Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Prelude: Galileo’s Dilemma

I’m going to start a series theologically interacting with evolutionary psychology. I hope you’ll find this series fun and illuminating.

Evolutionary psychology is a growing paradigm in the social sciences. Its logic and findings are even spilling out into popular media outlets. Some of this is of dubious quality and some is pretty good. Regardless, evolutionary psychology is posing some interesting problems for theology. This series will both introduce you to evolutionary psychology and point out some of its theological implications.

But let’s back up and talk a bit about science and faith.

Thomas Henry Huxley, a friend and peer of Charles Darwin (Huxley was sometimes called “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his vigorous defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution), in a letter to his friend, the clergyman Charles Kingsley, wrote these words:

“My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to the facts, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations. Science seems to me to teach the highest and strongest manner the great of which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads you, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.”

Let’s reflect on Huxley’s words. Specifically, is it possible, is it truly surrendering to the will of God, to humbly follow wherever nature leads us? Is it spiritually wise to teach your aspirations, even our traditional Christian teachings, to “conform themselves to the facts”? Or, should we, like many do, make the facts “harmonize with our aspirations”? More disturbingly, what should we do when the facts appear to be in conflict with the Bible?

A similar conflict was experienced when Galileo faced off with the Inquisition. You will recall that in his book The Starry Messenger Galileo defended and supported the heliocentric (Sun-centered) vision of the solar system as described by Copernicus. More than this, Galileo, by turning one of the first telescopes toward the heavens, also observed firsthand that the Ptolemaic theory (that the earth was the center of the universe) was inconsistent with his observational data. Unfortunately for Galileo, the Ptolemaic system was the official orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Consequently, by publishing his observations Galileo was potentially undermining the orthodoxy of the Church and in danger of contradicting Holy Scripture. Over time this book, and others published later, coupled with growing antagonism within the Papal court, eventually led to Galileo falling afoul of the Inquisition. Consequently, in 1633, Galileo was arrested, tried, forced to recant, and placed on house arrest for the rest of his life.

But what should Galileo have done? Go with the facts as he knew them or with received church orthodoxy? We can call this decision—the conflict been empirical observations and a literal reading of the Bible—Galileo’s Dilemma. In Galileo’s own words:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us
with senses, reason, and intellect intended for us to forgo their use…He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”


“I think that in discussion of physical problems (Nature) we ought to begin
not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense experiences and necessary demonstrations.”

Galileo’s Dilemma continues to worry many Christians. Currently, Galileo’s Dilemma is best illustrated in the debates involving Darwinian evolution.

Although there are a variety of procedures for resolving Galileo’s Dilemma, no real consensus exists within Christianity. People of good will differ in how they resolve the Dilemma. Some, Christian fundamentalists for example, adopt an extreme, uncompromising approach. That is, Revelation always trumps Reason. In contrast, other Christians attempt to make significant accommodations to science.

What are the options before a Christian in dealing with the empirical data in favor of an old earth and biological evolution? First, as mentioned, we could attempt the method of radical non-accommodation of the Christian fundamentalists. According to a literal reading of the Bible, the earth is only about 6,000-7,000 years old (estimated by counting and calculating the generations and lifespans within Biblical genealogies). Consequently, this position is called Young Earth Creationism in that it claims the earth is very young compared to scientific estimates. Further, according to a literal reading of Genesis, animal and plant species are unique and separate creations. That is, according to a literal reading of the Bible, humans did not evolve from more primitive life forms. This Revelation (a literal reading of Genesis) seems to conflict with Reason (the scientific data). Those using a non-accommodation approach simply assert that science is wrong. That is, Young Earth Creationists assert that evolution did not occur and the earth, despite appearances, is very young (relative to the geological dates which state that the earth is 4 to 5 billion years old).

