Evolution and Faith in Latin America, Part 1

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September 2, 2013 Tags: Education, Science & Worldviews

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

Evolution and Faith in Latin America, Part 1

Note: Concerns about the range of scientific literacy in America have been making headlines since the early part of the 20th century, and in classrooms and courtrooms across the United States, controversy continues to erupt over whether our textbooks should include material on creation or evolution or a mix of both. While our conversations about science and faith frequently refer to the concerns of American evangelicals about evolution and the old age of the earth, the influence of anti-evolutionists extends beyond our borders—biblical concordism is becoming a more and more popular view in the developing world, and concerns are rising about the effect these views could have on science education in places other than the United States.

In early June, we helped send evolutionary biologist Steve Roels to the Third World Summit on Evolution, convened in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, as an ambassador for BioLogos. The conference was designed as a showcase for cutting edge evolutionary science by Latin American academics, and several prominent scientists from other regions of the world, including a Nobel laureate, were invited as speakers as well.

Steve prepared a poster presentation describing the BioLogos mission to harmonize science (especially evolutionary biology) and the Christian faith, and contrasted this mission with arguments by creationists and the so-called “New Atheists” who believe in their incompatibility. Steve also used BioLogos as a case study, highlighting generalizable outreach strategies for scientists communicating with skeptical audiences (the poster can be viewed here as a PDF). BioLogos has recently heard from Latin American church leaders that there is a hunger for Spanish language faith/science resources, so this conference was also an opportunity to see how the BioLogos message would be received by the Latin American scientific community.

After the conclusion of the conference, we asked Steve to write a few words about his experience on the ground there. The following is a summary of his experiences listening and talking with the scientists in attendance. Tomorrow, join Steve for a more reflective essay and poem about evolution, psalms of praise, Darwin, and the islands that so inspired him.

When I traveled to the Third World Summit on Evolution as an ambassador for BioLogos, my main concern about making a faith/science presentation at a scientific conference was that I would be met with indifference. Most talks at these kinds of meetings are focused on highly technical and narrowly focused research; I had some apprehension that my message about the compatibility of evolution and religious faith “wouldn’t fit” the mold and would thus be ignored.

Any concerns I had about lack of interest in the intersections of faith and science were quickly put to rest by a speaker, Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C, on the very first morning of the conference. His presentation abstract, printed in the conference program, referred to religion as a “cultural pollutant” hindering scientific and social progress, so I knew the talk was going to be attention-grabbing.  Paz-y-Miño-C presented public polling data about degrees of religious practice, scientific literacy, and acceptance of evolutionary theory in the United States and also globally. After reviewing the negative (as expected) correlations between the first category and the latter two, he advanced the hypothesis that science and faith are inherently in conflict because of incompatibility between scientific rationalism and belief in supernatural causation. To make his point even more clear, Paz-y-Miño-C followed his hypothesis with statements that “harmonious coexistence between science and religion is illusory” and “compatibility is impossible and coexistence brings antagonism.”

These bold claims clearly caught the attention of the audience; during the question and answer session one attendee said she did not think science could “win” sociologically if it was presented as a choice between science and religion. Dr. Paz-y-Miño-C quickly responded, “I think we can win.”

With that presentation setting the stage for any later conversations on the subject, I was eager to present my poster a couple days later. One of my first visitors was Dr. Paz-y-Miño-C himself, who stopped by my poster briefly. I was surprised to find out he was familiar with BioLogos and then disappointed (but not surprised) when he dismissed the BioLogos perspective as “still just creationism” and moved on to other posters. He was clearly not interested in a sustained discussion but I was heartened that many other attendees were.

The most frequent comments I received can be paraphrased as, “I’m not a believer, but I don’t understand why there has to be so much conflict and I hope BioLogos is successful.” Several people made reference to Paz-y-Miño-C’s talk but, notably, I do not recall anyone saying something complimentary about his hypothesis. While only one person explicitly told me she was a Christian, I found it interesting that many people I talked with mentioned some personal connection to religion, either because they were raised in a church or because other family members were believers. Attendees generally talked about religion with ambivalence, perhaps reflecting the complicated historical relationship between science and religion. (While many atheist scientists write effective and beautiful prose explaining difficult scientific concepts to the general public, they have largely ignored these historical complexities in favor of taking a hard stance against religion and other forms of supernatural belief).

I got the impression that the scientists at the conference, at least the ones who were not overtly hostile to religion, could be described as Non-overlapping Magisterium (aka NOMA) thinkers. The idea of NOMA, as originally proposed by the late evolutionary biologist, Stephen J. Gould, is that science and religion operate in distinct arenas of life and address fundamentally different questions; therefore, they do little to inform or influence each other. One scientist I talked to during the poster session told me he was a non-believer but mentioned that his wife, also a scientist, was a Christian. When I asked him how she dealt with faith/science issues, he responded, “She compartmentalizes well.” I wonder if his wife would give me the same response!

The popularity of the NOMA view in the scientific community is a challenge for BioLogos, as it is an appealing and simplistic solution to faith/science discussions. The harmony and integration that BioLogos seeks may be viewed as “upsetting the apple cart.” An illustration of this feeling is an interesting comment I received from one attendee, who expressed concern that BioLogos was in effect claiming evolutionary science for Christianity and thereby using scientific (and, by itself, agnostic) information to create further distinctions between religions.

I was actually surprised that I only met a single aggressive atheist at the conference. Although this is a community of people with which I am very familiar, I suppose my expectations were still influenced a little bit by the perceptions of many faithful Christians concerned about evolution. There is a widespread belief in churches that the community of professional evolutionary biologists contains (or even creates) large numbers of anti-religious scientists. This impression is understandable, given the prominence of a handful of strident atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, who have set themselves up as spokespersons for evolutionary biology and science in general. It is also true that survey numbers suggest this field contains a higher proportion of atheists than many other scientific disciplines. The evolutionary biologists at the conference openly discussed their agenda as a community, but it is not a religious one. This community seeks to improve scientific education since they feel they understand, better than anyone else, the consequences of low public acceptance of evolution. Paz-y-Miño-C’s combative approach to faith and science doesn’t seem to have much traction even within his own academic circles because the majority of scientists, even those who share his faith in philosophical naturalism and atheism, are more pragmatic about advancing their modest goal to increase public acceptance of evolution.

