Can We Have a Civil Talk About Science and Religion?

Can We Have a Civil Talk About Science and Religion?

The octane on the science and religion issue has evolved (pun intended) during my lifetime. Toss the raw meat of a few choice words—“evolution,” “origin of the species,” “four-billion-year-old planet,” “global warming”—in the middle of a group of Christians, and you’ll have enough spontaneous combustion to heat the church.

It’s not easy writing on this topic, seeking civil discussion. I know that many people have already discovered all the answers they are willing to hear on issues of creation and science. They prefer not to be confused with new scientific facts. Their minds are made up. And sadly, a conversation will not be possible.

But when our faith causes us to check our brains at the door, we have fallen far from the God who gave us the capacity for reason.

Can we have a civil discourse about this? Is one’s scientific viewpoint a litmus test for his or her orthodoxy? If one believes that God created the heavens and the earth, is he or she to be scorned by fellow Christians because his or her theory of “how” differs? Is one’s theory of creation essential to salvation? Should this issue be dividing the church?

The issues are complex and you need a program guide to understand all the players. And sorting out pro and con on evolution is just the beginning.

  • There are young-earth creationists who posit a world created instantaneously six to ten thousand years ago.
  • There are old-earth creationists who believe the earth was created billions of years ago and has evolved slowly.
  • There are intelligent-design folks who place God in the gaps where science cannot explain what happened. They use God to connect the dots between creation, science, and Creator God’s role in the origin of all things.
  • There are random-chaos theorists who think it just happened over a long time with no guiding hand in the mix.
  • There are random-design folks who believe creation happens randomly, but under the loving direction of a designer.
  • There are neo-Darwinists who declare the whole thing too complex to suggest a designer behind the wheel.
  • And there are biblical literalists who go no further than “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
  • And there are theistic evolutionists who believe God guided the creation by means of evolution.

Lots of players are in the game with very different opinions.

One of the best current conversations is being carried on by the BioLogos Foundation. Francis Collins founded this group to promote the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms, seeking harmony between these different perspectives. Collins led the Human Genome Project and now leads the National Institutes of Health. He is also someone who takes his Christianity seriously and believes there is no incompatibility between his faith and his science. It is the hope of this foundation to change the discussion about evolution at Christian colleges. The foundation is organizing a series of faculty workshops, starting with one at Gordon College, a multi-denominational Christian college in Massachusetts, at which biology and religion professors will talk about evolution and how it can be taught at Christian colleges.

The premises of most BioLogos writers are rooted in theistic evolution. The basic beliefs of theistic evolution (as outlined in Collins’ The Language of God) are as follows:

  1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
  3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
  4. Once evolution got underway, no special supernatural intervention was required.
  5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
  6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

The church will be discussing these issues in the near future, if not already. The bulk of our Christian scholars/scientists are in a camp different from the bulk of our laity. And the battleground is most likely to be the minds of our youth. If there is a widening gap between Christian universities and local church pews, how will the church deal with the potential divide?

Collins in The Language of God suggests,

It is time to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit. The war was never really necessary. Like so many earthly wars, this one has been initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished. Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible. So let us together seek to reclaim the solid ground of an intellectually satisfying synthesis of all great truths. That ancient motherland of reason and worship was never in danger of crumbling. It never will be. It beckons all sincere seekers of truth to come and take up residence there. Answer that call. Abandon the battlements. Our hopes, joys, and the future of our world depend on it.”

I am not a scientist and do not seek to write as a scientist. I have no desire to defend any of the specific positions mentioned above, including evolution. I do not know how old the earth is. I cannot explain instantaneous creation out of nothing, nor can I walk you through the intricacies of evolutionary development. But I am a biblical scholar and a Wesleyan theologian and will write toward a position that may allow holy conversation to occur between people who occupy pews and those who sit in university classrooms.

In Wesleyan theology, we interpret Scripture through three specific lenses: tradition, reason, and experience.

We’ll pick up here in my next post on science and religion.

More Reading on Science and Religion

I recommend these books for further independent study on this topic:

Today’s post is an excerpt from A Charitable Discourse.


  1. My dear brother Dan . . .

    Once again you are on target; I am never really surprised. I have preached for many years that Gen 1:1 is all our faith should need: “In the beginning God crated . . .” Your starting point and the theme Collins addresses is a stain on the history of the church. How many have been damaged and lost fighting and tripping over the details God never intended us to know or fully understand. We are called into a Faith relationship. That is not always easy and certainly not always satisfying in some ways, but it is as He intended starting with Abram and going forward until this day; and into the future until He calls game over.

