Another Round in the Old “Evolution vs. Creation” Debate

Another Round in the Old “Evolution vs. Creation” Debate September 24, 2013

Another Round in the Old “Evolution vs. Creation” Debate

I live in the great state of Texas. Every year, and sometimes throughout a year, controversy erupts over public school textbooks. Here’s the back story.

Texas is so large and its public schools are so populated that textbook publishers do not want to alienate the Texas state agency that approves textbooks. So, indirectly, anyway, Texas has the ability to sway national textbooks’ contents.

For several years the board that examines public school textbooks to make sure they are accurate and fair has included some members who have complained about some science textbooks’ treatment of life’s origins. Apparently, according to news reports and at least one consultant I met with, some science textbooks strongly imply that all life began with chemical interactions.

Of course, anti-evolutionist Christians and advocates of “intelligent design theory” (not all of who reject evolution) have tussled quite publicly with members of groups like the Texas Freedom Network over whether that is science or philosophy and whether “alternative theories” of life’s origins should be mentioned in science textbooks.

On and on the argument goes with the “creationists” (as the media labels all the critics) and the “scientists” (how’s that for stacking the deck) calling each other names like “ignorant” and “atheists.”

Now I want science textbooks to stick to science. So do many others involved on the “creationist” side of this debate. Neither I nor they are anti-evolutionists. The issue for some of us is not whether life forms evolve; the issue is whether science, as science, can state that all life began with chemical interactions.

The issue is, for some of us, that some scientists like to smuggle philosophy, metaphysical beliefs, into science. The classic case of this, of course, was scientist Carl Sagan’s opening statement in his book and film series, read and shown in thousands of public school classrooms, that “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Few people realized that, at that moment, he was speaking as a philosopher, out of his own life and world view, and not as a scientist. Science cannot establish that metaphysical belief as fact.

The media tend to portray all parents (and others) who object to the contents of public school textbooks as back woods ignoramusus, Mencken’s “booboisies,” religious fanatics and anti-intellectuals. Some are. But not all. Some public school textbooks are full of biases.

I’ll just mention one example here. When my daughter was in ninth grade in a public school her social studies textbook was _____________ World Geography. (I’m omitting the publisher’s name which was part of the book’s title because I don’t want to get into a legal fight with them.) My daughter brought the book home and I sat down and started looking through it.

The book was mainly about world cultures including their histories, beliefs and practices. I noticed that in almost every case outside the U.S. religion was a big part of the discussion of cultures. In the chapter on China, for example, much was made of the influences of Confucianism, Toaism and Buddhism in its history and present culture. The same with every non-U.S. culture described. And what was said about non-U.S. cultures’ religious beliefs and practices was always positive.

The chapter(s) on U.S. culture, including history, was almost totally lacking in anything about religion. It was as if America had always been secular and pluralistic. For example, nothing was said in the book about the Great Awakenings (first, second) or about the religious motives behind the abolitionist or civil rights movements. No mention was made of Martin Luther King’s status as an ordained Baptist minister or anything about his religious beliefs or motivations. Students would never know from that book that he was religious at all.

So I talked to the principle of my daughter’s school. She brushed me off as some kind of trouble-making parent and gave me a form to fill out. I filled it out completely, in detail describing the flaws, the biases, of the textbook. She promised I would hear something. I never did.

At my daughter’s honors awards ceremony a teacher was asked to give an opening “inspirational talk”—clearly the replacement for a prayer or meditation. He quoted passionately, from memory, the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley including the final line spoken with eyes closed, looking up “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Of course, anyone who knows the history of poetry knows Henley wrote this as an expression of his own belief system which was inspired by Stoicism. (Although it does not exactly express a Stoic philosophy well!) My question, as I sat there as a parent and tax payer, was why it is okay for a public school teacher to quote such a poem, that clearly expresses a quasi-religious worldview, while the teachers could not, of course, express anything of traditional religious belief?

There is a myth “out there” in the “public square” that only Christianity is a religious belief system that must be expunged from public spaces. But its expulsion does not result in neutrality toward all beliefs; other beliefs simply come in to replace it. My daughter had teachers in public high school who openly promoted their beliefs in reincarnation, for example. But that was not deemed “religion.”

Returning to the current round of controversy about science in public school textbooks. The media seem to think that it’s all about some people attempting to impose their literalistic interpretations of Genesis on everyone else. I’m sure that is the case in some cases. But I suspect most critics of public school science textbook are worried about a deeper issue—ethics.

Many modern scientists step over a line from what science knows into metaphysics—what they believe but cannot prove. Sometimes that gets smuggled into textbooks and classroom presentations. Science cannot prove that all life began with chemical interactions and certainly not by accident. And yet that is what some defenders of some statements in science textbooks are saying “is the scientific consensus.” It may be the consensus among scientists, I don’t know. But it certainly is not science. One must distinguish between science as a discipline, which has limits, and what scientists believe. Perhaps, I don’t know for sure, most scientists in 1930s Germany believed in eugenics. That did not make it science.

If science textbooks are going to address “origin of life” and “origins of the universe” issues they ought to admit that answering those questions lies beyond the scope of science and that even scientists have different views about them—including an intelligent designer and creator.

Returning to the ethics issue. I suspect that lying behind much of the furor is the concern of many parents and tax payers that once students believe in naturalism, which is often smuggled into textbooks under the guise of “science,” they will conclude that there is no rational basis for altruism, compassion, service to others and live for themselves only (Ayn Rand style).

Let me illustrate from my own experience. Some years ago I was invited by the local school district (not here in Texas) to participate in a day long discussion among “community leaders” about values in public schools. The question was what values the local public schools could and should teach and promote. A (then) recent Supreme Court decision had declared that public schools could teach and promote “community values.”

