig, audio blog “Scientific Intolerance” 2008-02-25) William Lane Craig. “Scientific Intolerance” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5887

The Ptolemaic system explained better certain features of the observational astronomy than did the Copernican-heliocentric model of the solar system.

[7] Meaning “Simple-minded.” Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of a character of that name, a thinly veiled criticism of a very powerful supporter. His famous work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was a attack on Aristotelian geocentricism and advocated the Heliocentric worldview.

Darwinism, Morality and Violence

Is mass murder the corollary of belief in materialistic evolution? Dennis Sewell thinks it is. In a controversial article at the Times Online, the former broadcaster at the BBC and contributing editor of The Spectator argues that there is a demonstrable link between Darwin’s theory and the recent spate of high-school killings by teenagers in the US and Europe. While many celebrate the life and impact of Charles Darwin this year, Sewell contends that a darker edge to the man and his theory must be reconsidered:

In America, where Darwin’s writings on morality and race have come under particularly intense critical scrutiny because of the enduring creationist debate, he has been accused of fostering moral nihilism and scientific racism, and even of promoting an ethic that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. Most startling of all, a connection has now been drawn between Darwin’s theories and a rash of school shootings.

Looking at the Columbine High School Massacre, where two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and 1 teacher in 1999, Sewell suggests that little attention has been paid to their motivation behind the act. Enamoured by Charles Darwin’s ideas, both Harris and Klebold saw their actions as the implementation of natural selection, the British journalist argues. He quotes one of the attorney’s for the families of six of the students killed at Columbine, Barry Arrington:

“I read through every single page of Eric Harris’s journals; I listened to all of the audio tapes and watched the videotapes… It became evident to me that Harris consciously saw his actions as logically arising from what he had learnt about evolution. Darwinism served as his personal intellectual rationale for what he did. There cannot be the slightest doubt that Harris was a worshipper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.”

Neither Harris and Klebold were alone in seeing their violence as the outcome and implementation of Darwinism. Sewell discusses other school killings or planned killings and suggests an emerging pattern that cannot be easily dismissed. In describing the social culture that sustains and accumulates around these groups, Sewell refers to one visitor of a Natural Selection Army website who also went on a rampage:

On November 7, 2007, in Tuusula, Finland, Auvinen forced his head teacher to kneel down in front of him before he shot her with his pistol. He slaughtered a further seven victims before turning the gun on himself. Some of the Jokela high school students afterwards described the way Auvinen prowled through the building pointing his gun at people’s heads. Sometimes he would squeeze the trigger and kill them; sometimes, after looking long and hard through the sights, he would suddenly turn away and let his terrified target go free. One witness said he seemed to be choosing his victims at random, but in fact he was making a very deliberate selection. He was trying to weed out the “unfit”.

. . .Auvinen left a special plea for his motivation to be taken seriously and for the world not merely to write him off as a psychopath, or to blame cult movies, computer games, television or heavy metal music, before concluding: “No mercy for the scum of the Earth! Humanity is overrated. It’s time to put natural selection and survival of the fittest back on track.

Even if psychotic teenagers saw their murderous acts of violence as the direct and necessary consequence of materialistic evolution, is it fair to saddle the theory itself with these horrible consequences? Sewell acknowledges that many homicidial groups have identified with philosophers and their writings but yet argues that there are two distinct reasons why Darwinism appeals to the disturbed adolescent mind and justifies these acts:

1.The loss of objective meaning: Sewell suggests that within materialistic evolution is embedded the notion “that human existence has no ultimate purpose or special significance.”

2. The eradication of an objective moral order: “Darwin also taught that morality has no essential authority, but is something that itself evolved — a set of sentiments or intuitions that developed from adaptive responses to environmental pressures tens of thousands of years ago. This does not merely explain the origin of morals, it totally explains them away. Whether an individual opts to obey a particular ethical precept, or to regard it as a redundant evolutionary carry-over, thus becomes a matter of personal choice. Cheerleaders celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday in colleges across America last February sang “Randomness is good enough for me, If there’s no design it means I’m free” — lines from a song by the band Scientific Gospel. Clearly they see evolution as something that emancipates them from the strict sexual morality insisted upon by their parents. But wackos such as Harris and Auvinen can just as readily interpret it as a licence to kill.”

