Questions of Science and Christianity – Intro

Three years ago I got fed up with worrying about questions of the sciences of anthropology and evolution with regards to the more outlandish claims of many apologists of Christianity (I had long since come to terms happily with cosmology and the age of the Earth, this struggle had to do with the means of God’s biological creation and the history and ancestry of Man). I got tired always asking “who out there has the easy and convenient worldview that will answer all of my questions?” Skip to the bottom if you want to see my favorite resource suggestions for abandoning this convenient-answers worldview.

This turning point – which at the time felt more like giving up on my religious heritage, though I was really trying to rescue whatever value was left in it – was largely sparked by having a lot of free time in the afternoons of the Summer of 2014 as I was working pretty regular hours for an undergraduate internship at Jefferson Lab (my current PhD research laboratory). This environment, in addition to giving me free time away from all my familiar distractions, gave me some disposable income to purchase books, an attitude of scientific discovery surrounded by fellow scientists, and a renewed disdain for dogmatic fundamentalism without fearing backlash from anyone around me.

My fervor for getting to the bottom of things, if I remember correctly, was launched into high gear by watching the HBO documentary Questioning Darwin, an hour long portrait of the biblical literalists and anti-scientific fundamentalists in the modern dominant, white, American Protestant church. Seeing a lot of familiar ideas and lines of reasoning alongside the burning bridges and nonsensical arguments fully on display, all visible in open air, catalyzed a day or two of searching for first and second hand source materials to read and understand. I immediately reread Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” and bought a bunch of the books he referenced on matters of science and religion. I picked up seminary exegesis textbooks, Darwin’s original “The Origin of Species” and other biology and geology books, and several American church history and theodicy philosophy monographs and books.

I read probably 15 books that Summer alone, and I have continued buying and reading related books since. The primary conclusion I got from doing this reading initially was a new one for me: evolution is real and makes a whole lot more sense of the world than the many flavors of creationism. The secondary, and possibly much more important conclusion I arrived at, which I have only really been able to formalize in the last year or so is actually just an old one I’ve always cherished that I have decided to take more seriously in other aspects of life (would you be surprised if I told you that this principle of taking a specific idea seriously in general is how Einstein and others made many of their famous discoveries?): it is entirely OK to doubt matters of religion, to continue searching for simpler answers, to not have an answer, and especially to not claim certainty on every matter of philosophy or religion (this is basically an extension of the fundamental principle of science: question everything, search for the simplest explanations whenever possible, and acknowledge the limits of your knowledge and understanding – see my post on “The Sin of Certainty” by Pete Enns for more on this idea).

Allow me to speak some Christianese for a second. As a result of this process, I basically permitted myself to just actually trust the general revelation revealed through science (often even revealed by Christian scientists, so not something fundamentally opposed to Christianity – see the famed geneticist Francis Collins’ fantastic “The Language of God” which was the original book that kept me going for the many years leading up to my frantic investigation in 2014). This trust in general revelation meant throwing out a lot of the tainted scriptural interpretation bathwater of American Evangelicalism, a tradition which has inconveniently very recently wedded itself to biblical literalism (a recent historical trajectory explained pretty clearly in the history books I picked up and listed below).

The risk of throwing out the hypothetical baby along with the tainted scriptural interpretation bathwater contained within the bible was no longer enough to keep me from engaging honestly with the material. The cognitive dissonance was simply too great and made me feel too hypocritical to keep creationist (even old-earth and day-age) rhetoric in my head while still trying to honestly look at the hard evidence presenting itself all around me in virtually all of the physical (which I study professionally) and biological (which I began intently reading about) sciences. Fortunately, I do not think that the baby has to be thrown out at all. I am still thinking about this stuff (as the second conclusion I came to inevitably leads to a perspective that avoids rock-solid and absolute conclusions), but I have found great compatriots in doubt among some great groups like Biologos (started by the same Francis Collins from “The Language of God”) and various Christian or “post-Christian” pod-casters (like the Bad Christian and Liturgists podcasts), as well as my Reformed University Fellowship friends at Mississippi State University who were thinking through the same kinds of ideas. There are actually a lot of people out there asking questions like this and openly having honest interesting discussions of religious and Christian ideas while also taking science and the reality we see around us seriously, its just the two extreme wings of radical atheism and radical fundamentalism that are loudest and take up all the attention.

I realize that the conclusion of “literal interpretations of the Bible are almost all wrong and we cannot know with an absolute degree of certainty any religious or Christian truths and must approach them with the same or similar kind of criticism we treat other kinds of truths” does not sound very good or comforting. I originally set out (upon arriving at college and picking Physics as a major) to find the perfectly logically sound and self evident truth of everything and to put an end to all nonsensical discussions of the incompatibility of science and religion, and I have since found that the real problem lay in definitions, primarily religious ones, though my understanding of the absoluteness of scientific knowledge has also changed significantly (especially in graduate school). Fortunately I can say that there is no fundamental incompatibility or logical inconsistency between the two, except when one party or the other attempts to cling with absolute certainty to one idea or another with fundamentalistic fervor. The incompatibility is not between facts of science versus facts of Christianity, but rather in approaches to claiming and investigating truth in the first place.

