Sunday, 21 February 2010

Some of my influences, for any who are interested.

I thought I would list some of the authors, theologians and scientists who have influenced my beliefs and ideas. Some of them I have quoted from extensively, others you may not have realised have affected me. Many of them have had an enormous impact on me, whereas some of them have merely influenced a small area of my beliefs or given me a simple "eureka" moment which helps tie together other parts. I present this list so that any interested know where to go if I touch on something and they desire more detail.

Theology of Nature:

First up is Alister McGrath. I read his book Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life and thoroughly recommend it to any who want to know whether theism is compatible with science. His discussion on this is excellent and his critique of memes is worth the read. I was not keen on the way he paints atheists, but other than that it is a good book. I have also read most of The Dawkins Delusion and found it wanting. It is better to read Dawkins' God (written before the God Delusion) as his response here is short and rushed. Another area in which I recommend McGrath's work is his discussions of Augustine. Most theistic evolutionists mentioning Augustine tend to focus simply on his allegorical interpretation of Genesis and his advice to not contradict science. McGrath instead looks at Augustine's views of how creation occurred, see here for example.I have not yet read his book on natural theology, though from what I know of his views already I get the feeling I might disagree. He has a PhD in biophysics before he became a theologian, so he is well worth listening to.

The biggest influence on me in this area has undoubtedly been John Polkinghorne. I mention him often so this should be obvious. I have some disagreements with him, but overall I get a lot from his discussions on science and theology. I first encountered his views in his short but worthwhile book Scientists as Theologians. Here he compared his own views with those of Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke, who are both also worth mentioning. I have also found a lot to chew on in another of his short books Belief in God in an Age of Science. If anyone wants to look deeper into science and theology then Polkinghorne is certainly one of the big names in that area. Like McGrath, Polkinghorne was a scientist first. He was a prominent mathematical physicist before becoming a priest and theologian.

Surprisingly to any who have read through my blog, Francis Collins has been an influence on me. His book The Language of God was the first I read by a Christian on science. For this I recommend it, as it is a demonstration of how one prominent scientist has reconciled faith in God with his studies. However, I would also recommend using it more as an introduction, as Collins' book is relatively simplistic and there are areas in which I personally disagree with him a lot.

Although not strictly an influence on me, I thoroughly recommend Kenneth Miller's book Finding Darwin's God. It is the best book on the subject I have read by a scientist. If you are looking into creation and evolution then look here. If you want more theology then you may want to look elsewhere (Catholics may prefer the work of George Coyne).

An example of a minor influence on me is Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist. Her book Evolution and Christian Faith is a bit short, but did influence my views on the body of Christ extending to all creation; I found this rather beautiful. I should also add, as mentioned in another blog, that she has some controversial views within evolutionary biology.

When I first started writing about theistic evolution it was Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware that influenced me the most. I read an essay by him titled The Environment from a Christian Perspective in a book called Abraham's Children. This introduced me to panentheism, which I dabbled with for a while, influencing my views of God's action in creation. It also started my interest in how we should treat creation and is the reason I prefer to call us 'priests' instead of 'stewards'. He has also influenced some other areas of my theology, but these were some of his biggest impacts.

Bishop Richard Harries was one of the editors and authors of Abraham's Children and has had some impact on me, albeit rather minor. He is worth the read.

A philosopher and theologian I find interesting is Keith Ward. He is a liberal Anglican and often offers an intriguing perspective on things which causes one to think things through. His book What the Bible Really Teaches is worth a read.He has also penned a response to Richard Dawkins, titled Why There Almost Certainly Is a God. I have not yet read it in full, but it is certainly interesting, looking at only the philosophy. From what I saw he makes some leaps which are not completely justified, but then Dawkins did this also. The most interesting critique I read of Dawkins came from H. Allen Orr.

Frustratingly I do not know the name of one of my influences. I read the book Real Scientists, Real Faith edited by R.J. Berry and was particularly interested by an essay from a neuroscientist. I do not currently have the book in my posession and cannot remember his name. I had intended to look into the soul in more detail, fortuitously this neuroscientist had written on this subject. I found his views gave me a bit of a eureka moment. I looked elsewhere to see what my other favourite authors said on the subject and was pleasantly surprised. I found that Polkinghorne, Harries, Peter Vardy, Ware and a book from the Taizé community all described monism when discussing the soul, though not always obviously. I intend to write about this in future, so stay tuned.

I have just mentioned Peter Vardy, who is not strictly an influence, though I found his book The Puzzle of God very informative when I was new to philosophy. His book allowed me to look into the deeper questions concerning God's existence and recently finding that he is a monist has sent me back to his book.

Here are some random useful articles on interpreting Genesis, aspects of which will likely work their way into my writing; the temple narrative; and the incarnational model.

