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Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church

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March 5, 2011 Tags: Christian Unity
Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church

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

Today we begin the first in a six part discussion between BioLogos vice-president Karl Giberson and founder Francis Collins, co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (note: Francis Collins' work on this project was completed prior to his appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health). The conversation first appeared as "Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature" in Books and Culture and took place during a conference at Azusa Pacific University in 2008.

Karl Giberson: You are an unusual evangelical in that you don’t struggle with the relationship between evolution and your faith. Has this never been an issue for you?

Francis Collins: I had a problem in terms of the counterintuitive nature of evolution. Remember, I had no meaningful exposure to biology in my formal education until I was already a graduate student.

I learned biology in a high school class in a little town in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia—if it mentioned evolution, I don’t remember that at all. It was purely descriptive: “Here’s how we classify organisms; here’s how you memorize the parts of the crayfish;” and that’s what it was all about. I don’t think I really had much exposure to the whole concept other than just knowing “Oh yeah, there’s this vague concept that’s out there called evolution.”

I had an issue how counterintuitive it is. Almost everybody encounters this when they first bump into this concept. And it was, of course, difficult for Darwin at first, too, to get his mind around so we shouldn’t feel like we’re all so stupid, if it takes a little while! We are so tied up in our natural daily experiences that being able to imagine what could happen over hundreds of millions of years in very small increments is just not something that comes naturally.

KG: As someone who takes both the Bible and evolution seriously, is there any point when you said, “Well, wait a minute, it’s really tough to put things together at this point?” Did this harmony really just come naturally?

FC: You know, it really did come naturally. I was aware that there was an issue that some people had about this. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in this little town outside of Chapel Hill. And I’m sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis quite literally.

I couldn’t take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then just by definition, there could not be an irreconcilable conflict between these perspectives. It just was a matter of working out the details. It did not seem to me that there was likely to be anything irreconcilable here, just that there had been misunderstandings along the way in terms of how people had interpreted the first book in the Bible. When I read Genesis, I had to say “I don’t know what this means here”, even before I read any commentators on it. It seemed to me that this was not a part of the Bible that read as the record of an eyewitness, so it shouldn’t therefore be taken as such.

KG: You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this. The fundamentalists grow up with a lot of confidence in the Bible and then they encounter evolution so they are bringing their prior confidence in the Bible to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue to worry about. You had developed enough confidence in evolution so then when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity— we don’t think of a moving earth as a problem so we don’t even notice the biblical problems.

FC: Right, right. They haven’t noticed those issues because they weren’t pointed out for a long time. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity versus geocentricity. The fundamental nature of evolution is a comment on our biological nature and that’s a lot closer to the “image of God” concept than whether the earth floats around the sun or the other way around. So I don’t think it’s a perfect parallel, though I wish it were. I wish we could say, “We can get comfortable with evolution now just as easily as the church has gotten comfortable with heliocentricity.”

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.
Dr. Francis Collins is a physician and geneticist known for spearheading the Human Genome Project and for his landmark discoveries of disease genes. Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation in November 2007 and served as its president until August 16, 2009, when he resigned to become director of the National Institutes of Health. (Note: All blogs written by Collins were completed before accepting his duty as director of the NIH).

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nedbrek - #53926

March 10th 2011

Ron, I am referring to the Christian God, as described in the bible.  We can discuss other gods, but since neither of us believe in them, it’s not really relevant.

“he had the intention to make humans know the truth” - Now here is something that might astound you, having dealt with others here - I propose that the bible says that God is pleased for some to know the truth, and for others to be blind to the truth.

ronmurp - #54028

March 11th 2011

Hi nedbrek (#53926)

The thing is, this theism lark is easy when you get the hang of it. No requirement to satisfy normal constraints of knowledge discovery. Just invent what you like and claim it explains everything, even if it explains nothing. In fact the less it actually explains the easier it seems to claim it explains everything. The tip is, start out with a claim that your God is a simple one, because we all know Occam’s Razor, right? Then just slip in all the caveats you like make your case. I’m reading Swinburne’s “Is There a God?” for inspiration.

Here’s one of mine:


nedbrek - #54037

March 11th 2011

Ron, I understand.  I want to be just as rigorous as you.  I believe any system should be logically consistent, within itself.

For example, I disbelieve Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, etc. based on interior inconsistencies.