    Paul Myers

    PS Kanani will be going to Belarus next year to teach. That has been her long time intention since starting to teach overseas. It came as a sudden surprise and she is delighted.

  2. Jennell says

    My 21 year old son is studying physics at a secular university. He believes the science of Stephen C Meyer is very sound and has used it to show me my acceptance of evolution might be flawed. Just to add to the discussion.

  3. Thanks Rev. Boone for sharing this important word. We need to continue to show young Christians that science is not a threat to their faith.

  4. Andy Bennett says

    Dan–Well said! I realize that you wrote this a few years ago, but it is most timely now.


  5. Rodney Shanner says

    Statements and their intended meanings can often be misunderstood leading to mistaken conclusions. Coming from that frame of mind, I have a problem with the first position of the theistic evolutionists. The universe did not come into being from nothing, it was CREATED by God. Whatever substance makes up the universe did not spontaneously appear. That notion defies reason. That “substance” came from the Creator/God. Also, I do not think that humans share a common ancestry with apes. That said, I do not have to have a 7 24 hour week to explain the origins of the Creation. Augustine did not and neither do I. I agree that Religion need not feel threatened by science. I would place myself more in the category of one who sees the reasoning of Intelligent Design. There is order in the universe which indicates intelligence. That Intelligence is God.

    • Marvin Floyd says


      You are correct that statements and intended meaning can often be misunderstood and I think that you might have misunderstood the first position of the theistic evolutionist. The way it was worded in this article, I completed understand how you could misinterpret is meaning. The first position listed by Pastor Dan Boone is “The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.” I think this statement could have better worded to say that God brought the universe into existence out of nothingness. At least, that my understanding of what the position of theistic evolution actually is based on my own research outside of this article. I agree completely that having something come into existence, from nothing, on its own, apart from the creative power of God, makes no sense at all.

  6. Wes Hershberger says

    The voices that are calling for Christians to give evolution a chance forget that evolution was not punted into our culture because of some great stack of evidence that was flying in the face of the widely accepted thought that God created. Rather it was foisted upon us by those claiming to be scientists that wanted to explain origin minus God.
    The Bible is not, nor has it ever been antagonistic to science (sadly, the church sometimes has been). It is also very important to realize that evolution is not science but a religion, because it is not based on what can be observed but on what is “believed” to have occurred. To be fair, creation is on the same footing but most people that believe in creation do so without denying the requirement of faith. If evolution were promoted as a religious belief I would take no issue with it. If evolution were offered as a theory that science can advance by the presence of evidence that supports it or calls it to question like most scientific theories or hypotheses then I would be delighted to have the conversation. It is rare to have a conversation with anyone believing in evolution that is willing to present evidence that supports it or even be willing to consider that there might be another possibility; only one hypothesis is allowed. The only evidence that those that believe in evolution seem to be willing to offer is, “Everyone believes it; only a fool or religious nut would believe that the world is young and that everything happened in 7 days. After all, every dating mechanism that is trusted tells us that the earth is billions of years old.”
    Find a tolerant evolutionist who is ready to apply the same requirement of scientific proof on their theory that they seem to demand of those who believe in creation and I think we could have an interesting and worthy conversation. Find an evolutionist that admits that faith has to be involved in order to accept the theory and I think we could have an interesting conversation. Find an evolutionist that will accept some of the massive problems that evolution creates for Biology, Paleontology, Archeology, or just about any other science and I think we could have a very interesting conversation.
    Civility, admittedly had been absent from many proponents of creation as a valid theory. Straw-man arguments are abundant. However, it is my deep conviction that those displaying the lowest measure of civility are those who believe in evolution. I like your call for civility and would love to see the evolution community adhere to the call. Sadly, I’m not thinking that they will any time soon be they Christians or not.

  7. mike norris says

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. We certainly need to have meaningful discussions on areas of faith and science without trying to shout down those who may have different opinions. As one who grew up hearing only the literal 7 day creation taught, but who has become a convinced theistic evolution ahherent, I welcome honest discussion and differing viewpoints without ” type casting ” those who may see things differently.

