Religion and science: Can a believer believe in evolution?
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
In his column of Sept. 26, Ross Talbott asserts “it’s irrational to accept the theory of evolution as fact,” citing many characteristics of the human condition. He concludes by saying, “The Bible says that we are created in the image of God,” and “It’s irrational to think evolution could explain the amazing human being.”
Does Mr. Talbott believe anything that he cannot understand is irrational? What about quantum entanglement, space that bends with time, mass that varies with velocity, electrons that can be either waves or particles? And what, precisely, is “the image of God?” Physical? Moral? Emotional? Spiritual? Intellectual?
I’m an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) trying to live a Christ-centered life. I and some of my Christian friends hold PhDs in English, math or science, and have taught at the college level. We all believe in evolution. We all believe in biblical truths? How can that be?
Science and religion focus on two very different realms of human experience. Science probes phenomena of the material world, things that can be weighed and measured, attempting to answer questions like “how?” When Newton posits that force equals mass times acceleration, it helps me understand something about baseballs and rockets.
Religion probes phenomena of the immaterial world, things that cannot be weighed and measured, attempting to answer questions like “why?” When Paul says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” he focuses on the invisible power of God to help me cope with visible circumstances that seem beyond my control.
When scientists propose theories about the material world, they’re offering provisional explanations of how things work. When religious thinkers propose disciplines for spiritual development, they’re offering provisional descriptions of how people work.
Both add depth and understanding to the human condition. But I wouldn’t go to clergy to learn about atomic structure, and I wouldn’t go to a scientist to learn how to be a better person.
Before the advent of genuine science in the 17th and 18th centuries, religious thinkers tried to explain the material as well as the spiritual world. The church’s trial of Galileo for heresy shows how well that worked.
Although they answer different questions, science and religion are similar in their methods.
Theory in science relies on results, using inductive reasoning (observation of empirical data) to explain a class of phenomena. A good theory is provisional, correctable, and allows for change if future observations produce more accurate results. A good theory does not claim to be immutable “fact.”
Spiritual disciplines also rely on results, using self awareness as the criterion for success. They also allow for modification depending on individual experience. An effective spiritual discipline also does not claim to be immutable.
But the two realms of experience differ profoundly, because one focuses on the material world, the other on the spiritual world. Despite those profound differences, science and religion inform each other in a significant way.
Scientific observation allows theologians to speak intelligently about cosmology. Anthropology offers a new theological language about the dangers of anthropomorphism. And many scientists, in wonder and awe at what they see, speak of the mystery they see at the heart of creation.
Darwin’s theory of evolution, modified and refined substantially in the last 150 years, focuses on the material world, on observations made over many years about physical phenomena (fossils and living creatures). It offers provisional answers to the question, “How might this have happened?”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, curious people investigating the multitude of living creatures wondered at the diversity. Darwin’s theory not only offered a provisional answer to the question but also provided a framework to continue the investigation and thereby to approach a more accurate answer.
Other theories were not as thorough or predictive. That predictive power of scientific theory has allowed a steady advance of our understanding of the world. Religious practices also allow for steady advance, but advance in the spiritual not the material realm.
To say that God created the world, and creatures in it, “that way” is fine with me. But such an assertion does not have the qualities of a scientific theory that will advance our understanding of the material world.
As a Christian, I’m very satisfied with the explanation that God uses evolution to help species adapt to a changing world.
– Karl Oelke, resident of Glenwood Springs since 2001 and vice president of the Glenwood Springs Kiwanis Club, earned a PhD in English at Columbia University, taught at West Point and Union County College in New Jersey, and taught college courses introducing students to the Bible.
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