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Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 3

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March 9, 2012 Tags: Pastoral Voices
Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Tim Keller. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the third of a six-part series considering questions lay people raise with their pastors when introduced to the teaching that biological evolution and biblical orthodoxy can be compatible. In the first and second posts, Dr. Keller gave an overview of the tension between biblical and scientific accounts on origins from a pastoral perspective and addressed the conflict between evolution and a literal reading of Genesis. In this post, he argues that an evolutionary account of origins does not necessarily diminish human dignity.

Three Questions of Christian Laypeople

Question#2: If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?

Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.

Today every effort is being made to insist that belief in the process of biological evolution leads necessarily to belief in ‘perennial naturalism’ (to use Alvin Plantinga’s term),1 the view that everything about human nature—our ability to love, act, think, form beliefs, use language, have moral convictions, put faith in God, and do art and philosophy—can all be understood as originating in random genetic mutation or some other source of variability, and prevailing in the human race today only because of natural selection. We may feel that some behaviors are universally right and should be performed, and some things universally wrong and should not be done, whether those behaviors promote your survival or not. But perennial naturalism insists that those feelings are there not because they are universally true, but only and entirely because they helped your ancestors survive.

One of the cardinal principles of the ‘new atheists’ is that perennial naturalism automatically flows from belief in the biological evolution of species. A great example was Sam Harris’ recent castigation of Francis Collins, after he was nominated to be head of NIH. Harris was deeply troubled that Collins as a Christian believer understood that human nature had aspects (such as intuition of God’s Moral Law) which science could not explain. Collins was denying, therefore, that science could provide ‘answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.’ This troubled Harris. He wrote:

“As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking… Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”2

The argument here is clear. If you believe human life was formed through evolutionary biological processes (from here on, referred to as EBP), you must therefore believe in the Grand Theory of Evolution (from here on, referred to as GTE) as the explanation for every aspect of human nature. Collins, he says, should see that human beings have no ‘immortal soul, free will, knowledge of the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism’ based on our relationship with God.3 Evolution, Harris claims, has shown that these things are illusions. All features of human life have a natural, scientifically explicable cause. If you believe in EBP, you must believe in GTE.

GTE is fast becoming what Peter Berger calls a ‘plausibility structure’. It is a set of beliefs considered so basic, and with so much support from authoritative figures and institutions, that it is becoming impossible for individuals to publicly question them. A plausibility structure is a ‘given’ supported by enormous social pressure. The writings of the new atheists here are important to observe because their attitudes are more powerful than their arguments. The disdain and refusal to show any respect to opponents is not actually an effort to refute them logically, but to ostracize them socially and turn their own views into a plausibility structure. They are well on their way.

This creates a problem for the Christian layperson if they hear their teachers or preachers telling them that God could have used EBP to bring about life forms. Evolution as a ‘Grand Theory’ is now being used at the popular level to explain nearly everything about human behavior.

Many Christian laypeople resist all this and seek to hold on to some sense of human dignity by subscribing to ‘fiat-creationism.’ This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive. In their mind ‘evolution’ is one big ball of wax. It seems to them that, if you believe in evolution, human beings are just animals under the power of their inner, genetically-produced drives. I have seen Christians in a Bible study on Genesis 1-2 read the following quote and become confused:

"If 'evolution' is…elevated to the status of a world-view of the way things are, then there is direct conflict with biblical faith. But if 'evolution' remains at the level of scientific biological hypothesis, it would seem that there is little reason for conflict between the implications of Christian belief in the Creator and the scientific explorations of the way which--at the level of biology--God has gone about his creating processes." 4

Atkinson is saying that you can believe in EBP and not GTE. I have seen intelligent, educated laypeople really struggle with the distinction Atkinson has made. Nevertheless, this is exactly the distinction they must make, or they will never grant the importance of EBP.