Latin American scientists at the meeting regularly discussed the need for improved scientific literacy in their countries and more effective outreach to increase acceptance of evolutionary biology. More than one speaker was alarmed at the growing influence conservative religious groups have in framing public discussion of evolution. For many years, it seems that the conflict over evolution in the United States was regarded by international academics as a curiosity, but scientists are now very interested in opposing outspoken creationist groups that are starting to appear in their own countries.

While it is still true that most Latin American countries are predominately Catholic (and that the Catholic Church is officially “pro-evolution”), missionaries from other religious groups skeptical of evolution (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists) have been very successful and their ideas are gaining traction in several areas of Latin America. However, the skepticism with which Dr. Paz-y-Miño-C’s ideas were received suggests that Latin American academics, even professed agnostics and atheists, are looking for a more constructive and conciliatory strategy when it comes to addressing creationist voices in their society.


Steve Roels holds a bachelor's in biology from Calvin College and a master's in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Kansas. He is currently working on a PhD in zoology at Michigan State University. He is a member of River Terrace Christian Reformed Church in East Lansing, MI.

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Eddie - #82553

September 4th 2013


One passage in your account struck me:

” The idea of NOMA, as originally proposed by the late evolutionary biologist, Stephen J. Gould, is that science and religion operate in distinct arenas of life and address fundamentally different questions; therefore, they do little to inform or influence each other….

“The popularity of the NOMA view in the scientific community is a challenge for BioLogos, as it is an appealing and simplistic solution to faith/science discussions. The harmony and integration that BioLogos seeks may be viewed as “upsetting the apple cart.”

I agree with your compact summary of NOMA in the first paragraph, but I wonder about what you are saying in the second. You seem to be contrasting the NOMA approach with the BioLogos approach, and you seem to be saying that the NOMA approach “compartmentalizes” while the BioLogos approach “integrates.” I have my doubts about this.

I don’t deny that many people at BioLogos conceive of themselves as trying integrate science and faith, i.e., put them together to form a coherent total picture. But as far as I can see, in actual practice, both regular and occasional BioLogos columnists have almost uniformly adopted compartmentalization rather than integration as the harmonizing strategy in science/faith questions.

Many times BioLogos columnists have said things like: “Science deals with physical causes, whereas faith (or religion, or theology) deals with questions of purpose, value, and meaning”—as if there is no conceivable overlap between those two enterprises. These statements could be taken straight out of Gould’s famous essay in which the NOMA idea was formally introduced. There is no “war” between science and faith because science and faith serve entirely different purposes. Good fences make good neighbours, so science and faith can avoid conflict by each staying on their side of the fence. And of course explanations of “origins” (it is assumed) belong entirely on the “science” side of the fence, so people of faith should leave all origins questions to the scientists, and everything will be all right.

Can you give me some examples of BioLogos columns where scientific and theological thinking are integrated into a unitary picture of reality, rather than segregated as I’ve described above?



Ted Davis - #82557

September 4th 2013


How about the columns I did on John Polkinghorne? Surely he ” integrates,” not ” compartmentalizes,” would you not agree?

He’s not a concord isn’t, but concordism is not the only model that integrates science & Christian faith.

Ted Davis - #82558

September 4th 2013

I keep telling my iPad to writ concordism and concordist, and it keeps thinking it’s smarter than me. The first part of that sentence should read, not a concordist. . .

Eddie - #82561

September 4th 2013

Hi, Ted:

I’m sorry that I didn’t give a clear meaning for “BioLogos columns.”  I had in mind columns where all the contents were written exclusively for BioLogos rather than columns of excerpts from works originally written by people who don’t normally have much to do with BioLogos.

I think that the writings of Polkinghorne and Russell which you have ably introduced and presented on BioLogos have been good and I wasn’t thinking of them, or of your remarks on them, when I made my comment.  I was thinking of all-new columns written by regular columnists, by frequent occasional columnists, etc.  It’s in such columns that I’ve tended to notice a compartmentalization between “truths we know as scientists” and “truths we know from faith,” and an insistence that the two cannot even in principle clash because they are never about the same thing.  But it seems to me that at least sometimes science and faith do talk about exactly the same thing.

The most obvious case is that of origins - where things came from, how they came into being.  In principle science and faith (or if you prefer science and religion, science and theology) could teach different things about that.  And if they do, those different things could be complementary, or they could be contradictory, or they could be in some other relationship.

NOMA guarantees that the two sets of truths will never be contradictory, because they are truths about different things—but I don’t see any sound basis for any such guarantee.    

If the truths are complementary, then that could be meant in a NOMA-type way—if you want to know how creation really happened, ask scientists; if you want to know what the spiritual meaning of creation, ask your pastor or a theologian.  That sort of “complementarity” I’ve seen advocated on BioLogos and in articles published in ASA venues.  But if the truths are complementary in a different sense, i.e., if you need them both to be correct, even on the physical plane, for a full explanation of “what really happened”—I haven’t seen that possibility dealt with by very many BioLogos or ASA folks.  I do see it dealt with in Russell, who sees specific divine actions as impinging (albeit invisibly) upon the world of efficient causality, and therefore as a necessary part of the explanation for why evolution produces what it does.  That is what I would call an “integrating” explanation, because it provides a link between the planning and will and power of God and the process of evolution.  Both theology and science are called in to explain a particular set of outcomes in the world.  But the more typical TE explanation is more like:  science sees evolution working through all natural causes, faith tells us evolution serves God’s purposes.  But that is not an integrating explanation.  It compartmentalizes.  God’s purposes are set completely outside of the sphere of efficient causality, and evolution can be explained as well—can be explained *totally*—by someone like Dawkins or Coyne without any assistance from ideas drawn from Christian faith.  The bit about God’s purposes is a private, personal add-on which makes some scientists comfortable, but is not necessary in order to explain the phenomena.  That’s what I call a compartmentalizing approach.