I have not thoroughly explored eschatology yet, but already NT Wright has been an influence. His essay in The Green Bible had an impact on me, especially the way it relates to care for creation. I also went on to find that Polkinghorne has very similar views. Here is a particularly good video of Wright talking about myth and meaning. Another influence from The Green Bible is Dave Bookless.

Denis Alexander and Denis Lamoureux are both worth mentioning. Alexander has done some interesting work for theos and Lamoureux is a proponent of evolutionary creationism. I have also recently been introduced to the work of Orthodox Christian and palaeontologist George Theokritoff who will likely be my platform, along with Kallistos Ware, for discussing Eastern Orthodox views on evolution.

General Faith

I regularly visit the Taizé community so they naturally influence me theologically. Brother Roger is always worth a mention (or Bro Ro as we used to call him) and his theology of love is simplistic and moving. I regularly consult a book I bought whilst there called Seek and You Will Find. One of the reasons I have not yet written at length about the meaning of Genesis is because I want to read Brother John's book about it first.

Another great influence is Desmond Tutu. Just go out and buy his book God Has a Dream and you will see what I mean.

A friend I met online sent me a book called The Mind of Jesus which had a huge influence on how I view Christ. The author was William Barclay and I fully recommend the book to any Christian.


Most of my influences in science have influenced me for their writing. Neil Shubin was one of my inspirations when I was making the decision to study palaeontology. I read his book Your Inner Fish at just the right time.It influenced my life decisions as it showed how fascinating palaeontology can be, whilst also showing how it connects to other areas of interest. It also influenced my understanding of evolution and some of the arguments I used, despite being an easy to read book.

Donald Prothero is another palaeontologist worth mentioning. Mostly because his book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters is an excellent introduction to what the fossil record tells us about evolution, if you can get past the creationist bashing. It is a good resource for anyone debating creationists.

People find it odd when I cite Richard Dawkins as an influence. He is one of my favourite science writers, even if I completely disagree with him about God (and some science too). If you want to know about evolution, particularly natural selection, then Dawkins is a good author to start with.

Another palaeontologist who is good for showing what palaeontology does is Phil Manning. His book Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs is a great read and shows many of the methods of palaeontology, again crossing disciplines.

An author who combines both excellent writing skill and shows the many facets of palaeontology is trilobite expert Richard Fortey. He is perhaps my favourite science writer and within palaeontology I would say there is currently none who can match him in popular science.

Nick Lane is a biochemist and author whose book Life Ascending is definitely worth the read. Another book that influenced my debates with creationists and expanded my knowledge significantly. He is also an excellent writer.

From a much more scientific perspective Sean Carroll's book Endless Forms Most Beautiful comes highly recommended from me. It was my introduction to evo-devo and goes well with Neil Shubin's book. It has been the biggest influence on my understanding of evolution. Though evo-devo views are not without their critics.

Last but certainly not least is Stephen Jay Gould. Agree with him or not, he was highly influential within evolutionary biology, particularly palaeontology, and is one of the greatest science writers who ever lived.

Genesis Creation in University

Creationists are often outraged that their views have no representation in secular universities. They often go so far as to perceive university lecturers as spreading the pernicious lie of evolution in order to actively denigrate the historical narrative the creationists prefer. If Genesis were ever mentioned then it would be ridiculed and torn to shreds maliciously. Yet this is far from my experience. I can give two examples of occasions where this is contradicted, the second being the most striking and what urged me to write this down.

The first occurrence was nothing much, but worth mentioning. It was during a lecture back in October on the fossil record. It was an impromptu lecture as the lecturer we were meant to have was absent. The lecture instead covered some of the history of palaeontology, surely a playground for slating creationist views if one so wishes? They did, in fact, get a mention. The lecturer, a leading vertebrate palaeontologist over here, said something along the lines of "creationists explain all of this with Noah's flood, so there you go, the flood is proven". He made no effort to prove this wrong, though I would understand if this was perceived as some sort of ridicule. Either way, they got a mention.

The second occurrence was not ridicule and occurred just last week. It was in a lecture on statigraphy, particularly looking at deep time, two things which young earth creationists attack fervently. The lecture began by looking at the creation story, mentioned the global flood, and discussed Ussher's calculations. The lecturer (another leading palaeontologist, this time as a stratigrapher and echinoderm expert) actually stated that he believed Ussher did a good job considering the lack of evidence, he had sympathy for such views. The only laugh he got from people about Ussher was at the incredible accuracy of Ussher's calculations, putting creation at 9am.

