Cartoon by Ernest James Pace, “Leaking Badly and Headed for the Earth,” Sunday School Times, June 3, 1922, p. 334. Notice how the gondola, “Science Falsely So-called,” is attached to the “Darwinian Hypothesis of Evolution,” a balloon full of hot air that is falling from cloudy “speculation” toward a collision with the solid ground of “facts.” Some American Protestants have spoken about geology and/or evolution in similar language for more than two hundred years. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
So far in this series we’ve seen how creationism is embedded in culture wars, we’ve examined its close connection with some types of apologetics and evangelism, and we’ve critiqued the view that YEC is the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible. The series concludes today, as I examine and critique the deep skepticism that YECs show toward the historical sciences of geology, evolution, and cosmology. Only by dismissing them as “false” sciences can YECs maintain that science harmonizes with their own tenaciously held interpretation of Genesis.
Evolution as “Science Falsely So-Called”
Just a few months ago, the Christian ministry Grace to You republished an anti-evolution column by their founder, the highly influential pastor John MacArthur. The title, “Faith and Science, Falsely So-Called,” quotes the King James translation of 1 Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” Most subsequent translations render the Greek word gnosis as “knowledge,” not “science,” but since the English word “science” ultimately derives from the Latin word for “knowing,” the scholars who prepared the KJV can be forgiven for any confusion.
Opponents of evolution and other parts of natural history have made a meal out of the confusion ever since the dawn of the nineteenth century, when the prominent Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller complained about the “infidel philosophy” of geology. “There have been in every age ‘profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called,’” he said. Railing against the conclusions of “pretended science,” he indicted geologists for working “with unwearied diligence, to find evidence which should militate against the information conveyed in the Scriptures.” (A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2, p. 431) Within a few decades, however, most evangelical leaders had given up their objections to geological ages. Following the signal examples of learned and devout evangelical scientists such as Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock, they began to see geology as an ally, not an enemy, of Christian faith.
But evolution was an entirely different matter. After Darwin, many Christians retargeted the epithet about false science, aiming it at biological evolution instead. The cartoon at the start of this column is a perfect example. It was published less than a year after William Jennings Bryan began to agitate for anti-evolution laws. In our time, the great creationist John C. Whitcomb, Jr., doesn’t hesitate to say that “most contemporary scientists” who work in the historical sciences are “are immersed in ‘science [knowledge] falsely so called.’” Quoting the KJV translation of 2 Peter 3:5, he adds that “they are willingly ignorant” of how the world actually formed because they disregard the Bible.
MacArthur’s use of identical language is further evidence that this practice is still very much alive. In his book The Battle for the Beginning (2001), MacArthur calls evolution a “lie” that ought to be exposed and vigorously opposed (quoting the publisher’s advertisement). Elsewhere, he describes the origins controversy as “a battle between two mutually exclusive faiths—faith in Scripture versus faith in anti-theistic hypotheses. It is not really a battle between science and the Bible.” I bolded those six words because they are intimately bound up with the whole notion of “science falsely so called.” Let’s explore the connection further.
Evolution as Just “Guesses Strung Together”
MacArthur’s use of the term “hypotheses” harks back to Bryan. Many Americans of Bryan’s generation, including some scientists, viewed science through what they regarded as “Baconian” spectacles (named after seventeenth-century thinker Francis Bacon who stressed the importance of generalizing from a large body of observations). They wanted science to limit itself to the hard “facts” of direct observation, avoiding speculative “hypotheses” that might be proffered to explain diverse, otherwise unconnected facts in terms of a single cause.
Such an attitude was rapidly disappearing among younger scientists, as the method of proposing and testing explanatory hypotheses (which also has seventeenth-century roots) became more widely used and refined in all branches of science. Bryan, however, saw it quite differently; he thought that Darwin and other evolutionists were just blowing smoke:
“The word hypothesis is a synonym used by scientists for the word guess; it is more dignified in sound and more imposing to the sight, but it has the same meaning as the old-fashioned, every-day word, guess. If Darwin had described his doctrine as a guess instead of calling it a hypothesis, it would not have lived a year.” (The Menace of Darwinism, p. 21)
Or, as he said at the time of the Scopes trial, “Evolution is not truth, it is merely an hypothesis—it is millions of guesses strung together.” The image below is a perfect illustration of this attitude.