Column after column has been published here on the amazing creative powers of “randomness.”  It is asserted, in a vague and general way, that God “uses” randomness in evolution.  But how providence—which in the very meaning of the word implies forethought and planning—and randomness—which implies no forethought or planning (since in neo-Darwinism the mutations are supposedly completely random with respect to outcome)—is never explained.  No one on BioLogos has ever even attempted to explain it.  That is, there is no integration of the truth of providence with the truth of randomness.  They are just asserted, side by side, with randomness being true in biology and providence being true in theology.  Apparently the readers of BioLogos are supposed to be content to leave it at that.

It is this problem which prompted my question to Steve Roels.  I wondered whether his characterization of the project of BioLogos was an idealized one, i.e., based on what he has been given to believe that BioLogos is striving for, or was an empirical one, i.e., comes from his observations of what most of the columnists here on genetics, fossils, randomness, etc. have actually written.

Ted Davis - #82567

September 5th 2013

I reply to this of yours, Eddie:

“The most obvious case is that of origins - where things came from, how they came into being.  In principle science and faith (or if you prefer science and religion, science and theology) could teach different things about that.  And if they do, those different things could be complementary, or they could be contradictory, or they could be in some other relationship.”

I agree with this helpful way of framing things. Thank you for a clear and simple framework.

Among TEs since (roughly) the 1960s, complementarity has been perhaps the most widely endorsed overall approach. A leading advocate of complementarity—though, interestingly, someone who didn’t really say much about TE per se, since his field was cybernetics—was Donald MacKay (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_MacCrimmon_MacKay). MacKay liked to emphasize that explanations are multi-layered, but that on its own level a mechanistic explanation could be complete, i.e., without explanatory gaps, and yet still be limited, so that a really complete explanation called for additional levels of explanation above the purely mechanical.

Richard Bube (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Bube), a Stanford physicist who edited the ASA Journal for many years, took a similar approach. He wrote more about evolution than MacKay did, though (like MacKay) that wasn’t driving his interest in complementarity.

Perhaps you are familiar with the writings of MacKay and/or Bube. If so, do you regard them as taking a NOMA approach? I do not, at least if we take Gould’s own NOMA as the way it is to be done. Both Bube and MacKay (for example) believed in a genuinely transcendent God who sometimes acts “outside” of natural agents, whereas Gould wholly rejected such a possibility. Indeed, for Gould, it was not legitimate for theology to make claims about ultimate reality that were in any way tied to the physical world; theology could only talk meaningfully and legitimately about values.

Incidentally, there is a very good book about the fascinating history of the ASA (http://network.asa3.org/default.asp?), CiS (http://www.cis.org.uk/), and the post-war evangelical encounter with science in process of publication by Fordham University Press. Once it is out next year, it will be a good place to turn for a well-documented account of the influence of MacKay’s idea of complementarity on evangelical TEs (among others).

In the meantime, readers will just have to take my word for it. 

Eddie - #82579

September 7th 2013

Hi, Ted.

First of all, no, I don’t think that “complementarity” explanations are automatically NOMA (i.e., compartmentalizing) explanations.  I’d take each one case-by-case before making any judgment.

Second, I haven’t read Bube, but I think I have read some MacKay.  In any case, I would agree with this statement:

”... explanations are multi-layered, but ... on its own level a mechanistic explanation could be complete, i.e., without explanatory gaps, and yet still be limited, so that a really complete explanation called for additional levels of explanation above the purely mechanical.”

However, I would equally emphasize the first and last parts of the statement, so that “a really complete explanation ...” is just as important as “a mechanistic explanation could be complete on its own level”; when I read the biologist-TEs, I get the impression that they aren’t very clearly endorsing the “really complete” part.

The sense I get from the biologist-TEs, in their statements about faith and science, or theology and science, is that faith in God as Creator, and hence as cause of evolution, is not meant by them as part of the explanation of evolution; I get the impression that by “explanation” of evolution they mean mutations, drift, selection, etc.  I get the strong impression that faith in God as Creator is an extraneous, private belief grafted onto any explanation of evolution (or explanation of any other natural phenomenon), and that in no case is divine action an explanation for anything that happens.  The statement that God exists and is Creator is not explanation, but faith-testimony.  They believe that God is somehow the cause of evolution because faith tells them, whereas as scientists they don’t need to suppose any cause of evolution beyond drift, mutation, selection, etc.

Indeed, the very completeness of the material explanation leaves one wondering what exactly God does to warrant any credit for the process.  Is his role to create the first matter and the laws of nature?  Does he then let nature take over, and watch what it does?  The biologist-TEs don’t explicitly say.  They leave the relationship between “God the Creator” and “the physical causes of evolution” vague and unsettled.  No unitary picture emerges, no “really complete explanation” (MacKay) is offered.  Instead, we get two parallel, but never explicitly related, explanations, one theological, one scientific.  I’d call this more “compartmentalist” than “complementary.”

If we take one of MacKay’s examples, that of a sign on which an advertisement is spelled out by the use of light bulbs arranged in letter shapes, I think we can distinguish between the physical and the informational causes of the sign.  The physical cause is electricity running through a particular geometrical arrangement of light bulbs.  The informational cause is the human intelligence which chose to arrange the bulbs so that they spelled out “Eat at Mel’s Diner” rather than “GLPTNZG!%$14B9X?#”.