So there it is. In the latter example the Genesis narrative was presented and not as an attempt to demolish. It was not even ridiculed. In a sense it was presented as antiquated, as the aforementioned calculations were some of the first attempts at dating the Earth. This was in the Earth sciences department, one in which almost everything taught contradicts young earth creationism. It is exactly the sort of department we actually would expect creationists to be ridiculed, yet they were not. It might not be quite the treatment they desire, but can they really complain? It shows that they are not completely ignored and ridiculed in secular universities.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A Brief Foray into Natural Theology: The Mind of God in Creation

Historically the study of natural theology involved looking to nature for revelation and proof of God. The most famous example being William Paley’s watchmaker analogy and such arguments go back to such luminaries as Anselm and Aquinas. The biggest blow to these arguments came from the advent of the theory of evolution, as divine proof could no longer be convincingly sought in biology. Natural theology, however, is not dead, but persists in two forms. One form maintains the claim that nature contains evidence and proof of God’s existence, even to the point of using refuted design arguments, usually restated. Those that hold this view tend to identify with creationism or intelligent design.

The other form of natural theology is relatively recent and requires little to no denial of scientific discovery. This newer natural theology does not present proof (though arguably presents evidence) and is more content with presenting theism as the best account and explanation for the natural phenomena in question. It is seen as complementing science as opposed to replacing it as with the previous forms of natural theology.

I have certainly been vocal about my distaste for the older type of natural theology, though for the newer form I am less dismissive but do take issue with it. The distinction between providing proof and providing a consistent theistic explanation is not expressed enough and often seems not to exist, with anthropic principle being a prime example of theistic evolutionists providing evidence rather than consistency. Here I shall look into the phenomena identified in the ‘new’ natural theology and will suggest yet another alteration: natural theology should be occupied with what natural processes can tell us about God and how natural phenomena are consistent with our understanding of God. Internal consistency of a theistic worldview should be the primary focus; suggesting theism is the better explanation should come second.

We live in a universe where mathematics works; the entire universe has a deep mathematical structure to it. Both the descriptions of macro-scale processes and micro-processes (identified by cosmology and quantum mechanics respectively) are described in elegant mathematical terms; they are shot through with rational beauty. Both religious and secular scientists have a habit of referring to this as understanding the Mind of God; to the natural theologian this is no mere metaphor. It goes without saying that this is consistent with theistic belief, “God is a mathematician” is a common statement amongst science-minded theists. It seems likely that this descriptive elegance is a definite factor of nature and not simply imposed by our mind and its fondness for patterns. Theism certainly seems to be a valid explanation, but presenting it as the best runs the risk of making it a God of the gaps explanation as we do not know whether a different form of mathematics could exist, we likely cannot imagine it. It therefore remains a strong example of consistency for theism; the ordered universe reflecting the God of order.

Accompanying this is the self-awareness of the universe. Not only is there mathematical elegance and beauty permeating the very fabric of the universe, but there is also an emergent property of the universe which is able to recognise this deep structure; the universe is self-aware. The human mind through scientific enquiry has shown to be able to engage with events beyond what survival would necessitate, exploring both the macro and micro aspects of reality. To turn around and state that this is not achievable by evolutionary processes is to invoke either a God of the gaps argument or an argument from ignorance. However, it becomes a beautiful fact of our existence when one acknowledges that it is what would be expected in the creation of a God who desires much for His creation.

The concept of mathematical beauty is often commingled with the most common argument of natural theology – the Anthropic Principle. This is the concept that the universe is fine tuned in such a way that it is conducive to the production of life, alter any of its fundamental properties and it simply could not sustain it. The argument tends to be along the lines that there are only three possible explanations for why our universe holds these properties; God created it; it is simply good fortune; there are multiple universes. Many theists discard chance as improbable and multiverses as wishful thinking (though some scientists are finding ways to test this). Although this can be seen as a fact about our universe and not a gap, it is one for which we do not know enough to properly judge. Theism is rightfully a potential explanation and a strong one at that, but nothing more. The fact that this universe can give rise to life is simply consistent with belief in a creator whose intentions involve living beings.

The history of the universe displays a repeating process of order from chaos and increasing complexity. Whether it is the disequilibrium of matter and anti-matter; the spreading of elements from the death of stars; or the steady rate of death as the evolutionary engine turns; the universe displays a retrospective progression (however anthropocentric) of increased organisation. A teleological answer is not necessary here, as progress is emphasised as a retrospective view (it is arguably an intrinsic quality – a point I am not discussing for the time being). Instead the concept of order out of chaos is found in the very first pages of the Bible, especially when it is taken into account that the waters (also Leviathan and the ‘deep’) were highly symbolic of chaos, which God sets in order. The processes of death and decay, such as elements scattered by supernovae enabling life and the prevalence of death in evolution, are sometimes referred to as ‘cruciform’ in that they resemble a pattern shown by Christ on the cross, the redemption of death into new life.

The biological process of evolution is one of lawfulness and flexibility resulting in fertility. Lawfulness is characterised most obviously by natural laws such as gravity, but also natural selection in evolution and the constraints which reduce the number of potential outcomes. Flexibility in nature comes from the range of possibilities and in evolution is provided by the happenstance of genetic mutation, it is not inherently random and chaotic. Without the lawfulness of nature there would only be chaos; life could not form in such a world. Without the flexibility of nature the universe would be restricted and sterile. Lawfulness in nature is consistent with the concept of God having a plan and purpose for creation, whilst flexibility is consistent with a view of God who does not force the outcome but instead allows for freedom in His creation. The result is a fertile universe, one of great expanse within which life’s diversity is ever-expanding.

