A Spectrum of Belief


The following is adapted from a chapter in a book I’m writing called Science and the Bible:

There’s a wide range of beliefs concerning cosmology, evolution, and the nature of man. The figure below graphically illustrates this range. At one extreme (the blue end) we have people who believe only what they can see in nature. They have no use for the Bible or the God who gave it. At the other extreme we have people who believe so strongly in their own interpretations of Scripture that no natural evidence can shake their beliefs. Let’s work our way through this chart starting with the red end.

Yes, there really are folks who believe that the Earth is flat. The Flat Earthers can cite chapter and verse for their belief. They follow the reasoning espoused by John of Chrysostom that the Earth floats on the waters gathered under the firmament. I don’t think I should say much more about the Flat Earthers. [1]

The Geocentrists allow that there is physical evidence for the Earth being spherical. They don’t think that a ship’s disappearing over the horizon is merely a trick of perspective. They acknowledge that Isaiah 40:22 could refer to a round Earth [2], but they have other verses that prove that the Sun goes around the Earth. [3] Needless to say, the Geocentrists reject all of the science concerning the Big Bang and the origin of the Universe. Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein are all seen either as bumblers who could not understand what was before their eyes or as part of a Satanic conspiracy to delude the faithful. This is probably a good point to look at an example of how to apply Augustine’s principle of being ready to change our minds when new evidence appears. Let’s do a thought experiment.

Suppose we read Psalm 93 and find that it says that the world was established and cannot be moved [4], and suppose we see the Sun and Moon moving across the sky. We might conclude that the Earth is the center of the Universe and that the Sun and Moon are in orbits around the earth. During our sky gazing one night, we see a bright object that moves across the sky in a few minutes and then reappears on a similar track about an hour-and-a-half later. We investigate this and find that it is the International Space Station in orbit about 330 km above the earth.

How does this fit with what we think we know? The orbital period of an object 330 km above the earth is about 90 minutes. The orbital period of the Moon (385,000 km away) is about 29.5 days. The orbital period of the Sun (150,000,000 km distant) is 24 hours. There’s an inconsistency here. If, as we might suppose from the Sun and Moon data, orbital period deceases as the distance from the earth increases, then the Space Station’s orbit should take several months rather than less than 2 hours. We can either say that we have a problem with our understanding of the Universe, or that the Space Station is some sort of fraud, or that we are misinterpreting Psalm 93. If we allow Psalm 93 to be non-literal poetry, admit that the International Space Station is really there, and apply the scientific method to our data, most of us will wind up accepting Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, and a heliocentric view of the Solar System.

As do the Young Earth Creationists. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is a religious doctrine that holds that God created the Universe, the Earth, and all living things in six literal 24-hour days—and that He did it only a few thousand years ago. Because of this view, YEC rejects much of the findings of modern science in astronomy, cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, molecular biology, genomics, linguistics, archeology, and anthropology. Many YEC adherents are active in “Creation Science” which seeks to find real-world empirical evidence for their beliefs. However, “creation science” is really pseudoscience. While it claims to employ the scientific method, it does not adhere to the scientific method’s requirements for testability and falsifiability. YEC will be covered in more detail in another post.

As we move farther away from a My-Interpretation-of-Scripture-Only view toward a balanced approach that begins to consider the evidence in nature as trustworthy, we find the various Old Earth Creationists. The first type we’ll consider are the Gap Creationists who hold the view that life as we know it was recently created on a pre-existing old Earth. This view rests on translating Genesis 1:1, 2 as “In the beginning when the Earth became formless and void …” [5] The idea is that the Earth existed for a long time and passed into a decayed state, but that God chose to freshen things up a bit. This can be compatible with a main-stream scientific view of the age of the Earth, but in all other respects it follows the YEC six literal days. Gap Creationism is a relatively recent development that was popularized in the Schofield Reference Bible in the early 20th century.

A more common form of Old Earth Creationism is the Day-Age variety. Its advocates hold that the Hebrew word “yom” does not always mean “day” in the sense of a 24-hour period. If the days of creation are allowed to be as long as God wants them to be, then the age of the Earth could be quite old. It should be noted that the general order of creation described in Genesis does track with what we think we know from Science—if we assume that Genesis was written from the point of view of someone on the Earth beginning on the Third Day. First, the Universe comes into being and light is created. On the Second Day, the firmament of heaven or matter comes into existence. On the Third Day, the surface of the Earth comes into being, and life begins with the first plants. On the Fourth Day, the atmosphere becomes clear enough for the Sun and the Moon to be visible. On the Fifth Day, fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds appear. On the Sixth Day, mammals arrive. As a general rule, most Day-Age Creationists reject natural evolution and believe that all of God’s critters were specially created one species (or one “kind”) at a time.

