Are Christianity and Science Incompatible? Abridged

What follows is an abridged version of a much lengthier paper dealing with the relationship between science and Christianity, specifically looking at evolutionism and creationism. For the full version, see here.

May 8, 2015

Introduction

            Have you ever felt like there’s a tension between science and faith in the Christian church? Like the church is “out of step with the scientific world” or that “Christianity is anti-science”?[i] Different people have tried to explain the relationship between science and religion. While some would say science and religion are more or less distinct, others feel they are actually answering the same questions from two different perspectives, and one must be wrong.[ii]

            Which perspective is true? Are religion and science involved in a winner-take-all death match? Or is it possible that science and religion, and Christianity in particular, are compatible ways of looking at the world? This paper will answer this question, first by clarifying what is meant by both “Christianity” and “science”. When definitions are unclear, it is easier to conflict. Second, we will show the integration of Christianity and science by examining the fossil record.

Christianity and Science Defined

Christianity

            Christianity is a historical religion that developed as a branch of Judaism when Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, and rose again, establishing himself as the long-awaited savior, the Christ. The heart of the debate between Christianity and science lies surrounds evangelical Christians. The Evangelical movement is noted for its dedication to the Bible, specifically the inerrancy of Scripture. Inerrancy is the belief that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”[iii] It is important to note that inerrancy does not exclude everyday speech patterns (e.g., the Bible can speak of the sun rising and setting).[iv] It is this last point that is often contested or ignored, and this is one of the main reasons why Christianity and science are seen as incompatible.

Science

            There are two main branches of science: observational science (experiments that can be observed and repeated) and theoretical science (everything else). Observational science, being concrete, is more trustworthy. However, science, particularly theoretical science, cannot “give statements of absolute eternal truth – it only provides theories.”[v] These theories are currently the best offered explanations of the world, but will probably be adapted or discarded in the future. We need to be careful not to assume a scientific theory is and will always be 100% accurate.

            Some people question the role of worldview in scientific work. A worldview is a belief system about the way the world works. Many people assume that having a worldview means a person cannot be unbiased in their scientific endeavors, and that this bias makes that scientific work worthless. This is simply not true.

            When someone says “Science and religion are incompatible,” they are, intentionally or not, making a statement about worldview. In this statement, “science” is most likely a reference to “scientific naturalism.” Naturalism asserts that there is no supernatural realm, only the physical, material world.[vi] Therefore, the soul, ghosts, God, an afterlife, etc., cannot exist.

Christianity and Science: Friends or Foes?

            The conflict between Christianity and science, then, is a conflict between incompatible worldviews, between theism (the belief in a personal God who is involved in the workings of the world) and scientific naturalism. However, you cannot insist that this incompatibility between Christianity and scientific naturalism also means that Christianity is incompatible with science. Science is about coming up with the best explanation for the way the world is, and a Christian can explain evidence just as capably as a non-Christian can. And since everyone has a worldview, the key to doing science well is remaining unbiased while interpreting the data.

Creationism versus Evolution

            One of the key areas of debate is the evidence surrounding the diversity of life. The battle lines of this debate are broadly drawn between theists, who believe that God created all life, and evolutionists who believe that all biological life has descended, undirected, from a common ancestor.[vii] After defining the sides, we will look at how each view handles the fossil record.

Creationism

            Although there are many categories of Creationism, this paper will focus on the most narrow category, “Young-Earth Creationism” (YEC). These people believe that the Biblical account is a literal expression of how the earth was created. Therefore, God created the earth in 6 literal days and the earth is around 6,000 years old according to genealogical evidence.[viii]

Evolutionism

            Evolution is a scientific theory that attempts to explain “the emergence of new varieties of living things in the past and in the present.”[ix] According to evolutionary theory, these varieties reveal themselves in both microevolution (i.e., changes occurring within a species) and macroevolution (i.e., changes from one species into another). Darwin brought evolution from the realm of speculation into that of observational science through his observation of finches and the adaptive process he called natural selection.[x] Seventy years later, increased understanding in genetics gave further credence and clarification to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.[xi]

Evidence: The Fossil Record

            A fossil is “the naturally preserved remains or traces of animals or plants that lived in the geologic past.”[xii] Fossils are often formed through rapid burial in a way that prevents natural decay, predators, or scavengers from interfering. The tissue in this buried organism may then be replaced by minerals or it may simply leave behind the impression of its shape in the rock.[xiii]

Evolutionism. Evolutionists assert that the fossil record was formed over the past 4.5 billion years. The earliest period, the Precambrian, lasted for 4 billion years and only holds algae and bacteria fossils. The next period, the Cambrian Period, contains “massive quantities of small, complex, multicelled creatures… Nearly all are water creatures.”[xiv] We also find most major animal groups suddenly represented at the Phylum level of classification.[xv] As we continue up through the various strata we find more and more complex life forms (i.e., marine invertebrates, fish, land plants, reptile and amphibian footprints, land vertebrates, etc.), which evolutionists claim as evidence that life forms evolved over the course of millions of years.