The previous two examples were entirely views of consistency and could not be construed as evidence or proof. The ‘Moral Law’ and the prevalence of altruism is an example of argumentation which often goes beyond consistency and into the realm of claiming evidence for theism. In the form of the Moral Law argument it is argued that moral attitudes are universal and that altruism goes against evolutionary explanations. It is seen as the manifestation of God’s likeness in mankind, a signpost to God’s existence and nature. I hesitantly agree with it being a clue to God’s nature, but not towards His existence. Selfless behaviour has evolutionary explanations, though extreme altruism is still largely a mystery. This is not a place where God should be forced into a gap in understanding, but instead it should be acknowledged that God’s creation has a moral compass which can be perceived as pointing in His direction. This does not mean that it is evidence of God, but that the emergence of morality through evolutionary processes is to be expected in the creation of the Christian God. Theism may or may not be the best explanation for a moral universe, the conclusion to this is subjective.

Tying in with the earlier concept of mathematical beauty and our ability to understand it is the well known argument from beauty. In this way the existence of beauty is perceived as an objective quality which we see subjectively. Human minds do not see beauty as a human construct, but instead they discover something that is inherently there. It is argued that the level of beauty we see is beyond that which could be expected from evolutionary processes. Other similar arguments involve music, which appears to transcend its nature as vibrations in the air; and love, which is seen as going beyond what evolution can offer and arriving at discovery of eternal truth. The risks of these arguments are their subjectivity; their perilous insertion of God into a gap; and they stray closely to invoking Platonic forms. It should now be obvious that the existence of beauty, music and love in human experience is what should be expected in God’s creation, whether they are a by-product of evolution or endowed by God. Subjective arguments should not be offered as proof, but should be acknowledged as consistent with belief in the Divine.

In an odd twist I will combine an argument against faith with an argument for it in order to gain greater insight into God’s will. The argument posed against faith is one aimed to undermine religion by giving to it naturalistic explanations for why it evolved and why it is so prevalent. In its simplest form it could be stated as either religion being created to control or to explain complex natural phenomena; religion is nothing more than a tool and an outdated theory. In more complex form evolutionary explanations for the bonding of a group (not mutually exclusive to the others) are usually offered. The theistic argument for God, put simply, is that we desire things which exist such as water and food, and that humans have a desire to know God. Clearly the theistic argument could be swallowed whole by the non-theistic one, with the desire to know God merely being the desire for greater knowledge; God was simply the best explanation to an unscientific world. But what are we to make of this if God is presupposed (stepping slightly outside the realm of natural theology)? The desire to know truth becomes the desire to know God, as He is Truth. The emergence of religion becomes yet another expected property of God’s creation; He intended for us to join together in an attempt to understand what is greater than us, to truly begin to know.

Many of the views listed so far have come close to explaining things in place of evolution, even though evolution itself can give some insight. Natural selection, especially by critics, is often seen as highly competitive and destructive, ‘red in tooth and claw’. This view is rather skewed as much research has been done into the prevalence of cooperation in evolution. Not only does it emerge from the evolutionary process, but it actually advances it in ways which mere competition could not. Mathematical biologist Martin Nowak even proposes that “natural cooperation” is a main factor of evolution alongside genetic mutation and natural selection. This has a much stronger correlation with Christian views than the skewed version of evolution.

A recent trend among evolution accepting Christians is to cite the work of Simon Conway Morris, a prominent evolutionary palaeobiologist. Conway Morris’ work challenges the view that the history of life is contingent, that to ‘replay the tape’ would throw up a very different evolutionary outcome. Using a plethora of examples of evolutionary convergence along with constraints limiting the outcomes, he makes a strong case for the near inevitability of humans in an evolutionary rerun. This seems to be the re-emergence of teleology in biology as an argument for God. Such a view is clearly pleasing to Christians and would sit comfortably in a theistic worldview, but is it even necessary? A contingent history may seem less likely to throw up anything remotely like humans, but implies more freedom and fruitfulness in creation. His views are still debatable, so it is risky to put our money on that outcome. Whichever turns out to be more prevalent, be it contingency or convergence, should be embraced as a valuable insight. If convergence prevails, then the newer form of natural theology may have another scientific insight for which theism can be claimed as a strong explanation, but we should not favour it out of hope.

The final place I shall turn is the multi-layered character of experience. Our day to day lives contain a mixture of both objective and subjective experiences, though even scientific discoveries have room for subjectivity. Music is again a prime example in that objectively it consists of vibrations of the air, yet can move and stir us emotionally. This is how we encounter reality and it arguably does not do it justice to write it off as materialistic epiphenomena. Value is found at multiple levels and again is considered to be a property discovered, not a construct of human minds. If taken as a metaphysical position it becomes testament to a God of worth; if proffered as a God of the gaps argument it is doomed to failure, being neither convincing nor informative. God is instead offered as an explanation for this multi-layered character, though some of the premises must be agreed upon first.

