God’s word or human reason? This was a question I first asked myself in fall of 2001, following the worst terrorist attack ever to occur on American soil.
As a Christian, I had been raised to believe that reason was something akin to a child’s desire to eat candy: something which was appealing but ultimately useless, since all of the world’s most important lessons could be found in the Bible. And in the distant realms of the world where no missionary or Bible had ever reached, the Holy Spirit could still be counted on to lead people to the truth. All that was required was simple faith and obedience, without need of any person to figure out for themselves what was or was not true.
The puzzle of this matter first hit me when I read what the motivation had been of the terrorists who carried out these attacks. The hijackers had claimed to be led by the Holy Spirit, and were acting out of faith for what they believed would be their reward in heaven. Clearly, the Holy Spirit could not have led anyone to crash an airplane into a skyscraper filled with innocent people—that was not what puzzled me. What I found confusing was that somehow, these men had mistaken the depraved urges of their own minds for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, without ever realizing their error.
I wondered how anyone could make such a mistake. It seemed that it should be easy for a person to discern God’s guidance from their own sinful nature, since the Holy Spirit would never offer anyone guidance contrary to the instructions provided by the Bible. The answer to my question revealed itself soon enough, however: the hijackers believed that God’s word was not the Bible, but the Koran. And according to the Koran, their actions were not only permissible, but honorable.
Here were two books, each claiming to be God’s word, yet offering two vastly differing views on the nature of God and of morality. I had been told that the Holy Spirit could be trusted to show anyone that this was true of the Bible and no other book, yet somehow these men had been unable to distinguish its guidance from their own sinful desires. Was the Holy Spirit truly the only guidance God had provided for people who spent their lives in parts of the world where Christianity was mostly unknown, and where a book other than the Bible was widely regarded as God’s word? Based on what I had just seen, the Holy Spirit alone did not seem to be enough to lead people in such places to the truth, and I could not understand why God would have equipped people so poorly to identify the truth among the world’s countless false teachings.
Almost as soon as I reached this apparent quandary, however, I realized what its solution was: God had not left us nearly as helpless in this respect as it at first seemed. He had granted us the gift of reason, an ability which no other animal can match, and which was the only certain way for a person to determine which teachings are true and which are false. I had begun down a path scorned by many Christians, but I soon discovered that I was not alone, for many other Christians had traveled it before me.
As was written by Galileo Galilei: I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
It is my hope that the preceding explanation will enable you, the reader, to understand my dissatisfaction with the Creaton Museum’s teaching that “human reason” cannot and should not be trusted. If you share their opinion on this matter, and I have thus far been unable to sway it, you may as well put this booklet back where you found it—if reason is worthless to you, then everything else I have to say surely will be also. If, however, you are willing to consider reason a gift from God as I do, then the rest of this booklet will serve as an introduction to reason and what can be learned from it.
I will begin with the most basic lesson that reason taught me: that I should observe the world around me, and learn from what I see.
I doubt that most Christians would disagree with the most basic applications of this principle. For example, if while driving a car a person sees a traffic light in front of them turn red, I would hope and expect that they press the brake in order to stop. It is only when what we observe appears to run contrary to the Bible that anyone would have a problem with this idea: if the Bible is the greatest authority that exists on all matters, then according to some Christians it should be trusted more than any other source of information, even more than our own eyes and ears.
This was another idea which I believed for most of my life, but in time reason presented a problem with it. How could place more trust in the Bible than in my eyes, when my eyes were my only way of reading the Bible? It seemed that I would have to fully trust my eyes regardless of how great an authority I considered the Bible to be. Alternatively I could read a Braille Bible, or have someone read the Bible aloud to me, but in those cases I would only be placing this trust in my sense of touch or hearing rather than sight. The inescapable conclusion was that regardless of what I believed about the Bible or anything else, my senses were the only way for me to learn about the world.
And with this conclusion followed another. If I must trust my eyes an equal amount while reading the Bible as I do while observing the physical world, then what my eyes told me about the physical world could be trusted just as much as what they told me about God’s word. It was not really a surprise: if God had created the physical world, surely I could learn just as much about how He worked by observing His creation itself as I could by reading a written account of His actions.
Science suddenly became a realm of study just as honorable as theology to me. It was through science that we could more fully understand the workings of God’s creation, and better appreciate His glory as its designer. For science is more than just a set of teachings, and this is among the most essential things for anyone to understand if they wish to learn more about the world: science is, above anything else, a quest for understanding. After observing the world with one’s senses, the scientific method is to formulate a hypothesis to explain these observations. The hypothesis must then be tested, and if these tests show the hypothesis to be incorrect, a new hypothesis is created that is consistent with whatever information has been gathered.
