letters on evolution and/or xian faith

November 29, 2006

What follows are edited highlights from letters Michael Shermer received in response to a piece he wrote for Scientific American.

Can a Conservative Christian Accept Evolution?

letters to the editor of Scientific American

1. Atheist on futility. [Jim Kelly, Albuquerque, NM]

Shermer writes that evolution provides a scientific foundation for Christian values and beliefs and the tenets of conservatism and so must be embraced. Since when do beliefs, religious, political, or otherwise, require a scientific foundation? If anything, they require the absence of a scientific foundation; otherwise, what’s the point of belief? And where is the necessity of defending evolution to its detractors, anyway? Evolution is correct; that’s enough. Why appropriate the creationists’ terms to repackage it for their consumption? It comes off as desperate; it recalls creationists’ own attempts to answer, point for point, evolutionary theory with references to Scripture. If people wish to doubt that the Earth revolves around the sun, that humankind arose from earlier life forms, or any other indisputable fact, let them do so. The gaps in knowledge that resulted in the rise of codified spiritual beliefs are being filled ever more quickly, an alarming prospect to true believers. To any observer of human nature, it’s plain how people who fear the loss of something of immense value to them will react: by fiercely, even irrationally, protecting it. Those of us who know better know also that any attempt to convince such believers is, effectively, preaching to an empty choir loft.

2. A perspective on Xian obstinacy. [James Wade, Arlington, TX]

Michael Shermer’s understanding of evangelical Christians is limited. Although his argument that evolution comports with original sin and the Christian model of human nature is true, he misunderstands a crucial aspect of Christian theology, i.e. humankind’s responsibility for its sinful nature. A fundamental belief is that humans were created good but chose to rebel against their Creator which was their original sin. This rebellion made it necessary for God to send his Son into the world to redeem them through his sacrificial death. To accept evolution, evangelicals would have to accept the fact that God is responsible for our sinful nature. That would negate the central tenet of evangelical Christianity which is that the sacrificial death of Christ was necessary to reconcile humankind with God. The fierceness with which they fight the teaching of evolution in our public schools is fueled largely by this mindset.

3. Simplistic doctrine versus complex reality. [Robert Urbanek, Vacaville, CA]

Michael Shermer fails to mention one major tenet of conservative Christians that cannot be reconciled with evolution: the belief in a soul and the afterlife. In the evolution of humans, where is a Christian to draw the line on which hominid had a soul and which didn’t? Perhaps the soul has evolved along with the body. Such an idea would dovetail nicely with reincarnation but not with the all or nothing, saved and unsaved doctrine of conservative Christians. They have no room for Neanderthal souls that are sent to a Neanderthal heaven and a Neanderthal hell. There is a tiny chance that the conflict between Christianity and evolution may be put to a real-life test. If surviving members of Homo floresiensis are found on an isolated Indonesian island, will evangelical Christians send missionaries to convert them? Or will they dismiss them as soulless beings?

4. A very entertaining atheist. [John C. Simpson, North Attleboro, MA]

Nice try, Michael Shermer, but no cigar. The garden of earthly insights you have so intelligently designed to reconcile conservative Christians to evolution might trap an unsuspecting Methodist or Unitarian, but will not tempt even a part-time devotee of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. There is a good reason why religious true believers are called SUPERnaturalists. Conservative Christians need merely glance into your garden to notice that no God resident there comes even close to their definition. Omniscience and omnipotence are for girly gods. Any God worth the price of admission to a GOP fund-raiser must at the very least be able and willing to suspend the laws of the universe to make sure their man makes it into the Oval Office — and the corner office. God can fiddle with Creation all He wants on His day off (if He gets really bored or something), but His main job is to punish nonbelievers, skeptics and other perverts, and to reward, well, conservative Christians. And for conservative Christians, the best is yet to come — literally — but only if your earthly, pinko naturalist garden comes complete with eternal souls. Thought you’d sneak that one by them, too? Fugedaboudit.