How can we help them? I believe that Christian pastors, theologians, and scientists who want to argue for an EBP account of origins must put a great deal of emphasis at the same time on arguing against GTE. Christian philosophers have paved the way here and there are many good critiques of philosophical naturalism. Many know about Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism’ in which, much like C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles, he argues that “Evolution is interested (so to speak) only in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. Natural selection doesn’t care what you believe; it is interested only in how you behave.”5 The argument goes like this. Does natural selection (alone) give us cognitive faculties (sense perception, rational intuition about those perceptions, and our memory of them) that produce true beliefs about the real world? In as far as true belief produces survival behavior—yes. But who can say how far that is? If a theory makes it impossible to trust our minds, then it also makes it impossible to be sure about anything our minds tell us--including macro-evolution itself-- and everything else.6 Any theory that makes it impossible to trust our minds is self-defeating.

Another very important area where we must ‘push back’ against GTE is in its efforts to explain away moral intuitions. An excellent recent volume where, again, Christian philosophers take the lead is Jeffrey Schloss, ed. The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion (Oxford, 2009.) See especially Christian Smith’s chapter “Does Naturalism Warrant a Moral Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?” (By the way, his conclusion is ‘no.’) So what does this mean? Many orthodox Christians who believe in EBP often find themselves attacked by those Christians who do not. But it might reduce the tensions between believers over evolution if they could make common cause against GTE. Most importantly, it is the only way to help Christian laypeople make the distinction in their minds between evolution as biological mechanism and as Theory of Life.

Next week, Dr. Keller continues to explore the issues most often raised about evolution and faith by Christian laypeople, turning to questions about the origins of sin and suffering in light of the trustworthiness of Scripture.


1. Plantinga sees the two great alternatives to orthodox religious views: a) perennial naturalism—and b) creative anti-realism—the view that is often called ‘post-modernism’ or post-structuralism. See “Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (Eerdmans, 1998.)
2. Sam Harris, “Science is in the Details”, New York Times, July 26, 2009.
3. Ibid.
4. David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11 (The Bible Speaks Today Series), p.31.
5. A.Plantinga, “Naturalism Defeated” 1994, available at www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/ vitual_library/articles/ plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf
6. This argument is worked out in detail in A. Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993) chapter 12. Also see also William C. Davis, "Theistic Arguments", Michael J. Murray, ed. Reason for the Hope Within (Eerdmans, 1999) p. 39.
7. Granted, often New Testament writers see Messianic meanings in Old Testament prophecies that were doubtless invisible to the OT prophets themselves. Nonetheless, while a Biblical author’s writing may have more true meanings than he intended when writing, it may not have less. That is, what the human author meant to teach us cannot be seen as mistaken or now obsolete without surrendering the traditional understanding of Biblical authority and trustworthiness.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue of New York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of such New York Times bestselling books as The Reason for God and Prayer. He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which has helped start over 250 churches in global cities worldwide. He lives in New York City with his wife Kathy.

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Chip - #68531

March 15th 2012


One [understanding of morality] that we can’t say is “better” or “worse” than the morality of the praying mantis

Exactly.  And, given your assumptions, you persist in asking me why I say any moral argument you pose to me is arbitrary? 

Tim - #68532

March 15th 2012


I am asking you to clarify what you mean by arbitrary.  There are very good reasons why our pro-social dispositions are the way they are.  They aren’t truly “arbitrary” in that sense.  They result in functional societies that care for each other and their young. 

Our moral inheritance facilitates a highly socially cooperative mode of existence.  Other mammals operate much the same way.  Wolf packs are very socially cooperative, for instance.  So are dolphins and whales.  From a functional point of view, I wouldn’t say that the pro-social dispositions of these mammals are “arbitrary”.  Same would go for humans.

But, in the sense that in some alternate reality a sentient intelligent life may have evolved with the morality of something akin to bees, then yes, that would be “arbitrary” in the sense that what we could, if given a very different set of conditions, have ended up in a very different way.