This raises an important question: if the conclusions of science have the potential to be disproved by future tests, as indeed they do, then why should we have faith in the conclusions science has drawn? The answer is that no true scientist ever does. If any scientific theory which I currently accept were unequivocally shown to be false, I would abandon it without hesitation, and I’m certain that the same holds true for all of the other people who have contributed to this booklet. However, there are certain theories that explain all of the observable evidence in a way that no other theory can, such as the theory of gravity or the theory that all objects are made out of atoms. Although it is remotely possible that at some point the existence of atoms will be disproved, until then accepting their existence is the only course of action for anyone whose goal is to understand as much as possible of the truth about the world.
What, then, are we to make of those situations in which the conclusions of science appear to run contrary to the Bible? There are two possible answers, and the first is offered by the statement of faith of Answers in Genesis, the organization responsible for the Creation Museum:
No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.
The second was offered the theology journal Christian Observer in 1832, approximately two decades before Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution:
If sound science appears to contradict the Bible, we may be sure that it is our interpretation of the Bible that is at fault.
These are two diametrically opposed viewpoints, but God’s gift of reason can allow us to determine which of these method we should favor.
The operative phrase here is “sound science”, as not all scientific theories can be considered sound. Those that qualify as sound must fit the description given above, explaining all of the observations which pertain to them in a way that no other theory can. In other words, when sound science appears to contradict the Bible, it is because things can be seen in the physical world that directly contradict our interpretation of the Bible, and the only way to reject these observations would be by placing more trust in the Bible more than we place in our eyes. But of course that is impossible, since we cannot read the Bible without using our eyes.
The most famous example of sound science appearing to contradict the Bible is not evolution, but the studies of Copernicus and Galileo showing that the earth revolves around the sun. This view was opposed by the church because it appeared to contradict verses such as Ecclesiastes 1:5, which suggests that it is the sun which revolves around the Earth, as well as Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30, all of which suggest that the earth is immobile. However, in 1758 the Pope acknowledged that this opposition had been a mistake, and reversed the church’s opposition to the heliocentric model of the solar system.
The church’s opposition to Galileo is an example of an important principle. There are parts of the Bible which cannot be interpreted correctly without the use of physical observation and reason, as can be seen from the fact that the aforementioned verses were interpreted to mean that the sun revolves around the earth until Copernicus and Galileo showed otherwise. Clearly, we must be prepared to do follow the instructions provided by Christian Observer: if sound science is found to contradict our interpretation of the Bible, meaning the only possible conclusion that can be drawn from our observations shows our interpretation of the Bible to be false, then we must allow what we can see of God’s actions to alter our understanding of God’s word.
The question that will surely be asked at this point is, can the theory of evolution be considered sound science? Although it would be easy to answer this question with a simple “yes” or “no”, such an answer would be of little value: a scientific theory is never valid because a person declares it to be so, but because of its ability to explain evidence that cannot be explained by any competing theory. It is for this reason that the next six chapters of this booklet exist: in order to show what this evidence is in the case of evolution.
There is one thing that should be explained first, however, and that is what the theory of evolution actually says.
The theory of evolution is based on the fact that no two members of a given species are exactly the same. In the case of animals, a certain individual might have slightly longer legs, another might have an extra vertebra in its neck, and both would possess the genetic code that results in these traits. When any one of these traits makes it easier for the animal that has it to survive and reproduce, the animals that have it will generally produce more offspring than those that lack it, passing along the gene for it from parent to child so that it gradually becomes more common.
This process is referred to as natural selection, as well as by the popular phrase “survival of the fittest”, although the second term can be misleading for several reasons. First, it is not survival that makes a difference in this respect, but rather reproduction: if by some strange combination of genes an animal is capable of living 200 years but never produces offspring, then its genes will die along with it. And second, there is no universal standard of what makes an animal most “fit”—which members of a species can reproduce most easily is nearly always determined by the details of the environment in which they live, so that those that are “fit” in one environment would not be fit in another. Polar bears are well-suited to live in an arctic environment, but they could not survive in the African savannah.
The genetic code of most species is in constant flux, as traits that make it more difficult for animals and plants to reproduce become less common, and traits that make it easier for them become more so. One other occurrence also alters the genetic code of organisms from time to time: mutations, which are random genetic changes that occur by chance. Most mutations have no effect at all on the organisms in which they occur, and those that do have effects are usually harmful. Occasionally, however, a mutation makes it easier for the organism that has it to survive and reproduce, and through natural selection the new genetic code resulting from the mutation becomes more common.