About one hundred community leaders of all kinds came to the conference. We sat around large, round tables in “focus groups” and wrote on large pieces of paper, with felt tip markers, our “community values.” When the lists were put up around the room, near the top of every list (if not at the top) was “love.” Other values on most lists were “compassion,” “integrity,” “honesty,” etc.

When the school district’s “official list” of community values to be taught and promoted in the schools was published “love” was notably missing. So I made an appointment with the school district official in charge of the event and asked her why. Her answer was swift and certain: “Because love is a religious value and has no secular basis.” I agreed with her but pointed out that the Supreme Court did not say community values taught in public schools had to be “secular.” I also pointed out to her that there was no purely secular basis for compassion and yet it was included. She had no response and treated me like a trouble maker. She just sat and stared at me until I left.

It is my concern that, once God or anything like God, something or someone transcendent to nature, is completely removed from culture the only stable value with a foundation (in nature) is self-interest. In other words, if that public school system (or any) were to expunge from the values it teaches and promotes every one that depends on revelation, religious traditions, faith, etc., and teaches and promotes only those with a firm natural foundation, the only value that could be taught is “Be true to yourself.” The question is whether community can survive on self-interest alone?


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  • Dante Ting

    There is also zero secular basis for morality either.

    • Roger Olson

      Except morality based on self-interest.

      • Rob

        Ahem, and Aristotle and Kant and Mill, the three philosophers taught in every intro to ethics course 😉

        • Jeremy Klein

          Who, to the extent they tried to ground morality on anything other than the nature, will, and Word of God, were fools.

    • labreuer

      The secularist would respond to you, that religion is merely the means of controlling a vast number of people while concentrating the power (and money) among a few. Much history supports this view!

      So how do we show the secularist something different? I would say: by showing them something incredible, something that could only come by the power of the Holy Spirit, something like John 13:34-35 and John 17:20-21.

      • Jeremy Klein

        In response to the secularists, just ask them what’s wrong with the powerful few controlling vast numbers? Their ‘moral feet’ are firmly planted in mid-air: no ground to stand upon.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I’m discouraged that your efforts to fix or reform public schools came to naught. But in the cultural context that we live in, it seems the nature of things. I’m surprised that you haven’t yet done as I’ve done and jettisoned the idea of public school. Vouchers or tax credits for private schools might be an improvement – I don’t know where you stand on that. But these Creation/Evolution debates (and similarly, politics, mores, ethics) are simply the disagreements of adults – with children involved and at stake. You had your daughter enroll in a private Secondary/High School rather than public school, my children are also schooling elsewhere.
    How can children be educated well when the stakeholders disagree about so many basic things? You are right to ask whether a community like that can survive.

    Tim Reisdorf

    • Roger Olson

      I would like to see more charter schools and let them promote values and virtues. A voucher system worries me because I suspect the value of the vouchers would dwindle over time as politicians cut back spending for human services.

  • Shannon Bond

    This is outstanding. Thanks, Dr. Olson.

  • David Rogers

    One controversial blogger uses the following distinctions when talking about “science.”

    Scientage: The body of scientific knowledge.

    Scientody: The scientific method.

    Scientistry: The profession of science. (This refers to the
    labor performed by sufficiently credentialed scientists, not an
    expression of quasi-religious faith on the part of the scientific

    Scienthology: The practice of a division of doxastic labor which
    involves blindly placing one’s uninformed faith in the opinions of
    scientists, particularly those opinions which are advertised as a
    “scientific consensus”. Also includes the fetishistic worship of a
    romanticized Platonic ideal of science, primarily by those lacking
    professional scientific credentials.

  • M85

    I agree with you on a lot of issues Dr. Olson but evolution isn’t one of them, call me a fundamentalist but the theory just repulses me: there must be another explanation to what scientists report whatever that may be, it doesn’t seem to make sense biblically either. I say this with respect towards your view and those who hold it even though i disagree with it.

    • Roger Olson

      But, of course, there is no single thing called “evolution.” Adaptation of life forms is observable. But if by “evolution” you mean the idea that all life forms evolved from a single cell that came to life due to chemical interactions, then, no, I don’t believe that either.

      • ThisIsTheEnd

        “…single cell that came to life due to chemical interactions” – Evolution doesn’t claim that. You’re confusing evolution with abiogenesis.

        • Roger Olson

          I’m not. Some evolutionists do.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            Sure, so you understand the difference. But the article doesn’t. May I ask why you didn’t feel it was necessary to make the distinction between what you object to: “Abiogenesis” and evolution?

          • Roger Olson

            One blog post cannot say everything. I never objected to “evolution” as a process of adaptation of life forms. Most people reading my blog will understand, if they read carefully, that what I object to is totalizing naturalistic evolutionary explanations that go beyond the bounds of science into metaphysics.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            The problem with the way evolution is discussed in America by Christians is that very many do not understand what evolution is. The teaching of science and particular of evolution is woeful. I’m not sure why you keep saying evolution when discussing this. I, like you, object to totalizing naturalistic explanations that goes beyond the bounds of science. There’s no need to add “evolutionary” into the mix as its use is outside of its scientific definition.

  • labreuer

    Why not just teach philosophy to kids? The philosophers whose arguments can’t be reduced to a level that an eighth grader can understand probably aren’t good philosophers—or they’re Einstein when one first needs to learn Newton.

    • Roger Olson

      They do teach kids philosophy in European high schools–and theology. American public schools are “John Dewey schools.” They treat students as instrumentalists and focus on helping them prepare to be productive citizens in the work place-not thinkers. But I think philosophy could be and should be taught without delving into all the philosophers and their theories. How about just teaching kids how to think (logic)?