Creationism. YEC, on the other hand, attributes fossilization to the global flood recorded in Genesis 6-9. This cataclysmic storm and the ensuing floodwaters would have churned about the earth, stirring up sediment, rocks, plants, and animals, then laid them down to harden into sedimentary rock layers, fossilizing the organisms caught within them.[xvi] Interestingly, some fossils have even been found in the midst of “life poses” – such as eating or giving birth – rather than the poses expected from a dead organism that has been buried.[xvii]

            As mentioned before, the fossil record presents a specific order that seems to indicate an evolutionary process that grows more and more complex with the passage of time. However, if the fossil layers came about as the result of a worldwide flood, one could expect to see major groups appearing in the fossil record according to ecological zones that are reached as the floodwaters rise, and this is exactly what we see in the progression from seafloor invertebrates to fish to plants to smaller animals to larger animals.[xviii]

Evidential Problems: Evolutionism. One of the chief objections to evolution based on the fossil records is so-called “missing link” fossils, showing the transitional life forms between two distinct but related species. However, evolutionists who focus on these transitions dismiss this problem for several reasons.[xix] First, the fossilization process is unreliable; not every organism that existed has a fossil. Second, different features likely developed at different times in an organism’s lineage. And most importantly, evolution is not a straight line of descent from ancient organisms to modern ones. Rather, the fossils that paleontologists study are close relatives of an organism’s ancestors and not the ancestors themselves. Therefore, there is no reason to expect these “missing link” fossils. And, with the discovery of the Archaeopteryx, a creature with both avian and reptilian features, it appears that these transitional fossils do exist.[xx]

Evidential Problems: Creationism. What serves to bolster the evolutionary claim also serves to hinder the creationism cause. However, to continue using the Archaeopteryx as an example, recent discoveries have complicated what was once a cut and dry case. Another fossil the Xiaotingia zhengi, was found in 2011, and its analysis has revealed many similarities between it and the Archaeopteryx.[xxi] However, the Xiaotingia obviously has more in common with Velociraptors than birds, so the discovery of the Xiaotingia “will have significant implications for our understanding of avialan origins and related issues such as the origin of flight” (i.e., the Archaeopteryx is no longer considered a transitional form).[xxii]

Conclusion

            Christianity and science are not incompatible, nor are they at odds with one another. However, we have shown that we must be clear in our discussions, revealing underlying assumptions, such as naturalism, behind such accusations of incompatibility.

            Examining the fossil record as evidence, we showed how both YEC and evolutionism engages with the material and objections. More than persuading the reader to adopt one view over another, the goal was to show that Christians can be scientists without forsaking their belief in the supernatural nor selectively ignoring evidence.


Bibliography

Barna Group. “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave the Church.” September 28, 2011. Accessed April 5, 2015. https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church.

Carleton College “Fossilization.” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://www.acad.carleton.edu/curricular/BIOL/classes/bio302/pages/FossilizationHome.html.

Center for Naturalism. “Frequently Asked Questions On.” Accessed April 2, 2015. http://www.centerfornaturalism.org/faqs.htm.

Evolution Facts. “Fossils And.” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://evolutionfacts.com/Ev-V2/2evlch17a.htm.

Ganssle, Gregory E. A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009.

Grudem, Wayne. “The Inerrancy of Scripture.” In Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 90-104. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Idaho Museum of Natural History. “What Is a Fossil?” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas/geo/basics/fossil.htm.

Kaplan, Matt. “Archaeopteryx No Longer First Bird.” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science (27 July 2011): 1. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.443.

Morris, John. “Do Fossils Show Signs of Rapid Burial?” Answers in Genesis. December 30, 2013. Accessed April 3, 2015.https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/how-are-fossils-formed/do-fossils-show-signs-of-rapid-burial/.

National Center for Science Education. “Evolution.” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://ncse.com/evolution.

