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Evolution Is Most Certainly a Matter of Belief—and so Is Christianity

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One of the most misleading headlines imaginable recently appeared over an opinion column published in USA Today. Tom Krattenmaker, a member of the paper’s Board of Contributors, set out to argue that there is no essential conflict between evolution and religious belief because the two are dealing with completely separate modes of knowing. Evolution, he argued, is simply “settled science” that requires no belief. Religion, on the other hand, is a faith system that is based in a totally different way of knowing—a form of knowing that requires belief and faith.

The background to the column is the recent data released by the Pew Research Center indicating that vast millions of Americans still reject evolution. As the Pew research documents, the rejection of evolution has actually increased in certain cohorts of the population. Almost six of ten who identify as Republicans now reject evolution, but so do a third of Democrats. Among evangelical Christians, 64% indicate a rejection of evolution, especially as an explanation for human origins. Krattenmaker is among those who see this as a great national embarrassment—and as a crisis.

In response, Krattenmaker makes this statement:

In a time of great divides over religion and politics, it’s not surprising that we treat evolution the way we do political issues. But here’s the problem: As settled science, evolution is not a matter of opinion, or something one chooses to believe in or not, like a religious proposition. And by often framing the matter this way, we involved in the news media, Internet debates and everyday conversation do a disservice to science, religion and our prospects for having a scientifically literate country.

So belief in evolution is not something one simply chooses to believe or to disbelieve, “like a religious proposition.” Instead, it is “settled science” that simply compels intellectual assent.

The problems with this argument are legion. In the first place, there is no such thing as “settled science.” There is a state of scientific consensus at any given time, and science surely has its reigning orthodoxies. But to understand the enterprise of science is to know that science is never settled. The very nature of science is to test and retest hypotheses and to push toward new discoveries. No Nobel prizes are awarded for settled science. Instead, those prizes are awarded for discoveries and innovations. Many of those prizes, we should note, were awarded in past years for scientific innovations that were later rejected. Nothing in science is truly settled.

If science is to be settled, when would we declare it settled? In 1500? 1875? 1960? 2013? Mr. Krattenmaker’s own newspaper published several major news articles in just the past year trumpeting “new” discoveries that altered basic understandings of how evolution is supposed to have happened, including a major discovery that was claimed to change the way human development was traced, opening new questions about multiple lines of descent.

But the most significant problem with this argument is the outright assertion that science and religion represent two completely separate modes and bodies of knowledge. The Christian understanding of truth denies this explicitly. Truth is truth. There are not different kinds of truth that operate by different intellectual rules.

Every mode of thinking requires belief in basic presuppositions. Science, in this respect, is no different than theology. Those basic presuppositions are themselves unprovable, but they set the trajectory for every thought that follows. The dominant mode of scientific investigation within the academy is now based in purely naturalistic presuppositions. And to no surprise, the theories and structures of naturalistic science affirm naturalistic assumptions.

“Religion”—to use the word Krattenmaker prefers—also operates on the basis of presuppositions. And those presuppositions are no less determinative. These operate akin to what philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls “properly basic beliefs.”

In any event, both require “belief” in order to function intellectually; and both require something rightly defined as faith. That anyone would deny this about evolution is especially striking, given the infamous gaps in the theory and the lack of any possible experimental verification. One of the unproven and unprovable presuppositions of evolution is uniformitarianism, the belief that time and physical laws have always been constant. That is an unproven and unprovable assumption.  Nevertheless, it is an essential presupposition of evolutionary science. It is, we might well say, taken on faith by evolutionists.

Consider, in contrast, another section of Tom Krattenmaker’s article:

For starters, “belief” means something different in a religion conversation than it means when we’re talking about science. In the case of faith, it usually means accepting the moral and spiritual truth of something and giving it your trust and devotion. In talking about evolution, it is more precise to call it “scientifically valid” or “an accurate account of what we observe.” No leaps of faith or life-altering commitments required.

He really does believe that science and theology operate in completely different worlds. The late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould believed the same, arguing for science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria.” But, as both scientists and theologians protested, science and religion overlap all the time.

Krattenmaker argues, “A scientific concept backed by an overwhelming amount of supporting evidence, evolution describes a process by which species change over time. It hazards no speculations about the origins of that process.”

But this is not even remotely accurate. Evolutionary scientists constantly argue for naturalistic theories of the origin of matter, energy, life—and the entire cosmos. The argument that the existence and form of the cosmos is purely accidental and totally without external (divine) agency is indeed central to the dominant model of evolution.

On one point, however, Krattenmaker is certainly right: he argues that it is possible to believe in God and to affirm evolution. That is certainly true, and there is no shortage of theistic evolutionists who try to affirm both. But that affirmation requires a rejection of the dominant model of evolution in favor of some argument that God intervened or directed the process. The main problem with that proposal, from the scientific side, is that the theory of evolution as now taught in our major universities explicitly denies that possibility. Theistic evolutionists simply do not present the model of evolution that is supposedly “settled science.”

On the other hand, such a blending of theology and evolution also requires major theological alignments. There can be no doubt that evolution can be squared with belief in some deity, but not the God who revealed himself in the Bible, including the first chapters of Genesis. Krattenmaker asserts that “it is more than possible to accept the validity of evolution and believe in God’s role in creation at the same time.” Well, that is true with respect to some concept of God and some concept of creation and some version of evolution, but not the dominant theory of evolution and not the God who created the entire cosmos as the theater of his glory, and who created human beings as the distinct creature alone made in his image.

I am confident that Tom Krattenmaker fully intended to clarify the matter and to point to a way through the impasse. But his arguments do not clarify, they confuse. At the same time, his essay is one of the clearest catalysts for thinking about these issues to arrive in recent times in the major media. It represents an opportunity not to be missed.