Sewell says that evolutionary scientists today “describe ethics as merely an illusion produced by genes. From a Darwinian perspective, there is nothing objectively wrong with shooting your classmates; it’s just that most of us have an inherited tendency to kid ourselves that it’s wrong — and that’s something that helps our species in the longer run by keeping playground massacres to an acceptable minimum.”

But materialistic evolution not only justifies these acts of violence by destroying any objective purpose or norm in which to live our life by – Darwinism also encourages both the “toxic doctrine of racial superiority” and eugenics (the practice of improving the quality of the human race by deliberate selection of parents and their offspring). Both with Darwin himself (who wrote in the Descent of Man, if we “do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.”) and in history, Sewell catalogues this embarrassing relationship. He concludes finally:

“The debate between Darwin’s bulldogs and religious fundamentalists over the truth of evolution and the existence of God has become a sterile one. There are, however, many interesting questions about how Darwin’s views chime with our values of liberal democracy and human rights, or the simple lessons of right and wrong that most of us teach our children. But our society cannot begin to address these issues while we are fed only a bowdlerised account of Darwin’s work. The more sinister implications of the world-view that has come to be called “Darwinism” — and the interpretation the teenage nihilists put on it — are as much part of the Darwin story as the theory of evolutions.”

For a fuller discussion of the impact of Darwin on politics and culture, Sewell’s book comes out this month:

Darwin

The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics (Picador, 2009) by Dennis Sewell

Mythbusting: Historical fables about Christianity and Science

In discussing the history of science and faith, stereotypes and caricatures come easy. Michael Flynn has written a lengthy but excellent post engaging several distortions and errors about Christianity and it’s impact on the rise of science, particularly during the Middle Ages. His response is to an essay on Christianity, science and the Dark Ages and ably shows why it is important to get your facts straight.

Here are some of the myths he untangles:

  • Scientific investigation virtually stopped once Constantine established orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicaea
  • The Christians tried to destroy all pagan and scientific literature, including the great libraries of the world.
  • The destruction of the library of Alexandra and the murder of Hypatia in 415 CE by Christians, marked the beginning of the Dark Ages.
  • Hypatia was murdered by Christians for religious reasons.
  • The priests of Christianity kept the public from education, including the study of their own Bible.
  • When Christianity took over Europe, scientific and engineering advancement virtually stopped.
  • The Church banned Greek and Roman medicine during the Black Plague and sought religious instead of medical solutions.
  • Not until the 1530s, when religious authority was finally under question, did important Roman medical texts get translated
  • Priest Giordano Bruno was executed for the charge of holding scientific opinions contrary to the Catholic faith.
  • Galileo was imprisoned for his heretical ideas of the heliocentric solar system
  • The Greek thinker, Aristarchus, developed the first heliocentric theory in 270 BCE, not Copernicus
  • Archimedes invented the concept of infinity and calculus long before the arrival of Christianity.
  • There were no Christian scientists in the Dark Ages. And they only began to appear during the Renaissance, as the influence of the church began to wane.

Read the whole post (and browse some of the books on the subject that he recommends).

Sources: Glenn at the Beretta Blog and Quodlibeta.

Geologist coming to NZ in March

We have heard thru the gossip network that Geologist Bob White is coming to NZ in March.

http://www.jri.org.uk/intro/whoswho.htm#rw

Bob White is a geologist by training and has worked mostly in research, using a wide variety of geological and geophysical tools to study the Earth’s crust. He has engaged in numerous research field trips, mostly to study rifts and volcanoes. He is currently Professor of Geophysics and a Fellow of St. Edmunds College at Cambridge University. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Fellow of the Geological Society of London. Bob is active in his local church, being both a church warden and a home group leader, and is also on the national committee of Christians in Science. He is married with two grown up children, and lives near Cambridge.

The Argument from Evolution

It is a common taunt among combative non-theists (henceforth called atheists) that evolution is a well established scientific fact, as if this somehow provides positive proof that God does not exist. Belief in God, as the title of Richard Dawkin’s book proclaims, is a delusion. If this is so it then follows that faith is a fairy-tale on the level of a child’s belief in Santa Clause, and that continued belief in God is directly opposing our best scientific knowledge. It appears as if there is an atheistic argument being made.

1) If evolution is true then God does not exist. 

2) Evolution is true.

3) Therefore, God does not exist. 

