One of the most misleading headlines imaginable recently appeared over an opinion column published in USA Today. Tom Krattenmaker, a member of the paper’s Board of Contributors, set out to argue that there is no essential conflict between evolution and religious belief because the two are dealing with completely separate modes of knowing. Evolution, he argued, is simply “settled science” that requires no belief. Religion, on the other hand, is a faith system that is based in a totally different way of knowing—a form of knowing that requires belief and faith.
The background to the column is the recent data released by the Pew Research Center indicating that vast millions of Americans still reject evolution. As the Pew research documents, the rejection of evolution has actually increased in certain cohorts of the population. Almost six of ten who identify as Republicans now reject evolution, but so do a third of Democrats. Among evangelical Christians, 64% indicate a rejection of evolution, especially as an explanation for human origins. Krattenmaker is among those who see this as a great national embarrassment—and as a crisis.
In response, Krattenmaker makes this statement:
In a time of great divides over religion and politics, it’s not surprising that we treat evolution the way we do political issues. But here’s the problem: As settled science, evolution is not a matter of opinion, or something one chooses to believe in or not, like a religious proposition. And by often framing the matter this way, we involved in the news media, Internet debates and everyday conversation do a disservice to science, religion and our prospects for having a scientifically literate country.
So belief in evolution is not something one simply chooses to believe or to disbelieve, “like a religious proposition.” Instead, it is “settled science” that simply compels intellectual assent.
The problems with this argument are legion. In the first place, there is no such thing as “settled science.” There is a state of scientific consensus at any given time, and science surely has its reigning orthodoxies. But to understand the enterprise of science is to know that science is never settled. The very nature of science is to test and retest hypotheses and to push toward new discoveries. No Nobel prizes are awarded for settled science. Instead, those prizes are awarded for discoveries and innovations. Many of those prizes, we should note, were awarded in past years for scientific innovations that were later rejected. Nothing in science is truly settled.
If science is to be settled, when would we declare it settled? In 1500? 1875? 1960? 2013? Mr. Krattenmaker’s own newspaper published several major news articles in just the past year trumpeting “new” discoveries that altered basic understandings of how evolution is supposed to have happened, including a major discovery that was claimed to change the way human development was traced, opening new questions about multiple lines of descent.
But the most significant problem with this argument is the outright assertion that science and religion represent two completely separate modes and bodies of knowledge. The Christian understanding of truth denies this explicitly. Truth is truth. There are not different kinds of truth that operate by different intellectual rules.
Every mode of thinking requires belief in basic presuppositions. Science, in this respect, is no different than theology. Those basic presuppositions are themselves unprovable, but they set the trajectory for every thought that follows. The dominant mode of scientific investigation within the academy is now based in purely naturalistic presuppositions. And to no surprise, the theories and structures of naturalistic science affirm naturalistic assumptions.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.