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By Ric Machuga

Clockwork Origins? Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Whatever one thinks about the purely scientific case for evolution, few Christians would disagree with Johnson that evolution has become the idol of many moderns. As we noted earlier, when it comes to biogenesis, even Dawkins becomes openly philosophical: "The present lack of a definitely accepted account of the origin of life should certainly not be taken as a stumbling block for the whole Darwinian world view."

As Dawkins here admits, and as Johnson will not allow us to ignore, evolution is more than a purely scientific theory; it has become part and parcel of what might be called the "naturalistic popular culture." In "Scientific American," "The Sciences", and other leading magazines, in the steadily increasing output of science books for the general reader (by Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and a host of other scientists who are also skillful writers), in television documentaries such as the Pbs-aired "The Human Quest"--in these and many other forums (including countless classrooms), the compelling evidence for evolution and the dubious dogmas of naturalism are presented as a seamless whole, under the unchallengeable authority of Science.

In his new book, "Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education," Johnson clearly demonstrates this cultural connection between evolution and naturalism. He also addresses the difficult legal and political issues that such a connection raises. If evolution is more than a scientific explanation of the observed data, then how should evolution be taught in the public schools? And how should Christian scientists respond to dominance of their disciplines by naturalistic philosophy? Johnson's advice to Christians seems to be this: fight in the courts and actively resist in the academy.

While the general thrust of Johnson's position is clear, several of the particulars need further clarification. In the opening chapter of Reason in the Balance, Johnson reviews the 1987 Supreme Court decision Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the Court declared unconstitutional the Arkansas statute requiring that creation science be taught whenever evolution was taught. He writes, "suppose the basic claim of 'creationism' is that God created us, whether he did so suddenly a few thousand years ago or gradually over a much longer period of time. Suppose further that creationists claim that certain features of living organisms, such as the extreme complexity of even the simplest living organism, give support to their claim that a preexisting intelligence was necessary for biological creation" (emphasis added). Having clarified the essential issue, Johnson argues that it was the Court's naturalistic bias, not sound legal reasoning, that drove them to forbid the teaching of creationism in public schools.

The problem with Johnson's argument is that his two essential suppositions are quite different. The first supposition focuses on the fact that God created us, not on how he created us. It defines a position that theistic evolutionists such as Nancy Murphey, William Hasker, and Owen Gingerich could all endorse. As someone said of astronomy in Galileo's time, the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. The second supposition, on the other hand, is really a summation of Paley's teleological argument for the existence of God, a standard topic in Introduction to Philosophy courses taught to college freshmen around the nation.

Commenting on the Court's decision, Johnson writes, "the majority opinion in Edwards said that the state was not only permitted to exclude the creationist viewpoint but was required to do so--and not because belief in a supernatural Creator is necessarily false or irrational, but precisely because it is religious. The logic implies that creationist arguments must be excluded regardless of the merits and that students may hear only the naturalistic viewpoint on the subject of origins." But what is "the creationist viewpoint": the first or the second supposition? It cannot be the first, because theistic evolutionists have no desire to restrict the current teaching of biological evolution. But if it is the second, then Johnson is implicitly requesting that standard issues in college philosophy courses be taught in high-school biology courses. And if the unbiased treatment of Paley's argument is to be maintained in the public schools, then philosophers will insist that it be balanced with something like David Hume's "Dialogue on Natural Religion."

The issue is further complicated when Johnson writes, "Science always has to fight the prevalent bias of the age if it is to be free to follow the evidence where it leads. In the past, geology had to free itself from religious bias so that it could consider possibilities like an old Earth or the occurrence of ice ages rather than a worldwide flood. That job was accomplished long ago, and now scientific thought is restricted by naturalistic bias" (emphasis added). Comments such as this, repudiating the ten-thousand-year-old Earth and the flood geology of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), have led scholars such as Mark Noll and Alvin Plantinga to speak of Johnson as a more reasonable critic of evolution than his young-Earth predecessors. But to say that the refutation of young-Earth creationism was accomplished long ago is itself problematic. Does Johnson simply mean to say that there is no credible scientific evidence in favor of a young Earth? Or does he mean that young-Earth creationists are as nonexistent as flat-earthers?

Either interpretation causes difficulties for Johnson. To say that almost no one believes in a young Earth is simply false. According to a 1991 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans believe that God made man--as man is now--in a single act of creation, and within the last ten thousand years.4 And, of course, this is the position taken by the ICR.

The other interpretation, however, causes even greater difficulties for Johnson's criticism of the Edwards decision. He writes, "If a high-school curriculum incorporates the subject of biological origins, and if supernatural creation is a rational alternative to naturalistic evolution within that subject, then it is bad educational policy as well as viewpoint discrimination to try to keep students ignorant of an alternative that may be true. Of course, this reasoning does not apply if the excluded alternative is irrational or demonstrably false. We do not give the view of the Flat Earth Society a respectful hearing in geography classes." The problem for Johnson is that the Arkansas case was about a law that defined creation science as including "the occurrence of a worldwide flood and a relatively recent inception of the Earth and living kinds."5 Now, Johnson cannot have it both ways: he cannot reject flood geology and a young Earth as refuted long ago and still find the Supreme Court guilty of bias in requiring that such positions not be taught in biology courses.

