Science and Religion

Today’s post is going to touch on some potentially controversial topics. I don’t normally blog about religion, since I believe that other people’s beliefs are their own business and it’s not my place to change anyone’s mind. However, I do feel that it is my place, as a writer, to spread knowledge. Ignorance, especially willful ignorance, is perhaps the worst thing someone can have, since it leads to making bad decisions and living your life according to unenlightened views.

That being said, nothing in this post is going to be an argument either for or against religion in any form. Instead, it’s an argument for the need to analyze and understand your beliefs, and beyond that, to realize that you can’t deny scientific facts based on the writings of people who lived thousands of years ago. It is my belief that you can be religious and still accept and understand science. And it is my belief that science cannot in any way disprove the existence of God. Both can be compatible and get along just fine.

If you haven’t closed the page in an angry huff yet, I hope you’ll read on with an open mind, because that’s the kind of mind I’m writing this with.

(Note: I’ll only be discussing Christian religion, not out of any intent to exclude other faiths, but merely because it’s the only religion I know enough about to speak about it with any degree of comprehension.)

Today I went to church. You may recall that a few months ago, I started attending some local churches in an attempt to explore the faith. I started with a not so pleasant experience, then I moved on and found Westville Baptist Church. I found Westville Baptist to be a warm, welcoming place, with friendly people who started greeting me by name every week and expressing genuine joy that I had become a regular visitor. I kept going to the same church almost every week for the past two and a half months.

I won’t be going back after this week.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might notice that every Sunday, I tweet under the hashtag #JasonTweetsChurch. My tweets are often snarky and sarcastic (simply because I’m snarky and sarcastic about everything), and as a result, I always lose a few followers each week. But the deeper reason behind tweeting my church experience is to share what I’m going through and get feedback from my friends. I always get more answers from people on Twitter than I do from the sermon itself. Some of this comes from my friends who are atheists and who offer their counter-views to what is being expressed during the sermon. Other times it comes from my highly religious friends who offer me different perspectives and more in-depth explanations in order to help me understand the sermon better. I consider both of these perspectives valid and valuable (for the record, I do believe in God, but as the rest of this post will show, I don’t always believe in the bible).

So, what happened today that led to me deciding not to return to Westville Baptist? Well, during the sermon, the pastor (note: I use the term “pastor” because I’m under the impression he’s not a “priest,” but I’m not 100% clear on the difference) started talking about the nature of God and how He created the world, etc etc. Then he went on to say:

Evolution is just fantasy. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that we started as a single cell and grew into complex life.

He completely lost me after that statement. First, I see it simply as willful ignorance. There’s a huge field of biological and evolutionary science to show that, yes, that is how life got started. And if anyone has any doubts about that, all you have to do is look at how babies are made. You start off with a single egg cell. It gets together with a sperm to create an embryo. Then the cells split and divide, making two cells, then four, and so on and so forth, until eventually a complex human being is made, which then gets squeezed out from between the mommy’s legs.

So if that’s how life is formed inside the womb, why does this pastor say it’s “fantasy” to think the origins of life could have evolved differently?

Let’s talk about Genesis.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I firmly believe that science and religion are compatible. And that applies to the story of creation. I intend to show that the story of creation can quite easily be understood to be the story of the evolutionary process. If you’re an atheist, you can view this as the story of creation simply being a metaphor for the scientific process of evolution. Or if you’re a theist, you can view it as God’s hand guiding the evolutionary process along the way over the course of billions of years.

Let’s start with some bible quotes describing the beginning of life, the universe, and everything. I’ll be quoting from the English Standard Version of the bible, simply because that’s the version I happen to own (I don’t have a preference for one version over another).

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. —Genesis 1:1-1:3

According to The Big Bang Theory (no, the other one), the first moments after the beginning of the universe saw the existence of only “simple atomic nuclei.” These started to form into atoms, which eventually gathered together in giant clouds that slowly pulled together until their gravity caused them to condense into huge masses, which ignited, forming stars. Thus, in the beginning there was no form, just a void, and the first thing that came into existence was light. So far, the bible and science are working together just fine.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants, yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. —Genesis 1:9-1:12

