I was asked to write about the state of the science and faith conversation within the evangelical community – broadly defined. I write not as an outsider who sits some safe distance away and tries to observe and understand a foreign tribe, but as one immersed in this community in the following ways.
First, I write as an evangelical in this broad sense, though the criteria for membership in that group are not entirely clear. Given the political climate today, I’m not always crazy about self-identifying as an evangelical, and to be honest, other evangelicals aren’t always thrilled with claiming me as one of their own. But I think I am one. I think Jesus is the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity; I believe I’ve had an encounter with the risen Christ; I take the Bible to be inspired and authoritative; and I have a hope for glory, for the kingdom of God to be fully manifested in the new heavens and new earth.
Second, I work for BioLogos, the organization founded by Francis Collins to help conservative Christians come to terms with the findings of contemporary science. We interact with a wide range of people on a variety of topics, but most of our work is with the evangelical community on the topic of origins. There are many important scientific topics not directly related to origins in which Christians should be engaged – creation care, genetic engineering, and transhumanism, to name a few. I hope topics like these come to dominate the science-and-faith discussion in the future, but for now it is origins, which might be boiled down to concerns about the age of the earth and the evolution of humans.
My goal in this short essay is to give a perspective from where I sit that may shed some light on the origins conversations among evangelical Christians (which, I’m sad to say, is shorthand for primarily white evangelical Christians, for that is overwhelmingly the community that participates in the origins conversation). I’ll address the disconnect between most evangelicals and the consensus of modern science, and then attempt to identify what is driving the state of things and offer some suggestions for a more positive way forward.
A good place to start in trying to understand the current state of the discussion about origins is with some statistics. The Pew Research Center conducts regular surveys of the American public regarding their beliefs about science and religion. The following data comes from several Pew polls they reported on over the last ten years (mostly from 2015 – here, here, here, and here):
This is quite the data set! It must be admitted that polls can be tricky to interpret, and we might wonder whether questions should have been framed differently, so I won’t try to give too fine-grained analysis of this, but at least in broad strokes, what do these numbers tell us?
Overwhelmingly we evangelicals think science is great, just as much as the general population. And significantly fewer of us think science conflicts with religion than do non-Christians. But then most of us think that the science is not settled, when overwhelmingly among scientists it is settled; and only about one-fourth of us believe the scientists.
How are we supposed to understand this picture? It must be that evangelicals report a low level of conflict between science and religion because we have made our own version of science to fit with our religious beliefs. It is easier to think that the entire scientific establishment is massively deceived than that some elements of our Christian theology are incorrect. So we develop a parallel universe of “true” science that is maintained in opposition to the false and biased scientific mainstream. That allows us evangelicals to say we love science; we just don’t like whatever it is those scientists are doing.
The state of the conversation on origins today in the United States reflects the state of other public conversations, and so probably draws on some of the same cultural influences. One of these is a strong anti-expert sentiment. Democracy has many advantages over an aristocracy, but on the other side of the ledger, it can tend to make us think that each person’s vote should count the same as everyone else’s for all questions. Don’t get me wrong; if we’re talking about who should represent us in our government, I think everyone’s vote should count the same. But if we want a diagnosis for car troubles or a health issue, most of us would agree it’s better to consult the person who has been trained specifically in these areas rather than just polling everyone in the waiting room!
Should this trusting of the experts extend to science too? If we want to know how old the earth is, or whether humans have common ancestors with other species, should we take a poll “in the waiting room” or ask someone who has actually been trained to answer such questions? When stated like that, the answer seems obvious. But the problem is that you can just about always find an “expert” who doesn’t agree with the consensus of experts. And it makes for more interesting coverage of a story if you can round up experts on both sides of the issue to have a debate. So we’re left feeling that the experts are divided, and we have to just go with our gut intuitions.
Related to the anti-expert sentiment, there is strong research (at least if you trust the experts!) about the relationship between our intuitions or instincts on the one hand, and the reasons we have for them on the other. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Random House, 2012). One of his findings is that we generally have it backwards in how we think the reasoning process works. We tend to think that we work out our conclusions through the process of reasoning about the topic. But the controlled studies show pretty clearly that most of the time we already have a conclusion based on our instincts and that our process of reasoning is employed to justify what we already think. And it’s not like the smarter you are, the more open you are to other possible conclusions. The higher your IQ, the better you are at producing reasons to support your views; you’re no more likely to change your views than people with lower IQs.