      • labreuer

        Interesting; just yesterday I started learning a bit about John Dewey. I’m reminded of an RSA Animate (search for them on Youtube) presentation which claims that as American kids get older, they find fewer and fewer uses for paper clips. That is, their creativity gets eroded. This is different from “how to think (logic)”, so I think you are being too narrow. But logic would be a nice start!

      • Rob

        Yes, teach them logic–please!

        This may come as a surprise, but I would be afraid to teach much philosophy to high school kids. The type of philosophy taught in Europe is completely different from the type of philosophy that dominates North America, Britain, and Australasia and I think it would be too difficult. Maybe I am suffering from a failure of imagination, but undergrads have a hard enough time with it. I’d be afraid of just completely confusing highschoolers and doing more harm than good.

        Also, at least a temporary problem, who the heck would teach it? No one without at least an MA in PHILOSOPHY (God forbid a degree in English!) should even try to teach philosophy. There are nowhere near enough qualified people right now. Even in the long-term, I suspect it could create an issue if only MAs and PhDs had the ability to teach the classes.

        • Roger Olson

          All problems, yes. But many people without graduate degrees in philosophy could teach a unit in social studies on “how to think critically.”

    • This is a very good idea and actually philosophy courses are mandatory in French high-school.

      A last product of our Enlightenment, maybe…

  • Jakeithus

    Great summary of what the issue actually is, you’ve managed to express my own concerns with the entire process.

    The common rallying cry from those opposed to the current textbook model is “teach the controversy”. After reading your post, a better one might be “Teach the philosophy”. Although I’m sure the “scientists” will disagree, but there is an aspect of philosophical naturalism hidden within the curriculum as it currently stands.

    I understand that public schools will want no part in teaching philosophy to their students, but unfortunately, that’s impossible because not saying anything on the issue is still teaching something. Present what we know about natural selection, present what we know about the increasing complexity in the appearance of organisms, present the truth that science has been totally unable to provide a strictly naturalistic explanation for the appearance of life, but state that this doesn’t necessarily rule that out. But most importantly, state that none of this proves one way or the other whether any outside actor exists or was involved in the process, and that scientists form their own opinions based on the evidence available.

    This wont please the crowd that wants textbooks to state some people believe God created everything in 6 days of course.

  • Bev Mitchell


    A very good, very broad-ranging article that defies any comment that would begin to address all the issues raised. I’ll give a biologist’s take on predictable issues, and (with apologies) take two posts to do so.

    Generally I agree, and your point about avoiding fundamentally important national history due to the forces of political correctness is particularly well made – and new to me. But evolutionary biology is largely an historical matter as well – and as fundamental as it is well established. Yet it is downplayed as a sacrifice to a rival PC god, with grand applause from the same folks who would have a truer history of the country expressed ¿Verdad? Perhaps a deal could be made – one side agrees to include the important bits of national history currently left out of texts, the other side agrees to include the important bits of biological history that they would sooner avoid, and both agree to move all the metaphysics (subtle or blatant) to the philosophy and theology/religion

  • Bev Mitchell

    And, a related point that may help flesh out the overall context of your argument. And because, on this particular issue, I think it helps to consider all its major parts together.

    You say:
    “Science cannot prove that all life began with chemical interactions and certainly not by accident.”

    This statement requires careful unpacking. The second part is clearly a metaphysical position (either way), so stands out of bounds in science texts. The first, however, is potentially problematic unless all are agreed on what one means by “began”. As a Christian and a biologist I can say that, with the scientific evidence at hand, it is highly probable that all life began with chemical interactions. In fact, materially and scientifically speaking, all physical life is sustained (always has been and is) by chemical interactions. Just consider the cellular organelles chloroplasts (water, sun’s energy, carbon dioxide combine to produce sugar via photosynthesis) and mitochondria (sugar, oxygen and electron-management machinery combine to efficiently and safely produce energy through cellular respiration). It’s all chemical interactions of the most precise and amazing kind, made possible by complex proteins, the genes for which are broadly shared across living things. Furthermore, the chloroplasts and mitochondria originated as free living bacteria that became intimately associated with cells that were the ancestors of more complex organisms, including us. It’s all closely, intricately related and firmly founded on chemical interactions.

    Stated just scientifically, this should be unproblematic for Christians. In fact, it’s a cause for praise to God for the wonder and complexity of life that flourishes unstoppably (so far) on this planet. And thanks for the God-given ability to figure this much out.

    Or, the writer of the text could mean “began” in the sense of fundamental cause, a metaphysical statement that, as you say, is as unscientific as it gets and totally out of place in a science textbook.

    If critics would make it plain that it is just the metaphysics that should be ruled out of bounds, things might go better. I know this is what you are pointing out, but I imagine that many of the critics you refer to would not be pleased even with the purely scientific use of “began” and all that that implies, as outlined above, for example. They do often criticize the science, not as science, but as conclusions they have difficulty reconciling with their own metaphysics.

    It seems that, for the Church, the big problem is not that some scientists insist on dabbling in metaphysics (usually very badly and easily refuted) but that many Christians (often very conservative ones) have an understanding of Scripture and expectations from it that they are unwilling to question. All this despite the great assistance given by other committed Christians on this front. It’s important and correct to call out scientists who pretend that their metaphysics is science, but Christians who refuse to reconsider their approach to Scripture and use this as grounds to suppress real science are also a huge problem, and one that only Christians (ultimately the Church) can handle.

