Creationism has to be exposed

24 September 2008

Its persistence raises serious questions, but it is still not good science, says Peter Forster



I was invited back to Oxford University to preach the University Sermon some time ago, 25 years or so after I had graduated in chemistry. One of my teachers had been Peter Atkins, who is now among the assert­ive group of self-styled militant athe­ists at Oxford.

Professor Atkins did not come to the service, which would clearly have been at least one bridge too far, but he came to lunch afterwards. We sat next to each other, and conversation flowed widely.

I recall thinking that his atheism was at least in part a reaction to his un­der­graduate encounter with Evan­gelical Christianity. It seemed to have the energy and contours of a faith com­­mitment. As we parted, I sug­gested that the main difference be­tween us was that I did not have enough faith to be an atheist. His wife smiled at the thought.

The regrettable enforced resigna­tion of the Revd Professor Michael Reiss as Director of Education of the Royal Society reminded me of the conversation with Professor Atkins. The sharp campaign against Pro­fessor Reiss — after his sensible re­marks on creationism as worthy of discussion as a cultural phenomenon, but not as serious science (News, Comment, Media, 19 September) — seemed very far from the ideals of free enquiry that the Royal Society was set up to champion. It must have felt like an old-fashioned witch-hunt.

Creationism has become a deeply emotive term, concerning which any rational debate often seems im­possible. Part of the problem lies in the fact that it conflates two quite sep­arate issues.

On the first — the age of the universe and the existence of a historical process of evolution — the scientific evidence is now immensely strong. The theory of a “Big Bang” about 13 billion years ago, and a slow evolution of first the stars and planets, and then, from about six billion years ago, the emergence of carbon-based life on earth, has been confirmed by countless experimental observations.

One can understand why some scientists, especially those with a strongly secular outlook, overreact at the assertion that the universe might be only a few thousand years old, but the fact that such a significant number of people still takes such a view is an important social phenom­enon in the 21st century. Professor Reiss is right to regard it as sig­nificant, and worthy of discussion in schools, though not as a serious scientific option.

The second issue that creationism raises is the adequacy of a purely mechanistic and naturalistic explana­tion for the process that has guided evolution. Here the simple neo-Darwinian theory of random muta­tions and natural selection leaves many ques­tions as yet unanswered, and possibly unanswerable.

There is a significant problem at the outset: how did the first sample of DNA ever arise? Mathematical cal­cula­tions show this to be virtually impossible by chance, any more than if I emptied a bucket of pebbles from the tower of Chester Cathedral, they would land to form a neat pattern saying “Welcome to Chester.”

Likewise, many questions remain, for example about the way in which DNA molecules can simultaneously provide the blueprint for growth and also be the agent of that growth, and how the stop-start nature of evolution can be explained within a mechanistic outlook.

Some biologists have argued that these questions will be answered only by a similar revolution in biology to that which has occurred in physics, with the emergence of field theories to replace strictly mechanistic explana­tions.

That is not to say that God would be identified with such fields of influ­ence, as Teilhard de Chardin used to suggest, but the science of evolu­tion might open up in ways that have yet to be firmly established. Recent develop­ments in the ther­modynamics of open systems, popularly known as “chaos theory”, seem to point in a similar direction.

This would hold the prospect of a universe that is more easily seen as God’s creation, with the natural forces of evolution drawn into opera­tion under his providential guidance. Some have called such a vision that of the “intelligent design” of the uni­verse, and this has also called forth the ire of some secular-minded sci­entists.

There is certainly a danger of identifying a “God of the gaps”, who is restricted to operating where the limits of scientific explanation are placed, which in the past restricted the vision of God’s involvement in the world as the boundaries of science advanced.

It is better to think of God’s creative hand embracing the whole of the evolutionary process, and har­nessing purely natural aspects, such as random genetic mutations, and sub­sequent testing by natural selection. But the assertion that such forces are all that are at work is far from a proven theory, despite the dogmatic claims of some scientific secularists.

Professor Reiss found himself trapped in this minefield — exacer­bated, no doubt, by his ordained status. He deserves our full support, wherever our personal views lie on the creationist spectrum. The more naïve forms of creationism will not disap­pear if they are simply mocked and ignored: quite the contrary. They need the wide discussion and critical ex­posure for which he called.

The purely scientific credentials of young-earth creationism are very thin. The persistence of such beliefs is best seen as a natural reaction to the aggressive secular atheism that some scientists are passionately pressing, and that substantial swaths of Western society are content casually to inhabit.

That many Christians and others associate this with the widespread social dislocation of Western society is mainly a matter for sociology rather than science as such. Yet that does not reduce its importance, unless one can­not see beyond the narrow confines of science itself.

Dr Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester.

That many Christians and others associate this with the widespread social dislocation of Western society is mainly a matter for sociology rather than science as such. Yet that does not reduce its importance, unless one can­not see beyond the narrow confines of science itself.

Dr Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester.

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