This might be depressing to those who have an exalted view of the human intellect, but it sure explains the inability for rational discourse to move us closer together, even when the facts are overwhelmingly on one side. President Trump recently claimed, “I have a natural instinct for science” – thus giving permission to ignore the vast consensus of climate scientists about the human causes of global warming. In the origins conversation, lots of the evangelicals we interact with have very strong instincts that evolution could not have happened. And because they can find a few PhDs who raise questions about the scientific consensus, they feel their instincts are justified and need no further examination.
So where do these instincts come from? Undoubtedly the answer is complex, but I think one of the main sources is a supposedly “plain reading” of the Bible.
There are pockets of people in the Catholic Church who resist consensus science today, but for the most part they have had an easier time of harmonizing science with their faith. That might suggest that there was something about the Protestant Reformation that helps to explain evangelicals’ relationship with science today. Particularly, we might look at the changed relationship to scripture we Protestants came to during the Reformation. It was then that we became people of one book – sola scriptura. Don’t try convincing us with popes or councils, said Luther. Unless you can convince us from Scripture, here we stand, we can do no other.
The doctrine of sola scriptura was adopted as a way of counteracting the corruptions of the church and its claim to be as authoritative as Scripture itself. The reformers thought that placing the ultimate authority in one source – unchanging Scripture – was the antidote to the vagaries of personalities that held power in the church. But, of course, in order for scripture to serve as this authority, its meaning must be reasonably clear to its readers, and since the Reformation did away with the privileged class of readers (that is, the experts), its meaning must be reasonably clear to anyone who picks up a Bible and reads. This is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or in the language of the people, the plain reading of Scripture.
So we look at the text of Gen 1 and read that God created everything in six days. If a bunch of scientists tell us that is wrong, then we’re faced with the decision of having the authority of Scripture undermined, or admitting that we can’t just trust our plain reading. Neither of those options seems tenable, so we reject the scientists.
(Of course this plain reading runs into trouble when I realize the “evening and morning” of the first three days somehow occurred without a sun. And even more, when we get to ch. 2 and see the plain reading details events in a different order and timeframe than we read in ch. 1. But that’s an issue for another essay.)
Perhaps our sub-community within evangelicalism has a settled view on such things, and we’ve got some pretty smart people working for us who have developed really elaborate defenses of our intuitions. We counter the experts with our own experts and dig in our heels to defend our tribe, even to the extent of excluding from our fellowship those who think differently. This is the way too much of the origins “conversation” goes right now.
What can be done about this? My suggestion, first, is to recognize that any perceived conflict is not between the Bible and science, but between theology and science. We already understand that science is our own making, our attempt to explain and make sense of the data we find in the natural world. It is easy, then, to understand that we sometimes make mistakes in our science. How about theology? It didn’t drop down from heaven; it too is our attempt to make sense of things. The Bible is what it is: inspired, authoritative, and even use “inerrant” if you want; but its plain reading is not entirely clear and we have to make sense of it. We do so by interpreting it. We construct theories about what God has revealed to us through Scripture. It is from this interpretive exercise that we get theology, and theology is our doing, our attempt to make sense of what God has said and done. And no one, at least in our Protestant tradition, believes our interpretations are infallible.
That shift allows us to uphold the authority of the Bible, while recognizing our theology, like our science, might also be wrong sometimes. Then we can see science and theology as different human witnesses to reality, recognizing that neither tells the whole story, and that both have limitations. So we don’t have to decide between fallible human science and God’s word; we have to do our best — guided by the Holy Spirit — at interpreting God’s world and interpreting God’s Word.
Most of the time science and theology are not even talking about the same things: science has very little to say about the Trinity, and theology has little to say about electromagnetism. But sometimes they do have the same object of study: human nature and human origins, for example. And these are the cases for which we need to sort out how our scientific and theological explanations relate. To do this, I suggest, we need extended dialogue with relevant experts from both science and theology.
There will remain differences, to be sure. But what we do with those differences will say a lot about the kind of people we are. Boundary lines for institutions must be drawn, but among evangelicals there is so much we agree on already. Perhaps the remaining differences can be used to come to a better, more complete understanding, rather than creating artificial lines of who is really in and who is out. Haidt said we naturally employ our reason to support our own positions, and to debunk our opponents. That sounds like a recipe for ingrown, echo-chamber thinking – unless you have a diverse group of people all doing it together. Then something much more powerful can happen. Haidt says:
Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right ways, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. That’s why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.” (105)
We have a common bond in the person of Jesus, in the authority of Scripture, in the coming kingdom of God. If that enables us to interact civilly, then perhaps the current ideological diversity about science will end up allowing us as a body to produce good reasoning and find the truth. May it be so.