    • Roger Olson

      Okay. How would you explain to a junior high kid how “life began with chemical interactions” does NOT exclude God from being our creator? Naturally, the kid will conclude that consciousness, including moral decision making, also began with chemical interactions. In other words, what I’m asking is how would you avoid materialism, reductionism, while maintaining that life began with chemical interactions? What must be added, as it were, to chemicals to make humans, for example, more than mere “digestive systems that know they will die?” (E. O. Wilson)

      • Bev Mitchell

        Good Wilson quote that I’d missed, thanks. Of course, in addition to his rather important scientific agenda, EO has a non-scientific agenda common to Sunday School dropouts from fundamentalism. It’s a great pity.

        To try to answer your good question, I’ll assume we agree that this explaining to the junior high school student is to be done in the Christian home, a Christian school or in Church, not in a public school or a science textbook written for a pluralistic society.

        In thinking about how best to respond, I was reminded of a bit of advice written somewhere by T.F. Torrance. Paraphrasing “When faced with a difficult question of the faith, go directly to the Incarnation.” Here is my attempt to follow that advice.

        The only way that makes sense to me is to lean heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit did hover over the waters and we believe that all that is is sustained (made possible and given sustenance) by this same Spirit. We also know one instance where God actually made himself physically known (left his fingerprints behind) so to speak. A solid grounding in the Incarnation and what all of the ramifications of that mysterious melding of Spirit and matter led to and accomplished is primary. Even there, where we have the evidence of God with us, we are still left with the mystery of just how Spirit does what she does with respect to matter. The short answer then, make sure that youth are grounded in a thorough going, trinitarian understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. The project needs to begin with and cantered upon Jesus.

        It may well be that the Incarnation is meant to be the only place where we get something approaching a foggy glimpse of Spirit affecting matter, and even that is only as clear as it is because of the Cross and the Resurrection. Looking for God’s fingerprints on creation can too easily become an attempt to prove God by finding something tangible about him. He is spirit and blows where he will. Seeing him in nature is a matter of faith that has its source in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son. How Spirit makes it possible that life grew out of chemical interactions is a mystery. Two people can agree that chemical interactions of some sort were necessary at the beginning – while one sees nothing else, the other person, by faith, trusts that Spirit is somehow involved and will continue to trust even if there is no hope of knowing the mechanism. This is no different from believing that Spirit is always sustaining the chemical interactions that are presently the material foundation of life.


        As for how far to go in the public school, I also agree with you and labreuer that philosophy can and should be taught in all high schools. Many young minds are more than ready, despite the hormone rush. Sort of like very very young minds being especially ready for language. But alas, as here in Canada, the utilitarian view of education is paramount, while at the same time we are fairly confused about what is, in fact, useful.

        • Roger Olson

          I like your approach–as part of a solution to my dilemma. But I am hesitant (to say the least) to leave explanation of observable phenomena exclusively to science. It’s such an easy step (toward avoiding any more Galileo affairs) to say (which I’m not saying you do) that science is explanatory and theology is not (Ritschl and his followers). I guess my question runs deeper still, though. Suppose a junior high kid asks his science teacher, who just explained the beginning of life as totally explainable by chemistry, why he should care about other people if he is not thereby made happy. “I’m just a bunch of chemicals and so are they. If treating them badly makes me happy, why shouldn’t I?” What can the public school teacher say that will convince the really smart kid? And suppose the Christian kid asks the Sunday School teacher who just affirmed that life began with chemical interactions where God was in that. What does the smart, scientifically-minded, Christian Sunday School teacher say? How does it not make God seem remote, uninvolved, just watching from a distance? How does it not make life seem fortuitous and humans only highly evolved animals? Where does our “specialness” in creation come from? When and how did consciousness begin? Free will? Responsibility? Life after biological death? Reducing the beginning of life to chemical interactions raises all these questions that someone should be able to answer. So far I haven’t read or heard satisfying answers.

          • Bev Mitchell

            I hope we are not going in circles but are on a spiral to better understanding. In any case, it’s crucial to try to deal with this fundamental issue, as it will not go away and must be solved among believers in a way that does justice to both science and Christian faith. It’s difficult, so it’s too often placed on the back burner. Thanks for the opportunity to engage.

            Your questions are all essential and I think your concern expressed to Zeke points to the basis for most of them “My concern is dualism–separating God entirely from nature as if they have nothing to do with each other.”

            You are so right, if the Spirit is not somehow in it we have (1) the stuff that science can answer and (2) the stuff that revelation can answer and (3) some kind of uncrossable gap in between. This is why I was careful to include the ever present work of the Spirit (from outside and within the system). But, also careful not to suggest that we could see exactly how the Holy Spirit does her work.

            WHAT Spirit does is visible to all (creation, its sustenance, miracles etc.) Romans 1:20
            THAT this is the work of the Spirit is revealed to whosoever will accept the revelation – especially the Incarnation and all that it entails.
            HOW (mechanistically) the Spirit accomplishes all of this is not visible to any of us.

            A longer way of saying the same thing:

            All that sciences discovers, including the relationships among living things (evolutionarily, chemically, behaviourally, ecologically etc.) fits in the category “What God has done/is doing”. Science does not have to recognize this fact to make it so. Revelation from God (general and special) says it is so. However, this insight is, and should be, unacceptable to science, as science, while it is acceptable to believing scientists, as revelation through faith. Remember, the HOW is not known to either and the believer’s insight re WHO? is by faith not by sight. We Christians cannot expect non-believing scientists, nor the scientific enterprise, to help us in any way on this. Sometimes, if fact, it’s just the opposite. People should not complain when unbelieving scientists fail to make room for faith. The big question is, in whom is one’s faith placed – here a plug for Greg Boyd’s book “Benefit of the Doubt” that you reviewed Sept. 12.