The Progressive Creationists might be viewed as the liberal wing of the Day-Age camp. Progressive Creationism believes that God allows certain natural processes (such as natural selection) to affect the development of life, but that He has also directly intervened from time to time. God is viewed as doing this to guide the processes or, in some cases, to create new species altogether.

Intelligent Design (ID) is a recent repackaging of the Teleological Argument [6] for the existence of God. Its proponents claim that ID is a scientific theory that is at least the equal of (if not superior to) the current theories of evolution and the origins of life. However, ID has never had any scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals to support it. Science uses the scientific method to find a posteriori evidence derived from observations of nature. ID seeks to replace the methodological naturalism of Science with “theistic realism.” ID, like Creation Science, is pseudoscience, and, like YEC, it will have its own post later.

As you can see from the figure, I am a Theistic Evolutionist. Although we Theistic Evolutionists all believe that God created the Universe and that the best evidence shows that He used cosmological and biological evolution along the way, we come in several versions. Some of us are Deists who believe that the God created the Universe and then left it pretty much on its own. I’m not one of those. Some of us believe that the Genesis account is allegorical. I’m not one of those either. I believe that the both the Genesis account and the evidence we see in nature are true, but that neither gives an exhaustive picture of the history of creation. Can I resolve all of the ambiguities? No, I’m not that smart, but I am convinced of God’s existence and His truthfulness. Furthermore, it seems to me that none of the difficult questions are show-stoppers for my belief in God or my reliance on Christ. I just try to give full faith and credit to everything God has said—in the Bible and in nature.

Methodological Materialist Evolutionists attempt to strictly follow the scientific method in their consideration of the origins of the Universe and life. Just as Luther’s approach to religion was sola scriptura (“just the scriptures”), Methodological Materialist Evolutionists take a Joe Friday, “just the facts, Ma’am” approach to the study of origins. Data and the scientific method settle all questions. Religious belief is not objected to in any way; it is just considered non-germane to the question. Stephen J. Gould proposed the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria or NOMA. He defined a magisterium as as a domain of knowledge where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse or resolution. In Gould’s scheme the magisterium of Science covers empirical knowledge—what the universe is made of (facts) and how it works (theory)—and the magisterium of religion deals with questions of ultimate meaning and values. Gould asserted that these two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they cover all of human knowledge. There is, for example, a magisterium of art. While Gould described himself as an agnostic, there are many deeply religious scientists who hold this view. [7]

Some scientists are very critical of the very idea of NOMA. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argues that the proposition that a supernatural being designed and created the Universe and everything in it, including us, is a scientific theory that is testable. He also asserts that it has been tested and found to be false. Dawkins is an Atheistic Evolutionist. [8]

Let’s do another thought experiment, an expanded version of one proposed by Francis Schaeffer in The God Who is There. Suppose you were looking through the attic one day and found an old diary in a storage box. When you opened it, you found that it had been mutilated by having large pieces of each page torn out. Some time later, while going through another box in the attic, you found an envelope that contained photocopies of the the first twenty or so pages of the diary before it was ruined. Then, while going through an old trunk in the attic you found a shoe box with all of the missing pieces of the pages from page 10 to the end. You could use your powers of reason to match the newly-found pieces to their respective pages, to verify the photocopies of some of the pages were accurate by comparing them to the reconstructed pages they were copied from, and to have reasonable confidence in the other photocopies. You would also be able to read the whole diary and discover what the writer had to say.

This is analogous to our situation. When we look at the Universe and Man in the fallen state, it’s like looking at the ruined diary. We don’t see an accurate picture of what God has said to us about Himself and His relationship to Creation and to Man. The Bible is like the photocopies, an intact replica of what God explicitly said. The physical universe is like the shoe box full of page scraps. It contains bits of the actual handiwork of the Author. If we ignore either, we prevent ourselves from looking at some of the things God has given us to know.