Does that make sense?

ronmurp - #54044

March 11th 2011

Hi nedbrek (#54037),

Internal consistency is good, but not really sufficient. I can say, for example, “All integers are even!” - provided I qualify that by saying, “But I’m only considering even integers.”

I guess some theists feel that materialists do this: if we only accept materialist phenomena as valid evidence, then we’re not going to accept non-material evidence (e.g. supernatural evidence) in support of theism. That’s not quite how it is, of course. Materialsim is just a tentative conclusion given all we experience so far. If someone can demonstrate something ‘supernatural’ then that would be interesting. The problem then is, how do you decide what’s supernatural, and what’s fake? But the real issue is, that given materialist atheists, and theists, are all just human beings, we all have the same capabilities - so if theists think that there is some evidence, then it should be persuasive to all of us. And in the case of a deity, I’d have thought there was little need for ambiguity. It really is up to those making claims to provide adequate support to convince the skeptics.

By wrapping a boundary around our enquiry we can isolate it an make it consistent. So, it is possible to construct theisms - any number of them, by making the outer boundary absolutely anything conceivable - except those phneomena that don’t agree with the particular theism. So, claiming there is a God of love is in. Requiring that he be detectable by our actual senses, or any instruments we have, is out.

nedbrek - #54058

March 11th 2011

“Internal consistency is good, but not really sufficient.” - I agree 100%, necessary but not sufficient (something with internal inconsistency must be false, p->q, does not prove q->p).

“It really is up to those making claims to provide adequate support to convince the skeptics.”

Here is where presuppositions matter so much.  Your terms place you in the role of judge - you will decide what is true and false.

Also, salvation becomes dependent on you (and to some extent, me - can I do a good enough job of presenting the evidence and making the argument).

But the bible makes it clear that God wants to receive all the credit for our salvation.  That is why no amount of evidence can ever convince a skeptic (there is a way to know, hold on here!)

Make sense so far?

Ronnie - #54123

March 12th 2011


I have been reading your posts with interest, and would like to mention one aspect of Christianity that falls outside of being proved by evidence, and that is the element of faith. The Bible mentions many times the importance of faith, such as Hebrews 11:6;

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Again, I realize this doesn’t fit with your requirement of evidence to support, but the flip side of your belief that there is no God is that there should be some evidence to support your belief. If there is no evidence, then it falls into the belief category, requiring faith. So, aren’t you choosing one belief system over another?

What do you think will happen when the end of your life comes? Will you close your eyes, fade to black and thats it? You don’t feel there is a part of yourself that is more than, or outside of, your physical body or your 5 senses? God has created us in His image, with a spirit within us and that is why we as human beings seek things that are outside our physical realm. Why do billions of people in the world believe that Jesus Christ is the one true God? They have faith that Gods Word is true and that Jesus is who He says He is. The Romans wanted to quash Christianity at all cost, and could have easily if they could have produced Jesus’ corpse after His crucifixion. If materialism, athieism, intellectualism or any other ism could satisfy the yearning of the human spirit, they too would have billions of followers. Its obvious from your posts that you have this yearning as well, and it can only be satisfied by faith in the Creator of all material things, Jesus Christ.

ronmurp - #54135

March 12th 2011

nedbrek - #54058,

We’re all in the role of judge, but only of our own understanding. But most of us recognise our own personal limitations - our limited capacity know stuff. 

Not only that, we know that individually we are susceptible to mental mistakes, in reasoning, in delusional experiences, in simple misperceptions (as with optical illusions). Our senses and our thinking seem to have evolved to deal with very specific personal human scale objects and events - particularly those relating to the three F’s. And we still seem to be predominantly biologically geared to those basic functions. Our brains have allowed us to join together for various benefits. 

That notion itself has been extended to acquiring knowledge, and humans have developed a number of methodologies that over time have produced pretty consistent results, even in the face of our individual fallibilities, and even in the face of our differences.

On most subjects all humans around the world (and so far it is only a human endeavour we’re talking about) agree remarkably well on an awful lot of our investigations. I don’t know anyone of any religion or none that currently thinks the sun goes round the earth, except perhaps some sticklers whole tell you how they go round eachother. Oh, and geocentric crackpots (is that judgemental enough?).

So, I’m not claiming to be a judge on this. In fact, like the vast majority of humans, I can’t say I’ve contributed anything significant to the advancement of human knowledge, or actually know much of the stuff in the library of human knowledge. That appears to be left to the odd genius and the lucky few in the right place at the right time.

