During the 19th century it was commonly believed that science would prove that human values and judgements have a deterministic character. It was also believed that human beings are basically determined mechanisms. Evolution seemed to strengthen the deterministic views and thus those who opposed these views were motivated to deny evolution as such. Other popular views that seemed to be supported by evolution were that of racism (specifically European superiority) and eugenics. Those who opposed such ideas were lead to be pitted against the theory of evolution. Evolution was tied up with the advancement of socialism and atheism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which also resulted in theologians rejecting the whole package. In contemporary times, the conflation of evolution and philosophical materialism adds another reason for creationists and Intelligent Design proponents to reject the theory of evolution.
Jonathan Clatworthy makes the following observations, ending off with an appeal:
After 1859, catastrophists were losing the scientific arguments so they concentrated instead on presenting the Bible as an alternative source of scientific facts. Their successors today look for scientific evidence against evolution, while being committed to their own view of the Bible as a source of scientific facts. Like many sectarians, they often claim that they are the only true Christians and anyone who disagrees with them isn’t a true Christian at all even if they think they are.
Ranged against them are the anti-religious campaigners who take them at their word and treat them as the only true Christians, but reach the opposite conclusion that all religious belief is anti-scientific, anti-rational and based on unjustifiable dogmas.
These two groups are in many ways mirror images of each other. They are both committed to that late 19th century positivism which makes a sharp distinction between facts, known as absolute certainty, and on the other hand, beliefs and faith.
… Finally, these two groups are equally committed to discounting all the religious believers who accept evolution and all the scientists who believe in God.
… We need to reaffirm the value of science not just in order to produce new technologies, but so that we may appreciate and explore the richness of the world around us, how we ought to relate to it, what is the point of all this life, and who if anyone gave us that point.
It is important to see how Clatworthy points out how the two extremes are actually only two side of the same coin. The creationists and the anti-religious evolutionists are the same, except for the fact that they support opposing teams. With regard to the anti-religious campaigners, John Haught makes the interesting observation that they play the role of “cryptotheologians… They may think they are moving beyond theology; but by placing a scientific account in a place previously held by theology, they reveal that they too are still theologians at heart.” Conor Cunningham states that to see religion as a failed attempt at explaining the world is akin to, in the words of Terry Eagleton, “seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for the bus.” They are not the same thing. It’s like comparing apples and pears.
Haught goes on in the same vein to say that:
If science and theology are supposed to be addressing entirely different sets of questions, it makes no sense that one has defeated the other. … By trading in theology directly for science, many evolutionists today are also making another kind of blunder, the underside of the first. They are assuming that theology has for centuries been nothing more than a primitive attempt to do science in a prescientific age, and that it must now give way to a more reliable kind of science, especially Darwinian biology. Here again the fundamental assumption is that science and theology are playing the same game, trying to provide information about the natural world, and that modern science has proved to be much better at it than traditional theology. This false assumption, one that Dawkins shares with the literalist creationists he loathes, has been the dominant theme in his well-known fulminations against religion. However, by shoving Darwinian explanations into the same explanatory slot that theology had previously inhabited, Dawkins is still assigning evolutionary science the task of being a worldview or a whole new belief system. He is still playing his game in a theological arena, even if he insists that theologians must be disqualified from appearing there.
Here the creationists and ultra-Darwinists again share a common misconception about theology as being a scientific way to understand the world. Both of these camps can be described as fundamentalist. Cunningham points out that one cannot take a fundamentalist position as the representative of a worldview and that “[t]hinking atheism and thinking religion alike must conduct their various discussions in a manner that leaves the vulgar rants of all modes of fundamentalist thinking behind.” He goes on to say that just as creationists make a caricature of evolution in order to refute it, so atheists set up a caricature of religion. Religion is often seen in very reductionist terms, e.g. As something that was once useful in the evolution of homo sapiens, but which can, and ought to be discarded. Wentzel van Huyssteen states that to see religion simply as a phylogenetic memory, such as the fear of snakes and spiders, is to take a reductionist stance with regard to the human predisposition to religion as well as religious faith itself. To illustrate how science and religion can work together, Cunningham paints a picture of science and religion in terms of lovers:
Such activities of the mind as religion and science can be thought of as lovers – it is their difference that allows for desire while at the same time providing more sense of union. For both converge on the truth, just as both are moved by a desire for the truth. But scientism and religious fundamentalism refuse such enabling difference and produce a world of narcissistic masturbation, for all they see is themselves, so that love for the world is impossible – in fact, there is no world left.