My use of natural theology here may be too different from normal natural theology to warrant the name. In some ways I have clearly turned aspects into theology of nature (starting from belief in God to understand nature instead of starting with nature and arriving at God). This is likely testament to my dislike of natural theology as it descends too easily into the fallacious God of the gaps arguments. However, perhaps God is the best explanation for an ordered, self-aware universe permeated with mathematical elegance; one which grows through processes of chance, necessity and cooperation; resulting in fruitfulness and experienced in a multi-layered fashion by emergent beings with a moral compass; able to appreciate beauty, able to appreciate music, able to love.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A Tentative Taxonomy of Creation Beliefs; Where Do You Fit?

This is a potentially futile attempt to categorise the differing views held by Christians with regards to the mode of creation used by God. It likely came to mind after returning from a lecture discussing taxonomy and giving some thought to creation related issues. Some of my definitions may be disagreed with; some may even appear to be the same thing. I am curious as to how others would identify themselves. I shall present it as several sections which often divide into other, more specific sections. This only applies to Christians.

All beliefs listed here come under the title “creation” which is divided into 2 categories. Category 1 is termed “Biblical Literalism/Creationism”.

1.1)Young Earth Creationism (YEC)/Ultra-literalism: The belief that the Genesis narrative is to be read as literal history occurring 6-10,000 years ago. There was a global flood and scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang theory are rejected. Within this view there are those who accept ‘creation science’ which claims that scientific evidence supports a young Earth (the main topics being ‘Flood Geology’ and ‘Baraminology’). Many also use the ‘Omphalos hypothesis’ which suggests that God created with an appearance of age.

1.1b) Modern Geocentism: An offshoot of YEC that claims the Sun and everything else orbits the Earth.

1.2) Old Earth Creationism (OEC): The belief that the Genesis narrative is literal, but that long time spans do not contradict it. This is often referred to as ‘concordism’ and is divided into sub-categories.

1.2.1) Gap Theory/Creationism: Also known as ‘Restitution Creationism’, claims that life was created recently on an already existing Earth. They believe that the verses Genesis 1:1-2 indicate an indeterminate amount of time before the creation week begins in verse 3. Many also believe that before this was a primordial Earth, explaining the prevalence of fossils spanning billions of years. Gap creationists believe in a global flood.

1.2.2) Progressive Creation: Also sometimes referred to as ‘strong concordism’. Progressive creationists reject evolution as explaining life’s diversity, but often accept that it does happen, though God intervenes at the key events (which are usually subjectively defined under the definition “kind” and some would suggest whenever speciation occurs). Most reject a global flood, accepting instead a local one and many interpret us as being in the 7th day.

*) Day-Age: Not specifically a belief like the others, but is a hermeneutic worth mentioning. This is the interpretation of the days of Genesis to be longer periods of time. It is mentioned here as many progressive creationists take this view, but as it is a hermeneutic it is also used by many who are found in later categories.

2) Category 2 is termed “Intelligent Creation” as referencing the philosophy which is sometimes referred to confusingly as intelligent design. There are again two main sub-categories.

2.1) Neo-creationism: This is again divided and has much overlap with some of the other categories. This is generally the belief that science cannot sufficiently explain the phenomena it purports to, but unlike Biblical Literalism it does not rely on Scripture (though many of its adherents are literalists too).

2.1.1) Abrupt Appearance Theory:
The belief that the universe and the Earth appeared abruptly and the animals and plants appeared fully formed. They make no appeal to the Bible and generally do not accept a young Earth. This can often be indistinguishable from other forms of neo-creationism or from progressive creationism.

2.1.2) Intelligent Design (ID): This has also been termed “Science Denialism” and its proponents have been referred to as both “Intelligent Design Advocates” and “Science Critics”. This claims that there are features in the universe, particularly biology, which are better explained by a designer than by naturalistic mechanisms. The usual arguments are irreducible complexity; specified complexity (and information theory); anthropic finetuning; and arguments about improbability. I have divided this further into two categories. Strong ID: This covers proponents who credit most of creation to the intervention of the designer but do not rely on the Bible for their justification. Many of their beliefs are creationist, but generally they reject this term. Weak ID: This covers proponents who accept the scientific narrative of history but reject that it could be achieved without a designer intervening. Some of these accept evolution to an extent and even accept common descent (albeit aided by the designer).

2.2) Christian Evolutionism: Also termed “Accommodationism”, is the second category within intelligent creation. This covers all the Christian beliefs which accept evolution. There are many within this and some are hard to distinguish from others. I have also defined many of them myself as they tend to all be termed ‘theistic evolution’ in most literature, which I feel fails to encompass the diversity of beliefs held concerning the act of creation. I shall list them in order from what I perceive as the most conservative to the most liberal.

