How Not to Argue Against Evolution

Origin of Species
Written by: 
Published:
January 31, 2019

Adventism has consistently opposed the Theory of Evolution, based on its presumed negative implications for the church’s fundamental beliefs. This antagonism toward evolution was most famously (or infamously) expressed by Clifford Goldstein, in a 2003 Adventist Review article entitled “Seventh-day Darwinians”[1] Through the years church leaders and theologians have made many arguments against this theory and, I contend, many of them are unworthy. This essay will examine some of those arguments to explain why I believe this. In doing so I wish to first differentiate between: 1) an argument for or against some position; and 2) whether that position is true or false. While, like most people, I have a personal perspective on #2, I want the reader to be clear that I am not considering it here, at all. I am limiting, or focusing, my attention on #1 – the quality of some arguments made by Adventists in their effort to defend the classic SDA position contra evolution. Even if evolution is false, making bad arguments to further a true cause is unworthy. The ends do not justify the means.

Consider then, 5 types of argument that have been employed by SDA administrative and thought leaders, followed by my critiques.

1. Mischaracterization of what evolution is

In a 2014 sermon, Adventist General Conference president Ted Wilson declared: “evolution is not a science, it is a false form of religion and part of spiritualism.”[2] This is a very common assertion by conservative Christians, but indefensible. A full exploration of why I say this would far exceed my space constraints, so what follows is only introductory.

• Religion primarily focuses on metaphysics. In contrast, evolution is a scientific theory concerned solely with the natural world. It is descriptive not prescriptive, and appeals only to secondary causes.

• While scientism is an atheistic world view, evolution itself is agnostic about religion. Its truth or falsity may have implications about whether some theological positions are justified, but evolution – as a theory – has nothing to do with any such implications.

• Like any scientific theory, evolution both makes predictions and is falsifiable. And, like any other scientific theory, it is unrealistic to expect all data to readily fit the theory. But evolution has been successful in predicting and has not been falsified. And there are many obvious ways that it could be falsified[3]. It should be noted, however, that prediction success and to-date failure to falsify does not mean evolution is necessarily true. The same can be said for any scientific theory. Theories are probabilistic and good science is continually subjecting them to critical investigation.

However, when evolution (or any idea) is incorrectly defined, there is a greater risk of employing fallacious straw-man arguments. And, if someone pejoratively mis-defines what they are critiquing, they will fail to gain argumentative traction with a literate audience, severely undermine their personal credibility and, by implication, harm the credibility of the position they wish to advance.

2. Using consequences as an argument

This is where a perceived undesirable consequence is used as an argument against accepting something being true. The problem is that any consequence is completely irrelevant when considering truth or falsity. Since any religious group, such as Adventism, holds positions it regards as true, then challenges to those positions can be perceived as threats. The core problem here is the difference between position-holding and truth-seeking. The former has a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The latter is agnostic about outcomes.

My favorite example in illustrating this comes not from the science/religion controversy, but from the Bible. In Acts 19:23-41 a story is told, sometimes called the “Riot in Ephesus”. In it, a silversmith named Demetrius stirs up his fellow artisans and the broader population by arguing that Paul was sowing disorder in the city. But his argument centered on the negative economic consequences if Paul’s message got traction and resulted in less worship of the goddess Artemis, because their business would suffer. I think it’s a bit easier to see the illegitimacy of the argument because Demetrius is clearly the “bad guy” and Paul the “good guy” in this story. So we’re predisposed to “root” for Paul.

Here is the core argument, spoken by Demetrius and found in verses 25-27:

“You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited;”

Now, whether the silversmiths lost business has nothing to do with whether Paul’s God was true or not. But it was a powerful, though illegitimate, argument in this situation. It precipitated a riot – catalyzed much more by fear of lost income than religious zeal.

Now let’s move this problem to the context of arguments concerning the age of the earth and/or evolution. Consider, as an example, an article written by Adventist theologian John Baldwin, found as Chapter 6 in an apologetic book released in 2000, entitled: “Creation, Catastrophe & Calvary”. Baldwin makes the argument that an old earth, with the death evidence found in the geologic column record – negates the Atonement. A pretty severe consequence for Christians. I find Baldwin’s argument itself to be quite problematic, but that’s really beside the point. And the possible misuse of pointing out consequences, in the context of making an argument, can also be quite subtle. It centers on whether the referencing of consequences is descriptive or proscriptive.