For ID folks, you don’t get “Eat at Mel’s Diner” without a conscious inputting of information.  It won’t come about by randomly rearranging bulbs billions of times—not even if after each time you put up the sign on the roof and see if any customers show up to the diner (or perhaps show up somewhere else, because “Eat at” came out right, but “McDonald’s” came out by accident).  For ID folks, you’ll get billions of meaningless strings of characters, a very small number of meaningful strings of characters (but not with the meaning you want), and only by the greatest of freaks the right string of characters.  

On the other hand, for TEs, it seems, or at least, for the biologist-TEs, you do quite often get “Eat at Mel’s Diner” and all kinds of other useful messages, even though no one is trying to arrange the bulbs with any meaning.  Complex information comes for free, along with the action of unintelligent material causes.  And in that respect, the biologist-TEs are in 100% agreement with Dawkins and Coyne.  

MacKay’s example of the sign suggests to me that MacKay would have been sympathetic, in broad terms, with ID.  By that I don’t mean that MacKay would have said that God created through a series of miraculous interventions.  Rather, I think he would have said that chains of material causes might be adequate to cause mutations and drift and selection and so on, but that they would not likely add up to a coherent macroevolutionary trend culminating in man unless somehow, somewhere, intelligent input was inserted.   Whether he would have conceived of that input as more likely inserted with the first life, or with the Big Bang, than later on, through individual actions of God, I don’t know.  But I read him as saying that the inputting of complex information by an intelligent mind is a real cause of things, not simply an epiphenomenon that accompanies material changes if the deck is shuffled enough times.  I read him a saying that matter alone is not enough; there must be mind/matter interaction.  And that kind of “complementarity” I can certainly live with.

Ted Davis - #82581

September 8th 2013

Thank you for a detailed and thorough reply, Eddie. As you say, judging such things is often possible only on a case-by-case basis. The famous example of the advertising sign (from MacKay) was well explained; thank you for taking time to put it into the thread.

Polkinghorne would agree with you that information can be put “into” the universe in a “top-down” manner. MacKay probably would also. What makes this a TE approach, at least according to the definition I used in my series on Science and the Bible (http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-theistic-evolution-part-i), is P’s full acceptance of common ancestry (or descent). As I discussed in one of my columns on ID (http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-intelligent-design-part-5), nearly all important ID people seem strongly committed to undermining confidence (on the part of their audience) in that key tenet of evolution, particularly with regard to humans.

Whether the “biologist TEs” you often mention have no basis for believing in the reality of any “higher” level of explanation is not something (I suspect) that you and I will agree on, b/c you want them to have a scientific basis for what I regard as a metascientific, or metaphysical, tenet that (IMO) has a strong rational basis that lies “outside” of science itself.

I’m sure you and I have talked about that before, so I won’t add to this, but of course you may reply as you see fit.

Eddie - #82583

September 8th 2013

Thanks, Ted.  Yes, we have discussed these things before, but you asked me directly what I thought of Bube and MacKay, so I thought I should give an answer rather than leave you and the readers hanging.

I want to clarify what I’m asking for.  I don’t want biologist-TEs to give a scientific explanation that includes God.  Rather, I want their theological, God-explanation of evolution, and their scientific, efficient-cause explanation of evolution to be rationally connected, rather than left existing in parallel intellectual universes, the one unrelated to the other.  As it stands, what most of them offer is mere compartmentalization— “I assert that it was all done by efficient causes, which are purely natural, and yet I assert that it was all done by God, who is purely supernatural”—with no proposal for how to connect the two.

Here is an example of a proposal which would connect the two levels:  “I believe that God set up the fundamental laws and properties of the universe such that the emergence of stars, planets, oxygen atmospheres, life, mammals, primates, and man were inevitable consequences from the initial starting point.”  That is the position of Michael Denton, who not only accepts common descent, but believes that the whole macroevolutionary process requires only purely natural causes.  One would think that this view would recommend itself to biologist-TEs, as it endorses two of their main non-negotiables:  macroevolution, and purely natural causation.  Yet none of them seems interested in it.  The only TE reference to Denton’s Nature’s Destiny that I can find is Polkinghorne’s endorsement of the book—and Polkinghorne is a physicist, not a biologist.

I give Denton purely as an example.  I’m not saying the Denton’s proposal is the only one possible, or even that Denton’s almost deterministic scheme would work biologically; I’m saying that it is the sort of proposal which brings together the two levels of explanation—the metaphysical and the scientific—into a coherent whole.  It is therefore, for me, intellectually preferable to a compartmentalist approach.

I would say the same about the quite different proposal of Robert Russell.  Russell brings together the metaphysical and the scientific levels of explanation by affirming that God acts (albeit indetectably) in the world in such a way as to cause evolution to produce things it would otherwise not have produced.  By direct divine action God controls what mutations appear, and then natural processes (natural selection, etc.) take over.  Science can thus proceed in its normal manner, explaining why certain mutations would give a creature a selective advantage; it does not have to explain where the mutations come from, since God’s subtle action mimics that of chance, and chance mutations are something which science allows.  Russell thus weds metaphysical and scientific explanation into a unified account of a natural phenomenon.  But again, while maybe a handful of biologist-TEs have (in a grumbling and grudging tone, as I read it) conceded that God could have acted in such a way, it’s clear they have no enthusiasm for such an explanation, and I can’t think of one biologist-TE who has clearly affirmed it.  One gets the very strong impression they don’t like any explanation involving the direct action of God, even an indetectable direct action of God.  So they renounce a possible coherent explanation of macroevolution, one which unifies the metaphysical and the scientific.

What I am complaining about is the preference for compartmentalized explanations.  I think it is indicates a willingness, perhaps even a determination, to live with incoherence.  I’m unwilling to live with incoherence.  Or at least, I’m unwilling to live without trying to achieve coherence.   Compartmentalization is a choice to abandon even trying to achieve coherence.

