Last night I debated evolution with Nick Cowan at St Bride's Church, Liverpool. Nick brought some supporters with him. It was a courteous, well-mannered event; if anyone was guilty of getting wound up it was me, but I think I was relatively civilised.
By the end I felt that the anti-evolution position was, as I feared, all about the Bible, not the scientific evidence. The anti-evolutionists claimed the scientific evidence was against evolution, and explained how; but when their scientific position was challenged they were quick to revert to the Bible.
Nick believes Archbishop Ussher was right: God created the world in six days in 4004 BC, complete with all forms of life. Any doubting of this is to doubt God’s Word in the Bible. I have come across this approach a number of times, especially in Liverpool, and the common theme seems to be an appeal to science.
The people who interpret the Bible as a collection of ‘facts’ written by God pride themselves on having a ‘scientific’ approach to reality. It is important to them to emphasise their scientific credentials. I’m merely generalising from my own experience, but the emphasis on science and facts does seem to go with that attempt to treat the Bible as a physics text book.
Why? Nick thought his way of interpreting the Bible was 2,000 years old. 150 is nearer the mark. Believing the Bible is word for word what God has revealed goes back to the 3rd century, but they interpreted it allegorically. It was not till the 16th century that Protestants treated the whole Bible as literally true, and even then they only applied the principle to doctrine and ethics, not science. When did they start applying literal interpretations to the science in the Bible? You’ve guessed – in the 19th century, precisely in order to oppose evolution. (And some findings in geology.)
How did they make sense of this new idea? Because of their philosophy of knowledge. Most people don’t reflect on their philosophies, but Nick’s is old-fashioned 19th-century positivism. He argued that truth comes from science and nothing is scientifically proved unless it is observable and repeatable. (He said he didn’t believe in black holes and dark matter.) This is what made him sound so similar to Richard Dawkins, against whom he has debated evolution. Both have a simple view of ‘the facts’, which once established are unquestionably true. Dawkins thinks the facts come from science, Nick from the Bible.
Here lies the problem. It is made worse by successive governments desperately trying to persuade more students to study the sciences rather than the humanities. As a result people who study the humanities know the sciences are important too, but people who study the sciences often dismiss the humanities as useless, and think they can apply their scientific methods to everything. If they work in a science where a simple positivist attitude to ‘the facts’ is adequate, and then apply it to the Bible, the result is the kind of literalist fundamentalism that opposes evolution for ‘biblical’ reasons. To a child with a new hammer everything is a nail.
It doesn’t work. The Bible is ancient literature, not a physics text book. If you want to know what the Bible says and means, a training in the sciences won’t help much; a training in the humanities is what you need. Scholars use tools provided by the humanities to build up a picture of the biblical authors, their historical and social circumstances, why they wrote, whose side they were on and who they were against, what they positively affirmed and what they merely took for granted.
Last night’s anti-evolutionists simply refused to engage with any of that. They had their simplistic notion of ‘facts’ and thought that was all they needed. In effect they used the rhetoric of science to reject science. I ended up feeling that evolution wasn’t the issue.