Science in Christian Perspective


Teaching Evolution
while Respecting Faith in a Creator

Charles F. Austerberry*

Creighton University
2500 California Plaza 
Omaha, NE 68178

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (September 2000): 187-189.

By a 6-4 vote, on August 12, 1999 the Kansas Board of Education deleted most references to evolution from its science teaching standards. Within days, a chapter on geology and paleontology in Kansas--The Prairie Spirit Lives, a new history textbook for seventh- and eighth-grade students, was removed by its publishers. The deleted chapter had focused on a prehistoric inland sea and 150 million- year-old fossils found in western Kansas. Director Jim Bean of the Grace Dangberg Foundation, which is publishing the book, explained: "If we talk about [things that old], then it's beyond a creation date that most religions use."1

In 1925 Tennessee banned the teaching of evolution, and the famous Scopes trial was held in Dayton, Tennessee. Most biology textbooks published in America since about 1900 clearly described evolution. This was true of the approved Tennessee biology text used by John Scopes. In reaction to the fundamentalist movement of the time, the 1923 edition had already been revised to emphasize that evolution was "only a theory." After the Scopes trial, the 1927 edition deleted all references to human evolution and further downplayed Darwin, simply referring to "his interpretation of the way in which all life changes." Other states also passed anti-evolution laws. In spite of worldwide media coverage critical of William Jennings Bryan's fundamentalism, and despite the eventual overturning of Scope's conviction on technical grounds by higher Tennessee courts, Bryan and his followers succeeded in muting the teaching of evolution in this country for decades.2

Beginning in the late 1960s, federally-funded science curriculum revisions led to a reemphasis of evolution in textbooks. U.S. Supreme Court decisions since then have stricken laws that banned the teaching of evolution, as well as laws that would have required equal classroom time for creationism alongside evolution. But now as statewide science teaching standards are being developed for the first time, we again have attorneys arguing about what the Constitution allows to be taught in science classes. We still have presidential candidates using the everyday sense of "theory" (as a "guess") in reference to evolution, whereas within science "theory" means a well-supported network of related hypotheses. Some atheists are still claiming that evolutionary science disproves the existence of a Creator, while some theists are still touting the gaps in evolutionary explanations as positive evidence for "intelligent design." Is there an approach to origins questions that would seem fair to everyone, including public school students and their parents? Consensus on origins questions is unlikely, but perhaps consensus on how to discuss origins questions is more realistic. I suggest five common sense guidelines that may help as we strive toward this goal.

First, we should remember that reality is very complex. Science and religion probe very big mysteries. As my colleague, Dr. Harry Nickla, tells his biology students, "If you ask little questions, you can sometimes get unambiguous answers, but if you ask big questions, you'll have a tougher time." The origins of the universe and life are big questions. Generations before ours have lived and died without complete answers; so will generations after ours.

We are making progress in science and in theology. Hundreds of years from now, teachers will remind their students that those of us here today were not stupid, just ignorant. Yet, those teachers will be pointing their students toward still more questions left to be answered. Good scientists have a keen desire to find natural explanations for things, but they must remember that current explanations are at best incomplete, and maybe even wrong. Good theologians are strongly driven to understand their subject too, yet well aware that theology likewise will continue to progress, and that God will never be fully known this side of heaven. Galileo expressed it well in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina when he wrote in 1615:

Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "those truths which we do know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know."3

Second, we should respect theories outside our own areas of expertise. Given the inherent complexity of origins questions, scientists should be extra cautious when passing judgment on creation doctrines, and theologians should be similarly cautious when evaluating the scientific theory of evolution.

Third, when faced with a mystery that has defied scientific explanation, such as the origin of life on earth, we should remember that science itself cannot tell us when all possible natural explanations have been exhausted. When we do not know (or cannot even imagine) a plausible natural explanation, we should readily admit it. It would be presumptuous, however, to assert that no natural explanation could ever exist for any particular unexplained phenomenon, even profound mysteries such as the first life form. How can we dismiss all natural mechanisms when we do not even know what we are dismissing? Deductions made through a process of elimination are sound only if one can identify and reject all of the alternatives. Our understanding of biology and the earth's pre-history will likely never be sufficient for us to conclude whether or not life arose via natural processes.

Fourth, because science cannot tell us what to believe in the absence of natural explanations, science cannot rule out the supernatural. Some phenomena may really, in principle, have no natural explanations. Supernatural intervention could be essential for life to exist. Those who accept a modern scientific world view are certainly as free as anyone else to believe that a Creator, who sometimes acts outside of natural law, exists.

Fifth, we cannot deny that the Creator might work within natural laws, through processes and events for which we do have plausible scientific, natural explanations. Those explanations are necessarily mechanistic and impersonal, but not necessarily the reality that they explain. Specific occurrences which we characterize scientifically as random, chance events may be quite predictable, even deliberate, from God's perspective. What we scientifically understand to be processes and events completely determined by autonomous natural laws may be indeterminate from God's perspective, constrained only by God's own regularity and order. Non-interventionist divine action, whether uniform (general providence) or particular (special providence), may exist but be undetectable by science.

In my opinion, a loving, divine Creator could use Darwinian evolution to create. Recognition of pain, waste, and cruel indifference in the world preceded Darwin's theory, of course. In its own pre-scientific, sometimes poetic way, the Bible deals at length and in depth with the problem of evil, both moral and natural. For me personally, Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection give meaning to all of the suffering and death that has occurred throughout the earth's history. Other religious traditions may also have resources for addressing the problem of theodicy within the context of evolution. Loss of religious faith, including Christian faith, is not an inevitable consequence of accepting scientific explanations such as evolution.

I have tremendous respect for the challenging work that elementary, junior high, and senior high school teachers do, and for the work of people who train those teachers. It is up to local school administrators, teachers, and parents to preserve an arena within their classrooms where evolution can be taught with respect for science, religion, and students. They might not get much help from the Kansas Board of Education or from textbook publishers, but I am still hopeful. We all want to develop world views based on the very best available knowledge, including scientific, theological, philosophical, and other knowledge. We want that for ourselves, our students, and our children.

Together my family watches public television programs about evolution, and we read the opening chapters of Genesis. Taking the Bible seriously without taking all of it literally is something my nine- year-old can do easier than my six-year-old. Our children will develop their own world views, of course. In any case, I do not want mine burdened with the false dilemma of choosing between evolution and creation. Scientific and theological theories can be compared to check for coherence, but only with sophistication and care. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1605:

Let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.4



1The decision to delete a chapter from a textbook on Kansas history was reported by the Associated Press in many newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald (August 29, 1999): 16-A.

2James W. Fraser reviewed the history of the American creation-evolution controversy in Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999).

3Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), 187.

4Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis, ed. Arthur Johnson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), 9-10.