Many Christians are characterized by this radical non-accommodation approach. Others, having carefully weighed the evidence, find parts of the scientific picture credible and attempt to accommodate this evidence. A good example of this is Old Earth Creationism. Many Christians appear convinced that the earth is very, very old. Certainly more than 6,000 years old. How do they accommodate this evidence? They typically do this by reading the word “day” in Genesis figuratively. That is, a “day” in Genesis could be poetic shorthand for “a phase of creation.” A “day” could be 10 hours or 10 million years. Some Christians even support this notion by citing 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”

Let’s pause and see what is gained and lost by accommodating the geological evidence regarding the age of the earth. First, compared with Young Earth Creationists, the Old Earth Creationists seem to be more scientifically respectable. They have accommodated a widely accepted scientific fact and so appear more intellectual and less reactionary than their Young Earth counterparts. But at what cost? Old Earth Creationists must forgo a strict adherence to Biblical literalism. The word “day” in Genesis 1 is a “poetic” day, a metaphorical day, not a literal 24 hour day. For Old Earth Creationists this is a small price to pay to accommodate overwhelming scientific evidence. Any yet, Young Earth Creationists see in this a dangerous and slippery slope. If “day” in Genesis is read metaphorically why couldn’t “God” be read metaphorically?

Leaving behind the concerns of the Old and Young Earth Creationists, I simply want to point out the gains and losses involved in most cases of scientific accommodation. Crudely, the tension is between scientific accommodation and Biblical literalism. If the Bible is read literally science cannot be accommodated. If science is accommodated then parts of the Bible must be read non-literally. That is, scientific accommodation and biblical literalism are in tension with each other. The game isn’t zerosum, but it’s close.

Moving on. Accommodating science even further, we have theistic evolutionists. Theistic evolutionists (e.g., the Catholic Church) accept biological evolution but claim that the process was God-directed, culminating in Homo sapiens. Obviously, then, for theistic evolutionists, Genesis is read figuratively, metaphorically, mythically. That is to say, theologically.

There are plenty of other models in play here as we accommodate science further (e.g., deism, pantheism, panentheism). But again, I just want to make a couple observations:

1. We are all facing Galileo’s Dilemma.
2. Generally, this involves choices between biblical literalism and scientific accommodation.
3. This tension forms a continuum, with different choices available to Christians.
4. Intelligent Christians of good will make different choices along this continuum (e.g., Young Earth Creationism vs. Old Earth Creationism vs. Theistic Evolution).

And my 5th point would be: Accommodating science and letting go of biblical literalism doesn’t matter much. For example, I agree wholeheartedly with the respected New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, who makes the following statement in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters?:

“The [Christian] vision of creation—which is simply the vision supposed by the entire weight of Scripture—is entirely compatible with theories of evolution, including the evolution of species. Such a view of God’s creation is perfectly compatible with the evolutionary sense of the world constantly becoming, constantly in process…[Further] the natural and biological sciences…are full of important insight that Christians neglect or deny at the cost of intellectual integrity…[Thus] [t]rying to read the account of origins in the Book of Genesis as a source of scientific knowledge is both bad science and a disastrous misunderstanding of Genesis as a literary and religious text. Whatever Genesis might be, it is not a scientific tract, not even by ancient standards. Only those desperate to save the ‘inerrancy’ of the biblical text, and lacking any sense of how stories can be true without being accurate, will engage in such a dubious misuse of intelligence…Genesis speaks the truth about the origins of the world, but not according to the standards of the natural and biological sciences. It speaks truth through literary and religious [narrative]. It tells us plainly that everything existing comes to exist from a God who is not part of the world but who brings it into being by his power of knowing and loving (that is, by his ‘word’).”

All this is to say that, in this series, I’m going to be taking the evolutionary data very seriously. And I’m well aware that this has implications for how I read the bible. But, like Johnson, that’s okay with me.


  1. Panentheism gets a mention! Hurray!

    Also, "masturbation" is misspelled in your sidebar. I'm sure you'll want to correct this, lest someone label you as merely a "blogspot wanker".

  2. Richard,

    A counter-argument to "scientific accommodation" that I hear a lot goes something like this:

    Scientists are always changing what science says is true. Tomatoes are good for us one day, and bad for us the next. Therefore, how can you put much faith in science knowing the ultimate realities?

    This always catches me off guard. At this point, my argument usually degenerates into saying: "well, you're just stupid." :) Actually, I usually just ask them if they feel they same way about science when they walk onto an airplane. If they really did, I doubt they would get on. How do you respond to this?