It is clear that (3) follows from premises (1) and (2) and by virtue of the law of logic called modus ponens the conclusion is necessary. So in order to defeat the argument then we will have to deny at least one of the premises. To start let us begin with the second. 

 

Premise 2: Evolution is true

Before we set about criticising evolution, it is important we establish clearly from the start that it is a matter of intellectual responsibility for everyone to think critically about important issues such as these. Ben Stein has recently pointed out in his documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed the unfortunate climate of academic bullying and curtailing of the freedom of enquiry in the United States. A healthy theory will be able to withstand vigourous questioning and it is the obligation of people to permit any questions and allow doubt in the pursuit of scientific truth. 

Creationists are often charged with only poking holes in what is otherwise a good theory. To which the reply can be made – tough luck – that is what should happen to all theories, good and bad. A leaky bucket that cannot hold water should be mended or replaced. The only way to know if the fruit is sweet or sour is to let it be pealed and examined. So let us turn to the criticisms that can be raised against evolution. I have categorised them into four problem areas.

 

1) The problem with fossils

When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species he laid out several conditions that would bear scrutiny if his theory was true. One of these conditions was evidence of transitional forms in the fossil record. He asked the question “But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?”1 Over 150 years of exploration and research has past and not one transitional form has commended itself for any length of time to the scientific community. All new life forms appear suddenly and fully developed. 

Colin Patterson, the late Senior Palaeontologist of the British Museum of Natural History in London confesses in a letter in April of 1979, that there is no evidence of transitional forms in the fossil record. 

I fully agree with your comments on the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them. You suggest that an artist should be used to visualise such transformations, but where would he get the information from? I could not, honestly, provide it, and if I were to leave it to artistic licence, would that not mislead the reader?2

Stephen Jay Gould, professor of Zoology and Geology at Harvard University, conceded this point and so proposed an amendment to evolutionary theory called Punctuated Equilibria to explain away the absence of transitional forms. He says, “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.”3

Since evolution is gradual change, and no evidence of gradual change can be found in the geologic record, is punctuated equalibia a recognition that evolution should be abandoned?

What is more the supposed transitions, such as from reptile to bird are impossible. The lungs are completely different in function and form. The slightest change would result in a creature that is unable to breathe, let alone live long enough to provide progeny. It is no wonder such transitional forms do not appear in the fossil record.

Questionable transitional forms exist, such as the Archaeopteryx, however evolution predicts not a few but a whole host of intermediate forms. The absence of these is pointed out by micro-biologist from New Zealand, Dr. Michael Denton, in his influential book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.4

The fossil record is supposed to read as a vertical scroll in accord with the order of strata, the eldest layers being on the bottom the youngest layers being nearer the top. Evolution cannot explain exceptions in the record. In fact, there are more exceptions to the rule than there is the rule. One also wonders about poly-strata fossils, such as preserved tree trunks that run vertically through supposed millions of years of earth history.

 

2) The problem with soup

The first problem is there is no geologic evidence for concentrated organic pools on the early earth. This pre-biotic soup, from which life was supposed to arise, is becoming less and less likely the more that is found out about the conditions on the early earth. Besides this, it has been discovered that the dilution processes would have stalled and made impossible the formation of complex organic molecules needed for life to arise. 

Second, the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere is detrimental to the process for the hypothesised beginning of life scenario. It was once thought that in the early earth’s history there was no oxygen, but evidence is accumulating that oxygen was not only present but abundant.

Third, experimentation with the origin of life is subject to heavy criticism. If life does arise out of experimentation, all that would prove is it takes intelligent design to create life in the lab. Also, there is no known natural conditions that simulate what is produced in the laboratory. Next, it is a huge conceptual leap to conclude that the naturalistic origin of life is possible from the data. 

Take for instance the Miller and Uri experiments in the 1950’s. By passing electric sparks in a methane gas solution they were able to synthesise amino acids. Amino acids form proteins, and proteins are found in living things, but the hope that this can explain the origin of living things is an enormous extrapolation of the data. To say this is life is like equating the word ME with the complete works of William Shakespeare. Further, the bi-products of these experiments, like 80% tar, are toxic and far more likely to kill than promote the continuation of any life that did arise. 

Fourth, the idea of life springing from non-life butts its head against the rock of the second law of Thermodynamics. It states that the amount of usable energy in the universe is deteriorating. The calculations of any reaction taking place to form life is somewhere in the order of one chance in 10 to the power of 40,000. On statistical analysis, a Shakespeare analogy such as the one above become insignificantly small. Still raw energy alone cannot bring order or information out of random chaos. Some sort of blueprint or plan is needed and that requires an intelligence. 

