A rewriting of something someone else wrote… original stuffy British piece here.
People make mistakes. Even church people. I’m about to tell you about a mistake the church made.
Big new ideas can be scary, because they tend to shake things up and can make you feel like everything you thought you knew is now in doubt. The church made such a mistake with Galileo’s astronomy, and has since realised its error. Some church people did it again in the 1860s with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but it’s been over 200 years since Darwin was born, so let’s look at what we’ve learned since then.
Theories of biology becoming theories of spirituality
Extremists, fundamentalists and hateful bigots exist at both ends of any political spectrum. If Darwin’s ideas once needed rescuing from religious attacks, they may also now need rescuing from some of the enthusiasts for his ideas. A scientist has a duty to the truth, but how a scientific theory is used, politically or ideologically, is up for grabs by any idiot. ‘Evolution’ has become something bigger than Darwin’s own theories, and seems to now suggest a religious (more like anti-religious) belief system. This doesn’t make the church of the 1860s right to have attacked Darwin, but it does suggest that maybe we should look again at what Darwin actually said.
Nothing in scientific method contradicts Christian teaching
Darwin was, in many ways, a model user of good scientific method. He observed the world around him, developed a theory which sought to explain what he saw, and then set about a long and painstaking process of gathering evidence that would either confirm, contradict, or modify his theory. In science, hypotheses are meant to be constantly tested. Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25-33). While Christians believe that the Bible contains all that we need to know to be saved from our sins, they do not claim that it is a compendium of all sorts of knowledge (it tells us nothing whatsoever, for example, about how to cook eggs). We recognize that truth is not something that solely resides in the realm of science. Jesus himself warned his disciples that there was more that he could say to them and that the Spirit of truth would lead them into truth (John 16: 12-13). What Christian teaching does say, however, is this:
For the word of God is alive and active. … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Christians have good reason to place a high value on “God’s word.” But it was pride in our interpretation of the Bible that made us persecute Galileo when he suggested the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe. Eventually, we figured out we were pretty silly and that Galileo was right. When a person (or church) cannot conceive that their interpretation of the Bible (for example, a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3) is wrong, they have made a false idol of their intellect, and even a false idol of the Bible. It may have sounded like evolution was threatening “God’s word”, and of course if that were true evolution had to go. But evolution threatened only those who believed evolution meant no God…
People kinda freaked out
Darwin’s evidence-based research (or more generally, “science”) was never the problem. His theory offended some Christians because some Christians (and some atheists) took evolution to mean that God had NOT created human beings as an entirely different kind of creation to the rest of the animal world, and that he had NOT created everything in a literal six days.
But if God had a special relationship with humanity, or if we believe in a realm of the spiritual (that does not exist in a world of the five senses) how can that special relationship or a spiritual existence be undermined just because we develop a different understanding of the biological processes by which humanity came to be? Perhaps some of the reaction against Darwin was largely based on an Elizabethan or snooty ‘yuk factor’ response when he proposed a lineage from apes to humans.
A more balanced response would be to acknowledge the differences of bodies of knowledge, agreeing to scientific truth and spiritual/religious truth that do not have to conflict. But the legacy of Darwin (rather than Darwin’s own achievements) has had a shadow side.
Let’s not make science do what it’s not meant to do
If evolution is continuing, and humanity as we know it is not the final summation of the process, it is not difficult to slip into a rather naïve optimism which sees the human race becoming better and better all the time. Despite our vastly expanding technical knowledge, even a fairly cursory review of human history undermines any idea of constant moral progress. Christians believe that all of us are constrained by sin and that only through the death and resurrection of Jesus can we move beyond what constrains us to a fuller and more human way of living. But Christians are not the only ones who are skeptical of the idea that evolution means moral progress.
Natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense. Translate that into a half-understood notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ and imagine the processes working on a day-to-day basis, and evolution gets mixed up with a social theory the very opposite of the Christian vision where the meek inherit the earth. This ‘Social Darwinism’, in which the strong flourish and the weak perish is a misapplication of Darwin and science. Darwin’s immense achievement was to develop a big theory which went a long way to explaining aspects – but not all – of the world around us. The difficulty is that his theory of natural selection has been so effective within the scientific community, and so easily understood in outline by everybody, that it has been inflated into a general theory of everything – which is not only stupid but dangerous.
Pseudo-Darwinian (not really Darwinian) reductionism (reducing everything) elevates selfishness into a virtue and celebrates power and dominance. It is not only a misunderstanding of Darwin but may even contribute to human decline by eroding those aspects of being human which have given us such a natural advantage. Even the more sophisticated versions of ‘Social Darwinism’, which interpret all human behaviour in terms of the struggle for dominance and the maximisation of genetic advantage through the generations, risk presenting us with an image of being human which makes us slaves to some kind of evolutionary imperative, as if we are programmed in ways we cannot over-rule. But the point of natural selection is that it is precisely by being most fully human that we demonstrate our fitness. And being fully human means our ability to act selflessly or lovingly and to challenge thin concepts of rationality which equate “being rational” to material self interest. It is vital that Darwin’s theories are rescued from political and ideological agendas – and made back into the thing they were always meant to be: Good Science.
Our bad: Christian Pride and one reason why we dug in our heels
Some Christian movements still make opposition to evolutionary theories a litmus test of faithfulness and even believe Darwin’s theories to have fatally undermined religious belief, suggesting even the word “evolution” to be bad. Why should this be?
The Church of England in 1860 was facing challenges to its power. New denominations were confronting the power of the established church and there was movement between the social classes (see: Downton Abbey – more people were threatening to take what power the few had) – and then came Darwin. These were nervous times for Anglicans, and because they had a lot of political influence in society threats to that power were blown out of proportion and characterized as attacks on God himself.
What was true for Anglicans in 1860 is generally true for all kinds of Christians today, although the threat may be from radical Islam, secularism, consumerism or atheism. The cultures within which Christians try to be faithful generally do not conform to Christian beliefs, so following Jesus means at some level standing against at least some social norms. The problem for all Christians is figuring out where the surrounding culture is actually a threat and where it is compatible with our understanding of God. Because “science” in our culture has been widely regarded as offering a total theory of everything and because some scientists have encouraged this (power and greed are at play in academia and the markets, too) a parody of science has become a focus for some Christians, especially in the US. Fear and anger at the outside world – without a strong counter-narrative – has bred in some corners of the church anti-evolution/anti-science fervour in order to create a narrative of what they stand against – unfortunately forgetting their own story, what they stand for, the Gospel: Jesus’ story.
So how do we reconcile faith and science?
At a university in Kansas, a biology professor was asked how he dealt with teaching Darwin’s theories to students whose churches insisted that evolution was wrong and whose high schools taught creationism (Creationism suggests a literal 6-day Creation, while the belief in “Creation” emphasizes the point that God created us). “No problem,” the professor replied, “the kids know that if they want a good job they need a degree, and if they want a degree they have to work with evolutionary theory. Creationism is for church, as far as they’re concerned. Here, they’re Darwinists.” The professor was pointing to young lives which could not be lived with integrity – the very opposite of how Christians are called to live. There is no integrity to be found either in rejecting Darwin’s ideas altogether or in elevating them into the kind of grand theory which reduces humanity to the sum of our evolutionary urges. For the sake of human integrity – and thus for the sake of good Christian living – we have to hold both Darwin and our Christian faith together.
We practice the old virtue of ‘faith seeking understanding‘ – believing that once we have put our faith in God, we must put our minds to good use to figure out the reasons behind what we believe. But the struggle is not over yet, as the problem is not just with the religious but those who falsely claim Darwin in support of their own political interests, too. Good religion needs good science, but good science needs good religion, too, otherwise we paint an incomplete and lopsided picture of our humanity, and our world.
Think on, brothers and sisters, in Christ.