2.2.1) Weak Theistic Evolution: Proponents of this vary, though generally Genesis is seen as having some accuracy. Many take the day-age approach and believe the Genesis sequence matches that of modern science (for which they could be listed under creationism, however, they accept evolution). Some do deny aspects of evolution, such as those that believe that evolution accounts for all except humans, which were created specifically by God (some even believing Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden onto this Earth).

2.2.2) BioLogos: A term used by Francis Collins which is also the name of an organisation. Proponents tend to be evangelical and many accept some concordance between Genesis and evolution (such as the belief in a real Adam or “Homo divinus” and a localised flood). They also tend to favour arguments such as anthropic finetuning; the Moral Law; and the innate desire to find God, which they do not consider to be God of the gaps arguments.

2.2.3) Evolutionary Creationism: Often indistinguishable from other forms within this category. Proponents tend to be evangelical and wish to emphasise that they either put God before science or that they favour Scripture over it by accepting this moniker. Concordance between science and Scripture is often rejected as unnecessary.

2.2.4) Strong Theistic Evolution: Also termed “Christian Darwinism”, this view accepts the entire evolutionary timeline and God is often seen as acting in a kenotic fashion. Less evangelical in this definition than the previous ones, however, it is the most well known term and is usually used to cover every evolution accepting theistic belief.

2.2.5) Evolutionary Christianity: A term from Michael Dowd (who also has bizarre terms like crea-THEIST and cre-ATHEIST). It appears to abandon many Biblical teachings for insight from evolution. For a review of his book look here:

2.2.6) Christian Deism:
The belief that God set the ball rolling 13 billion years ago and does not intervene or interact with creation. Every act of creation is seen as an instant action.

That is all for my attempted taxonomy of creation beliefs (I actually drew a diagram too). I personally place myself in category 2.2.4 even though it seems to almost be a catch-all category. Where do you fit?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Painting a Christian Picture of Evolution

The portrayal of evolution in popular science books can often leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of Christians, even those who understand and accept it. Popular writing on the subject inevitably includes the biases of the writers and how they interpret meaning in light of the scientific theory. A well known example comes from George Gaylord Simpson: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” Clearly this would not be seen by a Christian as something which matches their beliefs.

Richard Dawkins is one of the most read popular authors of evolution, famed for his book “The Selfish Gene” in which this quote is found: “We are survival machines, robot machines, blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Another which may send alarm bells ringing to Christians who have different metaphysical ideals to the author.

In contrast to this there are many evolutionary biologists who are Christians and they often present evolution in a very different manner. I want to ask if this is even necessary and if it can diminish our understanding rather than aid it. Should we sugar coat evolution to enable more Christians to find it palatable?

Opposition to evolution tends to emphasise death, competition and selfishness in order to denigrate the theory. Naturally the reaction to this is to emphasise more positive aspects such as life’s diversity, cooperation and beauty found in nature as a result of evolution. None of these factors are absent from evolution, though both are misrepresentations as they ignore the contrasting aspects of evolution by natural selection. Christians engaging with the theory should be aware of both sides and not just that which suits their agenda.

For some Christian biologists studying evolution things are a little different. Their studies have led them to the view that these more positive aspects of evolution are actually prevalent and not just an appealing gloss of paint on the veneer of the theory. Could a Christian portrayal of evolution actually be correct?

One such biologist is Martin Nowak who specialises in mathematical biology. One of his main areas of study is cooperation in evolution and the evolution of altruism. In one of his most well known papers he suggests that the evolution of complexity is made possible by cooperation and even goes on to suggest that the principles of natural selection and mutation should be accompanied by a third principle of “natural cooperation”. With evolution as a process which not only produces altruistic organisms but also functions largely through cooperation, the image of the theory is softened somewhat and is more in line with a Christian vision of the world. Whether or not Nowak is influenced by his Christian beliefs is largely irrelevant in this case, as his mathematical rigour will testify.

Similar ideas to those of Nowak come from another Christian involved in evolutionary biology, ecologist Joan Roughgarden. In her book “Evolution and Christian Faith” she suggests that the term “natural breeding” is more effective than “natural selection”. Her reasons are twofold; the term “selection” has become a more general term in common parlance, whereas “breeding” has a very specific meaning; it also de-emphasises the “survival of the fittest” aspect of natural selection which has often been misunderstood. From a Christian perspective this change would probably be for the better, but realistically it would be unlikely to ever catch on.

Roughgarden heavily emphasises cooperation in evolution and has no qualms about stating it presents a more Christian friendly view of the theory. She has also been vocal in attacking selfish gene theory and holds controversial views on sexual selection. Sexual selection explains the dimorphism between males and females (the peacock being the classic example) in terms of conflict between mates in determining the roles they play. Roughgarden proposes that sexual selection should be replaced with “social selection” in which shared effort towards a common goal is the driving force. Her emphasis on cooperation is her similarity to Nowak; however, they differ vastly on the details of how this occurs.