Fifth, the window of opportunity is incredibly small for the chemical origin of life to occur. This window is only 25 Million years, based on the presumption of a 5-6 billion yea age of the earth, and the earliest fossilised life forms at 3.8 billion years ago. A mere blip on the geological scale. 

For those reasons chemical origin of life scenarios are now rejected by the scientific community. This is documented in Thaxton, Bradley and Olsen’s work The Mystery of Lifes Origins.5

It could be said that this is not criticising evolutionary theory, but the origin of life theory of abiogenesis. This is a dodge however. As long as evolution remains an attempt to explain the origin of the diversity of life in terms of purely naturalistic phenomenon, this implies an ultimate origin of life theory such as the pre-biotic soup. Unlike soup, you can’t buy evolution in a separate package. Without an ultimate naturalistic origin scenario atheistic-evolution is no longer tenable. 

 

3) The problem with information 

The mechanisms of evolution are insufficient to explain the existence of highly specified and complex information in the cell. The death knell of evolution should have sounded in 1953 with the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. When the two chains of bonded nucleotides that form the chromosomes was discovered to be a four letter digital code that determines all of the information necessary to produce all of the functions and all the structures in all living systems, Francis Crick, a code-breaker during WWII, intuitively grasped that this was the product of a mind. For their discovery he won the Nobel prize. His insight however did not convince him of God. Instead he credited the presence of information to aliens by adopting the idea of Pan-Spermia, a purely speculative hypothesis that is nevertheless drawn from the valid inference of design. 

The nucleus of the cell is a storage device for information. This vast amount of code is redundant, overlapping, and highly complex and specific. This information encoded in the DNA contains the manual for the construction of the body; determines the physical appearance of an individual; instructions for error-correction, and directions for self-replication. Such wondrous machines cry out for a masterful designer. The intricacy of the code raises two fundamental problems for evolution. First, information is the product of a mind and not of natural processes. Second, all evidence accrued thus far in experimental and observable science is that information can only be muddled or lost: not gained. The question that arises is how does one account for the  presence and addition of information? In other words, where did the simple cell get the code for teeth?

The mechanisms of evolution, namely natural selection, random mutation, and time do not provide a sufficient answer to how a simple life-form can develop into another, more complex life-form. But there is one mechanism that can explain the existence of this highly specified and complex information, namely Intelligent Design.

This is nowhere more poignantly pointed out by micro-biologist Dr. Michael Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box, called by Time Magazine one of the most influential books of the twentieth-century. Here he points out some miniature biological machines, such as the flagellum of certain bacteria, are irreducibly complex, a concept that highlights the appearance of design and therefore infers an intelligent designer. 

A mouse trap is irreducibly complex as it would be unable to function at all without any one of its parts. Take away the base, or the hook, or the trigger and the mouse trap would not function at all. Just like the mouse trap, so this miniature biological organism is irreducibly complex. This does not mean it is simple. The flagellum functions like a molecular motor, but with the efficiency that overwhelms all current mechanics. The structure has no function and no survival value without all of its parts. This means that when the bacteria was formed it was formed all at once – a concept breaking the mould of the evolutionary paradigm. Moreover, the parts have to have a specific assembly order for any function to be possible. This complexity immediately calls into question the mechanisms of evolution. Time, chance and natural selection by themselves cannot explain its construction. There needs to be an intelligent designer. 

Further still, the diversity of life on planet earth far exceeds the evolutionary mechanisms time constaints. Natural selection and random mutation work to slow for all generally accepted models concerning earth’s history.

It is worthwhile pointing out that Intelligent Design is not creationism dressed in a lab-coat, hiding disguised with the respectability of a modern scientist. Creationism is a doctrine that is necessarily committed to a particular creator. (For the Christian the creator is of course the eternal one true God, revealed in Jesus Christ, but the creator will vary depending on the which creation story is accepted.) Intelligent Design however does not speak to the second-order question of who the designer was or why the universe or biological system was designed. As we will see that would be overstepping the bounds of science. That is why Dr. William Demsky and Dr. Philip Johnson are genuine when they say Intelligent Design is not a religious movement. It has religious implications for sure, but when they are wearing their scientific hats they do not say who is responsible for the design, only that design is recognisable and present. That does not mean they cannot as philosophers say who is responsible for the presence of design, or when they go home to their wives speculate on why it is there. 