But in that same sense, it would be “arbitrary” that we don’t have wings.  And it would be “arbitrary” that we eat with a mouth and breath with our lungs.  So in that sense everything we are and possess would be “arbitrary.”  But unless you adopt such an extreme usage of the term “arbitrary”, then I wouldn’t fault naturalistic explanations of morality as any more arbitrary than anything else in nature.

Papalinton - #68538

March 16th 2012

If there is ever to be a reasoned and rational discussion between the two pillars of human endeavour, philosophy and science, one must of necessity inform the other, in a dynamically constructive relationship. One without the other would indeed default to matters of semantics or wordplay or hairsplitting. The ubiquitous euphemism, ‘science without philosophy is blind and philosophy without science is empty’, is axiomatic.

Should the philosophy of religion be the particular flavour of discourse engaged, it too, must form that relationship with science if we are to indulge in ‘serious philosophical analyses’ that does not result in the inexorable slide into ‘semantics’ or ‘wordplay’ or ‘hairsplitting’.

I am somewhat amused by christians, ever quick to point out the limitations of reason and science, while concurrently neglecting to apply any form of logic or reason in acknowledging any limitations of faith and theology.

Philosophy and science are the fundamental logic streams in human growth and development, in knowledge and understanding. While theology may inform the debate at the margins, in a peripheral sense, as does indeed the broader genre of mythology, it is not central to human understanding going forward.

At the core of contemporary discourse, is the nature of the changing relationship between ‘traditional’ categories of knowledge and the emerging forms of knowledge possessing far greater explanatory power. Concomitant with this change is a significant degree of discomfort and dislocation experienced by those that subscribe to ‘traditional knowledge’ in  society as a result of this rapidly changing relationship. Traditional categories of knowledge refer to the ‘long-standing traditions and practices of regional, indigenous, and local communities, and encompasses the wisdom, knowledge, and teachings of these communities. In many cases, traditional knowledge has been orally passed for generations from person to person’. Stories, legends, folklore, and custom  are expressions of traditional knowledge. They are transmitted principally through rituals, ceremonies and rites; through observance, service, sacrament, liturgy, worship; and through act, practice and custom. Theology, or more particularly, religion, is a ‘traditional category of knowledge’ borne from one generation to the next within a community. Different communities reflect different traditions of religion.

This resultant discomfort in challenges to  traditional  forms of knowledge is no better reflected than by Steve Petermann, a believer no less: [at http://theology3m.blogsome.com/2006/11/27/a-feeling-for-things/#more-46 ]

“Of course, there are various reasons for the steady decline of participation in traditional religion. Is there any doubt that there is also a steady secularization in societies? The reason I would like to focus on is the incredulity of many religious claims found in the traditions. Most of the traditions, at least in the West, still point to an interventionist supernatural mode of causation. The miracle stories in all the traditions are still taken seriously by many adherents. For some people, however, the idea that there are supernatural interventions taking place in the cosmos has become less and less tenable. Why? In a large part I think it is a result of people getting a feel for how things work in reality.”

And while I very much disagree with the obfuscatory conclusions he reaches, Petermann nonetheless articulates the particular discomfort derived from the cognitive dissonance between traditional scriptural knowledge and the ever widening divergence of everyday information and knowledge that is not prescribed by,  or does not subscribe to, religious interpretation. Such interpretation is  superfluous and utterly redumdant.



Papalinton - #68539

March 16th 2012


It goes without saying that Traditional forms of knowledge, as illustrated above, is the bedrock of religious belief, and no less so for christian theism. And one need not go the extra distance than to take further comment from Wiki; “Traditional knowledge, on the other hand, may be perceived very differently by indigenous and local communities themselves. The knowledge of indigenous and local communities is often embedded in a cosmology, and the distinction between “intangible” knowledge and physical things is often blurred. Indigenous peoples often say that “our knowledge is holistic, and cannot be separated from our lands and resources”. Traditional knowledge in these cosmologies is inextricably bound to ancestors, and ancestral lands. Knowledge may not be acquired by naturalistic trial and error, but through direct revelation through conversations with “the creator”, spirits, or ancestors.” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_knowledge ]
As close a description of christian theism for which one could not wish better, even down to the ‘cosmologies’ inextricably bound to the ancestors, Adam, Abraham and Moses, and the ancestral lands of Israel and Judea etc etc.