What’s going on here isn’t me being judgmental using my home grown access to truth, or that I have certain truth. That’s why I’m here debating it. To see what’s on offer that might change my mind.

All I’m doing is saying that in my opinion the methodologies that have advance human understanding beyond the dark ages don’t give any reason to believe in God. The question isn’t why don’t I believe, but why do others believe? I have no problem with the God hypothesis. Just convince me. All my objections are simply rejections of any explanation offered so far. And one specific objection is, that if a materialist view plausibly explains everything we do know about (but obviously not everything - not things we don’t yet know about), then why introduce an additional explanation, God, that adds nothing to the material explanation? 

Consider this. Some theists, and some non-science oriented non-theists love to explain how science doesn’t know everything, and indeed often either refines or overturns what it does claim to know. But science proponents know this, because it’s part of our very human condition - and it’s humans that do science. On the other hand, theists throughout the ages have made claims to the certainty of the content of their beliefs, and this still goes on today. They have the one truth. And that one truth entails many things about humans and life on earth. So it’s laughable that this source of truth often has its sub-truths overturned quite often. science proponents accept this, both of science and theism - there’s a psychological and materialistic limitation to humans that pretty much ensures this. So in the face of this why do theists persist with upholding a shaky old belief system constructed so long ago?

Where we reach the boundary of human knowledge isn’t it enough to say we don’t know yet? Do we need to interject a God?


ronmurp - #54138

March 12th 2011

Hi Ronnie - #54123

“I ... would like to mention one aspect of Christianity that falls outside of being proved by evidence, and that is the element of faith.”

Yes. And as far as I can tell this is the only significant difference. The others, reason and evidence, both theists and ahteists use, but there the debate is about how good the theistic evidnece is, or to what extent it supports what it is claimed to support.

“I realize this doesn’t fit with your requirement of evidence to support, but the flip side of your belief that there is no God is that there should be some evidence to support your belief.”

This is a common mistake. I think it comes from the notion of belief. It boils down to my ‘belief’ that there is no God being a very tentative one. Basically it doesn’t consist of a positive belief that there is no God, it’s just the lack of belief that there is one. Many theists try to turn the tables by making this into a dichotomy - one or the other: you believe (have faith) that there is a God, or you believe (have faith) that there isn’t one. Instead, it’s actually a variable degree of commitment to the strength of argument (and evidence if there is any). 

Here’s how I see it:
<a href=“http://ronmurp.blogspot.com/2010/05/contingency-of-knowledge.html”>Contingency of Knowledge</a>
<a href=“http://ronmurp.blogspot.com/2010/05/human-fallibility.html”>Human Fallibility</a>

I find that there are just so many aspects of human experience that are entirely material, physical. Everything we do every day, all day, involves physical senses and motor actions, for us, and dynamic matter for all the other stuff. But on examination our brains seem to be made of the same stuff as everything else, and follow the same physical laws. There is just nothing that tells us there’s anything else. Except that some humans ‘feel’ there or something else - in other words they have the psychological experience, that maybe their mind is distinct from their brain, or that they have had a religious experience. But these experiences can be explained just as easily and plausibly by brain processes. Materialism accounts for all material understanding, and for theistic belief as a psychological process in a material brain. All quite consistent and coherent. No need for anything extra.

That’s the extent to which I don’t believe in God - the absence of anything, evidence or reason, to convince me. Some theists do try to give reasons and evidence for their belief, and of course it’s to them that most of the evidence and reason objections of atheists are applied.

The main objection to ‘faith’, is that it’s pretty indiscriminate. And in that I’d ask what makes you choose your particular faith. Even just saying ‘faith in Christ’ already commits you to making a distinction between Christianity and other faiths - they all use faith, so which faith is correct and why? You would have to give a reason, for example, why Christianity is your faith and not Islam. Any answer you give as a ‘reason’ is than back on the table for being subjected to criticism using reason, even if not evidentiary objections.

But any theist who brings the bible into the debate is re-introducing evidence, and so is open to evidentiary objections as well as reason. Any theist who says, no it’s not the bible, it’s Christ himself; well, all we know about Christ, particularly his divinity,  comes from the bible - back to evidence again.