            Many scientific discoveries uncover mechanisms (explanations that involve relationships) at the material level. These discoveries say nothing about how Spirit makes them so. This is true right down to the interactions of electrons, which is the foundation of all of chemistry – and beyond.

            One of the greatest mysteries of the faith involves the Spirit/energy-matter interface. Some see energy as the bridge, but this is based on a misunderstanding of physics. As Polkinghorne is fond of saying, E= mc^2 works both ways. We are in the dark as to how the Holy Spirit does what she does. However, we should, through faithful study of Scripture for example, expect that the relationship between matter and Spirit is very intimate indeed. N.T. Wright makes this point very well.

            In short, I see it as boiling down to What? Who? and How? – with the How? being hidden. If we confuse/conflate What? and How? – as both atheistic scientists and many Christian apologists do, we create an epistemological misunderstanding that serves the agendas of both extremes very well.

            Finally, many Christians seem unwilling to say much about the third member of the Trinity, for a wide variety of reasons (not you Roger). This problem needs to be rectified before matters can be convincingly addressed along these lines. A fuller understanding of the Trinity is needed. As you know, this is available from several good sources but much seems to get lost on the way to the pew (sometimes on the way to the pulpit).

          • Roger Olson

            I agree with all of that (I think). My problem arises when scientists, speaking as scientists, proclaim that “life began with chemical interactions,” which I consider as yet unproven, and don’t face the problems that raises especially for young people hearing this for the first time in an environment (most public schools) where to question anything said in a science textbook is considered evidence of backwoods ignorance. The obvious, unavoidable, inexorable question that presses is “Then why should we care about others if not doing so is beneficial to us?” I think many scientists (I don’t blame all for this) simply side step such questions or toss them over to someone else to answer–when it is their theories (still theories, not absolute provable facts) raise such questions to an intense pitch–especially for impressionable young people. So what would I want a science teacher or textbook writer to say? Well, first, that life began with chemical interactions is a theory. It’s unprovable. Second, that even if the theory is true that doesn’t say anything about how (as you defined that) or why. It doesn’t necessarily rule out teleology (then explain teleology). The scientist or textbook writer doesn’t have get into religion or even philosophy; he or she ought only to make clear that this theory, like every other one science has, does not in or of itself automatically rule out purpose, design or meaning. My problem is that the WAY these theories are presented in most textbooks and by most scientists is biased against teleology.

          • Bev Mitchell

            You are right. A scientist who is a Christian has to spend some time trying to sensitize colleagues to this reality. In the 90s I had colleagues (in fact a whole biology department, via a letter from the chair) who counselled students to attend lectures on matters of faith and science by Denis Lamoureux. Just recently Denis tells me that this is still the case – in one of the largest departments of biology in Canada.

            BTW, Denis’ course, like everything, has evolved and is now available on-line at
            As far as I know it’s free, and I recommend it highly for all Christian schools, home schools and youth groups.

      • labreuer

        There are three things that, from a scientific point of view, nothing [yet known] determines:

        1. The initial conditions of the universe.
        2. The laws of the universe.
        3. Spontaneous popping of particles into and out of existence (quantum fluctuations).

        These are all ways God could interact and do anything he wants (except be irrational). Science thinks that #3 is definitely random (read: no patterns yet known), and that #1 and #2 are probably random, although there might be a reason that one or both is the way it is. Given #3, that’s really a non-issue.

        There’s no need to “draw a line in the sand” at the beginning of biological life. Lines in the sand tend to be bad for both the theologian and the scientist. I think God dislikes them; they reek of arrogance.

      • AHH

        How would you explain to a junior high kid how “life began with chemical interactions” does NOT exclude God from being our creator?
        An important question — the exclusion of God you describe is the essence of what gets called the “God of the Gaps” fallacy in these discussions, the idea that “God” and “natural processes” are mutually exclusive explanations. Both Christians and opponents of our faith fall into that fallacy much too often and we need to be more diligent about opposing and avoiding it.

        The problem (and solution) are basically identical to explaining how stars forming by condensation of clouds of hydrogen does NOT exclude God from being the creator of the stars. The same reasoning, of “natural” processes being tools of God, works for both stars and starfish.

        • Roger Olson

          No, I disagree. A basic Christian belief is that human beings bear the “image and likeness of God” in a way no other parts of creation do. How is that compatible with our having begun with chemical interactions? If the latter is the case, the question naturally arises, what makes us MORE than chemicals? How, when did our “MORE” come to us? This makes the question radically different when applied to humans than when applied to stars.

          • AHH

            You are more a scholar of these things than I, but don’t OT scholars (for example John Walton, Pete Enns, and J. Richard Middleton) tell us that the “image and likeness of God” is NOT any physical characteristic, but rather a unique responsibility and relationship that God has assigned us? In that case, the way life (including human life) developed physically is irrelevant to the “image of God” issue.

            I’d also observe that you seem to have moved some goalposts in midstream. The “life from chemicals” issue under discussion (abiogenesis, NOT evolution) is for the first microscopic life, which is not in the “image of God” anyway. So whether one believes in abiogenesis or not, one still has to account for the “image” arriving or developing during the physical development of humans from ancestral forms (that evolution being a well-attested scientific result that I gather you don’t dispute).

            I agree with you that what makes us “MORE than chemicals” is an important question. But that question has nothing to do with the question of abiogenesis, and I’d argue that how God created our physical bodies (whether just using “natural” interactions of chemicals as a tool or whether there was more blatantly miraculous physical intervention) is not very relevant to the question either.

          • Roger Olson

            All I said was that the question is a natural one and especially Christians who teach students that even human life began with chemical interactions should be prepared to answer it.

          • AHH

            We are agreed that the question is a natural one, and that Christians in science should think about how to answer it.