(To which I can only say: Go North Attleboro! – ed.)

5. Creationist attempt to reconcile. [Steven R. Lund, Laguna Hills, CA]

Jews and Christians have historically named Moses as author and compiler of the 1st five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, beginning with Genesis, where the creation of the universe by God was described to have occurred in 6 days. It is believed by both Jews and Christians that Moses wrote Genesis around 2000 BCE (i.e. 2000 years Before the Common Era — at the time of the patriarchs). This was many years before the widely accepted, early 20th century’s scientific theory of universal creation, which was first espoused through the calculations of Albert Einstein, Aleksandr Friedmann, and Georges Lemaitre. This, so-called, big bang theory was then quickly substantiated by:

* Hubble’s telescopic discovery of the expanding universe.
* The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).
* Among other, significant empirical findings…

Dr. Shermer is correct that it matters little whether God created the universe in 10-thousand or 1-billion years, but, what is significant are the similarities between Genesis and the big bang theory:

1. The universe had a beginning according to the big bang and Genesis ( Gen 1:1)
2. God gave form to the chaos to create order (Gen 1:2) just as the big bang model used the Standard Model of elementary particle physics with the energy distribution rules of fundamental thermodynamics to describe the primordial fireball, which transformed the initial dense, hot quark-gluon soup into protons and neutrons to fuse into hydrogen and helium, creating a universe made virtually entirely of hydrogen and helium.
3. God created light on the 1st day (Gen 1:3) just as the primordial flash that produced what we know today as the CMB.
4. The separation between the light and darkness (Gen 1:4) Just as the CMB primal glow of light is separated from each observer due to the expansion of the universe.

Perhaps there isn’t a conflict between science and religion, as Dr Shermer suggests. Perhaps both the scientific and religious accounts are correct and any perceived conflict only exists in the minds of those whose faith lies in religion rather than in the scientific method! Divine miracles, to the ancients, were (and still are, to some) natural phenomena yet to be scientifically explained…

6. Xian for science. [Joe Craig, Tahoka, TX.]

As an evangelical Christian engineer and longtime reader of Scientific American I find Michael Shermer quite thoughtful in his columns when on occasion he writes of science and faith. I feel like he is a skeptic that would be a pleasure to speak with. In “Darwin on the Right,” (SA Oct 06) he extends his hand much further than he has done in the past. I agree it does not make any difference whether God created the universe 10,000,000,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago. The magnificence of the creation is truly a witness to his glory (Ps 19:1) regardless of when it began. Science is one way I believe God directs our attention toward and stirs our curiosity about His creation. By way of example, for God to have begun our physical universe as theorized by the big bang theory is precisely how I see God doing it. My hats off to the latest Nobel Prize winners in physics for further scientific support for this theory. The most significant point at which science and faith meet is to answer the question: Did Jesus Christ actually die and then defeat death by his resurrection? If the answer is no then we Christians are fools. Of course as a Christian I believe the answer is yes. As the answer is yes among many things it gives me a passion for science. I think we can all at least agree that for current readers we will know the answer within 100 years.

7. Xian attempt at science versus science. [Joseph Reinckens, Dallas, Texas]

…Regarding Shermer’s basic question of why don’t conservative Christians accept macro-evolution: Harvard biologist Stephen J. Gould, who formulated the theory of punctuated equilibrium, stated in a PBS interview A Glorious Accident ca. 1991, by Dutch producer Wim Kayzer, “An accident is the 60 trillion contingent events that eventually led to the emergence of Homo Sapiens… There was never anything in the history of life that has had such an impact upon the earth, as the evolution of human mind.” Cosmologists, geologists, etc., estimate the Earth to be 4.55 billion years old. Disregarding the roughly 700 million year Hadean period, 60 trillion events divided by 4.55 billion years (13,187) divided by 365.25 days equals 36 necessary events per day for 4.55 billion years – just to get Homo Sapiens. And conveniently, each of these 36 new events daily just happened to occur in the right place at the right time in the right sequence. And we won’t even quibble about the googleplex of “accidents” necessary to form the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of separate ecosystems. Why don’t conservative Christians accept macro-evolution? — The facts don’t support evolutionists’ claims. The odds would be better of getting hit by lightning at the moment you won the Powerball lottery while dying in the crash of a plane that got struck by a meteor. But then, such things don’t happen every day.