Synthesis of Science and Theology
Molecular biologist Kenneth Miller addressed the perceived dichotomy between reason and faith in the following way (my own emphasis added):
I think that faith and reason are both gifts from God. And if God is real, then faith and reason should complement each other rather than be in conflict. Science is the child of reason. Reason has given us the ability to establish the scientific method to investigate the world around us, and to show that the world and the universe in which we live are far vaster and far more complex and infinitely more wonderful, than anyone could have imagined 1,000 or 2,000 years ago.
Does that mean that scientific reason, by taking some of the mystery out of nature, has taken away faith? I don’t think so. I think by revealing a world which is infinitely more complex and infinitely more varied and creative than we had ever believed before, in a way it deepens our faith and our appreciation for the author of that nature, the author of that physical universe. And to people of faith, that author is God.
Instead of being the enemy of faith, science can be enriching and point out new wonders and new understanding. Daniel J Fairbanks, a Latter Day Saints biologist, states the following:
Those who sincerely seek both scientific and spiritual understanding would do well to abandon the dichotomy. Denying the evidence of evolution, including human evolution, is honest only in ignorance. The incredible diversity of life on Earth, the many fossils unearthed, the varied yet similar anatomical features among species, the obvious hierarchical arrangement of life, and the literally millions of ancestral relics in our DNA – all undeniably attest to our common evolutionary origin with the rest of life. … Indeed, we can find wonder, even comfort, in embracing our biological relationship with all living things. As Darwin understood, ‘[T]here is grandeur in this view of life.
Faith does not requires us to turn a blind eye to the evidence for evolution, but rather the opposite. Rudolph B Brun states that the church should be interested in what science can teach us, because “[w]ithout integrating these insights into its teachings, the church cannot proclaim the Christian message in a credible way today.” The credibility and honesty of those who proclaim Christ are at stake. David Bailey concludes that it is not only futile to fight against science, but that it is also unnecessary. There is no real reason to fight against science as if it is the enemy of religion and theology. Christopher Southgate explains that “theories about the origins of religion, or its neurophysical basis, can never evacuate religious faith of its truth claims. Believers do not offer objective, falsifiable scientific evidence for God, and their claim to the authenticity of their experience of divine revelation cannot be falsified by science.” Brun continues in the same line of thought when he states that “[j]ust as there is no saving plan that can be detected by historical research into the life and death of Jesus Christ, so the history of creation told by science cannot document any plan of a creator.” He also points out three contributions made by science that are essential to a deepening of the Christian faith:
- The teleomorphic process of evolution is always the same.
- Synthesis never destroys.
- Evolution works by integrating diversity into unity.
What these three contributions mean to theology is that the “incarnated Word of God creatively transforms nothingness into creation step by step, letting creation become itself” (Brun). This creative transformation elevates the old into the new by means of the grace of God. The grace of God allows the universe to become, to adapt, to be an entity and an other.
The evolutionary history of religion cannot be denied and can also bring new and deeper insight to theology. According to Wentzel van Huyssteen, religion was an important part in evolution, a catalyst in human consciousness. “Put theologically, this could be seen as a hint that responding to God’s calling helped to form the self-consciousness of the modern human, and hence gave rise to an enhanced potential to respond in self-giving love – ultimately for Christians that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”
In the next blog post we will look at the search for meaning. Is there a teleology in the process of evolution? Human uniqueness will be explored and the notion of meaning. Does evolution make life meaningless and completely arbitrary or is there still some meaning to be found or made?
Bailey, D H. 2010. Creationism and intelligent design: Scientific and theological difficulties. Dialogue: A journal of Mormon thought 43(3): 62-81.
Brun R B. 2002. Cosmology, cosmic evolution, and sacramental reality: A Christian contribution. Zygon 37(1): 175-192.
Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.
Haught, J F. 2009. Theology, evolution, and the human mind: How much can biology explain? Zygon 44(4): 921-931.
______2010. Making sense of evolution: Darwin, God, and the drama of life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Lacey, A.R. & Proudfoot, M. 2010. The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
Peacocke, A. 1985. Biological evolution and Christian theology – Yesterday and today in Durant, J (ed). Darwinism and divinity: Essays on evolution and religious belief. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 101-130
Southgate, C. 2011. Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian response to Darwinism, Zygon 46(2): 370-395.