“The Sacred Pillar of ‘Evolution,’” a cartoon by W. D. Ford (whose work appeared regularly in Fragments magazine) from p. 10 in Why Be an Ape—? (1936), by the English journalist Newman Watts, literally illustrates what many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic thought about evolution. Like Bryan, Watts also singled out evolution as the cause of unbelief. After reading a large amount of anti-religious literature, he concluded, “that every attack on the Christian faith made to-day has, as its basis, the doctrine of evolution” (Why Be an Ape—?, p. 97). Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Interestingly, the best response to Bryan’s back-of-the-hand, amateurish dismissal of “hypotheses” in science was written by someone whose scientific credentials weren’t any better. I mean none other than one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, Harry Emerson Fosdick. I don’t recommend Fosdick’s personal theology to anyone: he denied the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Jesus, the bodily Resurrection, and many other orthodox Christian beliefs. However, on scientific matters he was extremely well informed and articulate. This is partly because he spent much of his career in or near Manhattan, interacting with many top scientists. He also probably learned a great deal about the views of scientists from his brother, Raymond Fosdick, who was heavily involved with the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the top financiers of American science and medicine before the National Science Foundation was created in 1950.
When Bryan published an assault on the “hypothesis” of evolution in the New York Times in February 1922, Fosdick replied a few weeks later with a vigorous defense of scientific hypotheses as part of a brilliant critical analysis of Bryan’s overall position on science and the Bible. I wholly agree with his call of Bryan’s bluff. When Bryan “identifies a hypothesis with a ‘guess,’” Fosdick wrote, “he is guilty of a sophistry so shallow and palpable that one wonders at his hardihood in risking it. A guess is a haphazard venture of opinion without investigation before or just reason afterward to sustain it,” whereas a hypothesis “is a seriously proffered explanation of a difficult problem ventured when careful investigation of facts points to it, retained as long as the discovered facts sustain it, and surrendered as soon as another hypothesis enters the field which better explains the phenomena in question.”
Fosdick hit the nail directly on the head: It’s one thing to call evolution a guess, but “to tell the truth about it is another [thing].” The truth “involves recognizing the tireless patience with which generations of scientists in every appropriate field of inquiry have been investigating all discoverable facts that bear upon the problem of mutation of species,” resulting in “substantial unanimity … [of] belief in the hypothesis of evolution.” In other words, Bryan was just blowing smoke, while fanning the flames of skepticism on the part of his largely unscientific audience.
Fosdick’s reply to Bryan was issued several months later as a shirt-pocket sized pamphlet by The American Institute of Sacred Literature, a correspondence school based at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Copies were distributed free or sold at the nominal price of three cents to tens of thousands of ministers, scientists, legislators, high school principals, and ordinary lay Christians. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
When John MacArthur speaks today about “hypotheses,” he clearly means precisely the same thing as Bryan: evolution is just a wild guess, nothing but a “lie” foisted on the world by atheistic scientists. Since it’s not really scientific, there is no battle between genuine science and the Bible, only between the Bible and an anti-biblical “science falsely so called” that Paul warned Timothy to steer clear of.
What Would Good Historical Science Look Like?
Although Bryan and many other evangelical leaders rejected evolution as false science, they did not place geology under the same appellation. Indeed, they regarded the geological ages as so well established that they adopted non-YEC interpretations of Genesis. We don’t know what they would have said about the Big Bang Theory (BBT), since they didn’t live to see it. But since contemporary OECs fully accept it (such as Hugh Ross or William Lane Craig), they would probably have accepted it as genuinely scientific as well.
For many Christian scientists and scholars today, the Big Bang is a paradigm example of the historical sciences at their best. It doesn’t give us absolute, unchanging truth about nature—no wide-reaching scientific theory can do that—but it provides a coherent explanatory picture of the observational evidence. As such, it should be accepted, at least until an even better explanation of the evidence (perhaps based on evidence we have not yet discovered) is proposed.
Here are four examples of how BBT powerfully explains several otherwise apparently unrelated observed facts about the visible universe:
- The universe has been expanding for billions of years; everywhere we look into deep space we find evidence that distant objects are flying rapidly away from one another. Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted this (despite Einstein’s effort to deny the implications of his own theory), but it wasn’t accepted until after Edwin Hubble measured galactic redshifts in the 1920s.
- Nearly all of the matter in the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, in a 3:1 ratio, with everything else amounting to only a very small percentage. In 1948, George Gamow showed how that made perfect sense in light of BBT: the original explosion would lead to exactly that configuration.
