evolution, creationism, intelligent design and THE problem of animal suffering (interview with Ron Osborn)

Today’s post is an interview with Ronald E. Osborn, author of Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, a critique “scientific creationism” and wrestles with questions of divine goodness in the light of harrowing realities of animal suffering. 

In my opinion, this is one of the more perplexing, and even unsettling, issues for any person of any faith who believes in a Higher Power, regardless of where they are on the evolution-spectrum.

Osborn is an adjunct professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Southern California. His articles have appeared in a variety of popular as well as scholarly publications including Commonweal, First Things, Sojourners, Review of International Studies, and Politics and Religion. Osborn’s writing has been shaped in important ways by his experiences growing up in Thailand, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe to missionary parents. His first book, Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (2010), defends a distinctive form of nonviolent nonconformity with power or Christian anarchism.

Tell us what your book is about?

Death Before the Fall is a theological critique of literalistic or fundamentalist readings of Genesis and the related project of “scientific creationism.”

After laying out a broad analysis of the roots of literalism and its discontents, I wrestle with some of the challenges posed by animal suffering for young earth creationists and theistic evolutionists alike.

More than an attempt to win any argument, however, this book is a critical intervention that seeks to change the character and quality of the debate itself.  I am concerned with a very practical and pastoral question: How can we be honest yet at the same time gracious dialogue partners across deep divisions over what to make of Scripture and the evidence of natural science?

Who is your intended audience?  Christian “liberals” (for lack of a better term) already agree with your views.  “Fundamentalists” (again for lack of a better designation) are bound to disagree.  Who are you writing for?

Creationism and biblical literalism continue to play a powerful role in American culture, not only in the conflicts that play out within many evangelical communities but also in the public square as the site of perennial battles over science education.

The recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye offers a case in point.  This book will hopefully be valuable to persons of all beliefs or none–whether students, pastors, or others–trying to make sense of these struggles.  I have tried to offer a trenchant critique of what I believe are immensely damaging ideas about the relationship between faith and science but to do so in a way that opens pathways to conversation rather than closing them.

For “liberals,” Death Before the Fall might provide some occasions for self examination as well as resources for engaging with their literalist friends and family members since there are enough challenges to go around for all of us.

For traditionalists who read Genesis quite literally but who are not “fundamentalists” and so remain open to authentic dialogue with others, this book might help them to better understand the intellectual and religious perils of their position–and how one can be a committed Christian and embrace evolution without contradiction.

The title of your book and the subtitle suggest that it is devoted to the question of animal suffering. But two-thirds of it is actually about literalism.  Why did you devote so much space to the question of how to read the bible?

The “biblical literalism” in the subtitle will hopefully signal to readers that this is not a conventional response to the problem of natural evil.  It is certainly not a work of apologetics leading to any confident answer to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering, which I take to be insoluble for literalists and theistic evolutionists alike.

Even if there are no tidy answers, though, there are more and less helpful ways of exploring the questions. Death Before the Fall is an attempt to help believers ask the right kinds of questions of the text and of each other in the light of perplexing realities.

Yet this requires that we first do some serious brush clearing work and identify the conscious as well as unconscious philosophical assumptions, theological beliefs, cultural values, and historical anxieties we might be bringing with us to the problem.

Is the theological problem of animal suffering any less severe for young earth creationists than it is for someone like yourself who accepts an evolutionary account of natural history?  

The problem of animal suffering is not less severe for literalists or young earth creationists but in fact more severe.

This discovery was decisive in my own coming to terms with evolutionary biology, although I have no stake in defending an unqualified or “ultra” Darwinism.  Where theistic evolutionists see animal suffering as arising from principles of indeterminacy and freedom within a very good but untamed creation, literalists generally attribute the same realities to a divine “curse” after Adam and Eve’s fall.

This supernatural “zapping” explanation makes God directly and disturbingly responsible for animal suffering in ways that theistic evolution does not.  Whatever else they might be, Christians should not be zappists.

What about Intelligent Design theory?  Do you also engage with ID in your book

ID theory makes only a few brief appearances in the book.  The ID movement is, I realize, a very broad church and I cannot present myself as an expert on ID literature, although I have benefited from some ID critiques of evolutionary “just so” stories and of methodological materialism whenever it evolves into a metaphysical prejudice.

But as Nancey Murphy (see her essay “Philip Johnson on Trial” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics), Conor Cunningham, and others have pointed out, grave theological problems arise whenever believers invoke supernaturalism or an Intelligent Designer to explain empirical facts that at present appear to be “irreducibly complex.”