I skipped a section about forming Heaven, since the afterlife and where souls go after we die isn’t something that’s really part of evolutionary science and doesn’t really apply here. But if we look at the parts about the physical creation of the earth, we see the “gathering together” of elements (by the forces of gravity collecting cosmic dust into the form of planets), and the initial evolution of plant life. According to the Timeline of evolutionary history of life, after the first single-celled organisms, the first life to evolve was cyanobacteria, a simple algae-like life form that used photosynthesis and eventually evolved into the other plant forms that exist today. Then there’s eukaryotes, the origin of multicellular organisms, which start with simple types of algae about two billion years ago. Full-fledged land plants were then the first land-based life forms, predating insects by 75 million years, amphibians by 115 million years, reptiles by 175 million years, and mammals by 275 million years. So once again, science and the bible seem to be matching up pretty well (maybe not perfectly, but close enough for government work). Not bad considering the bible spends all of three sentences describing a process that actually took billions of years (and remember, if you’re a theist, it’s easy to believe that God’s hand was guiding that development for all of those years, step by step, and that the bible just summarized it to make it easier to understand).

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth. And it was so. And God made the two great lights–the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night–and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. —Genesis 1:14-1:18

This is a great example of viewing the bible’s explanation metaphorically instead of literally. A literal interpretation of this passage would claim that all in one day, God fixed the orbit of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth into the 24-hour a day, 365-day per year concept that we know today. Instead, we can easily interpret this passage through what we actually know about the science of this process, and understand that it took billions of years for the day and the night and the seasons to take the form we know them today. For example, during the time of the dinosaurs, the day was only 21 hours long. Why? Because the moon’s effect on Earth’s rotation has been gradually slowing the days down. Which means that the seasons as we know them and the length of day and night that we’re used to actually came after the evolution of plant life. Those first prehistoric plants lived in a world that hadn’t yet found the balance we know today. Either natural physics slowly led an equilibrium, or God’s hand caused it, take your pick. Either way, the bible and science are still working well together.

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens. So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird accord to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” —Genesis 1:20-1:22

This part is pretty self-explanatory–animal life came after plant life, no argument there. These three lines don’t really distinguish between amphibians, reptiles, and early mammals, just calling them all “every living creature that moves.” But it certainly seems to imply life coming from the sea, which is what evolutionary science says happened when aquatic life starting coming up onto land. Though one of my favorite parts of this passage is when “birds multiply on the earth.” Not just in the sky, on the earth. Those earthbound birds? They were probably dinosaurs. Sure, this is open to a lot of interpretation, but that’s kinda the whole point I’m making here. Instead of interpreting this passage as saying “In a single 24-hour day, God waved his hand and made the birds we know today,” it can easily be read to mean, “In the span of time after plants but before humans, God created the first life that would evolve into birds, which He guided throughout its evolutionary development.” Read in this way, the bible and science are still working together just fine.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds–livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. —Genesis 1:24-1:27

What I find most interesting about this passage is how “beasts of the earth” are made in the same “day” as humans. Because looking once more at the timeline of the evolution of life, the very last things to evolve were primates, apes, proto-humans, and then humans as we know them today. So is it a coincidence that, after “Day 5” already saw the creation of “every living creature that moves,” the bible would then cite “Day 6” seeing the creation of “beasts of the earth,” one line before He creates man? Maybe, just maybe, the bible is actually telling us “God created the earliest primate and slowly molded its evolution over the span of 60 million years, like a sculptor working the clay until He gets it just right, leading to the present-day human race.” Nothing in the bible says that God just snapped his fingers and made humans in an instant instead of as a gradual process. And while the bible does use the phrase “And there was the evening and there was morning, the sixth day,” that “day” can be open to interpretation. After all, what is a “day” to an infinite and eternal God?

Maybe the bible tells us how long a “day1” is to God?

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.–Psalms 90:1-90:4

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.–2 Peter 3:8

That “thousand years” that counts as God’s “day” certainly shouldn’t be taken as a literal thousand years. Moses and Peter could both easily have said an “eon” or an “age” or “a million years,” depending on how much they wanted to exaggerate. The point that they’re trying to get across, however, is that God has existed for a really really long time and massive swaths of history are like a day to Him. Moses in Psalms 90 calls a thousand years “as yesterday when it is past” and Peter says “one day is a thousand years.” Moses uses a simile, Peter uses a metaphor. But neither similes nor metaphors should ever be taken literally. Taken as simply interpretations, each of these statements translates to “a really long time is like a day.”

Maybe “Day 1” was a few billion years while the universe was first forming, while “Day 2” was only a few hundred million years, and “Day 6” was only about 60 million years. And maybe, when God was telling all of this to Moses so he could write it down and teach it to all the Jewish people who were wandering the desert, God decided to keep it simple and not try to explain the entire billions-of-years-long complex history of evolution. Imagine Moses trying to understand all of that, with his education being limited to the science of 14th-century-BC Egypt. God could easily have decided to summarize. After all, it’s supposed to be the message that’s the most important thing, right?

