Ok, I’ve done enough fluffy role-playing posts recently. It’s time to talk about something controversial. (Actually, despite the snark this has the potential to be a controversial topic. Please keep the comments nice; also, if you don’t come from a Western Judeo-Christian background, you may be wondering what this post is about and why it’s an issue. I wonder that too sometimes).
Something that’s been on my mind recently is one of the “favorite” debates in the Christian church, particularly in more conservative or fundamentalist traditions: what’s the deal with evolution, yo? The way the debate is typically framed, if you’re unfamiliar, is something like this:
Scientist: I don’t believe in God, and I’m going to prove that he doesn’t exist! Oh look! It looks to me like animals evolved from proto-goo, which means God doesn’t exist!
Religious person: Oh no! What happened to my faith? The scientist showed that God doesn’t exist! Oh, but wait! If I can poke enough holes in his “theory” of “evolution”, then his conclusion that God doesn’t exist must also be false. SCIENCE IS WRONG AND FOR LOSERS!
Um, so I’ve hyperbolized a little bit above, because a) that’s how I write, and b) I want to emphasize that the above conversation has many, many logical fallacies in it. The strange thing to me is that nobody involved in this conversation recognizes and calls out the logical fallacies being made here; the even stranger thing is that, with the exception of a few highly-publicized vocal celebrity figures, the conversation I described above almost never happens, which means that both sides of the debate are arguing about a strawman.
Before we go any further, I want to set the record straight about a particular piece of terminology that really gets my knickers twisted. If you walk around any random church and bring this topic up, people left and right will start saying “Oh, do you BELIEVE in evolution? Do you BELIEVE in creation? What do you BELIEVE about the Big Bang?” Look. I know that English is a very imprecise language in some cases, so we talk about believing in gravity, or believing that the moon exists when we can’t see it, or whatever. But this is a situation that demands precision. When the entire foundation of Christian faith is centered around the idea of “belief”, you can’t just throw that word around without considering the contextual implications. In the Christian faith, “belief” is a powerful thing. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core Christian tenet, and Christ-followers hold that God’s power in our lives is made evident and available through that belief. So when you’re in church and you say you “believe” something, what you’re really saying is “That thing has enormous power to change and impact my life.”
So STOP saying that you believe in evolution or creation, because those things do not have power to change and impact your life. They cannot save you from evil or hell or anything else. The idea of creation, whether or not it happened in a literal 6 days or not, can do absolutely nothing for you. It has no power.
(This leads to some awkward word jumbling, because the English language doesn’t have a very nice way to say “I think this happened”. I usually end up telling people that (spoiler alert) “I accept that the scientific evidence for the process of evolution reflects reality”, but that’s wordy and people usually don’t understand what I mean when I say it).
Anyways, now that our discussion of language and terminology is out of the way, let’s get back to our hyperbolic fictionalized conversation back there. Ironically1 enough, it turns out that the scientist makes the first logical mistake. The very first thing he does is to refuse to acknowledge his bias. The scientist doesn’t believe in God; this is a bias. Then he tries to prove a statement stemming from his bias (i.e., “God doesn’t exist”). Now, it’s impossible in any discipline to completely remove bias from the picture, so the next best thing is to acknowledge it. Why is acknowledging bias important? Because if you get too attached to your biases, they might blind you into making mistakes down the line (spoiler alert: see the scientist’s last sentence).
Mistake number two that our ficitional scientist makes is a clear lack of understanding about how science works. In fact, the fictional scientist doesn’t understand this on two different levels. At a high level, he doesn’t understand the types of things that science can make claims about, and at a low level, he doesn’t understand the types of claims that science can (easily) make. Ok, let’s unpack that a little bit more:
Firstly, what types of things can science make claims about? Well, pretty much by definition, science is the study of the natural world. Science needs two things to be able to work: observability and repeatability. If you fail one of those two goals, well, then science is out the window (In fact, Creationists use this as an argument as to why evolution is outside the realm of science all the time. The only problem is that, in fact, evolution is observable and repeatable — maybe more on this later, if I don’t run out of space2). So let’s look at the claim this scientist is trying to prove: “God does not exist” — is it observable or repeatable? Well, again, pretty much by definition, God (if he exists) is a supernatural being. Supernatural is a word that literally means “Outside nature” — so God (if he exists) is not necessarily going to be observable in nature, nor is that observation necessarily going to be repeatable. Science deals with the natural world, and arguments about the supernatural just aren’t possible, unless the supernatural affects the natural in a way that is observable and repeatable.
Secondly, even assuming that science can make claims about God, our scientist is trying to prove a negative. This is one of the single most challenging, difficult problems in any scientific discipline anywhere. Many of the hardest open questions in mathematics fundamentally ask us to prove the non-existence of something. Proving non-existence means that you have to eliminate every single viable alternative, including the ones you haven’t thought of yet!. So if our scientist wants to prove that God doesn’t exist, he’s going to have to be a very smart man indeed.