This does not put the organized religion and Christianity as put forth by the recent white, American fundamentalists on very good footing, but right now I am not interested in making an apologetic case for the grand truths of Christianity at all – I am here to describe the path I took to realize that things are not so conveniently certain all the time and to give you a few resources to become comfortable with that uncertainty and to investigate the truth claims of these things on your own if you want (particularly if you are following the same path as me).

Some of the most helpful books I have been reading over the last few years or so are included in this low-quality picture:

The top row is reference books that can be helpful for specific kinds of questions with quick intros to ideas and further references (the best one is probably “The Counter-Creationism Handbook” by Mark Isaak). The bottom row are books I either haven’t read all the way through yet or that focus on tangential issues, like theodicy and the problem of evil and death or questions of a literal Adam and Eve in a greater evolutionary context. And the middle row are my official suggestions, with the most crucial on the left and decreasing to the right.

Specifically, the middle row of books are:

  • “The Language of God” by Francis Collins – this one is really good and is pretty much the one that helped me the most. This was originally given to me by my Dad when I probably asked too many questions about science and religion.
  • “He Gave Us Stories” by Richard Pratt – a Reformed Theological Seminary exegesis textbook that is really good and getting around various scriptural interpretation issues nicely. This was originally given to me by Dean Jim West of the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University.
  • “The Origin of Species” (pdf) by Charles Darwin – it’s a bit dry but I feel like reading it helps clear up a lot of the propaganda. His observations are very clear and intuitive, and throughout you just want to scream at him that DNA exists and is the answer to most of his, at the time unanswered, questions. It is actually basically correct in a lot of its ideas and discussions as far as modern science is concerned, so it’s not a waste of time to read, though I’m sure a biology textbook would be more valuable in terms of pure scientific content and context.
  • “When Faith and Science Collide” by G. R. Davidson – Davidson is the chair of the Geology and Geological Engineering department at Ole Miss (Ole Miss y’all, this is close to home) and a member of a Presbyterian (PCA) church in Oxford. He’s pretty cool and wrote a book about how a lot of creationist claims are just horrible geology. Davidson has even given a lecture series debunking the lies of “flood geology” and other creationist propaganda at the PCA general assembly.
  • “The Creationists” by Ronald Numbers – this is a great history textbook on the 20th century invention of creationism in the Seventh Day Adventist community and how it became a popular idea as a result of the rise of fundamentalism.
  • “The Tower of Babel” by Robert T. Pennock – similar, maybe not as good as the creationists. This one has more of an agenda against the creationists.
  • “Saving Darwin” by Karl Giberson – this is maybe the most concise treatment of the issues. This may be the best bet for someone wanting a discussion of the whole matter without going into too much detail. It’s 10 years old though, so that could date it a bit.
  • “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller – this is more about understanding Christianity in general, kind of serving as a modern version of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (which is also a good book). This is the book I basically started with in my analysis of evolution and Christianity, and it is where I heard about a number of the books above.
  • “Making Sense of God” by Tim Keller – this is my number one suggestion to someone struggling with science and agnosticism. It takes the issues seriously and does a good job of addressing all sorts of modern and scientific concerns with Christianity.
  • “The Bible Tells Me So” by Pete Enns is my number one suggestion for someone coming to terms with the invalidity of biblical literalism or ideas of strict divine revelation and that the Bible is a culturally produced and interpreted story whose historical contexts matter.

The bottom left corner is hard to read the titles: “On Genesis” by Saint Augustine and “Galileo Goes to Jail” by Ronald Numbers. Feel free to check out the other books, but they get into a little too much detail to be good starting points.

If you are curious about the consequences of aliens and other intelligent life, that’s an issue I’m very interested in but haven’t found much writing on yet (other than one nice essay from C. S. Lewis called “Rocketry and Religion” that you might like). The Catholic church also has a nice article on this idea here, and there is actually a lot of historical discussion of these ideas (Fontenelle’s “Conversations On the Plurality of Worlds” is a striking example), even though it doesn’t often get brought up in fundamentalist or any mainstream religious circles.

I think that these books should be pretty useful to anyone very much like me, but the biblical inerrancy question can be a long rabbit trail regardless of how you feel about the existence of God or the validity of evolution and science because of the complexity of biblical writing and its subsequent study, so this list (except for Pete Enn’s The Bible Tells Me So) is generally more focused on the science side, and I leave further questions to other discussions.

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