Science, religion and evolution – the “fightin’ words”

Human language is how we are supposed to communicate with each other, but during my experience living in the United Kingdom, I had some co-workers who spoke in forms of English so different from my Midwestern US flatness that I was able to capture, at best, about fifty percent of the meaning between accent and idiom differences. The debate between science and religion is sometimes a similar “failure to communicate” between different versions of the same language.

In my series last year on why “good people disagree” on basic issues of morality and ethics, I wrote about how common viewpoints about ethical behavior are expressed in a variety of religious, philosophical and scientific languages, which often leads us into disagreement with our neighbor. So it is also when Americans attempt to converse with one another about the topic of human evolution. This post is about the “fightin’ words” on this topic that often cause people to come to political blows.

A bill currently making its way through the Florida legislature once again tries to force public schools to teach “alternatives” to the scientific consensus on evolution and climate change. The unspoken language here is that the “alternative” to the scientific consensus on evolution must be a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint, usually called “creationism,” or the more vague “intelligent design,” which was found by the courts in the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover case to effectively be the same thing.

I say “fundamentalist Christian” because millions of professing Christians, often supported by official positions of the major denominations, have no problem with the scientific consensus rooted in Charles Darwin’s work, even though this reality is rarely noted by the popular press. [1]

Biblical literalism versus allegory and myth

In every case I have investigated of Christian opposition to the teaching of evolution, and as was confirmed in the above-cited Dover court case, you will find a person or religious institution wedded to a literal interpretation of the Old Testament book of Genesis and its very brief account of a “six day creation.” Almost all Bible scholars, except the most fundamental, recognize that this writing has its roots at least as far back as the oral traditions of the Bronze Age, 2000 years before the birth of Jesus, and has been massaged, edited and translated by multiple humans in the centuries since. Christians who interpret Genesis as religious allegory, or even religious myth, usually have no problem extending the “timeline of God” back a few billion years, time enough for “natural” processes to account for human evolution.

Debate over the literal nature of Genesis goes back at least as far as the early “church father” St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who, because of his education in the once-great Greek empire of Alexander the Great in northern Africa, understood multiple “creation traditions,” as well as the Greek concept of religious allegory that was at the heart of traditional Greek drama. Allegory means that the “message” of traditional religious stories is usually more important than “the facts.” Augustine advised Christians to avoid “talking nonsense” about creation when trying to converse with others who had been educated in the Greek tradition, and had a more expansive view of their world. [2]

But religious allegory is uncomfortably close to a “fightin’ word” among fundamentalist Christians, which is the mere mention of myth when expressed by historians. Based on my experience moderating an internet discussion board, when Christian fundamentalist hears the word “myth” they usually interpret this as “simply not true,” and that presents an offensive challenge to his or her faith. To an historian, however, myth is any unverifiable story from deep in the pre-literate past that helped to define the customs or ideals of a society.

To an historian, it is not that the story isn’t “historical fact,” rather that “the facts don’t matter.” The Lakota Sioux holy man Black Elk (1863–1950) is said to have prefaced his stories with “I don’t know if this story really happened, but I do know that it is true.” That is a good understanding of the meaning of religious myth and allegory.

That said, the Old Testament does contain stories of a talking “serpent,”talking bush and a talking donkey. The historian’s definition of “myth” usually includes traditional stories of supernatural events as informing a culture’s history, but these accounts don’t carry much factual weight in the scientific community that researches and depends on an assumption of Darwinian evolution. [3]

I would assert that the “science versus religion” debate over evolution is actually easily bridged simply by adopting Augustine’s understanding of Genesis as allegory, and that, as the late theologian Marcus Borg once wrote, recorded ancient history is rarely “Here’s the videotape!” true. The entire concept of videotaped (although Borg would likely now say “digitally-recorded”) history would be unfathomable to any contemporaneous writer before 1900, let alone 2000 BCE.

But that “leap of faith” remains a bridge too far for millions of American Christians.

Theory versus hypothesis

Another fundamentalist trigger in this debate often comes in the mention of the “fightin’ word” theory. “Evolution is only a theory” is a common trope in this debate. Again, the word doesn’t mean what they think it means when a scientist says it.

In the scientific community, the word theory refers to the complete set of principles and statements that to date best explains observed and testable facts. And so, “gravity” is a theory, one that itself evolved from Isaac Newton’s invention of calculus to compute the effects of gravity through to Albert Einstein’s contributions of the concept of relativity and “space-time.” But we don’t say, “Gravity is just a theory.”

Darwinian evolution is a “theory” in the sense that its various refinements over the last 150 years have defined a set of principles that continue to hold up to repeated challenge and testing. These principles have at their core the ideas of (a) random mutation with (b) natural reproductive selection over (c) billions of years, as living organisms survive and reproduce in their individual ecological niches. [4] Subsequent discoveries such as DNA have only firmed up our understanding of that process and added the biological mechanisms missing from Darwin’s work.

The word hypothesis somewhat better describes what religious fundamentalists usually intend to say. A hypothesis is a tentative, unproven explanation for an observation. Hypotheses continue to be advanced in evolutionary science, but those who assert that “the theory is not true” are out on Augustine’s limb of “talking nonsense.”

One of the better books on the process of moving from a fundamentalist understanding of creation to a more scientific one is Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God : a scientist’s search for common ground between God and evolution. Miller, the author of best-selling biology textbooks, takes a “kinder to religious believers” approach to this road to discovery than do many other books in the field, and I recommend it highly.

As I noted at the beginning, in the end it is all about human-to-human communication. The best science will fail to reach its necessary audience without an understanding of the various human languages in competition with each other. Likewise, the greatest religions have fallen, and will continue to fall, if they cannot confront “the real world” as nature reveals itself to humankind. I have shared in the past the comment of a late friend of mine (likely not original to him) that “If God is real, the more you learn about reality, the more you learn about God.” 

Lest non-fundamentalist religious believers get too smug in their understanding of the science of evolution, an upcoming post will discuss one important scientific theory that is tougher to reconcile with most faiths, which is the “mind-body problem.”

That later post on “the mind-body problem” is now posted here.


  1. See, for instance, Schultz, Colin. “The Pope Would Like You to Accept Evolution and the Big Bang.”, 28 Oct. 2014.
  2. I don’t mean to imply that Augustine of Hippo had any great “modern scientific” understanding of the process of creation himself. Indeed, his own ideas on the subject were largely scientifically flawed as well.
  3. As I noted in this earlier post, “Darwinian” as an attribute is also a triggering “fightin’ word” for many religious fundamentalists. But to a scientist, the term simply covers the gamut of scientific understanding accumulated since Darwin’s time that helps refine and improve his original thesis.
  4. Note that this is not quite the same as “survival of the fittest,” a term coined by Herbert Spencer which was not in the first several editions of Darwin’s seminal work.

12 thoughts on “Science, religion and evolution – the “fightin’ words”

  1. Bruce Lindgren

    The use of a variety of approaches to interpreting scripture goes back even earlier than Augustine. Most notably, Origen (189-253) asserted that some portions of scripture should be read “historically” (literally), some should be read allegorically, and some should be read “spiritually.” The idea that all scripture should be read from an exclusively literal perspective is largely a post-Reformation development. Pre-Reformation writers, and even people like Luther and Calvin, often display a rich variety of approaches to scriptural interpretation.

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