Let’s say you make some argument to me, that X causes Y and, by the way, Y is bad for me. This might be merely descriptive, giving me a heads-up about consequences. But if you continue to say or infer that I ought to reject consideration of the argument because of those bad consequences, then this is proscriptive. It tries to de-legitimate the argument, or at least discourage me from objective consideration – due to negative consequences. Such considerations are irrelevant to the truth/falsity of Y, and thus are an inappropriate way to argue. In Baldwin’s article – as with others in the book – he employs pejorative language in describing the consequences. This is visible on pp. 115 & 121, where he uses phrases like “undermine the atoning power of Calvary”, “swept under the rug”, and “demolish the gospel”.

3. Calling the SDA position “biblical”

Christians generally, not just Adventists, have a habit of conflating their interpretation of the Bible with absolute certainty, by labeling it the “biblical view”. Now obviously, not all interpretations of the Bible are correct. The reality that there are thousands of Christian denominations is testimony to the fallibility of human biblical interpretation. Yet this practice, if not identified, gives the impression that an apologist is simply contrasting what God has to say about a matter, with what man says. And then, the maxim “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” – really does apply. The catch in this rhetorical move is the difference between the actual revelation material on its face, and the interpretation of that material by a fallible human.

Some examples of Adventists employing this move are:

• “We may briefly summarize the biblical concept of the creation of life which stands in sharp contrast to theistic evolution”[4], and then this author proceeds to summarize the generally-accepted Adventist Young Earth view as the biblical concept.

• “Thank God for loyal, academically trained, consecrated, talented, intelligent, humble presenters who have faith in God’s Word and His creative power that enables all of us to find answers and reassurance in a recent literal creation by the word of the Lord.”[5]

• “These ideas question the authority of the biblical record and shove it aside to make room for evolutionary theory.”[6]

This sort of “inequality by conflation” can add unjustified authority to human interpretation. I think it is usually done innocently, but still has a harmful effect. It involves the self-deceit known as the Argument From Ignorance. That is, we cannot imagine how we could be wrong in our interpretation of something – therefore we must be correct, since we can’t come up with any believable alternative. And this is most difficult when the limit of our hermeneutical creativity is constrained by the shape of our world view.

This is especially relevant in the faith/science controversy stemming from how Genesis is interpreted. Our world view is heliocentric, but the author(s) of Genesis had radically different mental models. We read Genesis, almost invariably with our mental models driving implicit assumptions about what the text is saying. It seems plain to us, thus we must be right. It would be very helpful, in every contentious difference of religious understanding, if we could keep the qualifier “to the best of my present understanding” firmly in mind as we seek truth. Given humans’ often embarrassing history of error, such humility is surely warranted. But when we “baptize” our interpretations by giving them the label “biblical view” – we invalidly try to substitute God’s authority for our own.

4. Conflating Theistic Evolution with evolution generally

Theistic Evolution (TE) is the idea that God set evolution in motion, and usually adds the idea that God has actively directed it throughout time. In other words, what science believes has taken place is then indeed God’s chosen and guided plan. Now, in my experience, both from reading and conversation with co-religionists, there is a strong tendency to conflate TE with the much broader category of evolution, generally.

This is unsurprising in two ways. First, Christians recognize God as the creator of all things. So if evolution is proposed as the mechanism it would seem to necessitate – for good or bad – that God somehow must now assume the primary creative role. But second, as evolution has most often been regarded as the implacable enemy of (at least conservative) Christianity, it is unsurprising that many Christians would choose to link evolution and God as necessary because that produces the most onerous view of evolution to a Christian audience and thus makes it easier to demonize. Why the most onerous? Because it spotlights the glaring contrast between God, who is understood to be all-good and all-powerful, and a creation mechanism that involves massive amounts suffering and death. This sort of huge disconnect between a theory-of-origins and God-as-creator, causes near-intolerable angst for the average believer. I remember a conversation with a good friend who was supportive of the traditional creation story but realized – vaguely – that science was out-of-sync with this. And central to his bedrock reasoning for retaining a Young Earth understanding, I was told, was the unthinkable devastation to the concept of a good God that would presumably be necessitated by Theistic Evolution.

But is it necessary to make God the active driver of evolution, the one who has chosen death and suffering as creation’s mechanism? Not at all. It is only necessary to assign God the role of allowing it to occur this way, if it did, since God is sovereign. And many Christians already take this approach on another, directly parallel, issue – the Problem of Evil. Every theodicy worth considering has, as one of its arguments, the differentiation between God allowing evil – as a necessary consequence in playing out the free-will experiment – vs. directing the evil, which would be inconsistent with the necessary character of a good God.