 

4) The problem with science

The philosophy of science itself argues against evolution. Philosophy, as a discipline which evaluates the assumptions and foundations of other disciplines is uniquely able to offer critiques on science itself. As a seond-order discipline part of the task of philosophy of science is to appraise the scientific method. Little taught or understood by students or graduates, the scientific method outlines not only the correct procedure for scientific enquiry but shows the limits of science.

The Scientific Method begins with (1) observation, then (2) a proposal of a question or a problem, then (3) a hypothesis (educated guess), then (4) experimentation, then (5) a theory is proposed (a hypothesis with a high degree of probability) which leads after further experimentation to (6) a scientific law (when the theory is shown to be valid on a universal scale), such as the Laws of Thermodynamics or the Law of Gravity. 

This means that science is merely interpretation of the data. Science cannot prove a scientific fact – that is beyond the scope of the scientific method. It can only deduce a result with a high degree of probability and never absolutely verify or prove a truth, but only falsify one. It also means that science deals with the what and how, and not the who or why. 

The scientific method is inductive and we should be careful not to overstep its bounds. So when a person declares that evidence for evolution is so great it should be called law, it is clear they have an incorrect definition of science and are using it in an incorrect manner. 

Technically calling Evolution a “theory” is incorrect, for evolution cannot even get started on step number one – observation. The very nature of the case is a one-time, unrepeatable event. So operation science is the incorrect field to operate in. Rather it is a field called ‘origin science‘ which includes forensic science (crime scene investigations) and archaeology. Evolution is more accurately described as a model (as is creation) and should be assessed as a model. A model is held up to the light of the evidence and using the tools and rules common with historical research, we evaluate the model on the basis of (1) explanatory scope, (2) explanatory power, (3) plausibility, (4) degree of ad hoc-ness or how contrived it is, (5) in accord with accepted beliefs and (6) outstrips rival theories.

So how does evolution fair, now that it is in its correct category? Obviously more can be and should be said regarding this area of enquiry. But a good indication is to note that when a model violates known theories and laws, such as the second law of thermodynamics, the cell theory and the law of biogenesis, that model should be ejected from the window of its ivory tower. When the model does not explain the evidence, such as the exceptions in the fossil record, it should be regarded as a relic only to be found in out-dated textbooks.

There are further problems the philosophy of science brings to light. For instance, evolution is not something that can be read straight off the evidence, but is predicated on a philosophical commitment to naturalism. This is pointed out successfully by Dr. Philip Johnson in his book Darwin on Trial. Thus far the evidence for biological evolution only supports micro-evolution, or change within limits. It is a philosophical question rather than a strictly scientific question if this evidence should be projected onto the macro scale. Macro-evolution represents a huge extrapolation of the data.

Dating methods are sometimes deeply philosophically flawed by dogmatically assuming the principle of uniformity (uniformitarianism) and often use circular reasoning. This by its nature is a philosophical problem.

 

Premise 1: If evolution is true God does not exist

This premise is implied by many people. As we have seen the evidence for evolution is far from convincing, so we need not look at this first premise to deny the conclusion that God does not exist. But what about Premise 1 on its own merits? If evolution is true does this imply that God does not exist? 

It seems clear that it is not so. At most, if evolution is true, all it would mean is that a certain literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is incorrect. Indeed, there have been many Christians who have believed in God, and found no contradiction in also believing in evolution. Many very clever people are theistic evolutionists, including C.S. Lewis who thought that God very well could have used the process of evolution to bring about human life. 

Howard Van Till of Calvin College asks:

“is the concept of special creation required of all persons who profess trust in the Creator-God revealed in Scripture? . . . most Christians in my acquaintance who are engaged in either scientific or biblical scholarship have concluded that the special creationist picture of the world’s formation is not a necessary component of Christian belief . . .”6

Augustine in the fourth century (1500 years before the pressure of modern science) was suggesting that the days of Genesis one were not literal “solar days,” but narratorial devises to explain a logical framework. Davis Young from Calvin College writes:

Some things were made in fully developed form as we see them today, and other things were made in a potential form, so that in time they might become the way we see them now. Augustine went far beyond any superficial reading of the text by claiming that neither the creation nor the subsequent unfolding took place in six ordinary days. He is explicit that God did not create the world over the course of six temporal days. “The sacred writer was able to separate in the time of his narrative what God did not separate in time in His creative act”7 8

