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Can Scientific Inquiry and Religion Coexist?

Posted by iusbvision on February 20, 2008

Recently, the Anthropology club celebrated Charles Darwin’s 199th birthday on campus with a panel discussion on evolution and a screening of the film Flock of Dodos. As a six-day creationist, I was intrigued by the theme of the event “Can Scientific Inquiry and Religion Co-exist?”. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. James Vanderveen, professor of anthropology here at IUSB, about the creation/evolution debate.

JB: Thank you for agreeing to an interview on this subject. Giv-en the theme of your event, do you think that there is room in the educational arena for both intelligent design and evolution and at what age could they be taught?

JV: Schools and colleges succeed when they are open to the free exchange of ideas. Even if the ideas are not popular, they need to be expressed in order to be challenged. There is no single right way of thinking. Some ways are more correct than others, however. Although scientists do not know everything, we are continually testing ideas and refining the ways we seek knowledge.

The process of the scientific method should be taught as early as possible. My five-year old son is making predictions about what may happen when he slides down a hill or puts a seed in the ground, and then testing whether those predictions are right. That is science at its most basic level. If he continually tested these events and the same result always happened, and he compared his results with those of students in his day care and they all turned out the same, he could develop a theory of sledding down hills.

But intelligent design is not in any way, shape, or form, a theory.  It can’t be as it is not based on testing. A theory is an explanation that is based on facts. It has been tested over and over again until all other explanations have failed. Intelligent design is not comparable to evolution as a theory (to use the term as we do in science).

I have no problem with talking about intelligent design in my anthropology courses, because we discuss all kinds of creation myths from many varied cultures. ID should be discussed in political science courses because it has an influence on what people are saying and how they are voting even now. It can be part of philosophy, sociology, or religion courses. Yet ID is not part of the science curriculum. Science is dynamic – it is always seeking the truth from what is not known. ID is part of one particular branch of religion (although it can be dressed up to appear otherwise). It is static and based purely on trying to support claims that are already thought to be known. This is a fundamental difference between evolution and creation ideas.

JB: Given the way you diagramed the scientific method with your son, how does one test evolution without the ability to watch it happen and record results and without the ability to compare it with non-terrestrial life forms?

JV: We can, and do, watch organisms change. Viruses mutate and bacteria alter their structure, which is why doctors tell you to take all the antibiotics. Scientists have recorded evolution in the wings of crickets in Hawaii ( We see change all around us, happening today as it has happened in the past.

As for finding out what happened in the past without directly observing it, that is what I do as an archaeologist. I study a people known as the Taino, but I am not able to ask them questions about how they made their pottery or what food they ate. Instead I observe the existing pottery in the archaeological record, I form a hypothesis about how they were constructed, and then I test that hypothesis by looking at thin sections of the ceramic or trying to make it myself. I am able to determine what they ate not because of the food that is left — there is none — but the organic residue absorbed within the walls of the pot. This residue, once extracted, suggests the particular species of plants and animals that were utilized. I didn’t see them eat the fish, but I can find out the fish type due to previous experiments and the recovery of associated data.

Astronomers may not be able to “see” the distant galaxies, but they can collect radiation of specific sorts that indicates the presence of those galaxies. Researchers in countless fields are regularly able to learn about subjects too small, too distant, too fast, or too extreme to directly measure. Their results are infrequently challenged, why is it that evolutionary science is not rigorous because the research does not directly observe the processes discussed? 

JB: Evolution and Creation are two very polarizing theories. What I mean is that there is not a whole lot of room for middle ground. Not many people can both believe in the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth and believe in the Evolution of the species. What steps need to be taken in order bring these two groups closer together to become more tolerant of each other?

JV: Actually, many people believe in both. Gallup has often polled the American public and has regularly found that about 40% of people believe that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” This is how my wife reconciles the two ideas in her head as well, by picking something along the lines of a compromise. It is the two most extreme ends of the debate that are intolerant. These two camps, the “no God” evolutionists and the “young Earth” creationists will never convert the members of the other side. They need to stop trying, as it only makes for ugliness that attracts the press. Everyone likes a good fight, and that is what people like Dawkins and Ham provide.