By contrast, much of contemporary and emerging forms of knowledge, meta-knowledge if you will, recognizes and acknowledges the role of traditional forms of knowledge but seeks to distill and encapsulate that which is universally accepted while extracting and dispensing with any localized provincial stricture or binding parochial social accretion. Through science and philosophy, much of that which we once took for granted, generally conceived as ‘conventional wisdom’, is being rightly scrutinized, and robustly challenged to justify their continued observance. The tradition of religious knowledge and practices is one such domain that cannot be set apart from, or to grant itself a status above, scrutiny. It too, must earn its keep in contemporary society.

Christians have yet to acknowledge the disparate nature of this most fundamental epistemological contradiction.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68544

March 16th 2012


You are right, science and religion are on two different paths that need to reconciled. 

Sadly science is in many ways on the wrong path.  Science indicates that the universe was constructed to be the home of humanity in agreement with faith, but many scientists insist that this is not true.  They say that our universe is a freak accident and life has no meaning or purpose. 

Faith is a search for meaning, while Scientism is using “science” as a tool to destroy meaning.  If you and Scientism think that Life is meaningless and humans can life without meaning you are sadly mistaken. 

If you are sincerely interested in science working with philosophy and theology I refer you to my book, DARWIN’S MYTH for ideas how this can happen.


Chip - #68543

March 16th 2012


There are very good reasons why our pro-social dispositions are the way they are. 

Actually, there’s only one:  Random mutations created them; amoral natural selection persisted them.  Naturalism—at least internally-consistent naturalism—allows for no other reason. 

We seem to have gone around the same block more than once here, so I’ll wrap this up with another of my favorite quotes on the topic:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

-Richard Dawkins

So, how about if respond to your query and define arbitrary with the language of the experts I’ve cited in our discussion already:  purposeless, blind, pitiless, without evil or good, merely adaptive, and illusory.  I think that covers it pretty nicely. Such is “morality” in a naturalist framework. 

To suggest that such a milieu is capable of defining “right” and “wrong” in any meaningful way whatsoever constitutes a complete leap of faith, and an utter departure from naturalism’s most fundamental and cherished assumptions.  You simply can’t have it both ways. 

I will suggest, however, that since your world view can’t provide an adequate basis for it, and since morality is something that seems to be important to you, it might be time to reconsider your world view. 



Tim - #68545

March 16th 2012


I think you are conflating HOW things arose with the VALUE we must ascribe to them today.  While from a purely naturalistic standpoint, natural selection has no ultimate teleology (though I wouldn’t want to label it is strictly amoral, as natural selection can favor a development of morality as adaptive social behavior, though certainly not for any “higher” moral purpose), that does not mean that organisms arising from natural selection themselves must adopt a purposeless or amoral existence.

The long and short of it is that, regardless of how we got here, we can choose to value being human, and having the opportunity to live, love, and thrive as humans.  We do not have to worship natural selection as our God.  Nor do we need to accept a nihilistic or socially darwinian philosophies based on evolutionary principles.  We can value who we are, even if our existence arose as an accident from processes that care nothing for us.  The idea here would be that it is a happy accident, one might even say a “miracle”, and one that we can embrace and rejoice in as we experience the wonderment of life here amongst eachother, this green earth, and the cosmos.

As far as defining “right” and “wrong” along sociobiological lines, we certainly can do this.  I still am not following your reasoning for why you feel this is somehow prohibited from a naturalistic point of view.  “Right” can be defined as that which is in conformance to one’s pro-social dispositions, and “wrong” can be defined as that which runs counter to one’s pro-social dispositions.  Culture of course can mediate this, so there will always be both a universal, biologically-based, static component as well as a culturally relative dynamic component in terms of how those innate pro-social dispositions are expressed.  But rooting it in the universal, biological lines, we can say definite things about morality in terms of “right” or “wrong.”  And this isn’t “arbitrary”, as what we happen to call “right” or “wrong” along these definitions actually FEELS “right” or “wrong” to us, and for excellent evolutionary reasons according to sociobiological models.