I brought up this subject because the columnist here (who hasn’t joined in yet) affirmed that BioLogos strives to articulate an approach to evolution and creation which is not NOMA or compartmentalist, but integrationist.  I have challenged that description.  It may indeed be the intention of BioLogos to articulate such an approach.  But the thrust of the biological columns here is compartmentalist, not integrationist.  Science is over here, theology is over there, and the two are simply said to harmonize—but there is close to zero discussion by the biologists of how they harmonize.  It’s as if the biologists aren’t worried about it, and don’t spend much time thinking about it.  Certainly there is little evidence that they are thinking about it, based on the biological columns here.  Maybe they think a lot about it privately.  But thoughts kept private won’t advance BioLogos toward its goal.

Ted Davis - #82584

September 9th 2013

Your wish to see more explicit connections between theology and evolutionary biology is appropriate, Eddie. That’s always good, when present in someone’s thought. I agree with you that many people who write about TE (whether or not they are biologists) often leave things too vague, which can give one the impression that they are thoughtlessly compartmentalizing, rather than thoughtfully integrating (perhaps using a complemtarity approach or perhaps using some other model).

I can’t speak for anyone else, obviously, but we do feel at BioLogos that Russel and Polkinghorne are examples of what you want to see—whether or not you, or we, agree necessarily with all of their specific theolgical commitments. (Let me note in passing that Russell and P do not always agree even with each other, esp on the issue of open theism.)

Some time ago I suggested David Wilcox as a “biologist-TE” (to use your category) whose work you might like. (See my comments in this thread http://biologos.org/blog/belief-in-god-in-an-age-of-science-john-polkinghorne-part-three/P40.) BioLogos likes his work, as evidenced by this: http://biologos.org/ecf/grantees/becoming-human.

Since we’ve talked about this numerous times before, I don’t want to say more here, except to point out (again) that BioLogos encourages and appreciates thoughtful integration of theology with biology—and the other natural sciences as well. Although the specific way(s) in which one does this are important, I personally doubt that any one specific way of doing it will garner support from all readers, any more than one specific approach to (say) predestination/free will or the nature of divine revelation (special and general alike) will garner such support. These are all heavy-duty theological questions, and such questions rarely (if ever) obtain too wide of a consensus.

Ted Davis - #82568

September 5th 2013

Relative to Polkingorne and BioLogos, Eddie, I can say only this. If BioLogos weren’t happy with me presenting some of Polkinghorne’s ideas to our readers at length and in detail in his own words, then I wouldn’t have edited those columns. I’m not saying that Polkinghorne=BioLogos; that obviously isn’t true, since he’s never had any affiliation with us. But, BioLogos likes a lot what Polkinghorne has done, and we do think his work ought to have a wider readership among Christians interested in science.

You should regard those columns on Polkinghorne (with my editorial introductions and comments) as if they were written exclusively for BioLogos, even though they weren’t. We gave him a lot of space, much more space than we have given many other authors who have written exclusively for us—partly b/c he has so much to say (we presented only a small fraction of his work) and partly b/c he’s such a thoughtful person.

Ditto for the columns featuring ideas from Robert John Russell. He has no affiilation with BL either, but (like P) he’s highly qualified and very thoughtful, and he deserves a wider readership.

There may be more such series, featuring other thinkers, and I hope that you take any or all of them as integral parts of the big picture when you evaluate “BioLogos columns.” I’m the prime mover behind the series by P and Russell (even though I didn’t edit Russell’s material myself), and I’m part of BioLogos.

Eddie - #82569

September 5th 2013

OK, Ted, I’ll use your terminology, and pull back from speaking about BioLogos in a monolithic way.  I admit to a recent widening of diversity (largely thanks to you!) in the theological views presented here.  (Though I can’t help thinking  :-)  that the new diversity may be of the sort achieved by Chrysler back in the 1980s when it presented as a “Dodge Colt” a subcompact that was actually built by Mitsubishi, and hence represented Japanese rather than Chrysler auto technology.  Chrysler became richer in its offerings precisely by being less Chryslerish.)

In any case, I think my generalization holds for virtually every columnist here who has written out of a biology (as opposed to physics/astronomy/history of science) background.  And I think that it is significant that biologists should feel the need to resort to compartmentalization more than others.  I further think that it is more than a “BioLogos” thing; whether it is Ken Miller or several prominent ASA-TEs, the biologists/biochemists seem to take a similar approach.  So perhaps I should have spoken not of “BioLogos” but of “TE life scientists.”

Thanks for your gentle chastisement; now, I’ll cross my fingers and see how Steve Roels reacts to my question.

Merv - #82559

September 4th 2013

Eddie, I do think Biologos has distinguished its approach from NOMA though I haven’t searched for which particular essays might show this.  Ted’s suggestions will be good.

But in any case I think I can understand why you see compartmentalization in the approach that Biologos tends to promote.  Here is how I would unravel an understandable confusion.

TEs (represented strongly in Biologos) generally subscribe to methodological naturalism (MN) which is anathema to other creationists, especially if they have any positive interest at all in ID possibilities.  So while this latter hostile audience writes off MN as a disingenuous scientific ‘gate-barrer’ at best, a more friendly description of the same still remains as a clarification to all this.  Here that is:   MN might be mistaken as being ‘NOMA-like’ in that it declares there is turf where science cannot tread.  But here is the rub ... MN isn’t erecting any artificial fence delineating anything (and certainly not against theology).   It is simply recognizing (observing a reality) that science doesn’t have the ability or tools to investigate some questions.  This is different than saying ‘thou shalt not…’.   For example if we declare that nobody can produce energy from nothing we are not trying to build a fence around that possibility to keep people out.  We are simply saying ‘we don’t think it can be done’.  People are always welcome to try.

So while NOMA *does* erect an artificial fence to preserve the peace, MN concludes that science simply can’t go some places (such as investigating or ruling out capricious deity or any deity at all.)  And MN would certainly NEVER say that theology was barred from all this ... indeed MN can’t say anything about theology at all.  And TEs of classic Christian sort would see all scientific enterprise as subsumed under God’s sovereignty as indeed everything is.   This doesn’t at all match NOMA.  But I think it matches much of what Biologos has promoted to the extent I am aware.