Basically, as soon as a theist says he has faith, he’s open to the question, why? You could end the conversation there, and say, “I don’t know, I just do.” But of course no theist does that I know of. For example, you quoted some bible in your first paragraph. So, as well as asking why should I believe what’s in the bible at all, I could also question the sense of relying on faith for anything. 
ronmurp - #54139

March 12th 2011

Ronnie (ctd)

“What do you think will happen when the end of your life comes? Will you close your eyes, fade to black and thats it?” - from the only evidence we as a species have had of seeing countless deaths, I’m not aware that any of the stories of rising spirits has actually been verified in any way. Stories of afterlife are common across many religions and myths. That doesn’t make it real.

“God has created us in His image…” - can you say how you come by that knowledge? Seems to me we created him in our image - or at least as a representation of some perfect being that has something in common with us.

“Why do billions of people in the world believe that Jesus Christ is the one true God?” - Simply because they have been persuaded. Most of them while they were children. And peculiarly into the religion of their parents. That’s odd. If christianity is true why aren’t all children of Muslims telling their parents that, no, Islam is a false belief, Christianity is the true religion.

“Why do billions ...”, “If materialism…the yearning of the human spirit, they too would have billions of followers.”

The numbers game doesn’t work. At one time Christians wer in a minority - so numbers don’t seem to be significant. Mass persuasion with trite comforting messages, or fear mongering ones, is quite easy. Ask advertisers. Intellectual analysis is more difficult. Go just a little deeper than basic stuff and most people who claim to have faith won’t be able to tell you why. It’s easier just to believe.

“Its obvious from your posts that you have this yearning as well” - A yearning to know stuff, yes. I wouldn’t call it spirituality. I don’t find spirituality that useful to me. Probably something to do with how my particular brain works. I know some atheists scientists are ‘spritual’, though not using that in a supernatural way. Carl Sagan was, for example.

”...and it can only be satisfied by faith in the Creator of all material things, Jesus Christ.” - Well obviously not. I enjoy the search, and when it comes the discovery. I’m content to live with the the fact that I don’t know a lot of stuff, and that most of what humans will discover is ahead of us and beyond my lifetime. So I don’t think I will be satisfied by Jesus Christ. But thanks for the thought.
nedbrek - #54144

March 12th 2011

Hi Ron and Ronnie, a lot of people define faith as “believing without a reason”.  This is a very bad definition.  The Greek word is more closely related to “trust”.  I have faith, in that I trust God when he says he is not a liar - that he is truth, without any shadow of lies.

That comes back to knowing what is true.  I do not judge what is true or not.  I trust God that truth has been accurately delivered to me (via the bible).

What do you know of the bible, also, do you read science fiction (not totally off topic!

ronmurp - #54258

March 13th 2011

nedbrek - #54144,

I agree on the use of trust. We all use trust. We all trust all sorts of people and institutions that we don’t really know that well. Even governments, dispite how we feel we can’t.

One question I guess is, how do you establish that trust? In many cases we assume people and institutions are trustworthy, even if it’s only because it’s too much effort to keep distrusting, and the false negatives may outweigh the false positives of trusting. But what about in faith? If faith is already trust, as you describe it, then what triggers that trust/faith? I assume for many it’s being introduced into it as children. For some, even those that have been convinced atheists, they seem to be able to get into belief and develop faith. 

I don’t know how that process works. I can see that it’s possible to be convinced that the intellectual case for theism is good. For example, I’ve seen reports of atheits who figure out that they had religion all wrong, and then became theists; but on reading about their atheism I see they get that wrong too, at least from my perspective. 

I wonder, had they had a different view of atheist arguments before they came to beleive, would it have prevented them believing. For example, if they’d had a good atheist explanation and a poorer theistic argument, would they still have been persuaded? 

And once faith has developed, could they be persuaded intellectually to go back to atheism? Is the intellectual attachment to belief and subsequent faith any more binding than say the simpler acceptance of faith from childhood? Though some people do lose their faith, to what extent did they really believe?

I used to read SF, but I’ve read less over the years as I’ve found reading non-fiction, and blogs, more interesting. Why?
nedbrek - #54264

March 13th 2011

Hello Ron,
   “I used to read SF, but I’ve read less over the years as I’ve found reading non-fiction, and blogs, more interesting. Why?”

What I enjoy most about SF is that the best (in my opinion) authors take one or two principle ideas, and then apply those ideas to society and human relations.  For example, one author imagined a system where human consciousness could “saved to disk” (and also broadcast digitally).  He then wrote three books following a man who lives in the societies impacted by this technology.