    Also, where does Genesis start getting literal for you (if at all)? An interesting book I read recently "Unearthing the Bible" makes some pretty serious claims against the validity of many of the "historical" events in the hebrew bible, especially early on, when scrutinized in light of the archeological record.

  3. Pecs,
    When I speak of science to people I talk about science as a method, not as a set of facts or as a belief system. Generally, the method involves:

    1. Expertise. This isn't to be elitist, just the simple recognition that you are much better situated to evaluate results from chemistry than I am.

    2. Skepticism. Science makes progress by questioning orthodoxy.

    3. Logic.

    4. Empiricism. Which is less about "data" and more about consensus.

    There is more I could list, but the general idea is that when we submit to this method (defined in my classes as "science is the process of achieving consensus among skeptical experts") we have demonstrably learned more about the causal structure of the world. Witness the car, radio, and toothpaste.

    Thus, to be scientific is to adopt a method rather than "believing in" the current array of known "facts." (It should also be recognized that this method has no metaphysical traction. It is the distinction between a naturalistic methodology versus a naturalistic ontology.)

    Regarding Genesis. I haven't thought much about that. I have a general feeling that it gets more literal the deeper we go into it. But I generally read Genesis mythologically (and I use that term in the technical theological sense).

  4. I think it is hard to separate science from facts. Science is in the business of discovering truth. Separating science from truth is separating the horse and cart. Thus, gravity and relativity are scientifically discovered facts.

    The problem enters, in my mind, when you are not an expert in whatever scientific observation or inference is in question. Then one must trust the community. Or, in other words, one must trust the method. For example, I'm not an expert in evolutionary biology. But I believe in evolution because I trust the community, the experts, that are making these observations and inferences.

    The argument I was presenting, is fundamentally one of trust (IMO). I trust science. Other people would rather trust their interpretation of the Bible. It is hard to come to some common ground in this situation.

    The fact is, that as cool as the scientific method is, and as much as I'm a believer in this method for discovering truth, it still requires some amount of trust in the community.

  5. Pecs,
    I think Quine compared knowledge to a web. Where our knowledge of the facts is distributed across experts, media, friends, personal experience, cultural givens, etc. Thus, if I lean on the web it is a kind of "faith." But I don't know if the same holds for religious faith. That is, is this person at church you are talking to:

    1. An expert? Have they studied the origins of the bible and the roots of religion deeply?

    2. Are they skeptical? Do they question, legitimately, the hypothesis that God exists?

    3. Are they logical? Do their beliefs have inconsistencies in them?

    4. Can they build a consensus around their ideas? For example, ask him/her this question: How many gods are there? Once they answer ask how they would get a group of skeptical experts to agree on their answer. Have them try to specify how that process would get off the ground.

    That is, although there is a weak parallel between "faith" in science and faith in God, I think the two processes are distinct enough to consider them apples and oranges. IMHO.

  6. Pecs,

    I've heard some folks give a similar argument against scientific accommodation. While I agree that such an argument seems more than a bit naive, I wouldn't dismiss it entirely. Though the support for their argument (the what's good today is deemed bad tomorrow) is flawed, the crux of the matter--Can science provide hardfast answers to life's biggest questions?--is a question to address, I think you'd agree, even if you're accommodating of science.


    You wrote, "3. Are they logical? Do their beliefs have inconsistencies in them?"

    I agree with you to a certain extent, but who is to define logical in this situation--you or the person you're questioning? What seems logical for a biblical literalist is going to differ from someone who accommodates science (and, as you noted, there are varying degrees of accommodation.)

  7. Things that generally seem to be fuzzy in this sort of discussion:

    1. What people mean when they say "science". Richard has given a tentative definition.

    2. What people mean when they say "knowledge".

    3. What people mean when they say "faith".

    Obviously, other definitions might also be fuzzy ... for example, jason seems to be opting for a colloquial definition of "logic" rather than the standard philosophical definition. If people don't explicitly state their definitions, they're likely to be using the same words and meaning different things.