I could go on to discuss a few other things, like how Noah’s Ark could totally be a true story (maybe he didn’t save “two of every animal everywhere in the world from penguins to lions to kangaroos” but instead saved “two of every animal he, personally, knew about in his limited world experience”). Or how the Garden of Eden, rather than being a literal paradise we got kicked out of, is a metaphoric representation of us losing the “innocence” of non-sentient existence when we “ate the fruit of knowledge” and became self-aware as sentient humans. But the point is, you don’t need to take the word of the bible as a literal interpretation of events. Like any writer, the people who wrote the bible added their own creative interpretation to things. Like any writer, they used similes, metaphors, symbolism, motifs, and themes. And like any writer, they probably went through multiple revisions, trying to tell the best story that they could.

Maybe some of the details about evolution got edited out before the final draft. I could see an editor reading it over and saying, “You’re spending too much time on this long, boring process here. It’s all backstory. Just summarize it, and get to the main plot.”

But that’s just how I see it. I’m a writer, not a theologist.

1 It was brought to my attention that the Hebrew word for “day” used in Genesis is actually “yom” which actually means “a period of time.” As with everything else mentioned in this post, it’s open to interpretation, and your perspective may differ, just as other articles on this topic will offer counter-arguments against what’s been said here.

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17 thoughts on “Science and Religion”

  1. Thank you. You’ve just summarized why I as a Christian, believe that science and faith can coexist. Your experience in church today also demonstrates the similar problems I’ve had with finding a spiritual home in American Christianity.

  2. A pastor is Baptist and a priest is Catholic, but both are words to describe the minister or clergyman. I *think*. I’ve attended both churches, though infrequently, over the years. Their messages are basically the same, though they sometimes use different terminology. I’d never heard the term tabernacle, for example, used in a Baptist church, but I’ve heard it used in Catholic church plenty of times. Each religion, as far as I’m able to discern, follows the bible but only to some extent. They take the rules of the bible and conform to them as they see fit. That’s why I have a hard time taking most religions seriously. Too many hard questions met with empty stares.

    For the record, if it matters, I was born and raised Baptist, infrequently introduced to Catholicism, but I’m Agnostic. I believe there’s a helluva lot more going on that we could ever hope to understand. The Bible’s a great book full of fantastical stories about giants and angels and heroes. It even has horror (Revelations, anyone?) and romance stories. I just don’t buy that it’s the word of God. Not really buying into the whole Jesus thing, either. Just my two cents. 🙂

    1. I was raised Catholic, and went to a Baptist church just because it was the one right around the corner from me. I really have no idea what to expect from, say, Protestant, Methodist, or whatever else is out there. But I’m with you on the “there’s more going on than we can understand.” My current goal (and the reason I’ve started trying church again) is to learn what I can so I can come to my own conclusions. I don’t want to reject any individual church without at least knowing WHAT I’m rejecting first.

  3. You left a Baptist church? That’s it, I’m unfollowing forever! 😉

    More seriously, I’d like to share some of my thoughts, if I may? Firstly, part of the confusion over pastor and priest is the fact that, well, there is a lot of overlap. ‘Pastor’ refers to ‘Shepherd,’ someone who leads the sheep to pasture. With that symbolism being enormously common in Christianity, the ‘pastor’ is basically the person who tends to the spiritual needs of the congregation. Thus, most priests are pastors, but not all pastors are priests.

    Priests, on the other hand… that’s more of a laden term. It hearkens back to the Old Testament, where the priests were basically the individuals who offered the sacrifices to God. In the Catholic church (and a few others), priests have the authority to forgive sins that are confessed to them, and generally serve as the intermediary between the church and God. For Protestants (again, with a few exceptions,) they believe that each individual has a personal relationship to God, and thus has no need for a priest in a formal sense. You’ll usually see the differences being semantical or formal, but heaven help the poor guy who calls a Baptist preacher a ‘priest.’

    As for the primary part of this post… like you, I’m not wanting to be controversial, just sharing my thoughts. I’ll admit that I started out as a Young Earth Creationist (though unlike most, I actually went through the science behind it, and that’s what eventually led me to doubting it as a valid theory,) and I’ll further admit that right now I’m ‘between paradigms.’ As far as I can tell, every major cosmological explanation or theory has at least one major unanswered question or problem, so that… aggravates me. *laughs*

    That said, I find myself in a bit of agreement with Rob Bell, when he speaks of the opening chapters of Genesis. We have to remember the cultural context in which it was written. The creation myths of other societies were based on war, bloodshed, oftentimes literally carving out the features of the landscape from the flesh of the defeated demon/god/what-have-you. In contrast, Jehovah did it peacefully, made it all perfect, and made man not as a servant, but to enjoy it forever and ever.

