Culture At Large

Having “the talk” with college biology students

Clayton Carlson

The New York Times published an opinion piece last month by University of Washington professor David Barash, in which Barash reflected on his need each September to discuss science and religion with his first-year biology students. He does this to address the discomfort his students display when he teaches evolutionary science. Each September I have the same conversation with my students for the same reason, yet I have a substantially different message.

Barash begins his talk by explaining and disagreeing with Steven Jay Gould’s concept of “nonoverlapping magisteria,” which claims science is concerned with facts while religion deals with morals. Therefore, the two do not overlap. Barash and I agree that this deeply misrepresents both science and religion. We also agree that science has theological implications and that theology should inform how a believer sees the world. For me, science and religion are two fields dedicated to reading the two books of revelation: creation and Scripture. Certainly they overlap if they both teach us about our God.

But for Barash, the theology he sees in evolution teaches there is no good, powerful God. He says that the process of mutation and selection fully predicts that with a certain statistical likelihood complex creatures will be found on Earth. For him, this means that life is an “entirely mechanical phenomenon.” In other words, we have no maker. What I see is a good Creator who has made a world full of life that can do as it was commanded, and be fruitful. By the grace of God and according to His good plan, life on our planet has come to be beautifully diverse through the biological rules He set up.

Despite our dusty nature God, in His grace, felt fit to allow us to be His stewards.

Barash claims that the genetic and physiological makeup of humans shows we are just animals, with no special, central role in the world. I believe that the staggering, shocking thing about the image of God is that it was given to creatures at all. As full-fledged members of this biosphere we are made up of the stuff of this world. Dust to dust. And despite our dusty nature God, in His grace, felt fit to allow us to be His stewards, reflecting His grace to His world while doing His work in it.

Barash sees the death, predation and parasitism as a "powerful critique of theodicy." He claims the huge amount of death required for evolution as evidence that no good, all-powerful God can exist. I see them as tragic examples of the fall. The historical event of the fall not only changed the world then, but continues to corrupt God's powerfully creative world today. Barash’s view both underestimates the effect of sin on the world and the gift of God’s grace in holding it in check.

Barash and I agree with the responsibility we have as biology professors: to call our students to consider the claims of science in light of their overall worldview. But whereas he thinks - and teaches - that believing science and religion requires “challenging mental gymnastics routines,” I see them as two ways to learn about our Lord and Maker.

My hope is that when my students, as well as his, open their biology textbooks, they find cause for study, reflection and prayer as they contemplate God and His ways.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Theology