So again, I’m not following your reasoning here.  One’s humanity, in the context of being a social creature amongst others of our kind, can provide the basis for morality.  Sure you have to accept humanity as a starting point.  And most do accept their humanity; it is very uncommon to find individuals who do otherwise.   But once you have this as your starting point, the rest naturally follows.  So I don’t see what you feel is the issue here.

christoferojohnson - #68739

March 27th 2012



Would you allow me to extend this dialogue between yourself and Chip about morality for a bit longer? You have a point of view of which I am interested in understanding to a better degree. Your stance is something I admire because you seem to have given morality much thought and have a solid understanding of your position. My end goal would simply be that (given my base understanding of what you have said) I’d propose my difficulties in some of what you said and hopefully you could help me through some of them.


What I understand you to have said, in simple terms, is that we (being humanity) and morality have followed a particular path of evolution. That evolutionary path we and it have taken are definitive (or at very least, descriptive) of what both “humanity” and “morality” mean today. Correct me if I am wrong here, because it is from this starting point that certain paths of logic trip me up.


In a very large degree I can agree with that statement, but where I find difficulty is when
”something more (in the case of my own belief, this something more being the Judeo-Christian God, but in this argument it need not be this god)” must be excluded when giving value or definition to the terms of “humanity” and “morality”. Or maybe more honestly, the difficulty lie when “something more” is not merely excluded, but that this “something more” is not always included. Let me try to illustrate my difficulty. To me, if I accept the Naturalistic view that “humanity and morality” are the results of a happenstance evolution, then I must accept that both “humanity” and “morality” are result of this random occurrence. This is fine, except for the problem it presents me when I think of the questions: “what it means to be human” and “what is morality.” These could easily have different answers, depending on whatever path evolution led us on. So, supposing this true, had evolution led us down a different windy trail, to be human could have just as randomly looked much more benevolent or horrid compared to what it looks like now. We may have never thought of slavery as an option, we may have adopted an extreme Nazi like view of human life, we may never have thought that giving food to the poor child is right, we may never had thought of killing another human at all. The difficulty (to me) is that if we admit all this, then there is no definitive right or wrong. I cannot say that, in this other world the extreme Nazi’s view on humanity, is really wrong. In this view that allows only random chance, taking up extreme Nazi values would be merely wrong for me, inheriting what I did from evolution; but not wrong for them, inheriting what they inherited. In other words morality may not be arbitrary in the fact that we evolved a certain way, therefore it is actually present and pushing all (or most) of humanity towards certain behavior. But it is arbitrary in that there is no “something other” that gives one view foundation as absolute, making one view definitely wrong. To me it would seem that in all worlds, no matter how they evolved, killing of innocents ought to be always wrong. This is where it seems you are better than your principles, when you write “Grabbing a gun and going from door to door shooting innocent people is always wrong.  Sharing your bread with a starving innocent child is always right.” How can random events produce this “always” of which you speak?


Another huge question I have to ask is, given the randomness of all things, why have a morality at all? If we are a product of randomness, why should I care at all about humanity at all? Both you and myself only exist because of coincidence then. Why should I let random events shape the basic fabric of how I live my life, why should I listen to random code that is pushing me to certain behavior? We evolved this way, so what? If necessary, necessary for what? If good, good for what? If good or necessary for existence, where does existence gets its value from? In a world that is the result of something random, why does existence matter? If existence is supposed to be “ruler” or more basic than all other values, what ground does it have that other values don’t?


These are the most basic of my difficulties with this idea of evolution being the “all” the “cause” and “prime mover” of existence (what I have referred to as “humanity” and “morality,” though I understand this isn’t the whole of existence). Your thoughts would be appreciated indeed.





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