With regards to cooperation emphasis should certainly be placed on it, in this case both Nowak and Roughgarden are correct. However, there is the risk that cooperation will be emphasised at the expense of competition when nature readily employs both. This is a mistake which Roughgarden often makes, though whether it is due to a Christian bias is not obvious. This is a good example of a favourable principle in evolution which can be justifiably emphasised in a way which Christians may find appealing. The acknowledgement of cooperation in evolution has brought light to the theory, but it must not be overzealously emphasised to the extent that other aspects are ignored. However favourable Roughgarden’s social selection may sound, it is still a tentative and heavily controversial proposal in the world of evolutionary biology, Christians should be cautious about jumping on this bandwagon.

Orthodox evolutionary views have long held that there is no progress in evolution and that evolution is unpredictable (in the long term). The famous thought experiment of Stephen Jay Gould (and independently of Stuart Kauffman) asks us what would happen if evolution was allowed to rerun, to ‘replay the tape’ of evolution. Gould argued that life would be completely different to the diversity we see today and that the chances of anything remotely like humans emerging was slim. To Christians who believe man was both the purpose and pinnacle of creation this view is unsettling; how could God use such a random mechanism? The Christian responses to this were theological until recent years; there is now a strong scientific response which many theistic evolutionists have taken note of.

Evolutionary palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris claims that if we were to replay the tape of evolution the outcome would be similar to what we see today, humans are near inevitable. In the eyes of Conway Morris the spectre of teleology has returned to biology. He calls on the principles of convergence and constraint in evolution to make his case. His conclusions are that the components of complex systems are inherent in simpler ones; that the number of evolutionary end-points is limited; what is possible has usually been achieved multiple times, suggesting inevitability; and that time increases probability of traits arising, trends do occur. He makes a bold case backed by an incredible amount of examples in his book “Life’s Solution” in which he presents his controversial view.

The prevalence of convergence is still open to debate but is largely accepted. The idea that sentient beings are inevitable is not as widely held, but Conway Morris is not the only one to hold it. Outside of scientific circles many Christians have embraced his views, as the idea of evolution being more convergent than contingent presents the favourable teleology many desire in a Creation showing God’s intent and will. His critics have often claimed that his Christianity causes him to pursue such a view, a claim which should be taken seriously. This is another bandwagon which Christians should not simply jump on, debate remains and at the moment Simon Conway Morris is on one extreme of a spectrum of views. Non-scientist Christians should not simply choose the extreme which favours their cherished views.

Christians involved in science are not the only ones prone to reading their own views into the history of life. Critics of Gould often pointed out his Marxist leanings and his loathing of socio-biology as the driving force behind some of his views. Bizarrely the criticism of Simon Conway Morris reading a Christian view into the history of life can also be thrown at atheist scientists who hold similar views to him, reading their own metaphysical assumptions into the theory. In “The Ancestor’s Tale” Richard Dawkins briefly discusses the question of an evolutionary rerun, citing Conway Morris as an expert witness. Although his views are not quite as extreme as those of Conway Morris, he accepts the view that replaying the tape could result in something very similar to human life. The point could be made that his atheism requires a mechanism which can produce humans with intelligence, this is evolution by natural selection, however, if it could be shown that humans were not only a product of evolution but also inevitability, then his worldview would be strengthened. The point here is that bias is often inescapable when approaching questions like these and we should try our best not to let our biases dictate what we accept.

With regards to convergence and contingency the jury is still out. Convergence is certainly showing not to be the exception to the rule, but we should not leap to the other extreme and declare it to be the rule, however pleasing to our teleological desires it may be. More data is needed, the concepts need to be debated and discussed in the scientific arena in more detail. It is likely, as with the cooperation example, that convergence is one facet. Evolutionary history is likely a complex interplay of contingent happenstance and convergence, just as it is a complex interplay of cooperation and competition.

The Christian friendly picture of evolution would seem to hold that natural breeding, random mutation and natural cooperation are the driving forces in a world full of constraints resulting in the inevitability of mankind, of altruism and of beauty. On the other extreme fierce and deadly competition driven by selfish genes results in an unpredictable array of diversity in which humans are a fortunate accident. In reality the truth is more likely to be somewhere in the middle of these caricatures. Cooperation is certainly not a peripheral occurrence; it is a key factor just as competition is. Convergence may or may not be the main theme of evolutionary history, but contingency is clearly not the only theme found.

Emphasising the Christian friendly aspects of evolution can be beneficial, but restraint must be applied. Some of the views are still being debated and are controversial; presenting these as the main thrust of evolution could be detrimental. Christians (though this applies to anyone really) should strive for the most accurate picture possible, which often sits between two extremes. We want to see the full picture, not only the nice half, our faith should inspire us to understand for truth cannot be our enemy.