What do these distinctions between allegedly “designed” and allegedly “natural” phenomena actually say about God as Creator?  If we can observe and carefully trace a natural process, does this mean it is less “miraculous”, less “created”, or less filled with meaning and purpose than whatever remains a scientific mystery?  Religious critiques of philosophical naturalism and scientism should never be made on scientific rationalism’s own dualistic terms.

Faith is not something that can be pinned beneath a microscope.  It is a way of seeing even the microscope itself for reasons that are not a matter of empirical proof or disproof.  By analogy, Christians accept by faith that God is present and at work in human history, even in the face of tremendous suffering, evil, and waste.

But this does not lead us to demand that our historians produce very different accounts of the fall of Rome or World War II than secular scholars attending to the same evidence.  It does not lead us to fight for the insertion of miracles into high school history textbooks.

What most of us would immediately see as deeply misguided in the realm of historiography is no less misguided, it seems to me, in the study of biology or physics.

You write forthrightly as a Seventh-day Adventist.  How has your Adventism shaped your thinking about creation and evolution?

I was raised by Adventist missionary parents in Asia and Africa.  In my final chapter I offer some reflections on animal ethics and Sabbath rest, drawing on biblical resources that I would undoubtedly be less attuned to without this distinct heritage and life experience.

An Adventist sensibility might help to enrich conversations in the larger Christian world about the centrality of peacemaking, ecological concern, and social justice to any vibrant theology of Sabbath-keeping (themes reflected, for example, in Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now).

Unfortunately, many Adventists are far more likely to mount strident denunciations of evolutionists than they are to engage in constructive dialogue across differences or in concrete actions to actually care for God’s creation.  Adventists played an important role in the rise of “scientific creationism” via the work of George McCready Price (see the chapter on Price in Ronald Numbers’s The Creationists) and theistic evolutionists in the Adventist community today find themselves under unrelenting and often venomous attack from some quarters.

This book is therefore in certain ways an act of loyal dissent that is both shaped by, and critically engaged with, the troubled literalist-leaning tradition to which I myself belong. I am less interested in fighting for a label or an identity marker, though, than I am in simply being intellectually honest in my work without forgetting where I come from.

Besides the moral and political implications of the theology in the book, what do you suppose the political impact of the book might be within Christian circles?  Will politics have an impact on who reads and is influenced by the book?

As a “lay theologian” whose primary training is in the field of political science I should perhaps be more concerned with the political questions than I am.  It is simply not something I have given much thought to or have any way of predicting.

If there are individuals or groups who would like to turn what I have written into grist for their own purely political or ideological agendas, I think it will only amplify for serious readers the problems with fundamentalism and literalism that I have tried to help excavate in this book.

Saying Yes to the Bible, and No to Biblicism (in post-Christendom Christianity)
11 recurring mistakes in the debate over the “historical Adam.”
What I think about NOMA (not the ex-Red Sox shortstop but the evolution thing)
creating Adam, again and again
  • Rick_K

    This is not about evolution or creationism. It is about how we determine truth. Who is telling the truth? How do we know? How do we know if what we believe is true? What is truth and how important is it?

    Some people believe the world was created one of the may magical ways described by various religions. How do they know this is true? Do fossils tell them this? Does DNA tell them this? Or do holy scriptures tell them these creation stories?

    Girls in prairie dresses with big hair styles living in polygamist compounds in Hilldale, Utah, believe that American Indians are actually descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, and they believe humans never walked on the Moon. How do they know this is true? Does the DNA of American Indians tell them this? Do all the pictures and books and moon rocks and testimony and videos tell them that the Moon Landings were a hoax? Or do they believe this because of how their fathers in the FLDS choose to interpret their scripture?

    What is the track record of holy scriptures accurately explaining the fundamental workings of nature? How many holy scripture describe galaxies, bacteria, DNA, atoms and other key mechanisms of nature?

    People who accept evolution accept it just as they accept the facts in the Theory of Relativity, the Germ Theory of Disease and Atomic Theory – because of the evidence. And we test those theories against new evidence every day, refining them as our understanding grows.

    How do people verify their beliefs? How does they know they’re telling the truth? How do we know belief in creationism is any better supported than the beliefs of the girls in the FLDS? Evidence is a good place to start. And following the evidence wherever it may lead has the added benefits of being humble, open-minded, and hugely successful throughout history.

    So I guess the real question is: Is it really important to tell the story of what actually happened? Or is it more important to tell the scriptural story, regardless of what actually happened?

    What is truth, and how important is it?

    • Evelyn

      … as Pilate asked Jesus!
      (Sorry, I think you make some excellent points, I just couldn’t resist a little nerd joke).

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    Thanks for this interesting interview!

