Two Sides of the Coin? Faith at the Neanderthal Museum

From chemistry, we can learn about the interactions of fundamental chemical elements. From biology we can learn about cellular life and organismic relationships. But evolution as a scientific theory, offers something more. It offers a story about how life developed on Earth over long periods of time.

But does this evolutionary narrative pose a threat to the Christian faith? Some think so. Some Christians see the evolutionary narrative as conflicting with the Bible. When such conflict is clear (they argue), we must accept the Bible over evolutionary theory. But this conclusion is based on a faulty premise—the Bible and evolution offer conflicting accounts of the same story. But they aren’t. They are actually telling two different stories.

If this is true, why do people still think that evolutionary narrative conflicts with the biblical narrative? One of the reasons is because the “conflict narrative” is publicly reinforced. It casts the science and religion discussion in simple black and white terms. However, there can be different true stories about the same facts. It’s like arguing about the design of a coin. Some can argue that there is the image of the face of George Washington on the U.S. quarter. And others can argue that there is the image of an eagle on the U.S. quarter. Both are right. However, if they argue that there is only one image or the other on the coin, then they are wrong. When it comes to the evolutionary and biblical narrative, if we argue that only one is true, we are wrong. If we understand them as telling equally true stories about the same set of facts, we get a much better picture of reality.

A Reinforced Narrative by Atheists

Ricky Gervais is a comedian and self-professing agnostic/atheist. A couple of years ago, he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. During his interview, Colbert (a devout Roman Catholic), brought up Gervais’ beliefs as an atheist. During the exchange, Colbert asked Gervais “Why is there something instead of nothing?” to which Gervais replied (in part):

“Science is constantly proved all the time. If we take something like any fiction and any holy book in any other fiction, and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas, if we took every science book, and every fact, and destroyed them all, in a thousand years, they’d all be back because all the same tests would be the same result.”

Gervais’ remarks are common ones. The idea that science produces superior truth to religion is a seemingly constant narrative in media and pop culture. It is an “only one side of the coin” argument. But this way of thinking isn’t limited to pop culture; even academic types promote this way of thinking.

Perhaps the most notable examples of this come from the New Atheist movement, specifically Richard Dawkins. Championing scientism, Dawkins consistently makes inflammatory anti-religious remarks. The following quote from his book The Selfish Gene serves as a decent summary of his view of religion:

coin standing upright on pavement

“Faith cannot move mountains (though generations of children are solemnly told the contrary and believe it). But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification.” 

When Dawkins makes such inflammatory remarks publicly, it’s obvious he thinks religions make no positive contributions to society. He is reinforcing a narrative that says science and faith are fighting each other. It is a war that Dawkins has no interest in losing. And it is a message that he has become the most outspoken prophet of.

Christianity Participates, Too

But Dawkins and other New Atheist figures are not the only ones spreading this message. There is still another side, which negatively contributes to the false conflict narrative. Many Christians encourage the “conflict” model of science and faith. 

As a former young-earth creationist (YEC), I was an avid reader and consumer of YEC materials. What I didn’t realize at the time, was conflict between science and faith is inherent in YEC philosophy. YEC adheres to a conflict model as much as New Atheists do. 

When it comes to the evolutionary and biblical narrative, if we argue that only one is true, we are wrong. If we understand them as telling equally true stories about the same set of facts, we get a much better picture of reality.

Mario Russo

I recall one cartoon from Answers in Genesis that encapsulates this “inherent conflict” view. It is a picture of two castles. One castle represents “the church” that is built on “Christianity” that has “creation[ism]” as its foundation. The other is a castle of the world, that is built on “secular humanism” with “evolution” as its foundation. This picture was later updated with “God’s Word” replacing “creation[ism]” and “Autonomous Human Reasoning” replacing “evolution.”