The two groups can be brought to a table to discuss their differences, though, and that is what I have been trying to do with the Darwin Day events presented here on campus.

JB: How would you address the issue of the Creation vs. Intelligent Design debate? Creationism and Intelligent Design are not the same thing. If religion and scientific inquiry are to co-exist; is there room at the table for Biblical Creation as well?

JV: From what I have heard, read, and understand, creationism is exactly the same as ID. ID doesn’t have a specific deity directly associated with it, but it is proposed by Christians and not Buddhists, so one can easily see between the lines. Judge Jones, who ruled on the recent Dover case, calls ID the “prog-eny of creationism” and is nothing more than creation science in disguise. I would have to agree.

Religion and science can easily coexist. They are not usually looking at the same things. Science can also be used to study religion. There are faculty in the community that scientifically study the sociology and psychology of religion and its influence on people. There are many ways in which the two ideas can be combined. Student in my archaeology courses often research the ways in which the Maya practiced religion, for example.

In anthropology, we are open minded to all ways of thinking.  There is the room for Biblical Creation at that particular table, but sitting there with it is the idea that all humans were created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The Taínos thought humans were produced through a wad of phlegm blown on to the back of a culture hero, and the resulting lump turned into a turtle. Who is to say they can’t believe that? There are many creation myths, why should one be given precedent over the others as the true story? There is only one successfully tested theory, though, and that is evolution.

JB: What made you decide to show a documentary video known more for its light-hearted, comedic approach to the Evolution/ ID debate as opposed to showing serious programs putting forth the evidence both sides present such as PBS’ 2001 Nova program Evolution and a pro-creation film such as Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution by Dr. Jobe Martin?

JV: Your question also provides the answer. I wanted to show the film last year because we had the rare opportunity to provide its Michiana premiere, and I continue to screen it for Darwin Day this year because of its light-hearted, comedic approach to a typically dry subject. We want to attract an audience and not make going to the event seem like homework. After the film, I was happy to see students continue to discuss its issues and themes. One of the roles of the Anthropology Club is to facilitate conversations between different people on this campus and in the community. The film helps to do that.

JB: Flock of Dodos seems to have the main thesis that proponents of ID are dodos because they place faith before science, but that scientists are also dodos because they have been unable to put their findings into a message that the layperson can understand. Do you agree with this?

JV: Absolutely.

JB: Next year would be Darwin’s 200th birthday. Do you have anything special planned for the bicentennial?

JV: The campus theme next year is “Revolutions in Thought”.  I hope there will be many events planned to commemorate evolutionary theory and other great changes (political, artistic, and otherwise) in our world and our history.

JB: It is a common argument that Creationism does not belong in a science class; it belongs in a philosophy class. How would you respond to a creationist who says that both creation and evolution are matters of faith: faith in God and faith in randomness? If the creation/ evolution debate really comes down to one faith (Biblical Christianity) vs. another faith (Secular Humanism), does evolution belong in a science class?

JV: Faith is a belief that is not based on evidence or proof. Science is the opposite, it is grounded on discovering data and testing predictions based on those data. Creation science and ID do not put forth new positive evidence. No hypotheses have been proposed to test the idea that creation is guided by a supernatural intelligence. It is for that reason that ID shouldn’t be in science classes.

JB: Recently, the Cobb County School District in Georgia lost a court battle over a science textbook sticker that read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered”. Do you agree or disagree with the decision to remove the sticker?

JV: If the sticker existed in a social vacuum, without the context of religion and politics, I would have no problems with it being placed on a textbook that discusses evolution. Every statement on the sticker is true, in the strictest sense. Evolution is a theory, and it may even yet be proven wrong, but that appears less likely as time passes and evidence mounts. All subjects, regardless of the discipline, should be studied carefully and critically considered. This is what I am trying to teach my classes. The social context of the sticker, however, is what made it such a problem.

JB: In a 1995 Time Magazine article The Evolution Wars, Dr. Richard Dawkins, a biologist teaching at Oxford University stated, “If there was a single hippo or rabbit in the Precambrian [Period], that would completely blow evolution out of the water.” What evidence would you need to see in order to leave evolution and become a creationist?