    Ronald, if you are monitoring comments here, I wondered if you have interacted with Process theology and its form of theistic evolution (tho “theistic” might better be “panentheistic”)? If so, what have you found helpful or maybe what inadequate or not harmonious with your prespectives?

    • RonOsborn

      Hi Howard. Thanks for your note. My understanding of process theology largely comes from personal conversations rather than from reading process literature (for example, I had the privilege of having lunch with John Cobb a little while ago and we talked about what a process view of creation looks like). I am broadly sympathetic with what I understand process thinkers to be saying and have been perhaps especially influenced in my thinking about God’s character and relationship to suffering by Abraham Heschel’s emphasis on the divine “pathos” revealed in the Hebrew prophets (in contrast to classical theism’s emphasis on divine impassibility).

  • Leah

    But the entire cosmos is a relentless death machine. This is especially the case with this Earth world which paradoxically is a tiny speck floating in an infinite sea of Radiant Light. Billions of living breathing entities get snuffed out every minute. While simultaneously and despite the universal holocaust billions more are born.
    The Goddess Kali devours all of her morning birthed babies, as a before bedtime snack!

    For us the death of bodies is a philosophical and theological affair that causes untrust, distrust, and fear, a matter that fills us with philosophical propositions that are Godless, Ecstasless, Blissless.
    As a matter of fact, the cosmic domain is just like Mother Kali Exactly so. It is full of death, full of process, full of relentless moment to moment changes.
    Ecstasy or Right Life requires trust and the utter acceptance of death!

  • Aceofspades25

    > Theistic evolutionists see animal suffering as arising from principles of indeterminacy and freedom within a very good but untamed creation,

    This is news to me. Do you have a reason for this claim?

    • RonOsborn

      Certainly. You may recall, for example, John Polkinghorne’s reflections on theodicy and quantum physics.

      • Aceofspades25

        I am not familiar with this and so may have to look into it.
        As a Christian who affirms the scientific consensus, I find that the theodicy with the most explanatory power is the Irenaean theodicy and especially John Hick’s reformulation of it.
        Personally, I don’t think it hinges on indeterminacy or freedom

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    The “curse” or the “Fall” or “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” is the Neolithic Revolution.

    Ched Myers (2005) The Fall . Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Edited by Bron Taylor. NY: Continuum. chedmyers.org/articles/ecology-faith/%E2%80%9C-fall%E2%80%9D-and-%E2%80%9Canarcho-primitivism-and-bible

    Jared Diamond (May 1987) The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race. Discover Magazine. pp. 64-66. discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      We have been through this before, Brian. Paleolithic Idealism sounds attractive, but is certainly at odds with the facts, and it ignores the necessary course of intellectual evolution…

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

        Yes, we’ve been through it before, and you still have no good argument against interpreting the Genesis myth via paleoanthropologic evidence—not “idealism”—and it is not at odds with the facts. What is at odd with the facts is your religious superstitions.

        • Klasie Kraalogies

          I do not suffer from religious superstitions. The Genesis narrative is making sense of a perplexing world as seen by Bronze Age men, including the occurrence of death and suffering. Much like other ancient writings and struggles. It is actually quite excuisite in its poetry, imagery and insight.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            One doesn’t have to be a modern “anarcho-primitivist idealist” (which I’m not) to realize that the arduous work of agriculture (sweat of thy brow) greatly reduced lifespan (about half of paleolithic primitives until very recent modern times) and the slaughter of primitives by farmers/civilized (Cain and Abel story) was viewed as a disaster by the writers of the Genesis mythology.

            Even up until modern times, Indian lifeways in North America were regarded as superior to agricultural civilization. It is why so many whites ran away, and the colonists had to make harsh punishments to keep whites from abandoning their hoes and plows for a life of relative (not idealistic or absolute) ease.

            “The life of an Indian is a continual holiday…” ~Thomas Paine, 1795

            “…when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.” ~Benjamin Franklin, 1753

            The White Indians of Colonial America
            The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 55-88
            Published by: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
            http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/walter.sargent/public.www/web%20200/white%20indians.pdf

          • Klasie Kraalogies

            Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk, 2013.
            Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade, 2007.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            At least there a little bit of dissent in the scientific community; that’s healthy.

