Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.

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8 comments

  1. I’m a member of TVC and think that Matt is spot on. I like how you lay out your thought process though. {some drone on and on and I fall asleep} The thing with science that always seems to snag me {sorry I’m not a scholar- just a down to earth girl} is that once we “prove” something it isn’t that far down the path that the “science” changes and what was once “proof” is knocked back to a theory…a guess, a ‘miscalculation’.

    I guess trying to explain to you something that you cannot understand is pointless. {much like you trying to explain to me String Theory!}

    I can see how to a non-believer that God is much like Schrodinger’s Cat; perhaps God exists, perhaps He doesn’t. For the non-believer one must open the box {die} before one finds the true answer. Whereas as Christian doesn’t need to open the box, we already know God is alive. {poor example I know but I’m in dire need of coffee.)

    I like your blog. I like to read how people can be so different in their thinking. Hope you don’t mind my “creeping”.

    1. Hi there! I appreciate your comment and thoughts, and I have a few responses.

      First, you actually seem to be in agreement with Chandler on science, at least as his views are presented in his book, The Explicit Gospel. However, like many non-scientists, he doesn’t have a great grasp on what the scientific method is. Science is nothing more than a process. It’s the idea that just thinking about something alone in your room won’t always get you the right answer, and just listening to what somebody else tells you won’t always get you the right answer, either. You have to do tests, collect data, and design experiments that can be replicated and verified objectively by other people (that’s basically the difference between a philosopher and a scientist – the philosopher can be just as smart, but she’s only got her brain to work with, while the scientist has her brain AND a laboratory). So it’s a slow process, but over time science is very good at eliminating wrong ideas and building off of correct ones.

      I would also like to clarify what a “scientific theory” really means, since it’s completely different than what the word “theory” means in a non-science context. A scientific theory is actually more powerful than a fact (and much higher than a “scientific model” or “hypothesis”) and many people don’t understand this. Facts are just observable phenomenon – for instance, when you drop an apple, it falls to the ground, and that’s a “fact”. Scientific theories, on the other hand, explain facts (in this case, the theory of gravity explains that the gravitational force of the earth pulls the apple toward it). So in science, a “theory” is actually the strongest possible of ideas – and yes, some are overturned – but that makes scientists happy because they can then throw out the wrong idea and get closer to the truth (though once an idea reaches the level of “theory” it is rarely overturned – people have been trying to overturn evolution for 152 years, but no one has gotten close – the evidence just continues to get stronger). The way to get ahead in science is to disprove your colleagues, because that leads to progress. We keep replacing bad ideas with betters ones.

      Lastly, on evolution as true or false, Chandler is flatly wrong. I sympathize because I like the guy, too – I’ve attended TVC and know many people there, but people you like can still be wrong and he clearly is. Accepting that evolution occurred (which is a fact) does not mean you have to derive your morals from it, as Chandler seems to be suggesting in this video. He fails to distinguish between “is” and “ought” – evolution is what “is” (it’s just how things are) while it’s up to morality/ethics/religion to decide what “ought” to be (how we should act toward one another, etc). Additionally, altruism, cooperation, and kindness are characteristics that evolved right alongside selfishness and cruelty – it’s not hypocritical to be nice to a stranger because you believe in evolution by natural selection – the urge to be nice evolved through that very process!

      I hope this doesn’t qualify as “droning on and on” – I really do appreciate your comments and thoughts. I also hope you will consider studying evolution more closely (I can recommend a wide range of books). You are clearly intelligent so once you’ve studied it I’m sure you will accept it as true, just as millions of Christians have.

  2. I’m confused how you could state that evolution is a fact, but that is a waste of time for us to debate. I think the more concerning comments you made were that refusing to believe in evolution is somehow dangerous. Furthermore, you have made it a personal mission to tear down Matt’s POV and get others to agree with you. What are you so afraid of? That Christians will not modernize their beliefs to conform with the world’s views? Maybe you think this will lead to less Non-believers coming to follow Christ because they will find that Christianity doesn’t always align with a science community that says the bible is a book of myths and the gospel is a lie? I would like to challenge you on what you are so passionate about. Instead worrying about what the world thinks of Christians views on the origins of where we came from, instead channel your passions to helping, serving and loving others so that they may see the love of Christ through you. Your impact on this world will be far more significant than efforts to “set the record straight”. You seem like a person with good intentions but you may not realize your efforts could have a better purpose if your concerns were for more eternal things.

    God bless,

    Chris

    1. Thanks, Chris.

      This article by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould will explain exactly what I meant when referring to evolution as a fact: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_fact-and-theory.html

      What am I afraid of? People being fed incorrect information. It’s simply my opinion that it’s better for people to have correct information than wrong information, because wrong information more often leads to bad consequences. Matt, at least in the cited video, fed his audience wrong information, and that’s what I’m complaining about.

      If people of any faith want to deny evolution, that is perfectly fine (though sad) with me, however I think they should be exposed to the actual facts first before forming a judgment, not misrepresentations.

  3. To say evolution or the evolution of humanity is a fact takes great faith – sophisticated life form evolves from dust, or a bog if you will… that is faith, not fact. That is the great cosmic leap that truly defies reason. It seems that hostility or at least an adversarial posture towards God fuels grand conjecture and ‘theory’ to do with aspects of human beginnings. Science and God are not in opposition to each other, quite the contrary. God authored all science – he spoke gravity into being while simply clearing his throat. – okay, not quite, just an attempt at being poetic.

    1. Appreciate your comment, but you’re talking about a slightly different thing. The origin or life, aka, the transition from chemistry to biology, is a different problem, distinct from evolution. Evolution itself is indeed a fact, and takes no faith at all to believe. We don’t yet know the processes that caused chemistry to turn to biology or how life first originated on Earth, but scientists don’t pretend to know that at all – they are actively working on it. But again, evolution is a different matter completely, and we do know how it works by and large.

      1. Where is the empirical evidence for your belief? – the empirical evidence for evolution? NOT Evolution is a notion, an idea about history, not observational science. There may be inferences we can make about the past based on modern observations, and these may or may not be true, but don’t bother claiming that ideas about history are the same as repeatable observations in the present.

      2. What exactly are you defending here? Are you religious? If so, do you demand empirical evidence for your religious beliefs, or are somehow suggesting all beliefs are equally lacking in evidence?

        If you want to insist that evolution is belief, fine, but it’s a belief on the same plane as a belief in the heliocentric solar system.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment

        http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/search/topicbrowse2.php?topic_id=46

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