- If the universe really began with an enormous explosion, then we should be able to find the faint afterglow of that radiation in deep space; this was another prediction of George Gamow. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered that radiation, which was soon shown to be just at the right temperature to match the prediction. Furthermore, the radiation also has the characteristic properties of what physicists call “blackbody” radiation, exactly the kind of radiation that the big bang would have produced.
- In order for stars and galaxies to form in aftermath of the explosion, then there must have been some differences in temperature distributed through the universe. This would show up now as ever-so-slight irregularities in the temperature of the faint afterglow. That’s exactly what the COBE satellite found in 1989, and subsequent observations have confirmed it.
Taken together, this set of observed phenomena, none of them known before the twentieth century, makes sense if the BBT is true. An alternative theory known as the “steady state” cosmology had been more popular until before the discovery of the background radiation. But it just could not account for the growing observational evidence favoring the BBT, so it is now on life support.
Nevertheless, YEC astronomer Jason Lisle rejects the BBT as “science fiction,” not science, simply because (in his opinion) most astronomers “reject the Bible, and instead assume the big bang. Since they have an incorrect view of history, it causes them to make mistakes when they interpret the evidence.” In other words, because they have not started by assuming the truth of the YEC interpretation of the Bible, they have wrongly concluded that the universe has been expanding for billions of years—when in fact (according to Lisle) God directly created the stars only a few thousand years ago. It’s no wonder that YEC is such a tiny minority view among scientists, even among those who are dedicated Christians. As Galileo said four hundred years ago—long before anyone knew anything about BBT—science starts with “sense-experience” and “necessary demonstrations,” not from “the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.” Galileo wasn’t dismissing biblical truth. Indeed, he readily affirmed “that the holy Bible can never speak untruth,” but he immediately added, “whenever its true meaning is understood.” He recognized that matters of interpretation inevitably come into play when the infinite Creator speaks to finite creatures in human language.
But, YECs don’t acknowledge the possibility that Genesis might have a different meaning. In their view, God spoke directly as the sole eye-witness to the creation, and no other knowledge can trump what they take for the plain meaning of God’s words. An AiG column spells out what this means for BBT:
“The big bang is not an observable event that scientists can duplicate in the lab. It is a hypothesis about how the universe came to be. Such naturalistic man-made ideas are, in fact, speculation about past events. Because there were no eyewitnesses to the alleged big bang, it cannot be definitively substantiated. Compare that to the eyewitness record given to us in the Bible. The Creator (not simply an “eyewitness” to the events of creation, but the actual One doing the creating) has given us a written record of the beginning in the first chapters of Genesis.”
The language about “hypothesis” and “speculation” ties this directly to the long tradition of “science, falsely so called.” What makes BBT false science? “The big bang is not an observable event that scientists can duplicate in the lab.” Strictly speaking, that is correct: no human being witnessed the Big Bang as it actually unfolded. However, this skirts far too quickly and easily past the fact that we can observe right now many features of the universe that make sense, collectively and individually, only if the universe began with a “bang” billions of years ago. If we were to observe right now the footprints and fingerprints of an accused burglar who entered a building two nights ago, would we say that the prosecution’s case was flawed, simply because no one actually observed the crime as it was being committed?
To defend their rejection of BBT, YECs make much of a distinction between what they call “operations science” vis-à-vis “origins science.” The former pertains to knowledge obtained from repeatable experiments—things we directly observe now. The latter is forensic in nature, like the example I just offered of the burglary; BBT falls in this category. As I’ve said elsewhere, this distinction has some validity. But it can’t properly be used arbitrarily to dismiss inferences about certain unobserved past events, simply because many things that we can observe now imply that those events happened before the YEC timeline begins.
The classic YEC strategy of labelling many conclusions of the historical sciences “lies,” “science fiction,” or “science falsely so called” has backfired. Young Christians today are leaving churches in droves, partly because they cannot swallow a type of faith that requires them flatly to deny the validity of scientific theories with enormous evidential support. By offering only two views for consideration, “God’s Word or autonomous human reasoning,” creationist leaders force the truth onto a Procrustean bed that cannot hold it, while casting suspicion on so many learned Christians who have carried their faith boldly with them a they applied their minds to the divinely written book of nature. Surely, the church can do better than that.
This series has shown that young-earth creationism cannot be understood apart from the culture wars that motivate its proponents. They give YEC a central role in apologetics and evangelism, insist that theirs is the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible, and dismiss out of hand any findings in the historical sciences that conflict with it. Look for something different, yet still related to YEC, next time.