8. Xian for interpretive flexibility. [Blake Adams, San Antonio, TX]

As an evangelical Christian with a biology background, I appreciate and agree with most of Michael Shermer’s article on why Christians should stop opposing evolution. However, he missed what is in my experience the main reason so many Christians hold so strongly to creationism. This is the belief that if we throw out the literal Creation account, then we are opening the door to throwing out the very basis of Christianity, the physical and historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. As long as the two are linked, conservative Christians can never accept evolution. Only by decoupling the two issues can Christians accept evolution. Fortunately, this has already happened once in Christian history, when the Protestants of the Reformation dropped the belief in the literal transformation of the Eucharist in the Mass. Once they realized that they could rationally take the Eucharist passages non-literally and still take the Resurrection literally, they followed the physical evidence and never looked back. Conservative Christians will not accept evolution until they make the same intellectual leap. How long that will take, only God knows.

9. Cautionary note. [Taras Wolansky, Kerhonkson, NY]

…Shermer certainly makes the case that evolution is both good science and good theology. However, he merely assumes without proving that belief in evolution is socially beneficial. Consider that 19th century anti-Semites wanted to convert Jews to Christianity; while 20th century anti-Semites wanted to convert Jews to fertilizer. Clearly, something happened in between, and that something may have been Darwinism.

10. Xian for science. [Eric Jacobson, Studio City]

…Writing as a self-accused Evangelical Christian, I don’t see my favorite reason for embracing evolution: Rejecting evolution all but requires a prankster-God who litters the hillsides with false clues to the origins of life. In general, Christians should embrace scientific thought because:

1. it affirms the existence of an objective reality,
2. it affirms that people can know true things about that reality and
3. it embraces reason and observation as necessary tools in understanding reality.

All of those things are foundational to Christian thought. Sadly, we Evangelicals have been on an anti-intellectual bender for about a century. I hope it ends soon.

11. Xian for science versus evolution. [Richard J. Hauley, D.M.D., Salt Lake City, UT]

Evolution has served some purpose in past years but as more and more evidence comes to light there is less and less that is explained by the theory, especially anomalous evidence. One prominent feature in the treatment of anomalous evidence is what we could call the double standard. All paleoanthropological evidence tends to be complex and uncertain. Practically any evidence in this field can be challenged, for if nothing else, one can always raise charges of fraud. What happens in practice is that evidence agreeing with a prevailing theory tends to be treated very leniently. Even if it has grave defects, these tend to be overlooked. In contrast, evidence that goes against an accepted theory tends to be subjected to intense critical scrutiny, and it is expected to meet very high standards of proof. Ameghino’s discoveries in the Montehermosan formation — including stone tools, modified animal bones, signs of fire, and modern human skeletal remains show a human presence in Argentina more than 3 million years ago. “Lucy”, A. afarensis, shows us a gorilla-like head, an upward-pointing shoulder joint indicating that the arm was used for suspensory behavior, and a hand with a powerful wrist and curved fingers, suitable for climbing. Even if one believes Lucy could have evolved into a human being, one still has to admit that her anatomical features appear to have been misrepresented for propaganda purposes. The Laetoli footprints show anatomically modern human beings walking in impressed layers of volcanic ash, dated by Garniss Curtis, using the potassium-argon method, at from 3.6 to 3.8 million years ago. Indeed, humans may not have evolved at all. Human beings may have been present on this planet, in their current form and at essentially the same level of physical advancement for millions of years…

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