Now please recognize that by conflating evolution generally with the more onerous and restrictive choice of Theistic Evolution, it is then necessary that no other believable explanatory options exist. That is, if evolution and TE are really the same then, at minimum, one cannot imagine any plausible alternative scenarios. But this is not the case. And note that we need not prove that some alternative type of evolution narrative is true, only that it is tenable. Remember that TE – or any other flavor of evolution that moves into the metaphysical realm – is being conceived with next to no hard information, either revelatory or naturalistic. Most everything involves significant speculation. So one merely needs to propose even one plausible alternative where God has not chosen this path, but instead only allowed it. And one component of a believable story could be to introduce the possibility of Satan’s involvement in Earth’s history, with the presumption of his downfall far earlier than Eden, the exile of the fallen angels to this planet, with their collective intelligence and a lot of time on their hands. Again, there is no requirement to prove any such scenario is true, only that it might plausibly be true considering how little we know. But this is sufficient to deprecate Theistic Evolution from an inappropriate “perch” of being the necessary, God-ordained, method – with the accompanying severe problem of God being the direct agent of suffering.

5. Attacking people who question the church’s position or rationale

This issue can have a benign face that can mask a potential underlying problem. It can manifest itself when someone, typically a church member, engages in criticism of one or more beliefs that Adventists have identified with and are invested in. The benign part comes in the form of a reasonable question: “if you don’t believe what the church teaches, why don’t you leave?” But there is a sliding scale where it becomes less and less benign, and morphs into an attack on motives and credibility of those who would question orthodoxy. This pushback often uses war terminology, suggesting that those who question are not merely seeking truth and/or are dissatisfied with current church doctrinal justification, but instead are adversaries who have ungodly intent behind their questions.  Some examples:

• “Seventh-day Darwinism isn’t about “academic freedom” or “tolerance” of divergent views, but is a full-frontal assault on Adventist beliefs and should be treated as such.”[7]

• “Two worldviews are locked in deadly battle today: naturalism with its evolutionary theory and supernaturalism with its belief in Jesus Christ as the Creator … It is a major fight in the end-time controversy between Satan and Christ. … Satan has promoted evolutionary theory. It is a counterfeit religion that takes the place of Christ.”[8]

• “... be loyal to God’s Biblical truth, ... because you believe it with all your heart. Otherwise, the honorable thing is ... to resign from their position of trust. It is that important to God’s ultimate mission.”[9]

Such language can have the effect of accusing inquirers of being on Satan’s side in the Great Controversy. This is both unfair and unnecessary. The pejorative excess constitutes an Ad Hominem attack if these strong views are used as labels for people who seek better answers than those currently on offer. And this doesn’t even address the impediments to evangelism that occur when positions are grounded in premises that might only be accepted post-conversion, if at all.

This last problem I raise is especially harmful because it judges motive. It contains all the deleterious aspects of a religionist who believes they are defending God, and are also engaged in “cleaning” the church of heresy.

Conclusion

It will likely be evident to some readers that the above 5 types of argument are not specific to the controversy of evolution. They are generic, but all are playing themselves out in this context – which some are elevating into a battleground. I would also again remind the reader that my purpose in this essay is not to address the substance of the evolution debate (i.e. its truth or falsity), only the argumentative moves sometimes applied by defenders. These, I contend, are inappropriate, they add confusion not clarity, and are ultimately not God-honoring. At root here is the fundamental problem that a search for truth lets the “chips fall where they may”, but position-defense does not.

So, how do I think Adventist apologists should not proceed as they make their case? They should: not mischaracterize evolution as religious; not try to motivate rejection with reference to frightening consequences; not substitute the Adventist biblical understanding as God’s infallible message; not unnecessarily conflate evolution with Theistic Evolution when that isn’t the only option; and not characterize those who question Adventist positions, as reprobates.

Unfortunately, I’m not expecting this to happen any time soon – if at all. But diagnosing problems is the first step toward people rethinking their approaches.

 

Notes & References:

[1] The original Review article appears to no longer be available online. A copy of the article, however, can be found here.

[2]God’s Authoritative Voice”, paragraph 21.

[3] See: www.sciencemeetsreligion.org/evolution/falsifiable.php

[4] E. Edward Zinke, in “Creation, Catastrophe & Calvary”, p. 159.

[5] In paragraph 4 of Ted Wilson’s sermon “God’s Authoritative Voice”.

[6] Norman R. Gulley, in “Creation, Catastrophe & Calvary”, p. 126.

[7] Clifford Goldstein, “Seventh-day Darwinians”, https://www.adventistreview.org/2010-1516-14

[8] Norman R. Gulley, in “Creation, Catastrophy & Calvary”, pp. 152-153. Note that these quotes also present the fallacy of False Dilemma and mischaracterize evolution, as I discussed above in point #1.

[9] Ted Wilson, “God’s Authoritative Voice”, https://www.adventistreview.org/affirming-creation/‘god’s-authoritative-voice

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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