"Creation vs. Evolution": Is This a Sensible Question?

School boards in an uproar. Parents protective of their children. Teachers defensive. Students confused. And American presidential candidates feeling compelled to declare their views. The furore over creation versus evolution has been going on for almost a century and a half since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859).

The sad thing is that so much energy is wasted on what is, mostly, a non-issue: “creation versus evolution” is, in most respects, nonsense.

Belief in creation means simply to believe that a deity, or several deities, brought the cosmos into being. It is a core belief of many religions: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, of course, but also varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism and tribal religions around the world. That God (or the gods) created the world is the belief. How God (or the gods) did so is the open question.

Nowadays, however, many people assume belief in creation means belief that God created the world in six 24-hour days, that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that it appears older because a global flood in Noah’s time laid down the deep layers of sediment that evolutionists think took billions of years to accumulate.

Yet these beliefs are a particular, and recent, variety of Christian thought, properly known as “creation science” or “scientific creationism.”

Creation science was popularized in a 1923 book called The New Geology by amateur U.S. scientist George McCready Price. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Price learned from Adventism’s founder Ellen G. White that God had revealed to her that Noah’s flood was responsible for the fossil record.

Price didn’t influence the popular mind much, however. It remained for a 1961 book called The Genesis Flood, largely an academic dressing-up of Price’s work by engineer Henry Morris and theologian John Whitcomb, to disseminate the creation science scheme. A variety of organizations (such as the Institute for Creation Research in California) have so energetically propagated these ideas that some polls show they are believed by more than 40 per cent of the American population and almost as many in some regions of Canada.

This version of creation, however, is but one of four different understandings of creation held by Bible-believing, church-going Christians.

A popular view among conservative Protestants has been that there was a huge interval between an original creation described in Genesis 1:1 and the “formless and void” earth described in Genesis 1:2, out of which God then created the present world. This “gap theory” was promulgated by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), and has since been accepted by millions of Christians the world over.

A third version understands the six “days” of creation to be metaphors describing “ages” of time, any of which might have been millions of years long. This was the view of McGill University’s distinguished scientist Sir J.W. Dawson in Darwin’s day. More surprisingly, it was also the view of William Jennings Bryan, the famous defender of creation at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.

Finally, there are those Christians who believe that God used the process of evolution. Some believe God did so to produce minor changes within species, but intervened directly to produce each significantly new form of life. (This view is coherent with the previous one, such that minor evolution takes place during the long ages of the latter creation “days” when life emerges on the planet.)

Some restrict God’s special intervention to the creation of humankind. Such believers feel that there are key theological reasons to maintain belief in a separate creation of humanity, and particularly in there being a first pair, Adam and Eve, whose transgression helps explain the subsequent history of humankind and particularly of God’s economy of redemption. Without an actual Adam and Eve, so this theo-logic goes, much of the Bible’s teaching about sin and salvation doesn’t make (as much) sense (Gen. 3; Rom. 5; I Cor. 15).

So-called Intelligent Design (ID) is compatible with either of these two views, namely, that some natural phenomena are best explained—particularly because of their complexity and what we might call the interdependent complexity of their components—by positing the direct creative action of an intelligent designer. (I hope to write more about the controversy over ID before long. I don’t think it’s as unscientific and as epistemologically confused as many of its opponents say it is.)

And some believe in full-fledged “theistic evolution”: that God used evolution plain and simple (as if it is “plain and simple”!) to produce all life on earth.

Thus the Genesis account is seen by many believers to be highly figurative about the mechanics of creation, but still teaching important truths about it: that the world is an ordered and interdependent whole; that human beings are to care for the earth as gardeners care for a garden; and especially that it was God, not impersonal processes or other deities, that brought all else into being.

There are only two respects, then, in which “creation versus evolution” makes sense: first, when certain Christians insist that “creation” must mean “creation science” and thus rule out any divine use of evolution; and, second, when certain evolutionists insist that “evolution” must mean only what Darwin thought it meant, namely naturalistic or atheistic evolution. For then, of course, “creation versus evolution” really amounts to “theism versus atheism.” Put this way, however, we should recognize that we are dealing now with a religious and philosophical issue, not a scientific one. Science cannot, in the nature of the case, rule out God as somehow supervising evolutionary processes.

