In some of my prior essays I have been critical of fundamentalist Christianity for its rejection of the principles of evolution, as well as anything else in science that conflicts with belief in a literal interpretation of scripture. But this essay is addressed to my Christian friends who embrace belief both in mainstream Christian doctrine and in mainstream science. They believe these two realms are intellectually compatible. I disagree.
My science-embracing Christian friends accept the fact that the universe is governed by natural laws and that it began in a big bang some 13.8 billion years ago. They accept the principles of evolution and that modern-day humans evolved from ape-like ancestors over the course of the past several million years. So far, so good. However, these friends also believe in a God who not only created the universe but who continues to take a personal interest in each individual in the human community. Further, they believe that Christ, a member of the Godhead, came down to earth and lived as a man, was crucified for humanity’s sins, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. They believe that through Christ’s intercession humans have the opportunity for salvation and eternal life. They regularly participate in the rituals of their faith and, tellingly, pray to God with the expectation of God’s hearing and answering those individual prayers.
I feel that on a number of levels major incompatibilities exist between the realms of mainstream science and mainstream Christianity, and that it is unreasonable to maintain belief in both. I’m not saying that attempts to reconcile these sets of belief create logical impossibilities. But I am saying that such attempts create obvious and awkward improbabilities, I would almost say absurdities, particularly when other, more rational explanations are readily available. Let me explain.
The observable universe is over 90 billion light years across. From our vantage point we can observe literally over 100 billion other galaxies, averaging more than 100 billion stars each. If you’re keeping score, that’s a total of over 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (more than all the grains of sand in all the deserts and all the beaches on the entire earth), not to mention huge amounts of interstellar dust and gases, black holes, remnants of supernova explosions, dark matter, dark energy, and all manner of other astronomical flotsam and jetsam. And that raises a question: Is it really reasonable to believe that an omnipotent God would create such a massive, complex universe for the specific purpose of having humans evolve into conscious beings nearly 14 billion years later? Really? Of course, it’s possible that there are other worlds with other civilizations and that God created the whole shebang not just for us but for all the other communities of beings scattered around the universe. It’s possible, but it seems incompatible with the basic Christian message that God sent his only begotten son to die for OUR sins and to save US from perdition.
Then there’s the history of our planet. If the point of creation was to set things up for mankind—the test of our obedience, our fall, and the salvation story—God must have had great patience, waiting some four billion years from when life began for humans to evolve. Moreover, he had to allow evolutionary processes to sort through all the species that preceded modern humans, 99.9% of which are now extinct, including, importantly, earlier hominids, such as neanderthals, who certainly possessed consciousness, language, and rituals. Again, one has to ask why God would wait so long and set evolutionary forces up to create so many failed species. In some ways it is a scenario of cruelty.
And then there are all of the evolutionary design “gaffes,” if you will, all those instances where evolutionary processes resulted in less than perfect biological systems. To take just one of dozens of examples, we are all well aware of the fact that the opening to our esophagus is located right next to the opening to our windpipe. We’ve all had the experience of having food “go down the wrong pipe.” This isn’t just a source of social embarrassment. Choking on food is the fourth leading cause of accidental death in the United States. From a scientific perspective it is apparent how and why these imperfect systems arose. Briefly, evolutionary forces are not goal-driven; biological systems do not evolve with a particular end design in mind. But if an omnipotent God were directing the process, presumably knowing where he wanted things to end up, one would think that he could have done a better job. If I had been in charge, I know I could have.
In truth, the fundamentalist Christian account arguably carries more logic, at least in one sense, in portraying a more efficient, down-to-business, omnipotent creator who didn't waste time with astronomical complexities or with the slow and inelegant pace of evolution. But of course the Genesis version quickly founders on the rocks of scientific evidence.
My science-embracing Christian friends will reply that they are not concerned with the logical difficulties that science creates for the traditional Christian thesis. They will point out that their faith gives their life a grounding and a meaning without which their existence might be one of hollow despair. They’ve told me as much. And perhaps they are right in the sense that the meaning they derive from life has been built upon their Christian beliefs. But that doesn’t eliminate the incompatibilities between science and mainstream Christianity, does it?
And what my friends don’t realize is that one can have a rewarding, meaningful life without having to embrace the inconsistencies of Christian faith. They only have to ask their atheist friends.
© 2014 John M. Phillips