Merv - #82560

September 4th 2013

I should hasten to clarify that when I say MN can’t say anything about theology,  this would be true *except* when theology makes claims about the nature of the empirically observeable world - which theology is free to do (and does).    On those claims MN is an invaluable referee to help discern or weed out false theological claims, though again, it cannot rule out the singular actions of deity.

I do believe many of us join Boyle in his enthusiasm for taking seriously what God’s ‘book of nature’ has to show us.   (See Ted’s series.)

Eddie - #82562

September 4th 2013

Hi, Merv.

Glad to hear from you.  

I agree that discussions of methodological naturalism may have contributed some confusion, but it’s not ultimately with methodological naturalism that the problem lies.  The problem, as I see it, lies in a lack of interest in tying together, in one narrative (as opposed to two parallel and unrelated narratives) the metaphysical with the physical, and the theological with the scientific.  What is God’s role in evolution, and what is nature’s?  Are they identical, do they overlap, are they complementary?  Does God have any efficient-cause role in the process?  Etc.

Discussions about MN serve only to sidetrack matters and put off wrestling with the real issues.  Methodological naturalism is, for daily scientific work, a reasonable epistemological principle; but the job of BioLogos, if it is hoping to persuade evangelicals to accept evolution, is not to get them to adopt an epistemological principle.  Evangelicals want to know what happened in the matter of origins; and by “what happened” they want to know not only what random mutations were doing, and what natural selection was doing, and what drift was doing, but what God was doing.  If they are convinced that the leaders of TE believe that God was actually doing something—something that actually made a difference to the outcome of evolution, then they will listen.  But if they decide that TE is merely a pair of parallel narratives—one about physical origins, over which the TEs don’t differ an iota from Dawkins and Coyne, and one about the spiritual meaning of evolution, which is an optional add-on for those who need spiritual meanings, then they will reject it, because they want an integrated account, not a compartmentalized account.

The traditional reading of Genesis, in which God was involved in creation in a hands-on way, was an integrated account; if it is to be abandoned, evangelical Christians will demand an alternative integrated account.  They will not settle for a compartmentalist account.  “Science sees only randomness in the mutations, but through the eye of faith we can discern God’s plan” simply will not win over the evangelicals.  They want to know whether God planned the mutations, directed the mutations, etc., or merely let them happen and accepted whatever they generated.  And the vast majority of TE leaders (I can think of only five or six exceptions in all my reading of ASA essays and BioLogos columns) studiously sidestep all such questions.  And what allows them the sidestepping is the ability to move left or right, into a different compartment of knowledge (science or theology) at will.

The moment TE accepts the responsibility for providing an integrated account of origins, its job will become much, much harder than it has been so far.  Safe statements and platitudes (e.g., about the mysterious harmony of God’s providence with randomness) will have to be replaced by philosophically and theologically coherent explanations of evolution which would pass muster in, say, a graduate seminar on philosophical theology at Yale or Princeton.

Older theistic evolutionists accepted the responsibility for providing integrated accounts.  One can complain about the quality of the accounts, but at least the attempt at integration was there:  Asa Gray, de Chardin, the later Bergson, Lecomte du Nouy, Whitehead, Hartshorne, etc.  Most modern TE leaders, on the other hand, seem to rest satisfied with the “by science we know ... by faith we know ...” approach, i.e., compartmentalism.  God is thus left as in some vague way the supervisor of the evolutionary process, but how exactly physical outcomes are matched to divine intentions is left completely fuzzy, and apparently this fuzziness is a deliberate harmonization strategy.  One does not have to be a supporter of YEC, OEC, or ID in order to find this fuzziness entirely unsatisfactory.

Jon Garvey - #82564

September 5th 2013


I have to agree with you (but I obviously would, given the content of my writing here and on my blog for the last two years +).

Methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism have often been criticised as concepts because they tend to merge where they meet. And similarly there is an ambiguity about NOMA as a principle and NOMA as a practice: they end up being indistinguishable.

BioLogos people ought at least to be saying things along the lines of, “Thinking as a biologist, of course I can’t evidence purpose behind the apparently stochastic nature of mutations, but of course thinking as a Christian we know that God’s Providence governs chance. Ergo evolution’s outcomes are governed by God’s will, and my scientific half has to admit methodological incompetence on the matter of teleology.”

From there they would look at the difficult questions about how teleology is implemented in nature, leaving the theologically blunt tools of science to one side whilst being alert to its data.

Instead, too often there is what might be called a “practical NOMA”, along the lines of, “I’m a working biologist, not a theologian, and I don’t find any sign of God’s guidance in the science. If I did, it would be a dubious sign of his interference in nature’s laws anyway. So whether God actually guides evolution is a matter of agnosticism - though it’s a lot neater to re-jig the theology to fit the science, which shows no evidence that he does.”

Merv, I know, sees past this, but can’t (in my view) be said to be typical of theistic evolutionism as she is spoke in 2013.

Merv - #82566

September 5th 2013

Eddie wrote:

...in which God was involved in creation in a hands-on way, was an integrated account; if it is to be abandoned, evangelical Christians will demand an alternative integrated account.  They will not settle for a compartmentalist account.

But you are accusing TEs (Christian ones) of something that they have flatly walked away from.  From their perspective they are as integrated as you can get.  Only on this hostile definition of MN does it suddenly become compartmentalized.   One could just as easily accuse an IDist of compartmentalization because they want all phenomena divided into two neatly non-overlapping camps:  those driven by natural causes, and then those driven by design.   Perhaps one way past this is to rethink whether “compartmentalization” is such a dirty word after all.  I tend to agree with you that it probably is (especially in the theological/scientific context).  Yet it seems to be a practical necessity for progress in any human inquiry.

