The phrase “Father, forgive me, I have sinned” might be an appropriate statement for generations of Evangelical Christians who demonized evolution as the enemy of faith. It’s not the first time in history that the church has misunderstood both science and its own theology.
Not 450 years earlier, it was the Roman Catholics who got it wrong siding with Ptolemaic astronomy claiming the earth as the center of the universe. A controversy lasting 200 years started in 1543 with Nicolaus Copernicus work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was heighten by Galileo Galilei’s house arrest by Pope Paul V in 1633 and the prohibition of Copernicus writings by the Church in 1758. The controversy concluded in 1835 when Copernicus books were removed from the Church’s index of prohibited books. And all for what? For the belief in the primacy of the earth as the center of the physical universe. At the time, to claim otherwise was “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture.” Theses events feels familiar when fast forwarded to the current religious dispute on evolution. Is evolution “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture?”
The Faith of Charles Darwin
In the opening words of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin quotes Francis Bacon,
“Let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word or in the book of God’s works, but rather let man endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both.”
It may be a surprise to some that Darwin’s faith was that of a Bishop by his own account when he wrote the Origin of the Species. Darwin wrote the Origin of Species as a careful argument for God’s established laws of nature, that of natural selection. The Origin of Species handles Darwin’s new ideas with sensitivity to the static earth belief he is confronting, and by doing so, echoes a tradition in Enlightenment thinking, that God’s laws and nature’s laws were complementary, not in opposition. This similar sentiment was embrace by most scientists of the period, and most recently, with Albert Einstein who desired to know the thoughts of God through the language of mathematics. Even the US Declaration of Independence evokes this tradition with the statement “the laws of nature and laws of God” in its call to emancipate the new world from the old.
But Darwin’s observations are more than science and set the stage for the troubling debate on social reform of his day. In Darwin’s age, the established order saw disturbing disparities between the societal elite and impoverished suffering working class of the industrial age. Change was in the air and those who sought social reform quickly latched on to Darwin’s ideas as a catalyst for disruption. However, the church and established elite of England viewed the structures of society as the rightful ordering by God’s providence. This stagnant and oppressive cultural mold was support by the religious belief in a young earth and an ordained social class complete with the suffrage and squalor of the working classes. The puritan paradigm “be good and be blessed, be bad and be cursed” saw its fulfillment in the social structures of the time. Darwin, in part, seeks to understand the affliction of the poor and finds a rational in natural selection as laws of nature. By doing so, Darwin begins to break a religious notion of providence that justified the segmentation of society into rich and poor.
Science and Faith for Darwinism
For Darwin’s, faith and science were entangle in the liberating tapestry of knowledge of God’s works and word. Natural selection helped serve to debunk the Victorian myths of justified discrimination and fueled social reform. Social status as a result of natural selection shook the belief that it was order by God on the merits of the privileged. Perhaps the tragedy of reforms flight to Darwinism was the values they sought were the core values of the Christian good news, the gospel. But, the establish religious order was so far off its message that it was anything but good news for the poor and Darwinism help fill the void. Unfortunately, Darwinism, in the form of Social Darwinism, would later be used in the human rights debate at the turn of the 20th century. It was social Darwinism against the church that argued for the lesser status of the North American Indian. The church argued for their equality under God as made in the image of God as the foundation for equal treatment as human beings. Social Darwinism would later become part of the 20th century rational that shares responsibility for the killing of hundreds of millions of people in a single century (i.e. Marxism alone was responsible for over 100 million), a number significantly more than all the people killed by religious wars in all recorded history (less than 15 million).
Decoupling and separating the theological roots of Darwinism turned out to be risky business. For the atheistic believer, it opened Pandora’s Box of violence of man against man on a scale never witness before in history. Natural section, without its theological roots, is a very powerful argument for the strong over the weak as in Nietzsche’s concepts of man and superman. For the theistic believer who holds to the young earth theory, the separation of Gods works from word was a loss of intellectual credibility in the modern age. So what went wrong in the debate between the Evolutionist and Creationist? Why would those who are so commitment to truth reject truth and especially truth that liberates?
Lessons From the Past
What went wrong in the debate for Evangelical Christendom was the same fixation the Catholic Church had on Ptolemaic astronomy. For the church, it interpreted its theology too closely to the changing world of scientific knowledge, an association that the writers of the Bible never intented. By linking moral truth to the evolving body of empirical understanding, the church risks devaluing the original meaning of the Biblical writers. In turn, it sets up misleading tests for truth. So today, the picture of a Christian embracing evolutionary theory is analogist to oil and water. Most people would suggest that the two beliefs are a contradiction. To accept evolution is to deny God’s existence, and to believe in God is to stand against the theory that man came from monkeys. The Scopes Trial of 1925 typified these positions. The Butler Act of 1925 in Tennessee made it unlawful in state-funded educational establishments, “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” If we teach evolutionary theory in our schools are we not denying the Creator and the foundations of our moral authority?
As someone who shares a theistic world view, these polarized viewpoints are more monkey business then well thought out positions. In the case of the Scopes Trial in 1925, it started as a publicity campaign for the town of Dayton, Tennessee. George Rappleyea, a local manager in several mines, convinced a group of business men that a test of the Butler Act would give the town much needed attention. He convinced a local school teacher, Scopes, to violate the Butler act and the American Civil Liberties Union financed the case for Scopes. Today, the debate continues to serves the social agendas of prejudice and fear by the Christian right and secular religious (Richard Dawkins) rather than honest intellectual understanding and openness to the other.
Common Ground in the Evolutionary Debate
There are moderate positions like theistic evolution which harmonized natural selection with the works and word of God. Theistic evolution believes that biological selection is a natural process within God’s creation and allows latitude for science within revelation. Not surprisingly, this view is accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Eastern Orthodox, Church of the Nazarene, Baptist, Anglicanism, and even within Judaism and Islam. To this list, there are many evolutionary biologists who are theist, believers in God. Here, evolution is not a theory that disproves God but complements our understanding of God’s creation. Like all scientific theories that “evolve” or are falsified over time, evolution may suffer its own death and room made for new ideas and understandings of the origins of species. Theistic evolution does not tie the truth claims of Christianity to a particular scientific viewpoint of origins, but remains open to what science can reveal. More importantly, theology is the moral anchor for scientific endeavors. Science has known sin, most notably in the 20th century where empirical knowledge by men is used against men in forms gas, weapons, and nuclear fusion in a historically unprecedented scale.
The history of science and theology demonstrate how scientific knowledge can fold nicely into our understanding of the “Laws of God and Nature.” In the case of Darwinism, how a scientific endeavor helped open up the works of God and loosen the bonds social stratification in 18th century England. Yet, it was hijack by reform movements who place man alone at the center of the universe, a dangerous cocktail that unleashed man’s most violent century. The moral of the matter for the believer and cause for our confession is not to enlist the dichotomy of thought that separates religion from science and untethers morality from empirical enterprise. Like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, faith should side on the glory of a rational God who established the cosmos.