To be sure, science might conclude that “we have no need of the hypothesis” that God created the world (Laplace). We should be honest enough and knowledgeable enough to recognize, even as scientific laypersons (among which I am, of course, to be numbered) that science is a long way from proving that we don’t need such a hypothesis—whether regarding the origin of the universe (the “something from nothing” problem); or the immensely improbable cosmological “fine tuning” necessary for life on Earth; or the currently inexplicable arising of multicellular organisms; or the persistent problem (noted by Darwin himself) of the absence of “transitional forms” in the fossil record (the many “missing links”); and so on.

Maybe evolution, theistic or otherwise, can explain all these things–as Christian Francis Collins believes just as firmly as atheist Richard Dawkins believes. But we must allow that evolution has not yet done so.

And that’s a pretty important set of allowances to make—as the ID proponents, as well as the creation science people, rightly insist. Indeed, the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould himself agreed, sufficiently so that he and Niles Eldredge postulated “punctuated equilibrium” as a theory to explain the last problem on that list. The creation science and ID people simply aren’t wrong about everything—and their opponents would do well to heed their criticisms, even if they hate their alternative theories.

So what should we do about the vexed questions about origins and evolution?

First, we should teach science as a method, as an adventure of discovery and debate, not as a dull, fixed set of indubitable facts to be indoctrinated. We should teach students what science really is. As the late Neil Postman, no friend of theism or Intelligent Design, has pointed out, what better opportunity could textbook writers and teachers have to demonstrate how science actually works than to plunge students into a controversy like this one?

Second, we ought to keep clear what is science and what is religion. When scientific creationists move beyond positing some vague supernatural force behind the Big Bang (a circumspection ID proponents try to maintain), to proclaiming Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin, then boundaries have been transgressed. Exactly in the same way, however, when leading scientists like Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins start saying (as they often have) that scientific observation points strongly toward atheism, then we’re not talking about science anymore.

Third, let’s all appreciate that human beings don’t know everything about anything. Scientific creationists sometimes sound as if they know exactly what the Bible says, and so they know how science must work out. But no one knows for certain just what Genesis 1 and 2 really say about the origins of the world. We can only give interpretation our best shot, and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence.

Similarly, some scientists sound as if they know exactly what the natural record says, and so they know how religion and philosophy must work out. But no one knows for certain how life really began and developed on our planet: we can only give interpretation our best shot, and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence. This is the way both theology and science have proceeded historically, and this is the way they ought to be conducted and taught today.

Darwin’s main defender–his “bulldog”–T. H. Huxley, coined the term “agnosticism” to describe his lack of certainty about God’s existence. A little agnosticism, or at least a little humility, about our science as well as our theology would help us all make our way better through this needlessly polarizing controversy over what is fundamentally a false choice, “creation versus evolution.”

0 Responses to “"Creation vs. Evolution": Is This a Sensible Question?”

  1. Katherine

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Stackhouse! I find what you wrote to be level-headed, sane, and charitable. It is a breath of fresh air and a comfort, especially for someone like me who has had my salvation and commitment to basic Christian belief questioned because I did not subscribe to 7-day creationism!

    I noticed that you posted this in the Bible and Science categories, but I think it could go under the Civility category equally as well… 🙂

  2. Gordon J. Glover

    Dr. Stackhouse, good to know you are out there. You might be interested in the companion website for my upcoming book, “Beyond the Firmament” at www. beyondthefirmament.com – specifically my educational video series on the question, “Does science contradict the Bible?”

    Part I and II are completed and I should be posting Part III next week.

    Cheers,
    GJG

  3. Steve Martin

    Hi John,

    Excellent article! And I concur with Katherine’s comments above on civility. For those of us called heretics by Ham and deluded by Dawkins, its refreshing to have Evangelical leaders taking a firm stand against the extremes on both sides, and to do it in a charitable way. Thanks for the article.