For some of Nowak’s work see here:
For a controversial paper on social selection by Roughgarden see here:
Reviews of her views can be found here:

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Christ is the Answer to the Difficult Questions in Christian Theistic Evolution

With any world view there are difficult questions which need answering. For theistic evolutionists many of the difficult questions are theological and considering that Darwin’s theory of evolution is only 150 years old there has been little time dedicated to searching out the answers to those questions when compared to other areas of theology. The first port of call for anyone exploring theology of creation should be to try to understand the phenomena in question in light of Jesus Christ, for he is the centre of Christianity; the Word made flesh; the true light which enlightens everyone.

When discussing the methods of God in creating the world the authority of Scripture is inevitably brought into question. In can sound almost vulgar to suggest that fallible human beings had any hand in recording Holy Scripture to those who hold it as highest authority, men were nothing more than scribes, the amanuenses of God Himself. Yet the fingerprints of man are all over the Bible, affecting not only artistic style, but making the text itself very human. The cry of “heresy” rings out in the minds of the Biblical literalist when it is suggested that man used the ‘science’ of their day when writing the Genesis creation story, yet surely this is what we should expect? These suggestions need clarification, which shall come through understanding Christ Jesus.

The majority of Christians are Trinitarians and have no qualms about stating the paradox that Jesus was both 100% man and 100% God. God submitted Himself to the human condition, subjected to the fallibility of the human body, able to be injured, able to bleed. He put his trust in the human body to be His vessel; He used human languages to spread the good news. If it is possible to hold this view then it should be almost automatic that one would accept Scripture as containing both God’s authoritative message and showing the handiwork of human kind. This very Christ-centric ‘incarnational’ understanding of the Bible should make things clearer to any Christian.

The subject of death is one which turns many Christians away from the acceptance of theistic evolution. Death becomes part of the mechanism through which God creates life, making it easier to caricature God as a profligate designer who relishes in suffering. There are many plausible responses which are not mutually exclusive; however, it is a Christ-centred approach I shall take.

The most recognised symbol of Jesus Christ is the cross, symbolising the most important event in Christian history. The ultimate sacrifice of Jesus should shed light on the role of death in evolution. The death caused by natural selection allows for fruitful diversification of organisms and the continued propagation of genes, redeeming death into new life in a way analogous to the work done by Jesus on the cross. It is worth taking into consideration the words of Jesus himself who said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

The other problem faced with accepting billions of years of death is the necessary acceptance of death before the fall. This is a case where one of the many possible answers should immediately jump out. It is common for Christians, particularly evangelical, to talk about themselves having a new life in Christ and being “born again”. Should we envisage them being biologically reborn from their own mothers again? Such an idea would be written off with glaring red letters reading “preposterous”. So why is pre-fall death always held to be biological by Biblical literalists when its opposite – life in Christ – does not call for it? Again, understanding Jesus can help us understand these issues.

Finally, embracing evolution as a Christian can be tricky, despite the usual emphasis on faith, as it removes what many perceive as a valuable piece of evidence for God’s existence. Science has authority even to those who regularly reject it and scientific evidence would appeal to many. Accepting evolution means accepting secular science, which utilises methodological materialism and therefore cannot comment on God’s existence. God then appears to be absent as He is not made obvious by the very creation which displays His manifold works. This appears to be anti-Biblical and an ostensible look at the life of Jesus can often confirm this view when we consider his miraculous acts which drew the attention of many. Should this understanding of Christ lead us to conclude that God’s creative acts should be ostentatious?

To emphasise the miracles of Jesus is to ignore their context within his whole life. In His incarnation God did not triumphantly enter the world to the sound of fanfare, He came has a feeble child born in a dirty stable to humble peasants. The signs accompanying the birth of the infant were not as obvious as we tend to think. The majority of his life is a mystery, the most popular view being that he learnt the art of carpentry from Joseph and studied Scripture diligently in temple. Perhaps the most telling event is the temptation in the wilderness, during a time when Jesus’ ministry was beginning, important decisions were to be made. He was tempted to announce his arrival with pomp and bombast in a way which none could deny, every knee would surely bow and every tongue confess. As we all know, he chose the path to the cross, an obscure path which caused many to doubt him, even those who loved him.

With the understanding of the humility of Christ, of his kenotic sacrifices, why should we expect creation to definitively demonstrate God’s existence? If anything it suggests that God can be seen at work, but that faith allows us to see this unseen act. In this case we can build a Christ-centred theology which allows science to function without needing to demonstrate God’s existence.

For Christians it is Jesus Christ who is the centre of creation and should be the centre of our theological understanding of the act of creation. Christian theistic evolutionists should embrace the knowledge they have of their Saviour when faced with the difficult questions posed by others, for his light is the true light and will illuminate the truth in creation.