All of the occurrences described thus far have been directly observed and documented, so there is virtually no dispute about them even among creationists. Answers in Genesis even acknowledges at their website that genetic changes due to mutations can cause entirely new species to form, species which had not existed before. The aspect of evolution which they do not accept is the extent to which the diversity of life on earth can be explained by these types of changes, and as such it will be the main aspect of evolution described in this booklet.
Thus far I have been explaining what the theory of evolution says, but it is equally important to clarify what this theory does not say. There are three major misconceptions that exist about evolution in this respect.
1: Evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of the universe, the origin of stars and planets, or the origin of life.
The reason this misconception exists is probably because the origin of stars and planets is occasionally referred to as “stellar evolution”, and the origin of the first living things as “chemical evolution”. Both of these terms are popular slang, however, and are not used by scientists who actually study these topics. Evolution is a theory about biology specifically, while anything regarding the Big Bang or the formation of the Solar System lies outside the realm of biology, and thus cannot be explained by biological principles.
Likewise, while the theory of evolution can explain how natural selection acted on the first living things that were capable of reproducing themselves, it cannot explain how those living things first came into existence. The latter topic is covered by an entirely separate theory called abiogenesis, which deals with how the first cells could have come into existence without the direct intervention of a deity. If abiogenesis or the Big Bang were disproved, it would not affect the theory of evolution, and there are a number of people who accept evolution without accepting either of the former two theories.
2: Evolution does not attempt to provide moral guidance.
This misconception exists not only among creationists, but also among certain supporters of evolution such as Social Darwinists. Their mistake is to assume that because the theory of evolution states that species evolve over time as a result of natural selection, this is therefore something that should happen and that we must encourage. However, the theory of evolution makes no claim about what things are actually desirable: it is merely a description, not a prescription. If we were to assume that every time something does happen we should therefore want it to happen, then the discovery that sickness is caused by germs would require us to sneeze in one another’s faces as frequently as possible in order to encourage this.
A second misconception is the assumption that if humans are descended from animals, then we are incapable of being anything more than this—or that because the human body evolved as the best possible way for individuals to pass on their genes to offspring, we can therefore never aspire to any greater goals than to mate and breed. This is particularly important for Christians to realize: even if God created us by means of this naturalistic force, one should not expect His plans for humans to be limited by the method He used to form us, just as Jesus’s accomplishments were not limited by his humble roots. Even among non-Christians, it is common for supporters of evolution to nonetheless be proud of humans’ ability to create great art and music that goes beyond any biological necessity.
However, with this realization can come a second error, which is to assume that evolution is synonymous with “progress”, or that those individuals which natural selection favors are inherently superior to those which it does not. Remember that which animal could be considered “fit” depends almost entirely on the environment in which they live, and an animal which would be favored by natural selection in one environment often could not survive in another. It could be argued that from the perspective of natural selection, the most successful animals that have ever lived are insects, since they exist in greater numbers than any other animal and can also reproduce more easily than most—but no one would claim that because of this fact, insects should be considered superior to humans.
These three mistakes account for nearly all of the atrocities that have been committed in the alleged name of evolution. Adolf Hitler made all three of them, along with the fourth mistake of assuming that he had the right to judge which humans deserved to survive and which did not. These errors are important to recognize if such acts are to be considered an argument against the acceptance of evolution or reason: can an idea be blamed for what is done as a result of it being improperly understood? I should hope that for most Christians the answer would be no, since if ideas can be blamed for the ways in which they are misused, then Christianity would be to blame for the massacre of other religions in Jesus’s name that occurred during the crusades.
3: Evolution does not deny the existence of a god.
Evolution says nothing either way about whether or not there is a god. The most that can be said of evolution in this respect is that it provides a naturalistic explanation for something that could otherwise be attributed to direct divine intervention, but evolution is hardly the only theory which does this—the same can be said of the discovery that physical illness is not the result of being possessed by demons, or that thunderbolts are not thrown by Zeus. Belief in God nearly always requires faith, so not seeing His direct intervention in the development of life is not a reason to assume He does not exist.
Evolution also does not deny the existence of the Christian god. The only Christian doctrine which evolution denies is a literal interpretation of Genesis, which is not a requirement for salvation: John 3:16 states that a person is saved because they accept Jesus as their savior, not because of the way in which they interpret Genesis. A number of famous Christians throughout history have accepted evolution as well, including Benjamin B. Warfield, who is widely regarded as the greatest Christian theologian of the past 150 years.
Of course, it remains two separate questions whether it is possible for a Christian to accept evolution, and whether this position is theologically consistent. The second question will be addressed in chapter seven, but our first order of business is to determine whether evolution can be considered “sound science” or not.
If you are prepared to make use of God’s gift of reason, then let us begin.