Why this change? Ken Ham explains, “I believe biblical creation ministry has made a vital shift in its thrust, which reflects a greater understanding of the real issue confronting our world. Biblical creation ministry now communicates in a way that reflects the true nature of the underlying battle concerning creation, evolution, and millions of years.” In other words, in the YEC view, the conflict has shifted to being primarily between “man’s opinion” and the Bible as the determiner of truth. This is more of a distinction without a difference. YECs still see a literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis as the truth that conflicts with evolution. It has simply been recast into broader terms. Creationists believe that the Bible is “the truth” and evolution is simply a godless means for people to determine truth for themselves. The conflict, in this view, is still inherent.

But there is reason to hope that the noise of the conflict narrative is lessening.

A (R)Evolutionary Narrative

I recently visited the Neanderthal Museum in Neander Valley, Germany. While I was there, I learned much about our evolutionary ancestry. What I saw there gave me reason to hope. Perhaps, after all, there is a growing realization that science and faith are not in conflict.

One thing I noticed right away was a display that included an open Bible in front of an evolutionary tree. The Bible was open to the first chapters of Genesis. The sign above the evolutionary tree reads:

“According to the Bible, God created the world in six days. Humans he created last, in a separate act, as the “crown of creation.” Most Christians consider Genesis as an allegory which does not clash with scientific findings… The history of creation outlined by the Old Testament was for many years considered a verbatim account in the Christian occident. It was believed an undisputable [sic] fact that the world was at most a few thousand years old. Increased geological findings made it clear [the world] had to be far older. How could this discovery be brought into harmony with the Bible?”

The last sentence is what I found most surprising. “How could this discovery be brought into harmony with the Bible?” I stood with my mouth open for a solid minute. Scientific discovery being brought into harmony with the Bible? Where was I? What sign was I reading? I wasn’t at a BioLogos conference, I was standing in the Neanderthal Museum in Germany!

skulls at the Neanderthal Museum

Skulls at the Neanderthal Museum – Photo provided by Author

As I continued on through the museum, the evolutionary narrative unfolded. From Australopithecus to modern humans, the Neanderthal Museum laid out the evolutionary story of humankind. It is a narrative full of suffering and death. It includes aggression and violence between warring tribes. But the narrative keeps advancing. Near the end, the narrative lands in a place I did not expect, but was delighted to see. It was a section of the evolutionary narrative entitled, “Myths and Religion.”

In this section of the narrative, one can see how humans and their common ancestors applied religion in their lives. Like their ancestors,  modern humans also find death especially troubling. Whether by aggression from others or death by natural means, we don’t like to deal with death. Neanderthals didn’t either. They are believed to be the first to have buried their dead, as well as have rituals associated with death and dying. Why did they develop such rituals? Perhaps it was because such (religious?) rituals helped Neanderthals to make sense of and improve their world.

The Neanderthal Museum did not dismiss the development of religion as bad or irrelevant. They, as a reputable science museum, didn’t follow the inflammatory remarks of a handful of atheists. Rather, they respectfully treated religion as a natural development. One that has improved our world. The theory of evolution is a scientific attempt to explain the natural mechanisms by which all life developed on Earth. It narrates a story of how all life descended with modification over time. Christianity, on the other hand (or should I say, “on the other side of the coin”?), makes a theological attempt to explain why God uses evolution to create and how he is involved in that process. It narrates a story of how and why God creates and guides the Universe for his own glory.

Religion, contrary to one popular book title, doesn’t ruin everything. Religion is what gave our ancestors necessary tools to deal with life. It helped our ancient ancestors improve ancient society, and offered a narrative that made sense of the world. Today, religion offers the same “sense making” tools. Religion continues to improve and offer a unique understanding of our world. It offers a wonder-inducing explanation of the evolutionary narrative. The evolutionary narrative is not in conflict with the Christian faith. Rather, together, as two sides of the same coin, evolution and Christianity make the best sense of our world.

Mario A. Russo
About the Author

Mario A. Russo

Mario A. Russo is the Director of the Dortmund Center for Science and Faith. He earned a Doctor of Ministry from Erskine College and Seminary, a Master of Arts Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary, and an Interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of South Carolina. He has written and spoken on various platforms about issues related to science and faith for over 15 years. He lives in Dortmund, Germany along with his wife and 2 children.