  8. I have read Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” and recommend all of you and all of those interested in this discussion read it. Then I believe you will better understand how God uses His creation to effect change that we sometimes can’t understand much less explain. There are many miracles in the Bible performed by God in the Old Testament and by Jesus in the New Testament that we Must take by faith. As we are enabled by God sometimes through wisdom to discover mechanisms God has used to effect His will on earth, our faith in God is
    not weakened , but strengthened. We must reach out to all who seek a closer walk with Him!

  9. C.S. Lewis has some very interesting thoughts on this subject in his book “Mere Christianity” as well as some other writings of his – Science and God can certainly go hand in hand. I spent my early years believing – due to the more fundamental churches I was in – that I shouldn’t even entertain the thought that God could have used evolution or the “Big Bang” to create and develop our universe or that the story of creation is to only be understood as a literal 24 hour day 7 day phenomenon. But as I have gotten older and studied it more, the idea that God and Science work together quite well is something I now embrace. Whether it was a literal 7 day creation or a big bang or an evolutionary process, it all is so incredible to think about that a divine creator is the only explanation that makes sense to me.

  10. J.A. Elkins II says

    One quote I found that was interesting was a story about the Pope’s scientific advisor doing astronomical
    research, where the Church had to acknowledge that evolution and the big bang are no longer myths.
    That was striking to me, since, FOR ONCE, I got the impression the Church was finally ready to catch up with
    science in “some” respects.

    The Big Bang was confirmed around a quarter of a century ago in the early ’90s (COBE & WMAP). It’s old news. I’ve noticed that
    the creation pseudo-scientists are consistently out of date by 25-30 years or more.

    The Big Bang was confirmed around a quarter of a century ago in the early ’90s (COBE & WMAP). It’s old news.

    I’ve noticed that
    the creationists and theistic pseudo-scientists are consistently out of date by 30-40 years or more. The expansion of the universe
    has been known since Edwin Hubble’s discovery in 1929. It’s called “Hubble’s Law”: the recessional velocity of a galaxy
    away from us (v) is directly proportional to it’s distance from us (d), or v = Hd. The proportionality constant, H, is known
    as the Hubble constant and quantifies how fast space is stretching- not just around us but around any observor in the universe.

    Actually, the primary observation that the universe is expanding emerged between 1910-1930. The CM background radiation was first observed in the1965 Penzias and Wilson at a temperature of 2.7 kelvins. In standard general relativity, the universe began with a singularity, as demonstrated by Profs. Hawking and Penrose between 1965-1968.

    The singularity which from which our Universe began with originated in an ultimate black hole.

    Actually, the primary observation that the universe is expanding emerged between 1910-1930. The CM background radiation was first observed in the1965 Penzias and Wilson at a temperature of 2.7 kelvins. In standard general relativity, the universe began with a singularity, as demonstrated by Profs. Hawking and Penrose between 1965-1968.

    The singularity which from which our Universe began with originated in an ultimate black hole.

  11. J.A. Elkins II says

    If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain dogmatic truth-claims in Christianity to be false, says, then you must accept the findings of science and abandon those false claims, if your honest and not lying to yourself which is hard thing to do.

    Science Is not at all concerned with discovering the ultimate nature of reality or a creator god. That is a philosophic and theological concern.

    Most sources of knowledge available to early Christians were connected to pagan world-views.

    There were various opinions on how Christianity should regard pagan learning, which included its ideas about nature. For instance, among early intolerant and bigoted Christian teachers, Tertullian held a generally negative opinion of Greek philosophy, while Origen regarded it much more favorably and required his students to read nearly every work available to them.

    Addressing the relationship between science and religion, the “science and religion”movement is, overall, composed mainly of theists who have a healthy respect for science and may be beneficial to the public understanding of science. The “Christian scholarship” movement is not a problem for science per se, but that the fundamentalist and evangelical “Theistic (pseudo) science” movement, which proposes abandoning methodological materialism, does cause problems in understanding of the nature of science.

    I hold conflict thesis advanced by contemporary scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg and the late. While the conflict thesis remains popular for the public, it has lost favor among most contemporary historians of science which holds that religion and science have been in conflict continuously throughout history.

    Thankfully, Theist and Religion now “losing the argument with modernity” IMO.

    Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.

    Where religion attempts to be descriptive, can also lead to inappropriately assigning properties to the natural world. A notable example is the now defunct belief in the Ptolemy planetary model that held sway until changes in scientific and religious thinking were brought about by Galileo and proponents of his views.

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