JV: If only we could test for the presence of a supernatural creator. We could then just ask him/her/them. I would like to know why, if the creation took place in a specific manner, do we have so many myths that differ? Why, as Edward Wilson has written, “would God have been so deceptive as to salt the earth with so much misleading evidence”? Until we ask those questions directly, I will continue to follow the research done by scientists that are now providing details about subjects previously unknown.

JB: Other than “we cannot see him”, how does one scientifically eliminate the possibility of a supernatural Creator?

JV: Scientific inquiry doesn’t entirely eliminate the presence of a supernatural force or amazing phenomenon. There are some researchers looking for Bigfoot and a Yeti. We haven’t found them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Discoveries and the testing of discoveries are the bread and butter of science. Shifts in current thinking based on new evidence is the way scientific fields work. Do you think that a scientist wouldn’t jump up and shout from the rooftops if he or she found evidence of a supernatural intelligent force that guided the evolution of life? That would be the greatest discovery of all time and would change all of our ideas and even our history. But creation science and ID don’t have the qualities of science. They can’t be tested. They may be right, but how are we to know?

Jarrod Brigham

6 Responses to “Can Scientific Inquiry and Religion Coexist?”

  1. I must give him a lot of respect, he lays out the position of religion in relation to science quite well. One of my favorite parts was this:

    If only we could test for the presence of a supernatural creator. We could then just ask him/her/them. I would like to know why, if the creation took place in a specific manner, do we have so many myths that differ? Why, as Edward Wilson has written, “would God have been so deceptive as to salt the earth with so much misleading evidence”? Until we ask those questions directly, I will continue to follow the research done by scientists that are now providing details about subjects previously unknown.

    It is unfortunate that so many people attempt to use science to debunk religion. They are separate concepts dealing with separate ideas (faith and evidence). As for the misleading evidence, one rationalized response is that if faith were fact there would be no need for faith. Faith in God is one of the fundamental aspects of Christian philosophy so it only makes sense that he would never allow a direct connection between science and him that would remove this element from the equation. This was a great read, thanks for covering it.

  2. Jarrod Brigham said

    Let me start things off with 5 scientific reasons why evolution cannot be true:

    1) The Winding Up Dilemna – According to evolutionists, our galaxy has an age in the tens of billions of years. However, when we observe the speed at which the galaxy winds, it cannot be more than a few hundred million years old. Given the current rate of winding of the Milky Way, it should be a nothing more than a flat disc (if the galaxy were truly tens of millions of years old)

    2) The Oort Cloud – Evolutionists believe that the comets are left over fragments of the big bang. This would mean comets have an age in the tens to hundreds of billions of years. The problem with this is that we can observe comets losing material as they pass by the sun. They evaporate away. At the current rate of evaportation, these comets should not be more than a few hundred thousand years old, at the most. The solution: the oort cloud. This mythical cloud sits outside of the orbit of Pluto. The problem is that no one has seen this oort cloud. The only evidense of its existance is that evolutionary scientists needed an answer to this “Age of the Comets Dilemna”. Please explain to me how evolutionary scientists can believe in this Oort cloud when the only evidence is the results of it handywork i.e. the comets, but they cannot accept that there is a Creator when the only evidense we have is His handywork i.e. Creation itself.

    3) Newton’s First Law of Motion – An object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by another force. The Big Bang Theory explains that all matter was compressed into basically a tiny dot. This dot then exploded in a big bang, thus creating the universe. According to Newton, this tiny dot, while full of potential energy, needed a force to act upon it in order to release this energy. The problem is that there was nothing available to act on the tiny dot to release the energy. Who or what set off the big bang?

    4) The Probability of Chance – French mathematician Emile Borel set the probability of 1 chance out of 10^50 as having a statistical chance of zero in other words, if something has a 1 chance out of 10^50 then it is statistically impossible. Conservative estimates place the chance of evolution happening at between 1 in 10^84 to 1 in 10^92. This makes evolution statistically impossible.