Pierce, Larry, and Ken Ham. “Are There Gaps in the Genesis Genealogies.” Answers in Genesis. April 8, 2010. Accessed April 3, 2015. https://answersingenesis.org/answers/books/new-answers-book-2/gaps-in-the-genesis-genealogies/.

Railsback, Bruce “What Is Science?” UGA GEOL 1122. Last modified October 1, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2015. http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122science2.html.

Snelling, Andrew A. “Order in the Fossil Record.” Answers in Genesis. November 23, 2009. Accessed April 3, 2015. https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/fossil-record/order-in-the-fossil-record/.

The Fossil Museum. “The Cambrian Explosion.” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://www.fossilmuseum.net/Paleobiology/CambrianExplosion.htm.

Understanding Evolution. “An Introduction to Evolution.” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/evo_02.

Understanding Evolution. “Random Mutations and Evolutionary Change: Ronald Fisher, JBS Haldane, & Sewall Wright.” Accessed April 3, 2015. http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/history_19.

University of California Museum of Paleontology. “Archaeopteryx: An Early Bird.” Last modified January 7, 1996. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/birds/archaeopteryx.html.

Xu, Xing, Hailu You, Kai Du, and Fenglu Han. “And Archaeopteryx-Like Theropod from China and the Origin of Avialae.”Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science 475 (28 July 2011): 465-70. Accessed April 4, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature10288.


 

[i] “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave the Church,” Barna Group, September 28, 2011, accessed April 5, 2015, https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church.

[ii] Gregory E. Ganssle, A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 14.

[iii] Wayne Grudem, “The Inerrancy of Scripture,” in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 91.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Bruce Railsback, “What Is Science?,” UGA GEOL 1122, last modified October 1, 2013, accessed April 2, 2015, http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122science2.html.

[vi] “Frequently Asked Questions On,” Center for Naturalism, accessed April 2, 2015, http://www.centerfornaturalism.org/faqs.htm.

[vii] “An Introduction to Evolution,” Understanding Evolution, accessed April 3, 2015, http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/evo_02.

[viii] Larry Pierce and Ken Ham, “Are There Gaps in the Genesis Genealogies,” Answers in Genesis, April 8, 2010, accessed April 3, 2015, https://answersingenesis.org/answers/books/new-answers-book-2/gaps-in-the-genesis-genealogies/.

[ix] “Evolution,” National Center for Science Education, accessed April 3, 2015, http://ncse.com/evolution.

[x] “Natural Selection: Charles Darwin,” Understanding Evolution, accessed April 3, 2015, http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/history_14.

[xi] “Random Mutations and Evolutionary Change: Ronald Fisher, JBS Haldane, & Sewall Wright,” Understanding Evolution, accessed April 3, 2015, http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/history_14.http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/history_19

[xii] “What Is a Fossil?,” Idaho Museum of Natural History, accessed April 3, 2015, http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas/geo/basics/fossil.htm.

[xiii] “Fossilization,” Carleton College, accessed April 3, 2015, http://www.acad.carleton.edu/curricular/BIOL/classes/bio302/pages/FossilizationHome.html.

[xiv] “Fossils And,” Evolution Facts, accessed April 3, 2015, http://evolutionfacts.com/Ev-V2/2evlch17a.htm.

[xv] “The Cambrian Explosion,” The Fossil Museum, accessed April 3, 2015, http://www.fossilmuseum.net/Paleobiology/CambrianExplosion.htm.

[xvi] John Morris, “Do Fossils Show Signs of Rapid Burial?,” Answers in Genesis, December 30, 2013, accessed April 3, 2015, https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/how-are-fossils-formed/do-fossils-show-signs-of-rapid-burial/.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Andrew A. Snelling, “Order in the Fossil Record,” Answers in Genesis, November 23, 2009, accessed April 3, 2015, https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/fossil-record/order-in-the-fossil-record/.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] “Archaeopteryx: An Early Bird,” University of California Museum of Paleontology, last modified January 7, 1996, accessed April 4, 2015, http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/birds/archaeopteryx.html.

[xxi] Matt Kaplan, “Archaeopteryx No Longer First Bird,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science (27 July 2011): 1, accessed April 4, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.443.

[xxii] Xing Xu et al., “And Archaeopteryx-Like Theropod from China and the Origin of Avialae,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science 475 (28 July 2011): 465-70, accessed April 4, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature10288.

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