            • Marshall Sahlins (1973) The Original Affluent Society: Stone Age Economics
            • Elman Service (1975) Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution
            • Richard Lee (1976) Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors
            • Marvin Harris (1977) Kings and Cannibals: Origins of Culture
            • James Axtell (1986) The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America
            • Mark Nathan Cohen (1989) Health and the Rise of Civilization
            • Jack Weatherford (1992) Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America
            • Jack Weatherford (1988) Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World
            • Paul Shepard (1998) Coming Home to the Pleistocene
            • E. Fuller Torrey (2002) The Invisible Plague: The Rise of mental Illness from 1750 to the Present
            • John Gray (2003) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
            • Richard Lee (2004) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers
            • Kirkpatrick Sale (2006) After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination
            • Jay Griffiths (2006) Wild: An Elemental Journey
            • Charles C. Mann (2006) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
            • E. Fuller Torrey (2008) Schizophrenia and Civilization
            • Jared Diamond (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
            • Childs, Craig (2012) Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth
            • George Monbiot (2013) Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding

          • Klasie Kraalogies

            Simple question: My name is Og. My neighbours’ name is Bog. I hunt and gather. He is involved with newfangled agriculture. Why would I abandon a life of little care for a life of toil and sweat?

            Or is there more to the story?

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            {old reply, before your edit}

            The question isn’t whether anarcho-primitivism is a correct philosophy. I fly jets. I’ve managed organ donations on an ICU. I’m not one (although I’ve learned from a viewpoint of critiquing civilization, especially regarding health, which you might give a try) so you can quit making silly caricatures of the philosophy. I can do the same damn thing when I argue with them.

            The issue I’ve brought up, and which you refuse to engage, is that the Bible’s Garden of Eden mythology is best interpreted via the primitivist narrative of a Golden Age in the past.

            If you think the Man’s Golden Age in the past is a bunch of bunk, then the Garden of Eden narrative is also a bunch of bunk.

          • Klasie Kraalogies

            What are you are on about? You seem to be reading something into my replies which just you understand. A nice day to you too….

          • Klasie Kraalogies

            Ah, I see. In spite of everything I have written here and elsewhere, you seem to be under the illusion that I believe in the literal truth of the early chapters of Genesis. I could only hope that you pay a tad better attention to all the literature love quoting.

            edited to place the word “I” before the word believe.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            I don’t take the Genesis mythology literally. It is an “etiological narrative (a story about origins) concerning the rise of civilization in the late Neolithic period.” (Myers, 2005)

          • Klasie Kraalogies

            And you say that as if that conflicts with anything I wrote?

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            After you edited in an {I} into the sentence, do you suppose the meaning would change? You keep it Klasie there.

          • Klasie Kraalogies

            You still have to explain why you are directing your attack against literal belief in Genesis against me. I am baffled.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

            {to answer your question}

            Because they got conquered when agricultural civilization needed to expand and take more land.

            “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” ~Stanley Diamond (1981) In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, p.1

            “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world..” ~David Stannard (1992) American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford University Press.

            “Premise Two: Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.” ~Derrick Jensen, Endgame endgamethebook.org/Excerpts/1-Premises.htm

  • rvs

    For those who are interested, Rifkin’s “Empathic Civilization” has an interesting bit about animals and empathy at the 1:10 second mark. Indeed, I find the entire argument to be challenging in terms of how we might think about Creation.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

      +1 Good stuff.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lotharson

    I looks like a great book.

    I once wrote a response to an atheistic video about the problem of evil and it is entirely true we can only provide glimpses of answers.


    The problem of animal suffering is not less severe for literalists or young earth creationists but in fact more severe.

    This discovery was decisive in my own coming to terms with evolutionary biology, although I have no stake in defending an unqualified or “ultra” Darwinism. Where theistic evolutionists see animal suffering as arising from principles of indeterminacy and freedom within a very good but untamed creation, literalists generally attribute the same realities to a divine “curse” after Adam and Eve’s fall.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this!

    According to Young Earth Creationism, the only reason that animals suffer is because two persons ate the wrong apple.
    This sounds rather ridiculously blasphemous.

    This problem becomes infinitely compounded if you take the view that human sinfulness stems from God’s curse (a teaching which cannot be found in Genesis).

    God becomes ultimately responsible for billions of human beings created to his own image who will be eternally tortured.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    An interesting literary response to death is Tolkien’s Silmarillion. The weariness of a deathless existence on the Elves is an interesting study. Death comes like an old friend – interestingly, JK Rawling made the same point in “The Deathly Hallows”, in which there is an interesting study of death and the fear of it.

  • Randy Hardman

    Thsanks for the interview. I actually just finished the book a week ago and have been working on a review. Since I know many that are Young Earthers simply because of this problem (not a thing else), I think Osborn’s book gives some really deep thought to the issue. The problem was solved for me personally long ago when I realized that “eating fruit” necessitated the death of it. From then on, the question just never bothered me since even the Young Earther has the very same problem: “How do you explain fruit death?”


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