Scientists versus the creationists — maybe they’re both right

A captivating masterpiece, or "a variety of ground pigments mixed with oil and applied to stretched canvas"? Hey, why can't it be both?

Editor’s note: Today we bring you a guest post from a new author, Larry Bunce. We hope you’ll appreciate his insights on the supposed conflict between science and religion as much as we did.

A joke has been circulating for years about a religious man who fell into some water. Someone threw him a life preserver, but he refused it, saying, “God will save me.” A boat came along, offering assistance, but he refused, saying, “God will save me.”

Next came a helicopter, but once again he refused assistance, saying, “God will save me.”

He drowned, of course. When he met God, he asked, “Why did you let me drown when I prayed for you to save me?”

God replied, “What do you mean? I sent you a life preserver, a boat, and a helicopter.”

That this story would seem funny to many people indicates that our society has come to expect God to act completely outside of our world. To answer a prayer, God must part the clouds, extend a gigantic hand, and work miracles more spectacular than the best Hollywood special effects department could dream up. This view of God has developed over the millennia as a means of emphasizing the power of God, but in today’s world, where we have come to expect “rational” explanations of everything, it relegates God to a distant, vaguely comical figure outside of the everyday world.

This type of thinking is also behind the controversy over the teaching of evolution vs. teaching the Genesis account of creation in the public schools. The hostile tone of the debate currently going on is to a large extent the result of each side’s trying to use the language of the other. Creationists are trying to argue that the Bible is more scientific than modern science, and scientists are trying to argue that science has replaced religion as the best approach for understanding the world. Each side may be trying to argue its case in language they think the other side will understand, but evolutionists see the creationists’ outdated information on science, or complete lack of scientific knowledge, and creationists see the evolutionists as out to destroy religion.

People with a mature understanding of religion would smile at the “God will save me” joke or the science of evolution, and say, “Of course — that’s the way God works.”

If we put the arguments of the creationists and scientists in the terms of artistic criticism, Genesis would say, “A Great Artist created a beautiful work of art,” while science would say, “A variety of ground pigments were mixed with linseed oil and applied to stretched canvas in combinations that reproduce the full color spectrum, in patterns that the rods and cones of the human ocular apparatus can perceive, and the optical centers of the cerebral cortex can integrate to reconstruct images found in nature, and the resultant image has been found to evoke pleasant associations in 89.3 percent of people who were surveyed after viewing it.” (Science could go on for entire volumes about sensory perception, optics, paint technology, textile weaving, psychology and conservation of artwork, but you get the idea.)

The Darwin/Genesis controversy is asking us to decide which statement is correct, but in the case of artwork, most people would agree that each statement is true in its own context. Those who didn’t think the statements were equivalent probably had trouble understanding the language of the statement from science. Even many who could understand the statement from science would pick the Genesis statement because it took nine words to give us a better understanding of the matter than science tried to in 75.

The use of the the word “equivalent” in this case means that both statements describe the same object and its effect on human beings. Without the “Genesis” statement about the importance of the artwork and the artist, the scientific explanation is fairly meaningless. (Of course, some people are just curious about everything, and love the process of discovery. They would study the technology of painting whether or not they had ever owned a box of crayons or planned to set foot in an art gallery.)

The Genesis-type statement is adequate for a casual visit to an art gallery, and may be all some people want to know about art. The scientific statement is absolutely essential if we want to understand why some people like the painting and others don’t, or to learn how to improve the eyesight of people unable to see the painting. It is also required if we want to learn the requirements to preserve the painting for future generations, or learn how to paint a picture of our own.

Larry Bunce is a retired computer programmer living in the Chicago area. His lifelong interest in science began as a pre-schooler, when he would ask his biology teacher father to read him bedtime stories from science textbooks.

  • Alan S

    Great essay, I couldn’t agree more!

  • Or maybe one or both is wrong. It’s a nice attempt, but has the flavour of the balance fallacy, and equivocates creationism with religion and science with atheism, which we know are not always contiguous.

    What this is really about is naturalism v supernaturalism. By their very nature, the former is testable and the latter is not. However, naturalism makes no claims of the supernatural, while supernaturalism most certainly makes claims of the natural. While that continues, so will the conflict.

    • Hey Colin, thanks for your thoughts, though I think I would disagree about the fundamental conflict between natural vs. supernatural. That seems to require a false choice very similar to the one that the author is arguing against. Namely, he is saying that just because something has a natural explanation does not exclude the supernatural explanation. It could be both. In the example of the joke, just because the would-be rescue of the drowning victim came from a life preserver or a helicopter does not necessarily mean that those material things weren’t also part of God’s provincial plan.

      • Alan S

        Did you mean “providential” plan?

    • Larry Bunce

      I think ‘equivalent’ was the wrong word in my essay. I meant to say that Genesis and science are clearly describing the same thing in different language. Science does not make value judgements nor invoke God to fill in gaps of knowlege; that is the principal purpose of religious writing. I would not advocate teaching Genesis in a science class, but I don’t believe that we should laugh at the ancient accounts of creation. Genesis has the order of the development of life on earth roughly right, and as for “Let there be light” as God’s first act of creation, according to the Big Bang Rheory, the early universe consisted entirely of photons, which eventually cooled to form atoms and then matter that separated from a uniform soup into discrete clumps to form stars. We can learn something of value about our world from both religion and science..

      • That’s how I think of it, Larry. Science and religion: they’re different, but they both have value and they’re both important.

        • Late reply – been busy!

          Larry, the inflationary early universe was an opaque plasma of hydrogen, helium and lithium nuclei plus electrons. Only when it cooled could photons travel freely, leading to what is known as the Dark Age, before the first stars ignited, which emitted the first real light.

          I consider science important, but religion to be a waste of time at best, and a corruption of the reasoning process leading to bad choices at worst. It is neither valuable nor important to the human race, thought it is central to many people because they are so inculcated with it.

          I think what you meant was ethics and philosophy? Religion is merely a crude approximation of these more worthy fields.

  • Nancy R.

    When I was first trying to figure out how to let my faith grow while accepting the findings of modern science, I found Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria” or NOMA to be enormously helpful, and this piece is reminiscent of that approach. Science answers the “how” questions, and we depend on our faith traditions to help us with the “why” questions.

    This is a very useful approach, but in the end it is rather unsatisfying, as it requires permanent compartmentalization of our views of the natural world, and of God’s actions. The bigger challenge is to find a synthesis that embraces both.

    • Larry Bunce

      While invoking God is not valid in writing a scientific paper, there is nothing wrong with thinking how wonderfully God created His world while reading the paper, whether you are a scientist or layperson.