    Question: (And its probably loaded and way too broad so I’m not necessarily expecting a full answer – more looking for your insight)

    Where do you think the evangelical discussion on evolution is going? Do you see a broader section of Evangelicalism being more open to accepting evolution (at least the biological science part of it – not necessary the philosophical baggage attached to it)? Is this something that will drive a wedge between us? How high up on the “contentious issues agenda” would you put? Right there with Open Theology and homosexuality or somewhat further down the list? Ok, I know that’s a few loaded questions :-).

    thanks

  4. Heidi Renee

    Brilliant – I’m so glad you didn’t stop blogging!

    This is one of the best, most even-handed responses, I will be sending others here to read too – thanks so much!

  5. Gordon Hackman

    Overall a good post. I agree with others that it is good to see Christians talking about this issue in a level-headed, non-reactionary manner.

    I especially like this statement concerning Genesis 1: “We can only give interpretation our best shot, and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence.” This is the hermeneutical spiral in action. I think one of the great weaknesses of certain views in this debate is their unwillingness to admit that our interpretations of the scripture can be adjusted in light of external evidence.

  6. JL Betts

    As with the other comments, thank you.

    I just finished Francis Collins’ book (The Language of God. I appreciate his attempt to bridge the gap between naturalist and theist regarding evolution, he does overstate the case for evolution as “the” explanation that “is and must be correct.” Where is the humility of the impassionate (scientific) observer in such statements?

    I wilt in frustration every time I see the news about another school controversy over this matter, because no one seems interested in separating science from philosophy. One’s interpretation may be a religious matter, or simply a philosophical one. But science is not without its philosophical suppositions. Why don’t the schools simply provide a course in philosophy, which would make the issue of interpretations (and their pluses and minues) a proper matter of study?

    Thanks, again, for your sound testimony on this.

    And I do look forward to your take on ID. I believe Dr. Collins sells it short. Dr. Collins’ seems to me to accept the cosmological argument, even while criticizing it.

  7. Donald Schirmer

    Most of my reading are in Creationists books and one published by Answers in Genesis which is just okay as I don’t think dinosaurs and man lived together 6,000 years ago and after Noah’s Ark the ice froze thus creating the North and South Poles. I think, man as we know it came on the scene about 130,000 years ago and i suppose this is when Adam and Eve Arrived. Some mythology say that Adam was married to “Lilith” before Eve which i think is a hoax. Your explanations were very good. My might send some of my atheist friends to your blog. Before this, I did not know what a blog was.

  8. educationevangelist

    I appreciate your humility. The fact is we do not know how our universe came into existence. Let’s relish the mystery and search for the answers. I believe it is arrogant for us to even limit this discussion to two options. Let’s be honest and remind our selves that we were not there. I love your sentence “an adventure of discovery and debate.” If we took this to heart both “creationists” and “evolutionists” could work together for answers.

    Unfortunately though I think that this will never happen because eventually most discussions on the origins of the universe turn into “world view” debates.

  9. Sober second thought

    Mr. Stackhouse – this was an eloquent example of how to sit on a fence and politely deny that this debate is one of evidence versus non-evidence and nothing more. Facts are facts. The information and results of our scientific community are online and accessible – please go read them. It’s cute that when Einstein developed his special and general theories of relativity, the public didnt understand so they didnt question. It’s sad that evolution and the facts are also not understood at all by the public, but everyone has an opinion. The information out there is not opinion – I wish people would stop commenting like it was. A fact is a fact – stop pushing common misinformations and do some reading for the love of… god. =)

  10. Sober second thought

    Please forgive my post thought: the origin of the universe – while a funny question in and of itself as it really holds no bearing on our lives today – is a mystery. Please correct me if I misunerstand you, but you indicate that scientists presume to ‘know’ the answer to this question with certainty? Again, please direct me to the source of this scientist, and I will post a comment there as well. To my understanding, scientists take available, observable, information from the real world, and make ‘educated guesses’ about what may be “probable”. This is very different from the creationist perspective where “faith” or some convoluted argumentative rape of logic acts as ‘evidence’. These are two radically different ways of postulating an opinion and I wish, again, for the love of god, that this could be broadcast to all of you fence sitters.

