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Between God and Darwin

Faith and natural selection aren't mutually contradictory

The recent decision of the Kansas Board of Education to remove references to evolution from the state school curriculum has reignited the debate between the two extremes of the creationist and the death-of-God views of our existence. It's an unfortunate detour down an avenue no one has any real need to travel. Faith and natural selection aren't mutually contradictory. There is no reason a person cannot worship God and also believe Darwin was right about how the beak of the finch evolved.

Consider that the modern American fundamentalist religious movement began in the year 1909, with the initial publication of what became a highly popular series of religious pamphlets called "The Fundamentals." Intended as definitive statements of traditional Christianity, "The Fundamentals" were thick with viewpoints any fundamentalist of today would endorse. Yet these works also accepted the theory of evolution. The authors were entirely happy with the idea that God had used evolution as his method of creation.

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Consider that the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tenn., did not pit creationism against evolution, as it has since become standard to say. William Jennings Bryan, who has gone down in history as the anti-evolutionist of that trial, was not a creationist as the term is used today. Bryan, for example, accepted the evidence from geology that the Earth must be immensely old. Bryan also didn't contest evolutionary theory as such; he admitted what appears inarguable, that species adapt to changes in Earth's environment. His issue was with the nature of humans as divine creations. He felt that life and consciousness could not have begun through purely random, spontaneous process; a divine hand must have been involved.

Despite the common misperception, this view does not conflict with Darwinism, since evolutionary theory does not pretend to know how life began. Natural-selection biology only seeks to explain how life that already exists evolves into new forms. Though Darwin mused about whether a prehistoric "warm pond" of chemicals struck by lightning started the chain of biology, this was strictly a musing. Natural selection theory makes no claim of explaining the creation of life.

Thus it is perfectly possible to believe in evolution as a principle of biology and simultaneously believe in a creator God. True, some people who accept evolutionary theory use it to argue against faith. But the theory itself doesn't intrude on divine questions; the theory itself says nothing about how life was first formed. Many evolutionary biologists regard the creation of life as a kind of ultimate mystery - much the way many religious believers do.

In some ways it is understandable that some religious believers are suspicious of evolutionary theory. One reason is that misconceptions abound. For example, historically, almost everyone who's been upset about Darwinian theory seems to believe that it teaches people are descended from apes. Evolution does not teach that; it contends that somewhere in the far past, the ape family and the human family shared a common ancestor. But then the evolutionary lines diverged; apes became apes, and people became people. Our existence is unique and special, even to the most doctrinaire Darwinist.

More generally, modern science seems to tell us the world is an enormous machine kept going by energy from the Sun, and that we are nothing but animals struggling to survive. To this way of thinking, God is unnecessary or irrelevant. Many religious believers argue such an assessment comes from a distorted and incomplete understanding of life, an understanding that itself depends on faith. Their solution is to reject the scientific method.

Unfortunately for such attempts at a hook-line-and-sinker rejection of science, the evidence for evolutionary change is now overwhelming. Radioactive dating shows the world is billions of years old; we know that extinctions have occurred on a vast scale; we know from molecular biology that all living things have at least some aspect of common genetic heritage.

But attempts to destroy science in order to preserve God are unnecessary. Long ago, Aristotle recognized that any happening is likely to have more than one cause. For example, a painting is caused by the distribution of chemicals on canvas, but it is just as much "caused" by the painter who had a plan for his work of art. We can describe the painting either in purely chemical (scientific) terms, or as an artistic (spiritual) event: two very different but noncontradictory explanations for the same thing.

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God's work in creation and evolution might be described the same way. Reason tells me evolution has taken place in the way Darwin described it, while my faith tells me God ruled and controlled the process. Indeed, the Bible suggests that the correct approach involves both God and science. In the New Testament we read, "through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." (Hebrews 11:3) - not much different from the assumptions of modern physics. Biology and religion might not be as far apart as Kansas creationists assume, either.

Science and God, evolution and creation, aren't dueling alternatives. They're complements. The God of the Bible might well be a miracle-worker on occasion, but normally He is to be seen at work through natural processes.

It is God the Creator who gives meaning to blind mechanisms of science. God's spirit and God's science should both be taught in our schools.

*R.J. Berry, a former president of the British organization Christians in Science, is a professor of genetics at University College, in London. This essay will appear in 'God for the 21st Century,' a forthcoming book about the confluence of science and religion, to be published by the John Templeton Foundation.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society