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Ted Davis
 on February 01, 2018

Two Ways the Origins Debate Needs to Change

Ted Davis shares two ways the science and faith discussion should change.


I’ve now blogged for BioLogos roughly every other week for nearly six years. Although I will be doing less of that in the future, my support for the mission of BioLogos is undiminished and my commitment to helping Christians engage origins questions in the midst of a culture war is stronger than ever. Today I offer a few reflections and some advice for those who are perplexed, frustrated, or even a little angry with some of the ways in which the issues are presented by voices on all sides. 

Moving Beyond Culture Wars

Honest, thoughtful people often have fundamentally different answers to life’s biggest questions. Each person has a set of ultimate beliefs and commitments, regardless of where they were born or what they do with their lives or even whether they believe in God. Those beliefs and commitments usually come into play openly when the topic is science and religion. Anyone who pretends to have slam-dunk answers to jump-shot questions is fooling herself or himself.

Sadly, the truth is often one of the first casualties in culture wars. Far too many people “spin” the facts in order to “win” a cultural battle and to fit a preconceived belief or notion that they are prepared to defend at nearly any cost. Unfortunately this applies widely to public discourse in America today, but in the context relevant to BioLogos it applies especially to those on opposite ends of the American religious spectrum—the preachers of creationism and the preachers of atheism. Some of the loudest voices on each end bend the truth until it breaks. We need to change the sorry tone of the conversation.

The good news is, fair-minded people are out there, who not only understand the landscape on which science and religion sometimes come into contact, but who also respect honest differences of opinion and do not demonize or trivialize those who hold alternative views on some of the most important, meaningful questions that one can ask. One example is philosopher Michael Ruse. Although he doesn’t believe in God, Ruse doesn’t dismiss Christians and other religious believers as idiots or dangerous zealots. He sees the value of having genuine conversations with people who see the world differently. He even co-edited a book about Intelligent Design with William Dembski, thereby adding credibility to a volume that contains many pro-ID or pro-EC essays that might otherwise go unnoticed among secular academics. For engaging people with whom he has fundamental disagreements with honesty and decency, Ruse has drawn scorn from Jerry Coyne and some other anti-theists who want to browbeat Christians with science. Another person in this category is atheist blogger Tim O’Neill, who superbly exposes “the misuse of history and the use of biased, erroneous or distorted pseudo history by anti-theistic atheists”—the same task that Stephen Snobelen, a religious believer, did so ably for BioLogos in the past year.

I also tip my hat to YEC proponents Todd Wood and Paul Nelson. Each was featured in the YEC film, Is Genesis History?, but neither dismisses proponents of EC with the back of his hand. They both have the courage and conviction to seek the truth, even if takes them places where their creationist friends don’t want them to go. For example, on the same day the film was released, Dr. Nelson dissented from how his ideas were presented in the film. Dr. Wood didn’t do that, but he does candidly admit elsewhere that “Evolution is not a theory in crisis,” that “it is not teetering on the verge of collapse,” nor has it “failed as a scientific explanation.” He finds “gobs and gobs” of evidence for evolution,” denies that it is “just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion,” affirms that it “has amazing explanatory power,” and frankly says, “There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.”

Would that more opponents of evolution were equally candid. It’s one thing to identify unanswered questions or explanatory problems with a scientific theory—they all have them. It’s another thing entirely to encourage lay audiences to view most scientists as dishonest, anti-religious crusaders whose conclusions are just full of holes.

There’s always the danger than one can overplay one’s hand, or forget that those who see things differently are also made in the image of God. Sometimes, one’s opponents in a public disagreement really are mean-spirited, arrogant, or intellectually dishonest, tempting one to respond in kind. In such situations, do your best to take the high road. Stick with the facts, spell out why you hold different opinions, and be fair to ideas defended by others, even when you strongly disagree: no one has a monopoly on truth. Intellectual honesty and humility do not imply cowardice or lack of commitment to the Gospel.  

Educate, Don’t Indoctrinate: Go Deeper than Soundbites

Apart from changing the tone of the conversation, what else can be done to make progress in the midst of culture wars? One thing is to get past soundbites in an effort to bring more depth to the debates. Sometimes a single column (perhaps responding to another blogger or perhaps on its own) is exactly what the doctor ordered. Sometimes an issue is of such complexity that several thousand words are needed to unpack interlocking trains of thought in order to identify the problem(s) with clarity and offer potentially helpful solutions.

Readers at BioLogos deserve to obtain a good sense of the complexity of historical and contemporary interactions of Christianity and science, in addition to other things we can provide. This is particularly important, because the bad stuff thrives on myth-making and gross oversimplification. A simple understanding is the ultimate goal for most readers, and to some degree it should be. What matters is the kind of simplicity one tries to achieve. As jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes is supposed to have said, “For the simplicity that lies on this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.” Amen to that.

At all cost, avoid indoctrination. Individual Christians have every right to think for themselves, without being browbeaten into submission by fear, accused of holding dangerous views simply for favoring a different interpretation of Genesis, or publicly shamed as intellectual cowards for accepting consensus science. One could do a lot worse than to emulate the great chemist Robert Boyle: “I love to speak of Persons with Civility, though of Things with Freedom.” Avoid “railing at a man[’]s Person,” as if it were “necessary to the Confutation of his Opinions,” for “such a quarrelsome and injurious way of writing does very much mis-become both a Philosopher and a Christian” (Certain Physiological Essays, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, p. 26). I can’t claim always to have followed his advice, but if we all did more often, the world would surely be a better place.

Looking Ahead:

Even though I no longer have the same role as Fellow for the History of Science, my work for BioLogos has not ended. In addition to taking on a new role as a member of the Advisory Council, I’ll still write the occasional column and be part of BioLogos Voices.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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