It’s my opinion that the groups on either end of the spectrum have blinkered vision. On the one side, we have a curious disregard for basic facts of the physical world because they contradict a view of the Bible that is not demanded by the text of the Scriptures. On the other extreme, we have an opposition to the idea of God that forces one to view all of nature mechanistically. Man becomes a machine, and there is no basis for personality.

As we move to the center, we come closer to a true appreciation of reality. As we move from red to green, we put more stock in the evidence in the natural world. As we move from blue to green, we move away from compartmentalizing science and religion as separate entities and begin to treat knowledge as a unified whole.

There is a spot at the middle of the spectrum that admits God’s truthfulness in all things and His sovereignty over all things. He is the Lord of all, and His truth covers all. That’s where we should be. It’s where I hope I am.

NOTES

[1] You’ll notice that I put them close to the edge of the spectrum, but not so perilously close that they might fall off.

[2] In the King James Bible this verse reads, “It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth …”

[3] For example, Genesis 15:12 (“Now when the sun was going down …” [NASB]) is seen as proving that the sun moves while the Earth stands still.

[4] In the King James Bible Psalm 93:1 reads, “… the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.”

[5] In order to make this work, one must render the Hebrew verb usually translated as “was” as “became.”

[6] The Teleological Argument goes like this: X is too complex (or orderly or beautiful or whatever) to have occurred randomly. Therefore, X must have been created by a sentient (or wise or powerful or whatever) being. God is that sentient (or wise or powerful or whatever) being. Therefore, God exists. Q. E. D.

[7] Since I created the figure, Stephen Hawking has clarified his beliefs.  I should probably place his name among the atheists.

[8] Dawkins is an outspoken secular humanist and defender of atheistic evolution. If Thomas Huxley was “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Richard Dawkins is “Darwin’s Rottweiler.”

8 thoughts on “A Spectrum of Belief

  1. Nice job. It’s refreshing to see the spectrum of believers laid out like that as opposed to a more black-and-white approach used by the “Blues” and the “Reds”.

    • Two other important theistic evolutionists:
      Francis Collins THE LANGUAGE OF GOD
      Kenneth R Miller FINDING DARWIN’ GOD

      Note on Intelligent Design (so-called): there is no Intelligent Design model:
      every advocate of intelligent design seems to have a different idea of what
      it is and it is really a spectrum of beliefs ranging from strict Young Earth
      Creationism to some forms of Theistic Evolution (e.g. Michael Behe–God
      “tweaked” the evolutionary process from time to time.)

      Another important note: there are two mathematical functions that can show
      how closely populations are related: the Mahalanobis square of the
      generalized distance and Penrose’s statistic. The smaller the distance
      function, the more closely related they are. When used to compare skull
      measurements of fossil hominids with modern humans, the more recent
      the fossils. the smaller the distance function.,

      Another important note: the easiest argument against young universe/
      young earth creationism is the distant starlight problem: Distances to
      external galaxies can be measured by looking for a certain class of variable
      stars called classical cephids: There is an exact mathematical relationship
      between period and luminosity; if we measure the period, we can calculate
      the luminosity expressed as absolute magnitude; by comparing absolute
      with apparent magnitude, we can then calculate the distance.

      Final comment (for now) about flat earthers: these people are beyond
      reason and debating them is beyond useless. I think they have a few
      screws loose in their heads.

  2. Pingback: Intelligent Design and Pastafarianism | hogewash

  3. Pingback: Science and the Bible | hogewash

  4. An excellent summary: your position reminds me a bit of Martin Gardner’s philosophical deist position he so brilliantly elaborated in The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. I am more of a hard atheist myself but I appreciate religious arguments that concede the importance of reason. I am also a big fan of changing your mind when there are good reasons to do so.

  5. It is very easy to refute the flat earth position…How do they explain that
    I ts very easy to refulte the Flat Earth argument, How do they exlain that
    one part of the Earth is in darkness while the other part is in daylight?
    If the Earth is a one-sided disc, the whole top side of the disk should be
    in daylight,

  6. I too am a Theistic Evolutionist. I view the evolution of man’s understanding and knowledge of both God’s nature and God as the driving force. The early Church fathers (like the cited St. John Chrysostom) wrote from the available knowledge of their times and understanding. Their works are often full of misstated ‘facts’ that were the current understanding of God and His nature. As knowledge increases, so does our understanding of His creation and action in the Universe.

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