            My point was that a good answer exists (seeing natural processes as a tool of God rather than a competitor to God) and is very important to making science/faith issues more constructive generally.
            And that this basic answer is simple enough that children should be able to understand it, so that we should not shy away from informing our children about good science, whether it be the very solid science of evolution (including human evolution) or (with appropriate caveats) the more speculative science of abiogenesis.
            And, by extension, that Christians should not object when textbooks and teachers present this science, provided they do so without the extraneous metaphysical baggage that the “scientific atheists” (and, unfortunately, many Christian anti-evolution crusaders) try to attach to the science.

  • Dan

    Thanks for this. The blurring of the lines between science and metaphysics and the inconsistency of who is allowed to blur those lines is really far more important than the specifics of the science. On the one hand some seem to want to suggest that naturalism can be presented as a rigidly sequestered notion that has no implications for anything outside of the laboratory. This in spite of bald statements in places like the Humanist Manifesto that clearly insist morals are changing and relative because modern science has made traditional religion untennable. On the other hand any objection to naturalism no matter how careful to avoid coming within a hundred miles of Genesis is dismissed as “religion”.

    Your closing paragraphs call to mind C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”. While not directly related to Evolution, it ought to be required reading for anyone who considers the implications of this debate.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, indeed. I second that book recommendation. The Abolition of Man is one of the best popularly written exposes of naturalism available. For the intellectual I would recommend Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies.

  • John Wylie

    Dr. Olson,
    Once again an excellent article and I must admit here that I have misjudged you sir, please forgive me for that.

    • Roger Olson

      You’re forgiven. How have you misjudged me?

      • John Wylie

        I’m sorry it took me so long to reply. I guess it’s best to just come out and say it, I thought of you guys of the more moderate stripe as just full blown secularists when it comes to creationism. I never thought that someone could have your viewpoint and yet defend so passionately God’s work in creation. I’ve been proven wrong, and I am both sorry and delighted at the same time.

  • Don Bryant

    A well-balanced post. Not all who question the biases of texts and curriculum are knuckle-dragging fundamentalist neanderthals. Creationism is not always the ghost in the closet waiting to get out. The whole point of Socrates’ project was how to produce the virtuous man in a culture of sophists and self-intrest. Thus his theory of forms.

  • R McNamara

    Christopher derrick’s ESCAPE FROM SCEPTICISM presents a convincing argument that there is no such thing as value-free education. An excellent book.

  • Ray Wilkins

    Excellent post Roger. I consider myself to be a Conservative Evangelical but I have never wanted Creationism “taught” in science (perhaps there should be a mentioning of it in sociology classes). Rather, I do believe that the limitations of scientific knowledge should be presented to our students which is currently not the case. It seems that to question the limitations of scientific truth is to somehow become “anti-science.”

    I am currently reading the “Restoration of Reason,” whereby Montague Brown argues that science wishes to ignore Metaphysics and any foray into Final Causation but as you rightly point out, betrays itself by trying to answer Final Causation through science. To quote from Brown, “Where has experimental verification determined that the scientific method is the only valid method for determining truth?”

  • Van

    For the latest on the ‘Evolution vs. Creation’ debate, check-out the following books: Evolution-the Extended Synthesis, Signature in the Cell, Evolution from the 21st Century, Nature’s Destiny, Why a Fly is not a Horse, Mind and Cosmos, Altenberg-16, Darwin’s Doubt. These are all written by evolutionists that believe in evolution, but reject Darwinism. Out of these, however, no consensus emerges on what a theory of evolution should even look like. This is why belief in biological evolution can only be considered a philosophy – not a scientific fact.

  • John Walker

    I think you’re spot on in identifying the issue. When public school science classes begin to lecture on metaphysics (as though they were science) there is an issue. Fortunately in my high school Biology class, my professor made clear that she does not intend to make metaphysical claims. While I somewhat disagree, our worldviews will naturally affect our science, she aimed to be fair. I appreciate that approach.

    • Roger Olson

      In high school I had two biology teachers–both claimed to be Christians. One slipped from biology into metaphysics all the time (viz., biology is chemistry, chemistry is physics, God has nothing to do with the origins or development of life). The other one stuck to provable facts.

  • Zeke

    “the issue is whether science, as science, can state that all life began with chemical interactions.”

    Roger, I don’t agree that this is the issue at all. I believe the real issue is what the “creationists” would have the textbooks say about how all life began, especially how humans came to exist. Accepting scientific consensus does not preclude a belief in God.

    • Roger Olson

      Both can be “the issue.” And my concern is not whether an alleged scientific consensus precludes belief in God. My concern is dualism–separating God entirely from nature as if they have nothing to do with each other.

      • Zeke

        I can see your concern, but it’s not really debatable that life began with chemical interactions. There is plenty of room for a God in this process, just as there’s room for people like yourself to be Christian without being anti-evolution.
        What would you have the textbooks say instead?

        • Roger Olson

          You say it’s not really debatable. Really? It is much debated, so it’s debatable. Merely saying it’s not debatable doesn’t make it so. Textbooks should say it’s debated by intelligent people including some scientists.

          • Zeke

            To clarify, I meant that life arising from chemical interactions are not debatable. What initiated that is debatable, hence room for God.
            Sure, “some” extremely intelligent scientists believe in a personal God, but 93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. Some extremely intelligent Muslim scientists accept the Qur’an regarding how life began, and that Muhammed flew to heaven on a winged steed. Does that belong in a science text book too?

          • Roger Olson

            Don’t be absurd. Nothing I wrote here suggests such a thing. And you still haven’t said why it’s “beyond debate” that life began with chemical interactions. And from where do you get your statistics about scientists and belief in a personal God? Don’t throw statistics down here without providing sources.