  8. Pecs, I think another important distinction to make here is between science and technology. Yes, they're interrelated. But it's perfectly possible to create a technology without really understanding why it works -- people used levers and bearings and whatnot long before Newtonian physics -- and for a machine to be theoretically perfect and fail anyway. When you look at the invention of the airplane (to use your example) it came through a combination of scientific understanding and old-fashioned trial and error. I think even someone who doesn't believe in science can see that planes have been flying all this time so it's OK to get on one, without necessarily thinking science knows everything about why it works.

    On the larger question, I've been thinking about this lately regarding all the debates between scientific-materialist atheists and believers going on these days, and I think one factor is the nature of the questions being asked. Apart from certain crises, most scientific questions actually aren't all that urgent. If scientists don't know what dark matter is, or whether light is a wave or a particle, life goes on. Even the geocentrism debate, important as that was to the principals, probably didn't make much difference to the average person. But life is constantly throwing other questions at us that can't be put off. Should I have an abortion? How should the country respond to a terrorist attack? What do I do about those folks dying of AIDS in Africa? It seems to me that it's inappropriate to apply a scientific standard of evidence to such things, saying, "Well, we'll just wait till we know enough" or "We'll act on a hypothesis now but we may overturn it tomorrow." Not that evidence doesn't matter in such situations, of course, but to some extent everyone, even atheists, have to act on faith and belief in such situations.

    P.S. Geocentrism wasn't really Catholic "orthodoxy," was it? I thought the problem was mainly that the pope at the time was a geocentrist and Galileo sort of implied that all geocentrists were idiots. But it's been a long time since astronomy class...

  9. You're right, Matthew, I'm using "logic" in more of a colloquial sense.

  10. Matthew, I think you are right in that definitions are in order. What Richard is terming "science" I would term "the scientific method." Science I think had a much broader definition, encompassing the method,technology, knowledge etc.

    Jason, I agree. There is something to this argument. I think the difference between putting my faith in my interpretation of the Bible vs. what the scientists tell me about reality, is that I could decide to spend my life becoming an expert in evolutionary biology or whatever, and determine for myself whether these inferences and observations being made by that community are sound. So I am really choosing to trust the experts, but probably could become an expert myself if I really wanted. This is different then having faith in the Bible, for which there is no choice but faith. Another difference might be that in trusting "science" you are really trusting a large community consensus. Whereas when you trust your interpretation of the Bible, this is private thing and less reliable for that reason.

  11. Richard, thanks for this interesting series, which I will plug on my blog. You wrote that "We all face Galileo's dilemma." (My emphasis.) It seems to me that the dilemma only arises from (a) assuming that biblical literalism is in fact a desideratum, and (b) assigning "literalism" the somewhat peculiar meaning of "reading text T as if everything it says is an accurate accounting of historical fact." I read a lot of science fiction and crime drama novels, and I always take them "literally." I never think that the detective searching for clues to a whodunnit is really a symbol for a human person's search for existential meaning in his or her life. But while I read the storylines of those novels literally, and might even take them to have verisimilitude (more so in the case of the detective stories and spy stories than the spaceman stories or dragon-slayer stories), I don't take them as reports of historical events. In my opinion, we need a new term, perhaps "historicalism" or something, that means "reading a text as if it were a report of historical events."

    Pecs, your contrast between "putting my faith in my interpretation of the Bible vs. what the scientists tell me about reality" is asymmetrical, as your comment itself makes clear. Just as you could choose to become an expert in "evolutionary biology or whatever," you could also choose to become an expert in biblical studies, which is a very public scholarly discourse, though perhaps less popular and less visible that public scientific discourse or even public discourse about religion generally. (For some reason, when a television program needs an "expert" on some religious matter, they seem to dial-a-priest instead of seeking out the most distinguished scholars on the particular matter at hand.) My point is that there is no good reason why we should view science as a "community consensus" but biblical interpretation as a "private thing." Biblical interpretation has been going on as a scholarly enterprise a lot longer than has modern science! For example, non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 among biblical scholars ("scholars" by the standards of their respective eras, mind you) predate by over a millennium Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and the earlier "challenges" of geochronography to the "biblical" age of the earth. To be sure, there remain many differences of detail on a number of points within scholarly biblical studies—and as a humanistic discipline, biblical studies will probably always be subject to less conclusive results than the natural sciences—but it's not as if everything is left up to individual readers without recourse to a "community consensus."