    5) The Law of Biogenesis – This law states that life must come from life, as opposed to life coming from a rock as evolution preaches. Since I am sure someone is going to point to the Miller experiment, let me destroy that fallacy right off the bat. For those of you who don’t know, the Miller experiment was an attempt to recreate the environment of the early Earth when life apparently sprang out of a rock. His expirament did not create life. While his experiment did produce a few amino acids, the amino acids he did produce were incapable to produce proteins. He produced no DNA or RNA. In addition to this, lets not forget that evolution is based on randomness. Miller set up the experiment with all the necessary ingredients he thought were needed to create life from a rock. So much for randomness. If his experiment were truly replicating evolutionary theory, he should set out a glass bowl and waiting for the correct environment to randomly appear.

    The theory of evolution is based upon breaking the principles of science. How can this be even thought about as a fact when it must break such basic scientific laws? Everytime science hits one of these walls, they just invent a new principle in order to get around them. Consider the Law of Abiogenesis. This is the answer for evolutionists. According to this law, under the right circumstances (which they have no clue what they are) life can arise from non-life. Of course this only happened once though – can you guess when?

    They go around the laws of probability by making statements like “you have to allow for all possibilities” except Creation of course.

    They get around Newton’s law of motion by redefining it as “An object at rest will most likely stay at rest… Why the change? Because that law flies in the face of the Big Bang.

    It is easy to claim that Evolution is a fact when you get to define and redefine scientific rules in order to meet your pre-concieved notions. It is also easy to claim evolution is a fact when you have to allow for all possible scenarios out of one side of your mouth and then claim that creation is not a possible scenario out of the other side.

  3. Jarrod Brigham said

    I wanted to address the confusion over the Intelligent Design/ Creation question. Creationism and Intelligent Design are not the same thing. Let me point out some of the differences.

    Creationism is the theory held by fundamentalists. Intelligent Design has its origin with the Agnostics.

    Creationists hold to the God of the Bible as the Creator. Intelligent Design does not take a position on this critical matter. Aliens, any and all gods, evolution, can all fit under the ID umbrella. Many IDers believe that God started things off and then left evolution to take its course. No creationist would ever stand by that statment.

    Intelligent design is centered on creation itself which puts it in the realm of humanism. Anything can be a god. It does not matter how creation came about, it just matters that creation was created.
    Proponents of Creationism centers on the Creator. The Creator is much more important than the creation.

    Creationists stand behind the fundamentals of Christianity. IDers are not strong enough to stand up against evolutionary teachings and therefore deem it necessary to compromise thier positions and accept any and all theories.

    People who support ID and Creation know that there is a difference. The only people who seem to be confused on it are the evolutionists. One reason for this is the fights taking place in the court systems. Evolutionists who seek to suppress any other viewpoint link the terms together and call us all Intelligent Design Creationists. This way they can hide behind the “separation of church and state” smokescreen thus suppressing opposing points of view. For a group of people who seem convinced they are correct, they certainly seem to fear Creationists.

    I will admit that Dr. Vanderveen does not seem to fear Creationism. I took his Anthropology class and he gave me every opportunity to challenge him in class and to offer up my point of view. I think he and Dr. Henry Scott should be commended for being some of the few science faculty members willing to engage in debate without trying to make Christians look like fools. I very much appreciate that about them.

  4. Chuck Norton said

    With all due respect to both professors – to not even understand the difference between ID and creation theory leaves him in no position to speak on the subject with an educated perspective.

    For example – Francis Crick – the man who discovered DNA – did not believe that DNA’s complexity was so incredible that it could not have worked by chance – even though he was a militant athiest Crick believed that life was somehow deposited here by something else. Crick believed that it was just so complex that the “accident ” explanation for life is a mathematical impossibility.

    One can look at a car and see that it can run on its own power, but we can easily and rationally conclude that it is made with an intelligent designer.

    Wasnt it Dr. Hawking who said in one of his recent books that if every property of the universe was set to a series of dials, each with a specific setting, that if we went back and touched even a one of those millions of dials and moved one even a millionth of a setting that everything we have, all that we know, would have never come about.

    If Dr. Hawking is correct in his analogy, than it is not even the slightest bit irrational to conclude that there is likely an intelligence at work somewhere.