In addition to all of this, our scientist is (probably) making a logical fallacy. Consider the statement, “God does not exist. Therefore, life must have evolved on its own.” It has the structure, “If A, then B”, where A is “God doesn’t exist” and B is “life evolved”. The first part, A, is called the premise, and the second part, B, is called the conclusion. And, in fact, I think most people would agree with this statement—if the premise really is true, well, life must have gotten here somehow and our premise rules out God, so it must have evolved. The logical fallacy is when you take this statement and switch it around: “If B, then A” — here, we’ve taken our conclusion and made it the premise, and we’re trying to claim that this new premise implies our old premise. Specifically, here we’re saying “If life evolved on its own, then God does not exist.” But this implication does not follow—in fact, in general a statement like “If A, then B” implies absolutely nothing about the converse statement “If B, then A.” The converse could be either true or false or neither.
Here’s an easier example to parse: “If the sun is overhead, then it is light outside”3. The converse of this statement is not true: “If it is light outside, then the sun is overhead.” There could be a full moon; there could be really bright streetlamps or spotlights; the sun could be about to set or about to rise; etc.
(It’s worth noting that both sides of this debate make this mistake all the time. Creationists try to argue that the lack of evidence in the fossil record for evolution implies that evolution did not occur. Certainly the statement “Evolution did not occur, therefore there are no missing links” is a true statement, but just because that’s true says nothing about the statement “There are no missing links, therefore evolution did not occur.”)
Ok, so I’ve spent almost 1500 words deconstructing the mistakes that our fictional scientist has made above. You might be scared that I’m going to spend another 1500 words deconstructing the mistakes that the fictional religious person has made, but have no fear! It turns out that the second part is pretty easy, because the religious person makes exactly the same mistakes.
- Doesn’t acknowledge bias? Check.
- Doesn’t understand the types of statements that Christianity deals with? Check.
- Logical fallacies out the wazoo? Check.
Actually, if you’ve been paying attention, you might notice that there is one slight difference in the two scenarios: I argued above that science can’t make claims about the supernatural except where the supernatural intersects the natural. The converse isn’t necessarily true4! In other words, there’s no particular reason why the supernatural couldn’t make claims about the natural world, because the supernatural contains the natural. The natural world is a subset of the supernatural world, if you will. However, for all practical purposes, we can ignore this distinction, because the supernatural sources that are available to us (religious texts, religious experiences, etc.) almost never make scientific claims about the natural world. I’ve read through the Bible from cover to cover several times, and I’ll tell you this: a science textbook it ain’t. There is almost nothing in the book that should be taken as scientifically precise and factual. Even the large number of geneologies, which are probably the closest thing you’d find to something in a science book, are widely recognized to be incomplete. Many Biblical scholars believe that the authors of the Bible skipped generations (possibly dozens or hundreds of them) to make the numbers nice and significant.
I don’t know why the Bible is written from a non-scientific point of view, but I have a guess that maybe it’s because the science isn’t the important part. I’m a scientist, and I love trying to understand how the world works, but I think the point of religion and the Bible is to say “How it works isn’t important. What’s important is why.”
Let’s go back and revisit the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 (actually, it turns out that creation is discussed in quite a few places in the Bible, and it’s described slightly differently in each place, but lets ignore that for now). The way the creation story is presented here is very, very interesting. Firstly, nothing in it’s structure indicates that it should be taken as a literal scientific transcription of the events of creation; in fact, it bears some extremely striking resemblences to the oral traditions and creation stories of other ancient cultures, both in structure and in form. What’s so interesting here is not what’s present in the Christian creation story, but what’s absent. In the creation stories of the ancient world, humans were either ignored by the gods, or there for the pleasure and torment of the gods. As an example, in the ancient Mesopotamian tradition, the goddess Tiamat gave birth to the world in an explosion of water and chaos (note the similarities to the “waters of the deep” and the chaotic “formless and void” in Genesis 1). But in the Mesopotamian story, there’s no intentionality or relationship with humanity formed. In stark contrast, the entire creation story in the Bible is about the intimate, personal relationship that is formed when God steps down onto the earth and physically builds a human being out of dust, and then breathes life into that human through its nostrils.5
Did that story actually happen? Well, if it isn’t obvious by now, I don’t think so. But does it get the point across way better than saying “Then this DNA strand mutated and so the creature grew a slightly larger brain and…”? You’d better believe it.
I want to conclude with the following paradox: if you talk with me about this subject for any length of time, you’ll notice that I discuss the Creation story in Genesis as though it actually happened, and I discuss the scientific theory of evolution as though it also actually happened. This is one of those weird paradoxes that I talked about in my Big Book About Me. In a sense, I don’t just believe (there’s that word again) in evolution or creation. I believe them both, at the same time, despite the fact that they are contradictory beliefs. This probably makes you a little uncomfortable—at least, I hope it does. But I think that’s part of the challenge and the joy of Christianity: somehow or another, both are true, and both have lessons to teach us about how and why the world works.
1. If you try to argue about my usage of the word “ironically”, I will end you. You have been warned.
2. Spoiler alert: I run out of space.
3. Pretend like clouds and solar eclipses don’t exist.
4. Achievement Unlocked: Logical Fallacy Avoided.
5. I took a class in college where we studied the Genesis creation story in great detail, and compared it to other creation stories of the time. It was fascinating, and there’s a lot to unpack that I couldn’t possibly do in this blog post, but I think you get the idea.