Scientific Knowledge and Belief in God
By Douglas Swartzendruber
Professor of Biology at Seaver College
In the premiere issue of Pepperdine Magazine, Provost Darryl Tippens offered a cogent and compelling case for academic freedom in a Christian university. He rightly noted that universities are most true to their calling when they engage issues that matter with respectful dialogue and measured reason.
For the past several years, scientists at Seaver College have been at the forefront of undergraduate research, helping students explore the mysteries of our glorious universe, participating in much of this work through generous support from agencies such as the Templeton Foundation, an organization dedicated to integrating the disciplines of science and religion. We also have been blessed to have outstanding scientific thinkers, such as John Polkinghorne and Kenneth Miller, visit our campus to speak about their faith and how it integrates with their research.
This fall Seaver College will host an international symposium titled “Why Darwin Still Matters.” The symposium will bring leading scientific minds to our campus to address key issues surfacing at the intersection of science and faith. In the following essay, Dr. Douglas Swartzendruber, professor of biology and interim associate dean at Seaver College, sensitively presents several of the salient issues involved in a discussion that continues to intrigue people of faith—the integration of faith and scientific (in this case evolutionary) theory.
Dean of Seaver College
“Do you believe in evolution?” This question arises in educational institutions, churches, presidential debates, the media, and around the kitchen table. Most often “the question” comes not in the context of science, but rather as a prelude to a discussion of matters of faith. It is asked by students, parents of potential students, alumni, and friends. Similarly, colleagues at secular institutions have asked, “Can evolution be taught at Pepperdine?”
Embedded in both of those questions is the presumption that one cannot accept both evolution and faith in God the Creator. To me and many of my colleagues who are both scientists and followers of Jesus, this is a false dichotomy that forces individuals to the misconceived notion that one must choose either science or faith. For many young people, a cognitive dissonance develops while they try to integrate their faith and their growing understanding of the natural world. Too often, they reach a crisis point in their faith because of the seemingly contradictory truths of their faith and of their understanding of science. We are most fortunate that one of Pepperdine’s affirmations is “that truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.” This is a profound encouragement for us to decipher the myriad truths that are found in the sciences, theology, humanities—indeed in all disciplines.
I welcome “the question” because it presents an opportunity to engage discussion of science and faith and to highlight two critical points.
First, the question itself is misdirected, because evolution is not a belief system. Although some philosophers would argue that scientific knowledge is one type of belief system, it is pragmatically different from other belief systems that are not based on independent verification or falsification. Like gravity, atoms, plate tectonics, and all fundamental scientific paradigms and theories, evolutionary theory is about observable knowledge of the world of biology, and it is the unifying concept for all of the biological sciences. Asking about belief in evolution is akin to asking about belief in light. Light has paradoxical characteristics of particles and of waves, and thus any theory of light must explain all of the observed characteristics of light. Likewise, evolutionary theory is currently the best explanation that unites and makes sense of all of the knowledge we have about the living world, present and past.
Second, we must recognize that science is one of several ways of knowing—scientific knowledge is based on observation, postulation, experimentation, peer review, independent verification, and progressively deeper understanding. At one time many scientists, and thus many others, understood that the earth was the center of the solar system. However, as observations and experimentation progressed, the earth-centered paradigm yielded to the sun-centered paradigm. In Darwin’s era, the paradigm for explaining biological diversity was based more on theology than on scientific observation and research. It is unfortunate that Darwin’s opus, titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is usually shortened to simply The Origin of Species. This has led many people to incorrectly conclude that Darwin’s theory addresses ultimate biological origins, which would thus conflict with a belief that God is the originator of all life. Thus, whenn polls ask the improper question “Do you believe in evolution?” only 39 percent say yes, and 51 percent say that God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years. The poll responses reflect the false dichotomy of having to choose between science and faith and also indicate that there is an inappropriate influence of religious understanding on scientific understanding. Paraphrasing Saint Augustine, who warned against such confusion more than 1,500 years ago: “It often happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about eclipses of the sun and moon, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It can be ruinous for our community if the non-Christian should hear a Christian speaking in error on these matters.” —After De Genesi ad literam [AD 408].
Augustine argued that if our Biblical interpretations conflict with established science and our Godgiven intellectual capabilities, we should re-examine our interpretations. If we ignore the truths of science, how can we possibly convince anyone of the truths of scripture and of our faith in God?
I have the great privilege of working with Pepperdine colleagues who accept and teach that God created a universe that is knowable, and that our increased knowledge of the natural world does not decrease one iota of our faith in Creator, Redeemer, and Guide. Likewise, I have prominent colleagues such as Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson, and Francis Collins who are leading the proclamation that one can be a scientist and an evangelical Christian. Each has written a book describing his journey toward integrating his faith with his science, accepting that God is present in all of creation, and incorporating a theistic understanding of evolutionary biology. At Pepperdine, we are fortunate to be able to pursue truths in all disciplines and to have the intellectual freedom to pursue the goal of integrating our scientific knowledge with our faith in God.