Yet even if the Bible’s creation account demands a literal interpretation, then all that would follow is that the Biblical doctrine of inerrancy is false. Dr. William Lane Craig suggests essential doctrines in systematic theology form a central core that you should fight for to the wall. Tenets like the existence of God, His essential attributes, the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of Salvation you never give up, but unessential doctrines with respect to God and salvation can be positioned nearer the periphery of that theological circle. In light of the defence of Premise 2, such an admission would be altogether too hasty. Still, it is worth noting that if the scientific community can establish a convincing proof and give explanations of the model’s noted shortcomings, that God’s existence is not something that is at stake.

What this brings to light is the hidden assumption implied in the argument, namely that God’s existence is dependant on the Bible’s revelation. A defender of biblical truth will no doubt be unmoved by such an assumption if he has a high view of the project of Natural Theology.

If God exists he can use the process of evolution. But if God exists he does not need the process of evolution. Therefore, if evolutionary theories fail scrutiny, why not give them up? For the apologist, regarding God’s existence, it is a matter of complete indifference if evolution did or did not occur. Evolution, therefore brings a very different challenge to the table then the atheist charges. The discussion is an in-house one; less an external attack on Christianity and more a matter of internal consistency of interpretation, as well as integration with the discipline of science.

What is so irksome to the committed atheist is he sees if evolution fails as a scientific model it leaves a gaping hole in his world-view. You may then ask what is there to plug this hole apart from theistic creationism? In the words of Richard Dawkin’s “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”9 Ergo, if Darwin topples there goes the intellectual kudos of the atheist. Alvin Plantinga, philosopher at the University of Notre Dame says, “For the nontheist, evolution is the only game in town; it is an essential part of any reasonably complete nontheistic way of thinking; hence the devotion to it, the suggestions that it shouldn’t be discussed in public, and the venom, the theological odium with which dissent is greeted.”10

Strange as it may seem, it is not the theist who is biased towards the evidence, but the naturalist. The Christian can be open to where the evidence leads on the basis that the Genesis creation account permits a wide manner of interpretations, while the atheist is totally committed to Darwin’s speculations. 

 

The Tables Turn:

It is perhaps with this realisation in mind that led Jeffery Lowder to offer the more cautious argument from evolution. He stated in the year 1999 during The Lowder-Fernandes Debate: Naturalism vs. Theism, that evolution is more likely given naturalism than given theism. 

If evolution is true, then God is not needed for the account that various life forms that exist today and have existed in the past, and therefore evolution is compatible with naturalism. If theism is true however, evolution may or may not be true. Evolution is logically compatible with theism; God could have used evolution, but God could of used many other methods than evolution – methods which are ruled out by naturalism. Moreover, given that over 99% of species that have ever lived on earth is now extinct, evolution seems like a pretty strange way for an all-powerful being to create living organisms. Did God have to keep experimenting till he got things right? Thus evolution is some evidence for naturalism over theism. [sic] 11

This argument cedes the point that evolution is compatible with theism. This then constitutes a denial of the first premise. However his conclusion that if evolution is true it is more likely given naturalism rather than theism is based on the assumption that if God was the intelligent designer behind the origin and diversity of life He would have used an efficient method. Efficiency has been pointed out to be only a consideration for beings with limited time, resources and power. There is no reason to think that the creator God of Christian theism would desire efficiency when he was creating. Moreover, the way in which this God bought about the origin and diversity of life may have been in accord with other over-riding concerns, such as how the universe was to operate for the living beings he planned would occupy and observe it.

But why think that evolution is more likely given naturalism? This seems to ignore all the powerful evidence coming out of the scientific community in the last fifty years that has so strengthened the teleological arguments for God’s existence. First, the incredible cosmological fine-tuning of the conditions necessary to enable evolution even to take place, fall within extremely thin parameters. Second, the examples of calculations of the probabilities for the formation of basic biological structures. Both these exceed coincidence (or blind chance) and cry out for an explanation. It is therefore quite reasonable to imply a highly skilled and intelligent designer or divine miracle.