          • Zeke

            OK, one more time – the origin of life (the first self-replicating molecules) continues to be a mystery. Yes, there are multiple competing ideas, all compliant with science. Kids are taught that. Creationism is not one of the competing ideas. Since you stated that you are not anti-evolution, I don’t understand what your issue is.
            No, you didn’t write that textbooks should include Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, or any other non-Christian explanations for how humans came to be. Sometimes one can say more by way of omission.
            Link to the survey showing near unanimous disbelief in God among the top scientists in the world:

          • Roger Olson

            I’m suspicious about which scientists were polled. But, in any case, science can say nothing about whether something or someone transcending nature exists; that lies outside science’s purview.

          • Zeke

            Agreed. Things that transcend nature are beyond the purview of science, and as such should not be included in science textbooks – that’s the whole point. Speculations that a supernatural being transcended nature to initiate life on earth doesn’t belong here for the same reason.

            I’m still confused though. You claim to accept evolution, but seem to think that the earliest form of life were …… what exactly?

          • Roger Olson

            My only claim is that science doesn’t know. I don’t know how God chose to create the earliest form of biological life either. But from a Christian point of view, it could not have been accidental. For “science” to imply it was is to step outside the purview of science. It happens frequently.

  • Tony Mitchell

    Dr. Olson,
    I would agree with you that science textbooks should focus on science though I wish that sometimes it were done at more appropriate level. I would disagree and say that there is a need for the introduction of philosophy of science simply so that students can see how science works. The problem, as I have encountered it, is that many teachers are not well-versed in the nature of the philosophy of science and that is where the problem arises. Not knowing what a theory means and how it differs from a hypothesis leads to a great deal of misunderstanding.

    So they end up teaching evolution as a fact and demand that their students accept this final statement. I am not a creationist but I would prefer that no teacher impose a belief system on me, no matter what that system might be. I want my teachers to help me understand what is going on so that I can make some sort of decision on my own.

    Now, for me, the decisions of the Texas Board of Education are not necessarily about teaching how we came to be but rather an imposition of a viewpoint without discussion. Education is supposed to be a liberating force, not a limiting one.

    And for the record, I have lived in Texas and I have taught science education in Texas.

  • Jeremy Klein

    The controversy is inevitable, since we have allowed gov’t to do that which gov’t is not designed to do: teach children. I resent having money taken from me and my children to teach someone else’s children that which I believe to be false and damaging. Christians everywhere should refuse to allow their children to be exposed to the corrosive acid of the ‘molecules-to-man’ fairy tale. Homeschooling is best, a decent Christian school acceptable.

    Christians also should recognize that there is no credible evidence for the fairy tale. Anyone who acknowledges that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God should understand that denial of truth is the natural mindset of man after the Fall. ‘Exchanging the glory of the Creator for created things’ is the order of the day. It should not be surprising that legions of so-called scientists buy into the ‘theory’ of evolution, even when they actually know very little about it. Given the pressure to conform (grants, tenure, jobs, etc), it should not be surprising that some who name the name of Christ claim that God used some kind of ‘evolution’ to produce life on Earth as we know it, despite the absence of evidence for it, and despite the clear account God gives in Genesis.

    • Roger Olson

      Thank you for giving us an example of a fundamentalist viewpoint. This is just as scary as the agnostic/atheist one.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      I agree with you about government schools. My wife and I homeschool our 2 kids. However, there is much that science can teach us. A reliance on the historicity of Genesis 1-11 does conflict with very reasonable conclusions that we draw by looking around us. It has taken many millions of years for the light from distant stars to get to us. The continents appear (and have many other clues) that they were once in very different places – and took many thousands of years to move. I’m not speaking about evolution because I’m not qualified to, but the Physics part of the Old Earth theory seems quite solid to me.
      I don’t think I’m invalidating the authority of the Bible by doubting the historicity of the early Genesis stories. I think that there are reasons why they were written instead of “this is history”. I do appreciate the seriousness with which you take God, the Bible, and meaningful things.

      • Jeremy Klein

        Very kind, thanks for the encouraging comment. I agree that there’s much that science can teach us; my profession relies heavily on it. However we must remember that relying on science to tell us what happened umpty-billion years ago is not the same as relying on science to tell us (e.g.) what the Krebs cycle does…

        The starlight issue is about the only one that seems to argue for an old universe (altho’ it doesn’t bear on the age of the Earth). However we must remember: none of us were there. God’s account is the only definitive one. There’s no particular reason from Scripture to assume an old universe/Earth. We don’t know, e.g., what the ‘laws’ of physics were a microsecond after creation. We don’t know that God did not create the stars and the photons between them and us, for reasons that may not be clear to us.

        I suspect that some at least of those who maintain the old universe/Earth position do so for less than solid reasons. At any rate it would take a large panel of PhD’s in the relevant fields, all members in good standing of a properly constituted church, all Biblical inerrantists (is that a word?), to review the appropriate data and come to the conclusion that an old universe/Earth is more likely than not to lead me to take the position seriously. Whether the universe/Earth is old or not certainly doesn’t make any difference to my life now. I fear, however, that ‘going along’ with the old universe/Earth position grants ground needlessly to the evolutionists.

        • Roger Olson

          Have you heard of the American Scientific Affiliation? Google them and examine their web site and publications.

          • Jeremy Klein

            Thanks for the info; their site looks interesting and worthy of review. In their ‘What does the ASA believe?’ section there’s the following statement: “We accept the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct.” I suspect the stipulation ‘in matters of faith and conduct’ means the organization does not affirm inerrancy.

          • Roger Olson

            I don’t know, but what does “inerrancy” even mean? As I have argued here many times, every thinking inerrantist qualifies it to death.