  12. DrChris:

    Good point. The main difference, as you alluded to, is the subjective nature of Biblical studies in contrast to the physical sciences. While there is a community for textual interpretation, this community is hardly responsible for making judgments on which Christians across denominations rely. There are thousands of Protestant denominations precisely because of the importance we place on private interpretation, and because the larger, Biblical scholars community fails to have this role among the Christian community. This is surely a recent development; something that coincided with the spread of Democracy and individualism.

    Although, you should realize that my perspective is one that originates from observing primarily Churches of Christ, which stress individual Bible study and individuality in general because of the lack of any hierarchy.

    I guess one could become a bible scholar, just like one could become an expert in some science field, but I get the impression that there is much less consensus in the biblical community. In other words, people are all over the map on most issues and have been for hundreds of years. Did Paul write the Pastorals or not? What part of Genesis is meant to be taken literally and what is not? I'm guessing that you could pretty much pick the question and get a spectrum of answers. This happens in science too, for sure. Global warming was hardly a scientific consensus 20 years ago. But it is today. And this seems to be the main difference: the possibility of consensus is just much lower the more subjective the science.

  13. Philip Downing. I blog at thoughts.com under the username of 'becomeasalittlechild'Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Dear Dr Beck,
    I'm not surprised that science and religion throw some people into a mental impasse. Science?is it not reductionist? You go to a doctor of medicine who need a description of symptoms from which they systematicaly try to root in some microscopic cause, then prescribe a drug to knock out the bug or a thug drug to eliminate the symptom!

    Whereas, religion, is it not holistic? eg from scripture: a disciple of Jesus seeing an ill person says "was it this man or his parents that sinned Lord?" [inferring illness is caused by sin] and Jesus replies that it was neither him or his parents but the illness was there in the person in order to point to the glory of God. Then Jesus/God heals Him - God's glory thus revealed...I say 'holistic' because God is all embracing.

  14. I find this article interesting as it relates to a topic that had a large influence on my life, particularly in moving away from Christianity and accepting atheism. I tend to dismiss young earth creationists as uneducated reality-deniers. At first those that fall into the old-earth creationist and theistic evolution camps appear more in touch with reality and may even seem to accept some sort of logical point of view that accommodates both science and their religion. But, in fact I put these attitudes into an even more illogical frame of mind than young-earth creationists. Young-earth creationists, while clearly ignoring the facts, at least pick a side and go with their belief. The other two positions seek to find a comfortable middle ground where undeniable facts are grudgingly accepted when they can no longer seriously be denied (e.g. even the Catholic church eventually had to accept Galileo’s position), but there is no attempt to search for the truth beyond any belief except the most undeniable. There is also no realization that the whole house of cards that is the Bible falls to pieces as soon as you start to take some of it figuratively (as you must if you are not a young-earth creationist) and some of it literally. If one accepts that the parts of the Bible are inaccurate (or are to be taken figuratively), then why continue to accept much of the rest of it literally only because science hasn’t yet refuted it? In short, for these groups, the act of taking parts of the Bible figuratively is merely an act of convenience for those parts that simply cannot be true. In reality, though, the whole thing must be thrown out (as one would undoubtedly do with any other book were very large parts of it shown to be totally unreliable).

  15. The most fascinating question asked is" .... then why can't God be read metaphorically?". The word "God" must, at best, be a metaphorical expression of the inexpressible.

  16. Everyone always seens to scratch the surface with all of the famous people of history. It is understand what they did and how they did it but it is truly shocking to find how difficult to locate information on who they really were is.

  17. hannadevries.wordpress.comTuesday, September 24, 2013

    I've visited your blog numerous times but I never spotted this series! Time to start reading - I'm quite skeptical about the scientific credentials of evolutionary psychology, but I trust you to provide some interesting food for thought.