Internet Monk: a comment from an evangelical vertebrate paleontologist

My previous post was about pastors responding to a question about evolution. One of the readers’ comments was from a Christian paleontologist.

Here’s the comment (emphasis added by me):

You guys rule — it was a joy to read through these answers from such different Christian traditions and find such humility and realism regarding a subject that is the source of so much wholly unwarranted conflict. This quote can maybe stand as representative: “I am a pastor and a theologian, not a biologist. As such, I could not debate the individual claims of natural science on the merits of each, because I lack the resources to do so.” If only every Christian had that kind of humility.

OK, cards on the table: I am an evangelical Christian who takes the bible seriously. I am a frequent worship leader at my church, and have been a frequent preacher in previous churches. I have in the past described myself as a “fundamentalist” — not a term I would ever use now, as it has connotation that it didn’t have 20 years ago, at least here in the UK, but it’s not so much that my beliefs have changed as that my understanding of that label has “shifted”. Anyway, that’s who I am.

And with my other hat on, I am a publishing palaeontologist, specialising in the sauropod dinosaurs. (My publications are available from the site linked above; my most recent paper is on the generic separation of the African dinosaur “Brachiosaurus” brancai and the American type species Brachiosaurus altithorax).

As you can imagine, I have Christian friends who think I am sell-out for working in the field of evolutionary biology, and scientist friends who think I am a deluded idiot to be Christian; but I am far from alone — off the top of my head I could name another half-dozen practicing Christians within dinosaur palaeontology alone. Why do we so rarely hear from them? For a very sad reason: because the atmosphere in vertebrate palaeontology towards Christianity is poisonous, thanks to the efforts of creationists on one side and Dawkinsites on the other. If I could get just one message to the world’s creationists, it would be this: please have the same humility as Joe Boysel, and recognise that your knowledge of the scripture does NOT entitle you to make pronouncements on science. No, not even if you’ve read a couple of Duane T. Gish paperbacks. Would you try to tell a lawyer his job after reading Honest Bob’s Big Book Of Law? No? Then please have the humility not to try to tell palaeontologists their job from a position of similar ignorance. All you’re achieving is poisoning the well for those of us who would otherwise be in a position to engage with atheists and agnostics in our science.

Sorry if that ended up sounding a bit ranty. Let me finish by returning to my main point, which was how nice it was NOT to hear that kind of uniformed dogmatism from the Gangstas. Thank you, guys.

Great stuff.

Grace and Peace

6 thoughts on “Internet Monk: a comment from an evangelical vertebrate paleontologist

  1. Richard

    Thank you for re-producing this. This goes along great with the quote by Augustine: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the
    predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture,
    talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they
    think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous
    false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they
    think support their position, although ‘they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.'” (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, ch.19.)


  2. Dan

    Say Richard, how about THIS quote from Doctor Augustine?

    “…reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed.” (The City of God 12.10)

    It is in vain trying to make Augustine out to be any friend of OE – in fact none of the Fathers was, nor any Christian to my knowledge before Hutton if not even later.

    Meanwhile, consider the statement that “the atmosphere in vertebrate palaeontology towards Christianity is poisonous, thanks to the efforts of creationists on one side and Dawkinsites on the other.”

    Ah – so that’s the real reason. Silly me – all this time I’d thought it was because the carnal mind is enmity towards God, doesn’t like to retain him in its knowledge, has its understanding darkened in the futility of its thinking, etc. etc. etc. Seriously, the persistent naivety of you guys re. the worldview bias issue is well and truly shocking. Have you never read what Hutton and Lyell said about their antibiblical aims in their seminal work?

    And why single out vertebrate palaeontology? Why not take almost any portion of society and say that it’s hostile to God as the Bible describes him?

    Just today (Wednesday) I received my copy of “The Voyage that Shook the World”, a docudrama I’d commend all of you to see. But the DVD has several extras, including non-included bits of interview with an evolutionist paleontologist who calls Mary Schweitzer’s work on soft dinosaur tissue

    “astounding discoveries that are really shaking up the paleontological world right now.”

    He concludes: “I think we are going to get a shift in the [65-million-year] paradigm.”

    So: do your scientific colleagues even realise what’s afoot, or are they “dinosaurian” in an uncomplimentary sense?

    Moreover in the doco itself a (pro-)Darwin science historian makes this still more remarkable general observation:

    “I think it is worth remembering that, for the young Darwin, some of the questions which have been reopened by modern debates – for instance about the age of the earth – he would have regarded them as largely settled.”

    Friends: do you have eyes to see, and ears to hear?


  3. geochristian

    Dan said, “Have you never read what Hutton and Lyell said about their antibiblical aims in their seminal work?

    From Lyell’s obituary in the New York Times, (date February 25, 1875):

    But, though an evolutionist, Lyell was not a skeptic. He lived and died a Christian believer.

    The commmon assertion that Lyell had some sort of anti-Biblical or anti-Christian agenda is completely without a basis.


  4. geochristian

    I agree with Dan that none of the church fathers would have advocated an old Earth. The same would go for the leaders of the Reformation.

    But the same would go for heliocentrism. Name one church father who advocated that Earth orbits the sun rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. It took external evidence to get the church to take a closer look at what the Bible actually said.

    I won’t dispute that the church fathers universally taught a young Earth, and I put a lot more weight on what the church fathers had to say than most Evangelicals do. This has been demonstrated by Christian geologists Young and Stearley in their excellent book The Bible, Rocks, and Time. However, the church fathers were never forced by external evidence to take a closer look at what the text of the Bible actually says on the matter.

    In regards to the creationist documentary “The Voyage that Shook the World” — there is no growing controversy within geological/paleontological circles about the age of the Earth.


  5. Richard

    And actually, my point with the Augustine quote was NOT to make him an advocate for OE, but to show that the Church Fathers warned us not to blithely dismiss the views and educated opinions of non-Christians on matters not pertaining to our faith. When we talk nonsense on matters of science, and use “pseudo science,” and make these matters of faith, we defame the name of Christ.


  6. WebMonk

    Dan, I think you might be misunderstanding the point being made by quoting Augustine. The point is not that Augustine believed an OE, but rather that he understood that Genesis is not giving a video-recording-style description of the Creation.

    Obviously, he didn’t hold to an old earth, but he most certainly understood that the Genesis account of the Creation was not something that set the age of the Earth.

    Besides, if we want to get really precise with all the church fathers’ ideas about the age of the universe, NONE of them agree with the views of groups like ICR and AIG – a universe where stars and galaxies have existed for many billions of years but where Earth is young.

    Like I said, one of Augustine’s points in his discussions of Genesis is that Genesis is not intended to be a scientific description of the happenings. When Christians misunderstand the Bible, and then go saying all sorts of falsehoods about scientific things based on that false understanding, they bring the Bible into disrepute.

    While technically they just bring their own view of the Bible into disrepute, those who are being exposed to the false teachings don’t know the difference, and so they disregard the Bible along with the false use of it.


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