    One last thing – the whole cricket wings example might be real evidence of evolution – this is pretty weak evidence. With all of the species that we have, new ones that are discovered and the millions of species that have gone extinct we should be able to find evidence of phylum level transitional forms that are not subject to gaping holes of doubt that you can drive a truck through. We dont have them.

    It is no secret that there are enough known biological conundrums that exist that should not have evolved according to the rules of evolution. The simple truth is this – that anyone who claims that either evolution or creation are the one and only and state it as if it is a scientific and academic truth is making a faith based judgement.

    I find good evidence on both sides, I also find that there are massive gaps of evidence on both sides – so as far as I am concerned I am keeping my mind open to both possibilities – and even a third possibility that no one has considered yet.

  5. Robert Lowman said

    Science and religion will, in all probability, never reach an understanding on this issue. Science constantly wants the proof of something supernatural; which is in and of itself an oxymoron. Science tests ideas in the natural world and can only hypothesize on the supernatural. That is why it is called the SUPERNATURAL.

    The constant debate as to the origins of man grows tiresome. Surely we as a human race can put our energies to something much more fruitful than arguing over the pettiness of how we got where we are. The point is that we are here.

    I believe what my soul has always lead me to believe, that God created the Heavens and the Earth. Mankind sprang from His hand and no other place. It is my feelings that the interference of man, an imperfect creature, has been a cause for some evolutions. For example, it was man that developed antibiotics.

    I understand that this will be shredded and dissected, but I simply don’t care. My beliefs are my own. I can not prove them or replicate God’s work in a science lab-nor would I want to. It is only when we try to play God that we end up doing more harm than good. Dr. James Vanderveen is correct on one thing:
    “Although scientists do not know everything, we are continually testing ideas and refining the ways we seek knowledge.”

    Scientists do not know everything, only one being knows everything that was, is and, is to be. Tested knowledge is only as good as the instruments that are doing the testing. Having theories based upon theories is where we run into trouble as a race. At one time science “proved” the Earth was flat, and religious figures insisted that Earth “was the center of the galaxy”. Both are examples of basing theories upon theories. As far as I know, nowhere in the Bible does it specifically say “Earth is the center of the universe and all other bodies orbit that body”.

    The truth remains that I believe in a Higher Power, something I can’t (nor do I wish to) ever test. With that said, I don’t appreciate the scientific community slamming my belief structure by calling my views MYTH. I do not go around calling such people as Darwin buffoons.

    I find it amazing how the above article describes Creationism as having a place in Sociology, Philosophy, and Religion classes but not Science. I would wager that Dr.Vanderveen would agree that Darwinism has a place in all the above classes. What does that mean? Does science somehow transcend all other thought? Should we view science as the “Holier than thou” of the academic world?

    I want to make it perfectly clear, I mean no disrespect to anybody by this response. I am sorry if anybody takes offense to my views, but I am simply tired of being pushed down. Most professors believe that being open minded fosters the best learning experiences. Sometimes, those same professors can be the most closed minded people I have ever dealt with. Again I mean no disrespect to anybody, some of my best friends are professors.
    I am open to any and all comments, but please don’t try to drag me into an argument. I have no desire to argue with anybody, I have made my point.


    A proud IUSB grad.

  6. Chuck Norton said

    Well said Bo.

    The arrogance and elitism of academia that you refer to is indeed a problem. In doing some research I found that American academia sung the praises of Hitler and Mussolini because they fell in love with the idea of a hero elite ruling class that loved Darwinian Philosophy. It has been my experience that a great deal of academia suffers atrophied critical thinking skills because of this elitism.

    Since the idea of science and the scientific method was brought up it seems like a good time to bring up Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon, the inventor of the scientific method, had no problem with believing in God.

    The Wiki on Bacon has this to say –

    In De augmentis Bacon writes that “the more discordant, therefore, and incredible, the divine mystery is, the more honour is shown to God in believing it, and the nobler is the victory of faith.” And yet he writes in “The Essays: Of Atheism” that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”, suggesting he continued to employ inductive reasoning in all areas of his life, including his own spiritual beliefs.

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