In the same way, you can “imagine a system where the Bible is true”, and construct a whole system based on it.

Now, how can you come to trust the Bible?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” - why should we fear God?  Because God is just - he executes justice perfectly, without bias or ignorance of any offense.  Every murderer and rapist will have to face God.

Follow so far?

Bruce - #54273

March 14th 2011

While I was also raised in a strict literalistic environment I began to come to the understanding that the Bible is about relationship only. If you bring Genesis and Evolution to the table to debate you are in the wrong room. The Bible was never intended to explain science (there was no such thing then) or history (historical concepts were not understood), but was a very practical and meaningful testimony of creator to His creation. We must accept the Bible as a part of, not the complete thesis, of life.

leadme.org - #54285

March 14th 2011

Hi ronmurp and nedbrek and Ronnie,

I’m reading your exchanges with interest.  (Perhaps somewhat off topic from the original post, but an interesting exchange nonetheless.)  As a committed evangelical Christian, I sincerely wonder whether the philosophical question of God’s existence is quite as important as we generally make it to be.  It seems to me that the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) is of far more fundamental concern than whether one refers to oneself as a Christian, agnostic, atheist, or otherwise.

I realize this may sound like a terribly “heretical” question to pose, but I do so as one who holds sincerely to the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who said rightly (I believe) of himself that “no one comes to the Father except through me.”

If I’m being a bit too coy and asking for too much reading between the lines, you’ll have to forgive me!

penman - #54289

March 14th 2011

                                                      nedbrek - #53896

        “Penman, I believe Ron has you checkmated.”

Is that because Ron requires belief in God’s existence to lie at the end of some chain of reasoning? That certainly isn’t the historic Reformed view, nor do I think the majority of believers hold their theism on that basis. It’s one thing to argue that theism is consonant with observed created reality. It’s another thing to say that we have no right to believe in God unless we can construct a scientific-style argument for His existence.

I think scripture has something to say about this (the origin & basis of theistic belief), & I understand (eg) Paul in Romans 1 to be saying that this belief is much more basic than a logical conclusion. God mediates an awareness of His reality “in, with, & under” the created order. John Baillie’s “Our Knowledge of God” is very good on this.

However, if others want to insist that theistic belief must ONLY be the end-product of a process of scientific argument, then yes, I’m checkmated. But I think they’ve checkmated themselves on other issues, eg why we believe in the reality of other human persons or essential moral values. Do those beliefs really lie at the end of a scientific argument? May I not believe that the human bodies I see around me have minds - are persons, not zombies - unless I can first demonstrate it by rigorous argument?

nedbrek - #54302

March 14th 2011

                                                      leadme.org - #54285

“It seems to me that the manifestation of the
fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) is of far more fundamental
concern than whether one refers to oneself as a Christian, agnostic,
atheist, or otherwise.”

I agree that the fruits of the Spirit are most important.  But how can we manifest them?  Through our own power, or by the power of God? And how can the enemies of God utilize the power of God?

leadme.org - #54306

March 14th 2011

Hi nedbrek (and sorry penman, I should have addressed my previous entry to you as well!)

No, we certainly don’t manifest them through our own power—they are fruits of the Spirit, after all.  I’m simply saying that if we want to try to sort out who the friends vs. “enemies” of God are, perhaps we ought to be looking much more so at the question of whether one appears to be manifesting the fruits of the Spirit, rather than whether one professes to be a Christian, agnostic, atheist, or whatever else.  Is God that limited, that he can only work in the hearts and lives of those who profess to be Christian?

By the way, I do think the question of God’s existence is a very interesting one, and certainly worthy of discussion and inquiry.  But at the end of the day, it seems to me that the endless theism vs. atheism arguments are quite beside the bigger point.

nedbrek - #54310

March 14th 2011

leadme, anyone who denies Jesus is Lord of their life is living in sin.  Anyone whose life is characterized by sin is without God (1 John 3:8-10).

leadme.org - #54315

March 14th 2011

nedbrek, I don’t expect to convince you of anything.  Just throwing a few outside-the-standard-box questions out there, for any who might be interested to pursue them.

nedbrek - #54322

March 14th 2011

leadme, I honestly have no idea what you are talking about.  Why not try to convince me your position is correct?

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