Are Evolution and Religion Compatible?
The overwhelming majority of biologists now see evolution as fact, with the supporting evidence being plentiful, ever increasing and interconnected. Explanations of Darwinian Theory can be found in popular books, textbooks, and in a vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific studies, while examples reinforcing Darwin’s ideas can be seen in museums or picked up from beaches along the coast of Britain.
‘Recollection of Pegwell Bay, October 5th 1858’, by William Dyce, 1860.
Searching for fossils on the foreshore – evidence of the age of the earth.
Ruskin wrote of “the dreadful hammers of the geologists . . .
I hear their clink at the end of each bible verse”.
While Darwinian Theory and nineteenth century discoveries about the age of the earth certainly raised questions about the accepted truths of religion, predictions of the rapid triumph of science and the end of faith proved premature. Indeed, in 1879, Darwin stated that a man “can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist” and now the world’s major religions have largely come to recognise – or at least to publicly claim – that evolution is compatible with faith.
In the early twenty first century, the Catholic Church sees no contradiction between evolution and the view of man’s creation by God. Both Pope Pius XII in 1950 and Pope John Paul II in 1996 stated that evolution is not inconsistent with what a Catholic can believe – as long as it does not attempt to say that man’s soul does not come from God. Many mainstream Protestants also hold the view that the Bible is a document that is not meant to be interpreted literally, and consequently see no conflict between evolution and their view of the Biblical creation story. Similarly, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism accepts the scientific theory of evolution, and holds that it is possible to believe in both science and God at the same time. The Islamic tradition also includes the teaching that Muslims should accept evolutionary theory, as what the Qur’an instructs does not intersect with what evolutionary theory describes.
‘The Garden of Eden’ Breughel the Elder & de Clerck c1610-12
Such an acceptance of evolution is made possible by an understanding that sacred texts may not be taken literally. The various books that form the foundation of the Abramaic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which originated in around 1000 BC – included much oral material, and were revised into written form by various editors who worked in different places and times. No original manuscripts exist and numerous additions and alterations, either accidental or deliberate, were made. Consequently, theologians recognise these manuscripts as the work of men – and not God himself – and accept that they are based on the limited understanding of nature held by Bronze and Iron Age tribal societies. The task of reconciling science and faith is then made far easier by interpreting these texts as a series of metaphors needing further study to discover their true meaning.
Noah’s Ark in the Nuremburg Chronicle 1493
Yet, while many believers broadly accept evolution as fact, or as a process unconnected with their beliefs, others in the Abramaic faiths do not. Orthodox Judaism adheres to a strict literal interpretation of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – and accordingly views Darwinism as being at variance with what Jews should believe. Similarly, Islamic literalists judge evolution to be “totally contradictory and incompatible with the Islamic teachings.”
Velociraptors happily coexisting with humans
in the Creation Museum, Kentucky
Some Protestants also feel that their Bible must be interpreted literally and hold that creation occurred more or less as described in scripture. However, rather than this being a continuation of a theological tradition, such Creationism is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many great theologians, such as Aquinas, did not believe in taking the Bible literally and saw the Old Testament as metaphor.
In its mistrust of science, Creationism rejects more than Darwinian evolution. Its core belief in a young universe refutes much of geology and biology, and also implies that Einstein was wrong in his calculations of the speed of light. It furthermore challenges accepted theories on the distance and speed of other galaxies and so rejects much of astronomy and Newtonian physics.
Although it is tempting to see Creationists – and the more sophisticated proponents of Intelligent Design – as easily disproved by scientific investigation, 45% of Americans maintain the belief that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”
It is consequently worth examining the Creationist critique of Darwinism, particularly as they argue that it is literalist believers who have truly recognised – and are open about – the real implications of evolutionary theory. The following, for example, comes from Creation Ministries, who were involved in a Devon Creation Day as an ‘antidote to Darwin Day’ in 2009:
“Darwinian evolution, more than any other idea, has caused people to reject God and the Bible, which is why we encourage Christians to rethink making Darwin a hero… Consistent application of the evolutionary worldview to the Bible, bending the Bible’s teaching to make it fit, results in either atheism or a ‘religion’ indistinguishable from atheism… it undermines the basic foundations upon which Christian faith rests”:
Creationists then condemn the mainstream churches for not being honest and for collaborating with influences that would move God away from his central place in creation. Any acknowledgement that over 95% of species have become extinct must associate nature with a staggering degree of ‘waste’, ‘failure’ and ‘cruelty’. It necessarily will challenge the idea that a benevolent God created everything, is in control and that all his creatures are answerable to him.
Moreover, in contrast to God creating everything ‘very good’ in the beginning, evolution claims that there were many millions of years of ‘survival of the fittest’ before humanity in its present form appeared near the end of the timeline. Thus, Darwinism questions the belief that we are part of an overall plan or a predicted end-result and proposes we look like we do as we are shaped by our environment and not made in the architect’s image. Indeed, even ‘God’ may have been invented as a human tool to aid the continuance of our species.
By putting man back into nature, Darwin therefore eliminates man’s specialness and makes him just another animal – possibly stripping him of his unique soul in the process. If extinction and suffering are necessary and inevitable, there is also a conflict with the core Christian teaching that death is an interloper, caused by sin and the rebellion of our original ancestors, and the reason why Jesus Christ “came to earth to overcome death.”
Evangelicals particularly reject the notion that God’s role can be reduced to that of a non-interventionist absentee landlord. By accepting evolution and, by implication, the preeminence of science, the claim is that the mainstream churches are reducing the creator to a ‘God of the Gaps,’ in which anything that can be explained by human knowledge is not in the domain of the Almighty. This realm ‘beyond nature’ will continue to diminish as science explains more and more. God then becomes little more than a supreme, but distant, being who created the universe, set up universal rules, and let them play out forever – though with a continuing interest in a specific bacteria as it progressed through many stages to finally become human.
Some Creationists subsequently ascribe the decline of Christianity to this compromise with science. Certainly, only around half of the British people now believe in a God. However, this decline is not due to a swelling of the numbers of militant Darwinian atheists, but due to a rise in the number of those who have been described as ‘apatheists’ – people who just do not see any point in religion of any form. Therefore, perhaps it was not Darwinism that caused people to abandon their church going, but long-term social changes, including the reforms of the Sunday Trading Laws that produced more interesting alternatives.