Eddie - #82570

September 5th 2013


Somehow, we are not communicating.  I wasn’t offering a “hostile definition of MN.”  I tried to say that MN wasn’t the issue for me, and that I thought it was a reasonable principle for doing everyday scientific work.  And I tried to agree with you that the discussions over MN have probably contributed to confusion on all sides.  

I grant you that it is possible that the biologist-TEs I am referring to conceive of their perspective as “integrated” rather than “compartmentalist.”  What I am saying is that, if they think that, they are in error.  Their perspective is very compartmentalist, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.

A non-compartmentalist would never hesitate to say, at least in general terms, what God does in the evolutionary process.  Does God make sure that evolution produces certain outcomes, or not?  And if yes, does he guide or steer the evolutionary process?  Or does he preprogram it so that it inevitably leads to certain outcomes?  I have seen TE/EC biologists asked this question, or variations on it, scores of times, and never yet have I seen an answer that is not downright evasive.  And the cause of the evasion isn’t MN.  The biologists could easily say, “I can’t prove it scientifically, but my personal view is that God guides the mutations”; or “I can’t prove it scientifically, but my personal view is that God doesn’t guide mutations, but preprograms the overall process; etc.   The evasion is caused by the fact that most of the TE-biologists don’t believe that God either programmed or guided or steered evolution; the scorn for such notions (especially for guiding/steering) is quite obvious to anyone who has even the slightest ability to read between the lines of studiously evasive answers.  Most of them appear to think that God initiated neo-Darwinian evolution and let the chips fall where they might.  So God didn’t do anything to guarantee any particular evolutionary outcomes; yet Christian theology requires saying that God is responsible for what is created, so it must be that God is somehow in control of evolution.

Thus the compartmentalizing solution is called into being:  God does nothing at the natural level (beyond sustaining his created laws), but does everything “providentially” at the supernatural level, though we can know the latter only through “the eye of faith.”  Somehow the two levels, natural and supernatural, connect—but the conceptual framework is vague and arbitrary.  (One looks in vain in TE-biologist writings for detailed discussions of divine action in the world according to Calvin, Aquinas, Augustine, etc.)  In the end, TE/EC biologists are left to proclaim that it all works out, with randomness secure in the natural world, and guaranteed outcomes secure in the supernatural world; you just have to close your eyes and repeat that it’s a sublime mystery, and you’ll eventually feel an inner peace about the harmony of theology and science.  

This is why I respect Robert Russell, who says that God in fact tinkered with the mutations (albeit invisibly); and this is why I respect Michael Denton, who says that God did not tinker with the mutations, but instead preprogrammed the general course of evolution.  Each of these thinkers, in different ways, has integrated a view of God with a view of the evolutionary process: Russell, opting for neo-Darwinism in his biology, and realizing that the mutations in neo-Darwinism are declared to be random with respect to outcome, and therefore not suited to guaranteeing any precise long-range targets, has made a place for special divine action (NIODA, he calls it) in his overall explanation of evolution; and Denton, rejecting neo-Darwinism in his biology, has imbued the evolutionary process with a quasi-determinism.  The theology of each gentleman meshes seamlessly with the biology; there is integration, not compartmentalization.  And I am not saying that either of these men is correct.  I am saying that they offer integrated answers to the question of how God’s creative activity ties into evolution.  This is the only kind of answer that (in my estimation) could bring creationists around to accept evolution. 

Merv - #82571

September 5th 2013

Eddie wrote:

Thus the compartmentalizing solution is called into being:  God does nothing at the natural level (beyond sustaining his created laws), but does everything “providentially” at the supernatural level, though we can know the latter only through “the eye of faith.”  Somehow the two levels, natural and supernatural, connect—but the conceptual framework is vague and arbitrary.  (One looks in vain in TE-biologist writings for detailed discussions of divine action in the world according to Calvin, Aquinas, Augustine, etc.)

Okay—I definitely overused the word ‘hostile’—sorry about that.  It wasn’t commentary on your tone; I simply meant it to be your application of terms or definitions to TEs that they would not apply to themselves;  i.e.  an ‘outsider’ view. 

For example even in the excerpt above, (most?) TEs wouldn’t speak in terms of “connection” between separate entities (natural and supernatural) if they already see it all as divine action anyway.  Perhaps there are not even ‘separate levels’ (from some TE perspective) about which to speak of any interface between them.  But there certainly should be questions (and a range of opinions among TEs) about God’s activity through secondary causes or direct cause or what have you; and I agree with and see your frustration that so many Christian TEs feel a need to be so evasive about this.  I haven’t pursued that challenge as much as you apparently have, but I think I would share your reaction about those reticent to speak of at least some possible natural-Divine relationships. 

I do appreciate your patient responses to me.  


Eddie - #82576

September 6th 2013

And I, your patient responses to me.

Jon Garvey - #82572

September 6th 2013


I get the sense that you are Eddie are in agreement on essentials here. I add my agreement to your post. Let me quote you a moment:

(most?) TEs wouldn’t speak in terms of “connection” between separate entities (natural and supernatural) if they already see it all as divine action anyway.

I’d place myself as one of those covered by your final conditional clause. I came to BioLogos with the sense that the gap between science and faith was easily bridged by the Reformed conviction that “supernatural” and “natural” are united by a strong doctrine of providence. They can be distinguished, but should not be separated, being just different ways in which the sovereign will of God becomes actualised in events.

As time went by my convictions were strengthened by the realisation that Aquinas and others had long ago put such ideas on a very solid philosophical and theological footing; by my own research into the historic Christian teaching that Creation was, and remains, a good expression of the intentions of God; and by my realisation that similar ideas were held by the first generation of TEs, those I specifically researched being Gray, Kingsley and Warfield.

But I didn’t get any of that from BioLogos, nor from the modern TE writers. Instead I found a tendency to dichotomise “supernatural” and “natural”, using the former more or less synonymously with the traditional “providence”, and furthermore denying, or at least doubting, that it would be scientific, divine or even moral for God to guide creation to specific ends.

