This is the five 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: Why is there such a scandal in the evangelical mind? I was very depressed when I read Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I began the book with the assumption that the scandal of the evangelical mind derived from the scandal of the American anti-intellectual culture. But then I found that American anti-intellectualism came from evangelicalism!
It does seem to me, though, that there’s a serious part of this that has to do with evangelicals and how we think. But not all of it, of course. Take astrology, for example. That remains popular, but it is not nurtured in any particular way, by evangelicalism. Or dowsing, where people find water by holding sticks and walking around in a field. Open up the Yellow Pages in New Hampshire where they all have wells, and you can find ads for dowsers and I have seen people get dowsers prior to digging a well. Things like this certainly aren’t nurtured in any way by biblical literalism or anti-evolutionary rhetoric. So, how much of this, do you think, derives from peculiarly Christian concerns and how much arrives from just a general lack of appreciation and respect for science and the scientific community?
Francis Collins: So you’re right, it’s both. And it’s particularly a problem because it is both. We don’t have scientific literacy at the level of advanced countries that claim to be technologically the most advanced in the world. If you look at what our high school students know about science, we rank way down there among the most developed countries in the world. That ought to make us really frightened for our future. So you have a population that is not well conditioned to basically consider what it means to say there is evidence for something. Evidence maybe has never really entered the thought process and a lot of people who are then faced with a decision about, “Am I going to believe this or am I going to believe that?” And astrology then climbs into the mind of someone who has not had that kind of training to explore the evidence behind a conclusion before adopting it. Now, on the other hand, you have on that sort of fertile ground—if you want to call it fertile—a way for unsupportable ideas to take root. You have advocates coming from the church saying, ‘now here’s what the Bible says, and we know that’s what it means.’ And it seems authoritative, and that adds an even greater likelihood of a wide embrace of a perspective that is not consistent with science, but there is no literacy to counteract it and it seems to have the authority of the church behind it. And so it’s the perfect storm for confusion about the truth.
KG: One of my theologian friends once said in great frustration, after we had been having this exact conversation, “I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people.” It seems to me that this is a huge problem. We encourage people to read the Bible, take it seriously, and yet there are certain, very automatic misunderstandings that are going to emerge in that. No one is going to pick up the book of Genesis and read that and not think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race. I reread your Language of God bio about your childhood, for example, and it didn’t occur to me for one second to think that you just made some of that stuff up to give different sorts of insights into your character. I just read it and believed it and that’s the natural way people read the Bible.
Francis Collins: And our literature today, for the most part, is written to be taken at face value unless it is clearly indicated as fiction. We get very upset when somebody publishes a novel and then it turns out that what they were describing as fact was actually something they made up.
I’d be very troubled about the solution being to take the Bible away. And of course, when that was the approach, that then means that the church authorities get to decide what they think is true and they’re not always so good at getting it right, either – everybody may have some conflict. I believe in the priesthood of the believer. It’s a concept that makes so much sense; it’s biblical; it’s certainly the way that Christ seems to be teaching us, but that means responsibility – responsibility not to just look at the most superficial level—and I think intellectually curious believers would agree with that and say “Yes, I want to go deeper.” But that deeper searching has to involve not only searching through the book of the Bible, but also the other book that God gave us—the book of nature—and trying to see how these things are in fact important and not trying to pretend that one of them is untrustworthy if it seems on the surface to conflict with the other. It’s our responsibility, as individuals and as a culture and I think to insist on this.
KG: But there is a huge burden on the teaching ministry of the church to pass on that level of sophistication, which you emphasize. I can’t imagine the evangelical church taking on that task.
FC: What we’re doing something right now is passing on a burden to the youth. And it’s a burden which many of them are going to be weighted down with to the point where they will not have their faith anymore. Right now, the church is passing on the burden by teaching “you have to adhere to this absolute literal description of what we say Genesis means” and they put a lot of energy into conveying that in Sunday school, in curriculums and home schools. and so on. It’s not as if the church is not already invested in providing a perspective on this issue, but unfortunately, they’ve invested in one that’s counter to the other.
KG: Maybe if the same energy was reversed it could be done, if there was resources and time available to provide a better understanding of the Bible.
FC: And maybe with the help of church leaders, like Rick Warren, Tim Keller, or Os Guinness— those that are willing to think “we know we are on the wrong track—not just politically, not just in terms of the stance we’ve taken that seems to be against everything instead of for God’s love—we’ve also been on the wrong track in terms of positioning ourselves in opposition to science, so maybe we can get this turned around.” But it won’t happen without church leadership taking it seriously.
That is where a lot of messages are delivered to people who are curious believers and they have to trust that those who say “I am here as an expert about God” are not. And they don’t have the time or the scientific training to assess that.
KG: Do you think that all of the evolution-bashing creationists are sincere? Does Ken Ham believe all the stuff that he says? He can’t say, “Were you there?” to the evolutionary biologists and really believe that is a meaningful challenge.
FC: You know, I don’t know. I’ve never met Ken Ham. I guess I would be even more horrified to imagine that he doesn’t believe what he says. He certainly is overseeing a large, complicated and expensive industry, and is dependent on people to give money to support the perspective that he represents. If he changes perspectives, a lot of that money would go away.
If he thinks about modifying his views about youth earth creationism, he’s going to see dollar bills flying out the window, and that probably doesn’t encourage the thought process! But is it sincere? I’d like to try to keep a high view of human motivation for important issues. I think I would say that, until proven otherwise, I’ve seen that most of those who are taking views that are scientifically irrational are still sincere about the perspective they have and it becomes about the effort to spread the truth.
We’re all very good, of course, at convincing ourselves that we have the truth. And it may be harder for people who have not gone through the experience of being refuted scientifically to face up to the fragility of their hypotheses. And, of course, if you are gripped by this sense that God has called you to stand on the tracks to stop this train that seems to be headed towards destruction—that’s a real mission calling if you think of yourself as a potential martyr to the cause.
KG: That’s how Ken Ham strikes me when he talks about evolution being the “lie that the deceivers of the end times will tell to lead the faithful astray from the truth.” It seems like he has that kind of “culture warrior” approach, where he knows who the enemy is and he fights them with whatever is at his disposal because the ultimate goal is to defeat the enemy and these are just tools.
FC: And it’s unjustified. We also see that in a lot of other cases like the movie Expelled which seems to have no particular concern about twisting the facts of the matter. It’s to get the point across that evolution is in fact a conspiracy and intelligent design is a noble effort.
The Edge of Evolution comes out and the author, Michael Behe, is completely sold on the idea of a common ancestor. So here’s Behe, the leader of the intelligent design movement, undercutting not just young earth creationists, but also old earth creationists in his opening chapter. You would think that would stir the ID community! That fragile coalition should come apart but it hasn’t, because ID is not defined by its core views. Likewise, young earth creationism, you might say, is defined by its insistence on a literal interpretation of Genesis.
KG: If you look at the way the young earth creationists read Genesis and if you read their expository stuff on Genesis, you find they nuance their interpretations of Genesis to make it as anti-evolutionary as possible. If there’s any ambiguity at all in the text, they choose interpretations that are as anti-evolutionary as possible.
FC: And this is revealing, isn’t it? This is not just about trying to find the truth in scripture.