        • Tim Reisdorf

          Hi Jeremy,

          When you say things like “We don’t know that God did not create the stars and the photons between them and us…” it makes me nervous. If God is out to trick me, then consider me tricked – God did a tremendous job of it. But the whole notion of God tricking us by putting fake evidence in what we find around us – this is not proper. While you are correct in that we don’t know and we weren’t there at the Beginning, science is about finding patterns in nature today that we suppose were at work yesterday and will continue tomorrow. To jettison that (attempting to support a particular perspective on the Bible) would be to jettison much of science.

  • Dr_Phaedrus

    McGrath quotes Stephen Jay Gould’s corrective: “To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.” To which McGrath adds, “Gould rightly insists that science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God.”

    I believe Gould was incorrect (and not speaking as a scientist) when he said that religious beliefs developed by a neurological accident that had some evolutionary advantage, but certainly he is correct when he describes the limits that some of his fellow evolutionary biologists and atheists routinely violate. FWIW, I also disagree with Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magesteria,” which declares that science and religion are completely separate and without overlap of any kind.

    Of course, I could be wrong. It would take some convincing to persuade me otherwise, however.

    • Roger Olson

      I agree with you about all of that.

  • Hello Roger.

    I agree that there is a strong materialist bias within the Western intellectual world. And given the dearth of data about the early earth, nobody can SCIENTIFICALLY assert that God wasn’t involved in the creation (and even subsequent evolution) of life.

    But I see no problem for Christians to believe that God endowed the laws of nature with the abilities to bring about self-replicating systems under the right conditions.

    To my mind, the real puzzle of life is the existence of a conscious, subjective experience, this is clearly something no material evolution can explain, it can only deny the phenomenon.
    For those interested in philosophy I’ve written an article on that on my blog under the rubric “Qualia”.

    There is, however, one domain when faith and evolutionary thinking clash, and it is the origins of religion.

    Most Evolutionary Psychologists presuppose the truth of reductive materialism to construct explanation of the religious phenomenon and conclude this is a trick of the brain. They never consider non-reductive explanations.

    This is clearly a domain where even progressive Christians should stand up and loudly say: this all depends on your presuppositions.

    Evolutionary Psychology poses also another challenge to Christian theology, namely the origin of evil, which is explained in terms of brain modules which have been selected for.
    As an Arminian theologian this is really something you should be concerned about for this would mean that many sins are actually caused by things people are not responsible for and which demonstrably existed long before Adam and Eve came up.

    Anyway, I’d be glad to learn your (quick) thoughts on all of this.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

    • Roger Olson

      I blogged here not long ago about Alvin Plantinga’s excellent book challenging naturalism. It’s titled Where the Conflict Really Lies. If naturalistic materialism is the case, then all our thoughts and beliefs are nothing more than byproducts of chemical interactions in our brains therefore rational persuasion concerning truth is useless. The categories “true belief” and “false belief” become useless.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The perceptive reader will realize that the above model can be used as a foundation for both the determinist and the proponent of libertarian free will. A solution to this lies in the scope one sees for the work of the Spirit. A determinist will have the Spirit managing every electron from the beginning to the end, because God must be in total control. The non-determinist will see that a large part of the Spirit’s work is to make things possible, to uphold and sustain creation so that created things may make their own decisions to be and become. The determinist model is based on power and control, the non-determinist model is based on love and freedom. In either case, God is able to see his ultimate goals achieved. He will have a people for the new world he has been in the process of creating from the beginning of time – the Kingdom of Christ the Lord.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts! If more textbook critics were like you, I doubt the issue would be as contentious as it is. I run a web site that promotes the compatibility of Christianity and evolution. And despite your assertion to the contrary, I’ve never met an opponent of public school science teachings who didn’t hedge his or her objections solely on supposed “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution.

    • Roger Olson

      Now you’ve met one–me. And I have met many others over the years. I don’t normally permit links in comments–unless I have time to examine the site.

      • No problem — my apologies! Pleased to meet you 🙂

  • David Buchanan

    Please read the essay by Owen Gingerich in the excellent book: “Finding God at Harvard”. Gingerich is a very distinguished astronomer who is also a believer. While providing some advice to some of Sagan’s assistants on the Cosmos project, Gingerich pointed out that some Christians will object to Sagan’s opening statement. The response from the assistant was that they were not trying to make a philosophical statement, they “were just trying to say something poetic”. Unfortunately, the statement has become much more famous over time because Christians have made much more of it than was intended by the author.

    • Roger Olson

      Who can tell what Sagan intended–just from watching the video? I watched the whole series and nothing in it, as I recall, left any room for anything transcending nature. If Sagan didn’t intend his opening statement to be taken as a metaphysical one, he shouldn’t have made it. It clearly is metaphysical in import. At best he was just a bad communicator at that moment.

      • David Buchanan

        If he was intending to be poetic, he succeeded. There is no reason why Sagan would have suggested anything of a transcending nature. It is well documented that he did not believe that there is anything of a transcending nature. Part of Gingerich’s point was that the statement has been kept alive entirely by Christians who continue to complain about it.

        • Roger Olson

          As we should, because many people were influenced by it–to think naturalism, the cosmos is all there is, is science.

          • David Buchanan

            so it is ok for a large group of people to complain about something somebody wrote, in order to serve their own purposes, by accusing that person of saying something which he/she was not intending to say when he/she wrote it? Exodus 20:16.
            Actually, I question the premise that many people were influenced to disregard the supernatural by watching Cosmos. I suspect that more people have been influenced to complain about Sagan by the continual repetition than the number of people who embraced metaphysical naturalism by watching the series.