  11. Mike Securo

    Right on! I’ve always been bothered by the title “Creation vs Evolution.” The real debate should be “Science vs Evolution.” I believe that a purely scientific evaluation of evolution will reveal its flaws. It is in fact, a “theory based upon speculation” and is more of a religious faith than a viable scientific theory. Darwin himself would have disposed of the theory in light of the fossil evidence (or lack there of) alone. For Christians to try to reconcile evolution and creation is folly. While God certainly could have used evolution to form the worlds, the evidence favors the opposite…unique, instantaneous creation. Thanks for a great article.

  12. Saturday June 23, 2007 « theoryspace

    […] “Darwin’s main defender-his ‘bulldog’-T. H. Huxley, coined the term ‘agnosticism’ to describe his lack of certainty about God’s existence. A little agnosticism, or at least a little humility, about our science as well as our theology would help us all make our way better through this needlessly polarizing controversy over what is fundamentally a false choice, ‘creation versus evolution.’” “Creation vs. Evolution”: Is This a Sensible Question? – John G. Stackhouse, Jr. […]

  13. Danny

    Your article seemed to be written to please most everybody. There didn’t seem to be in absolutes with your views. God is an absolute God with absolute ways and all power and as I am sure that you are well aware of, three of the different forms of creationism you mentioned have big problems. Only one fits the bible time table. I didn’t think Darwin dealt with the origin of species but God did. Sin and death did not happen till after Adam and Eve not before. You said Henry Morris was an engineer, I am sure that you agree that an engineer is a scientist. All Darwin had was a theology degree and he was used to keep scientists in the dark this long and that is incredible.

  14. John Stackhouse

    “Sober second thought” and “Danny” both nicely illustrate the tendency among extremists on both sides to oversimplify the issues and then accuse those who resist such dichotomizing of being ignorant of the plain facts–whether the plain facts of Darwinian or of creation science orthodoxy.

    It would be well if such folk would actually read what I wrote as a plea for an appreciation for the multiple levels of discourse involved in this debate as well as for the provisional nature of both science and theology–neither of which properly claims to have figured things out to a total certainty, although certain (ahem) scientists and theologians certainly (ahem) do, as do all too many amateurs in both fields.

  15. Larry James

    What more could be asked for than honest, open debate?

    20 year veteran of the debate. I will defend the 7 day creation until (any) proof can alter my view. That said I entirely agree that only reasonable discussion will bring the debate any results. Too many still have the opinion that a Biblical belief system is contrary to an understanding of science.

    IF (I can’t prove it) God created our universe, He also created the laws science seeks to understand. Any creationist (myself a YEC), unable state the argument for creation within proved or provable concepts or at least believed true in known science, should refrain from the debate. It is a scientific, not religious study. I ask nothing more from my counterparts (evolutionists).

    Such debate can be had at http://www.evolutionfairytale.com/forum/index.php. Not my site but I frequent it.

  16. Benentt

    Where have you been all my life? I’ve recently come to regard C.S. Lewis as the closest thing I have to a spiritual mentor. Reading your well-rounded perspectives gives me hope that Christ-followers who can think, feel, and live in the culture while being counter to the culture still exist.

  17. God

    Hello, this is God here. (Proof that I’m not GOD if you can.)
    Please don’t be fooled by Stackhouse’s interpretation. If I said 6 day creation, I really mean it. BELIEVE ME! Have FAITH! Don’t change your mind or otherwise you will go to hell.

  18. dopderbeck

    I’m late this party, but I want to chime in and say I deeply appreciate this approach and tone from an evangelical leader. We need much, much more of this.

  19. Alex

    thanks for this. looking forward to more on ID!

  20. Jack McLaughlin

    Nearly 20 years ago, Alvin Plantinga stated on the matter of evJaolution:. . . “the right attitude toward the claim of universal common descent is, I think, one of a certain interested but wary skepticism. It is possible (epistemically possible) that this is how things happened; God could have done it that way; but the evidence is ambiguous. That it is possible is clear; that it happened is doubtful;that it is certain, however, is ridiculous.”

    Sadly two Christian scientists, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson heed neither the cautionary advice of Plantinga or now, Stackhouse in their ‘over-the-top claims for the abosute truth of Darwinian evolution. (See their recent interview in Books and Culture.)

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