It seems that Johnson has at least three distinct understandings of what constitutes a creationist. The first (theistic evolution) is simply the belief that God created the Earth and everything on it irrespective of how or when he accomplished this.6 The second (Paley's argument) is the belief that the biological complexity exhibited on Earth can only be adequately accounted for by positing the existence of a supernatural creator. The third (icr's position, and the most common meaning of "creationist") entails belief in a universal flood and a relatively recent creation of the Earth.

While Johnson moves back and forth among these three definitions as the argument necessitates, it is only the second that he does not himself repudiate in other places. As we have just seen, he explicitly rejects flood geology and a young Earth. And concerning theistic evolution, he has said that this "manner of thinking is profoundly atheistic. … That is why I think the appropriate term for the accommodationist position is not 'theistic evolution' but rather theistic naturalism. Under either name, it is a disastrous error."7

Though Johnson's conclusion is, in one sense, diametrically opposed to Dawkins's viewpoint, in another sense he and Dawkins are not that far removed: both assume that a current biological theory will have substantial effect on a perennial philosophical issue. Dawkins explicitly sets out to refute Paley's explanation of biological complexity by replacing it with cumulative selection (biological evolution), while Johnson's defense of creationism is, in fact, no more than an attempt to save Paley's argument from the attack launched by Dawkins. Both assume (wrongly, I believe) that the argument from design as formulated by Paley is an essential element of Christianity.

Theistic evolution, Johnson argues, is fundamentally misguided in its willingness to accommodate Christianity to the course of modern science. In Johnson's mind, accommodation is but the first step to appeasement, and we all know what happens when we try to appease a tyrant. As William Jennings Bryan once said, theistic evolution is an anesthetic used to remove a Christian's faith without pain. Once it is assumed that evolution and Christianity are compatible, there is a slippery slope where the slide to atheism is unstoppable. The assumption of compatibility implies that one day science might incontestably prove that evolution is true. And if this occurs, then sooner or later Christianity will be viewed as merely the disposable belief of a few religious fanatics.8

The argument here is historical. Once people accept a scientific explanation for what was long held to be the result of divine agency, then, within a few generations or centuries, belief in God's power is seriously eroded. Early Christians prayed to God for healing. Now that we know about bacteria, we ask a doctor for penicillin. Prayer for healing seems natural to moderns only after doctors determine there is nothing more medicine can do.

This is a sad truth in the history of Christendom. As our knowledge of God's creation has increased, our trust in the Creator has decreased. But science itself is not the problem. Luke records the time Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God while in prison, when all of a sudden the gates of the prison flew open. In his description (Acts 16:26), Luke makes no attempt to hide the fact that it was an earthquake that caused the gates to open. And why should he? If this event in Paul and Silas's missionary work is recorded in Scripture to increase our trust and confidence in God, there is no reason to hide, ignore, or explain away the efficient cause God used to do his will.

There are two compatible understandings of the events recorded in Acts: first, its efficient cause was the shifting of geological plates along fault lines; second, it was a display of God's providence and his sovereign control of creation. The second explanation adds to without subtracting from the first.Many theistic evolutionists defend an analogous understanding of God's creation of the universe and all that it contains.

When Asa Gray, a Harvard professor of botany, friend of Darwin, avowed Christian, and perhaps the first explicit theistic evolutionist, made similar arguments, his critics replied, "Professor Gray simply says that development [evolution] is harmonious with theism. But we want what will prove theism."9 Professor Johnson has the same desire. If human existence, he says in Christianity Today, is merely "a combination of chance events and impersonal natural laws … [then] Christian theists would deserve their marginalized status in the academic world." He repeats this point in "Reason in the Balance." Theistic evolution (a position Johnson prefers to call "methodological naturalism") "seems to rely on 'faith'--in the sense of belief without evidence," and that, he says, "is why theists are a marginalized minority in the academic world and always on the defensive."

While Dawkins and Johnson represent important positions in the ongoing debate over evolution, they do not exhaust the alternatives. There is, for example, a powerful alternative viewpoint from the Thomistic tradition.10 Thomistic Christians share Johnson's distaste for those who, out of timidity or ignorance, leave their faith at the laboratory or library door. But they would insist that there is no incompatibility between the best scientific account of the efficient causes operative in the natural world and the psalmist's assurance that "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). And when scientists leave their area of expertise to boast that biology will soon discover the answer to all our questions about where humans came from and where they are going, then they are engaged in philosophical speculation that Thomists are quick to critique.

In doing so, Thomistic Christians follow Aquinas's dictum that grace always completes nature, it never contradicts nature. Thus, they argue that evolution and theism are compatible, but that an evolutionary explanation itself requires a theistic foundation.11 Like all foundations, it is not on the same level as the house it supports.

Johnson's confusion, from the Thomistic point of view, is that he looks for evidence of theism in the house itself--that is, the chain of efficient causes leading to the existence of life on Earth. Hence, he points to gaps in the fossil record and "the failure of molecular evidence to confirm either the reality of common ancestors or the adequacy of the Darwinist mechanism." Thomists, on the other hand, argue that the evidence of final causation is conceptual and is observed at a higher level of analysis. Final causes do not exist between efficient causes or at the beginning of a temporal series of efficient causes. Instead, they are the logically necessary foundation of efficient causes. Any attempt to make science self-sufficient is doomed to failure.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review

(continued in Part 3)


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