In 1943, the French statistician Emil Borel stated that when considering probabilities on a cosmic scale anything that exceeded one chance in 10 to the power of 50 should be regarded as impossible. This is a very small number when you consider the probabilities that are involved in evolutionary models, but it is a very big number when you consider there is only an estimated 10 to the power of 82 subatomic particles in the universe. 

Dr. Hubert Yockey, physicist and information scientist calculates the chances of a single protein containing only 100 amino acids would form spontaneously is less than one chance in 10 to the 65th power. Sir. Fred Hoyle calculates the chance of obtaining the required set of enzymes for even the simplest living cell is one in 10 to the 40,000th power. Yale university biochemist and biophysicist Harold J. Morowitz calculates the chance of a single bacteria arising by chance is one in 10 to the hundred-billionth power.

In his book Information Theory and Molecular Biology, Dr. Hubert Yockey states “The belief that life on earth arose spontaneously from non-living matter is simply a matter of faith in the strict reductionism and is based entirely on ideology, not on science.”12

Sir. Fred Hoyle said in Nature, “The likelihood of the formation of life from inanimate matter is one to a number with 40,000 naughts after it . . . It is big enough to bury Darwin and the whole theory of evolution . . . If the beginnings of life were not random, they must therefore have been the product of purposeful intelligence.”13

Dr. Francis Crick, in his book Life Itself says, “An honest man armed with all the knowledge available to us now can only state that in some sense the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”14

The strength of the teleological argument is only increasing as more is discovered about the fine-tuning of the cosmos for intelligent life. In the Anthropic Cosmological Principle two of the world’s leading cosmologists, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, point out 10 steps in the course of human evolution, such as the development of the DNA base genetic code, the origin of mitochondria in the cells, the origin of photosynthesis, the development of aerobic respiration, the development of the inner skeleton and the development of the eye, each of which is so improbable that before it would have occurred the sun would have ceased to be a main sequence star, and would have incinerated the earth. The odds they calculated for the assembly of the human gnome was somewhere around 4 to the -360th power to the 110,000th power — simply an incomprehensible number. For reasons like this as well as others, “there has developed a general consensus among evolutionists that the evolution of intelligent life. . . is so improbable that is unlikely to have occurred on any other planet in the entire visible universe.”15

In other words, the origin of biological complexity in sentient life is far more likely given theism than given naturalism. This therefore calls for an amendment to the original atheistic argument. 1-1) If evolution is true, it requires a divine miracle. But if it is the case that evolution is true, this constitutes an argument for Gods existence.

1-1)   If evolution is true, it requires a divine miracle

2)   Evolution is true

3-1)   Therefore, God exists

Isn’t it incredible that what the atheist originally thought disproves God, is actually a powerful argument for His existence?

 

Footnotes:

1. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter 6.

2. Colin Patterson, letter 10 April 1979, in Sunderland L.D., “Darwin’s Enigma: Fossils and Other Problems,” [1984], Master Book Publishers: El Cajon CA, Fourth Edition, 1988, p.89.

3. Stephen Jay Gould, “Evolution’s erratic pace,” Natural History, Vol. 86, No. 5, pp.12-16, May 1977, p. 14

4. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Adler & Adler; 3Rev Ed edition (April 15, 1986)

5. Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Lifes Origins: Reassessing Current Theories, Philosophical Library Inc, 1984.

6.  Howard Van Till, When Faith and Reason Cooperate, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, http://www.asa3.org/asa/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91VanTill.html

7. St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols. (New York: Newman Press, 1982), pg. 36.

8. Davis A. Young, The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine’s view of Creation, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Ml, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 40.1:42-45 (3/1988), http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Bible-Science/PSCF3-88Young.html

9. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London and New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1986), pp. 6, 7.

10. Alvin Plantinga, When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN. Christian Scholar’s Review XXI:1 (September 1991): 8-33. http://www.asa3.org/aSA/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91Plantinga1.html 

11. Jeffrey Lowder, The Lowder-Fernandes Debate: Naturalism vs. Theism: Which Way Does the Evidence Point? (1999), (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=8220615357, retrieved 12 October, 2008) 

12. Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory and Molecular Biology, 1992, Cambridge University Press, Page 284.

13. Sir. Fred Hoyle, “Hoyle on Evolution”, (Nature, Vol. 294, 12 November 1981, p. 105)

14. Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, Simon & Schuster, 1982, Page 88

15. Barrow, John and Tipler, Frank (1986): The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Clarendon Press, pg. 133.