Thus criticism of ID was not only on the basis that it makes scientific claims that scientific methodology is ill-equipped to validate, but also that it implies divine oversight (aka “interference”). Vilification of Creationism was also not only on the grounds that the science is bad, but that implying God’s direction of nature was bad theology - hence OECs as well as YECs are tarred by the same brush.

I found the usual corollaries of such ideas to include (a) there is much in nature that is erroneous, wasteful or plain evil (thus denying the biblical doctrine of a good creation expressing God’s will); and (b) the concept that irrational nature has been given freedom to use or misuse what it was given, thus not only denying the doctrine of God’s unique sovereignty in creation, but also introducing an incoherent notion of a quasi-personal “nature” with free-will.

Now, you suggest “most?” TEs don’t dichotomise supernatural and natural in this way, recognising the divine activity in all things. I’d agree, if by “most TEs” one means that significant body of opinion in national polls who say “God created through evolution”, meaning for the most part that this was how “the deires and designs of God’s heart” became actualised.

But I don’t find it a majority view amongst the movers, shakers and writers of modern TE. It’s not so amongst the science-faith theorists, amongst whom Russell and to some extent Polkinghorne can be seen as exceptions. Read Peacocke, or Haught, or Van Till.

Neither is it a majority among the more popular TE writers like Ken Miller or Franscisco Ayala, or even Francis Collins or Karl Giberson, who write in their book:

In exactly the same way, outside of the moral dimension, when nature’s freedom leads to the evolution of a pernicious killing machine like the black plague, God is off the hook.  Unless God micromanages nature so as to destroy its autonomy, such things are going to occur.

And that category of writer overlaps, of course, BioLogos. If a majority of BL writers actually do see the “natural” category as truly divine activity, then surely they will distance themselves from the other position rather than engage in the evasiveness which we have severally noted on this thread.

Merv - #82574

September 6th 2013

As you have seen, my conjecture about the extent of TE willingness to acknowledge God’s activity (not to mention sovereignty) throughout all creation is indeed no more than conjecture.  You on the other hand have obviously looked into this among published TE leadership and have a more substantive, if informal, tally in hand which I accept. 

I had read Collins’ book once, but thank you for the direct quote from it.  On that score I do think he and other TEs do merit the critical challenge given by you, Eddie, and Chip in his post below, and I gladly join my voice with yours to see if Biologos leadership can give any focus in this direction.    (I’m guessing you’ll warn me not to hold my breath?)

Chip - #82573

September 6th 2013

Hello Ted,

Thanks for weighing in.  You summarize Bube and MacKay as believing in

a genuinely transcendent God who sometimes acts “outside” of natural agents

Can we unpack this a little?  He acts…how?  What does He do and how do we know this?  Furthermore, which “sometimes” are being referred to here?  How is the distinction between this “sometimes”—the one in which God steps down from his aloof deism and actually does something, and that one—the one that’s purely driven by natural agents.  Is this understanding driven in any way by the scientific data, or is it merely a theological assertion? 

While I don’t have much confidence in other BL contributors (because I’ve asked variations on this question again and again only to be answered by crickets), certainly you understand the nature of the dissent that folks like Eddie are articulating. 

Ted Davis - #82582

September 8th 2013


Please review my columns on Polkinghorne, which should make this clearer. The Resurrection is the instance of “outside” causation that I stressed there, but if you review the cosmological material you’ll also get a good sense of this.

Jon Garvey - #82575

September 6th 2013

....a genuinely transcendent God who sometimes acts “outside” of natural agents

It’s that modern  TE dichotomy again, Chip - there was me thinking that historic Christian doctrine is largely about God acting “inside” natural agents, the stress being on “acting”, rather than “natural.”

Many TEs seem rather to assume that what is natural is independent of God’s providence, “providence” being properly understood historically as God’s foresight, planning and direction of events towards his own ends for the world, or more rigorously:

God Himself considered in that act by which in His wisdom He so orders all events within the universe that the ened for which it was created may be realized.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia usefully describes it re nature:

The Universe is a system of real beings created by God and directed by Him to this supreme end [that all creatures should manifest the glory of God], the concurrence of God being necessary for all natural operations, whether of things animate or inanimate, and still more so for operations of the supernatural order.

Now that seems to me an integrated view - “sometimes” is a dichotomising word.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #82578

September 7th 2013

Again we are talking about world views and again there are three real possibilities.

One is Monism, and the strength of naturalism is that it is consistent in this view.  It am be wrong and it does not make sense, but it is consistent. 

Monism does not have to talk about compartmentalism and integration, because everything is one. 

The flip side of naturalistic monism is theistic monism.  If God controls everything, then all is one and again there is no need to discuss integration and compartmentalism.

The second possibility is Dualism.  This is the dominant view of Western culture.  It is probably the practical view view of most if not all monists.  The view of dualism is compartmentalism. 

Compartmentalism makes much sense, because theology is different from science which is different from philosophy.  But we still live in one world, not three different worlds.

That leaves us with the triune view which gives us the best of both monism and dualism without the flaws of either.  The view of triune is integration. 

Merv, you are close with the dynamic interaction of the natural, the supernatural, and providence.  There you have three elements working together to create Reality in all its forms.  You also have the Power of the Father in the natural universe, the Logos as the Telos of Creation, and the Holy Spirit as God’s transforming Spirit constantly remaking the universe.

Of course there is still the question as to how does the Holy Spirit work in the scientific dimension and I would say through ecology.  That which integrates the biosphere is ecology.  That which integrates the physical world is the power of natural physical laws.  That which integrates the human wold is the power of love.        

Jon Garvey - #82601

September 12th 2013


(I’m guessing you’ll warn me not to hold my breath?)

I hope you didn’t, Merv. The point has long passed when the silence became deafening. 

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