    There’s a lot I could get into when it comes to the science of it- especially as a biotech/genetics geek, the question of evolution and what can and can’t be said with it is very much relevant to my interests- but that’s the thing that I’ve tried to keep myself focused on. Whatever the truth is, whatever the ‘how’ is when we finally unravel that mystery, I don’t ever want to lose sight of the primary focus of the narrative, which is the ‘why.’

    All of that being said, I totally understand why you’d want to change churches, and I hope that the next one works for you. 🙂

    1. Etymologically, I find all these distinctions between pastors and priests pretty fascinating. Though in the end, they’re still all just “the person standing up there talking about God.”

      “Every major cosmological explanation or theory has at least one major unanswered question or problem” — This is always going to be true, just because the universe has existed for billions of years and we’ve only been studying it scientifically for a few centuries. Science is a constantly changing and evolving (no pun intended) field. Dinosaurs have feathers now, Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, and eggs are no longer considered a heart-healthy food. I think one of the most important aspects of science is its ability to adapt to new information and not stay stuck in the old way of viewing things when doing so requires you to ignore new evidence.

      Until we invent time travel. Then we can just go back and watch it happen.

  4. Very interesting piece. Your beliefs about the Bible and evolution echo my own – they’re things I’ve always felt were common sense. I stopped going to (Catholic) church almost five years ago, since I couldn’t stomach the close-mindedness anymore (the Catholic faith likes to tell you you’re a horrible sinner if you seek any kind of proof to back up your beliefs or disagree with anything they say). But the simple fact is, science unveils the wonder that is the universe – everyday – and that can only, in my mind, reveal its design by a omniscient being. In short, science and spirituality are well matched and augment each other beautifully. Or can, if people would let them. Wonderful post – I really enjoyed your insights :):

    1. I’m very glad to see that so far all the people commenting here have been open-minded and agree with what I’m getting at here. I was fearing I’d prompt a slew of people calling me a sinner and telling me they’d pray for my soul. (I was also raised Catholic, naturally.) But I’m very happy to see this is being well-received.

  5. Glad MondayBlogs alerted me to your post! I believe the same but go even further. Since 1998 I have had a number of experiences that have shown me God is actually active in people’s lives, including mine. What’s been happening to me has been evolving and my perspectives have been evolving. I’ve been working on a memoir to show people how I began to recognize it and I’ve developed a number of unique perspectives I believe are of value since I am a feminist. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in spiritual communities since I started working on my memoir, but found views that were different from mine and I wanted to know why. Then in July I felt I was directed to information that answered a number of questions I had about contemporary spirituality and I am currently working on a mini-book about what happened. I share a couple of stories on my blog about my experiences and the mini-book will be available soon.

    1. That sounds like an interesting exploration. I’ve had some what you would call “personal experiences” of my own, though I don’t often write about them. This whole “going to church” thing is pretty new to me.

      You might enjoy reading “Girl at the End of the World” by Elizabeth Esther. She writes about her experiences being raised in a fundamentalist culture and then exploring other views from outside of it. It was an emotional and moving book that dealt with a lot of her personal beliefs and spirituality.

  6. Thanks! Hope we can talk more about your experiences as time goes along. I wanted to be part of a church and tried for a long time. Thanks for the book suggestion! Sounds like a great one to check out!

  7. Literal interpretations of the bible always lead to trouble.
    I’ve never thought that it was meant to be a literal account of what happened, a history. During my classics degree, we studied the Roman historians and learned to dissect hyperbole from history; there was a very different view of what *truth* was to the view we hold.
    My husband is both a priest (Anglican) and a trained scientist ( a chemist) and I think we’d both agree that when people get bogged down by any supposed conflict between evolutionary theory and creationist theory, it’s usually because of fear of letting go of a so-called simple faith. Once you start asking questions, who knows where you’ll end up? The fear is that it will end in loss of faith.

    1. A priest and a scientist? I’ve never heard of that. It’s rare to find someone who is both highly spiritual and scientific at the same time (at least, in my experience).

      Personally, I think questions can make faith stronger. If you never challenge your faith, how much confidence can you have in it? I think there’s a story in the bible about doing that.

      1. Oddly enough, some of the best astronomers are Roman Catholic priests. I think questions can refine and help mature a faith, but I could be wrong…

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