This article was originally published in the Summer ’06 issue of Revisions, Has American Culture Killed Christ?
If the 1935 Scopes “Monkey Trial” and the recent school board debate in Dover, Pennsylvania have anything to teach us, it is that in America, evolution and Christianity have often reacted together in volatile fashion. Such contention between the two concepts exists in America today because many believe evolution and Christianity are incompatible concepts; that is, if one is true, then the other cannot also be true. However, I believe this common belief is flawed. In my view, evolution and Christianity can clearly exist side by side. What’s more, Christianity and evolution have much to gain through mutual interaction, since considering the two concepts together makes much more sense than considering them separately.
Before I delve into the compatible and complementary relationship between evolution and Christianity, I would like to briefly clarify the concept of evolution. The modern theory of evolution is deceivingly simple. There are two main ideas. The first is descent with modification, which states that all species originated from a single common ancestor species through divergence over time. The second idea is the mechanism that drives descent with modification, which is natural selection. Natural selection states that random variations within individuals affect their chances of reproducing, and the variations most favorable to reproduction tend to get passed down.
This dual-component theory of evolution is strictly a scientific theory, meaning it can be verified as true or false through empirical tests. However, the scientific theory of evolution has also led to the development of a separate philosophy called Darwinian naturalism. According to naturalism, everything in the universe can be explained through natural laws and physical matter, since nothing besides the physical exists. Of course, by denying the existence of anything besides the physical, the naturalist also denies the existence of the spiritual God whom Christians believe in. One strong advocate of Darwinian naturalism, Richard Dawkins, explains:
In a universe of physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.1
Dawkins encapsulates the skeptical attitude most naturalists hold towards Christianity. However, though Darwinian evolution is scientifically accepted, this does not necessarily prove Darwinian naturalism to be true. Why is this? It is because scientific theories are fundamentally different from religious or philosophical ideas such as naturalism. Scientific theories explain the physical causes of events-the question of “How?”-while religion and philosophy seeks to discover the metaphysical meaning behind events, or the question of “Why?”. Science, by its very definition, restricts itself to physical (and therefore non-theistic) explanations. Indeed, its empirical foundation means science is only equipped for exploring physical explanations and not spiritual concepts such as the existence of God.
Conversely, religion is not concerned with a scientific explanation of how the universe works. Some people believe the entire Bible is literally true, and that thus, Genesis provides a scientifically accurate explanation of how God created life on Earth. However, Genesis in all likelihood is not giving a strictly literal account of creation. One example would be the discrepancy in the narration of man’s creation. Genesis 1:27 states, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” However, in Genesis 2, God creates the first woman Eve much later than the first man Adam. This discrepancy does not mean the Bible is false, for in the end, God did eventually create men and women in His own image like both accounts suggest; however, the discrepancy does show that we cannot determine from Genesis a scientific account of creation to its specific details. Indeed, St. Augustine criticized those Christians attempting to scientifically interpret scripture, stating, “Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.“2 In summary, because science and religion have different goals, they also occupy exclusive domains, meaning true conclusions reached in one domain cannot establish corresponding conclusions in the other.
The flaw in Darwinian naturalism now becomes clear. The naturalist errs by attempting to use the scientific theory of evolution to prove a religious “truth”-namely, that God does not exist. However, because science strictly limits itself to physical explanations, one cannot validly draw from evolution conclusions about non-physical aspects of the universe: not even the conclusion that such non-physical aspects do not exist. Think about it this way. My ears can detect a certain frequency range of sound waves. But just because I cannot detect sound waves whose frequencies do not fall within my range does not mean those waves do not exist. It is just that I am not equipped to detect them. Similarly, just because scientific theories like evolution have only detected and studied physical aspects does not mean non-physical aspects (such as God) do not exist. Rather, it is that empirical science is only capable of studying the physical aspects of the universe, while the Christian God is a God who dwells within the spiritual domain.
Yet, Darwinian naturalists continue to insist on drawing conclusions about God from evolution. For example, biologist David Hull observes, “The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.“3 However, given the disjunctive domains of science and religion, I do not see how Mr. Hull can reach such a conclusion. Indeed, such a conclusion is no longer a scientific statement that can be subjected to the empirical standards of the discipline. Rather, it is just the kind of speculative theorizing naturalists accuse Christians of doing.
So far, we have refuted the naturalist’s notion that one can infer from science truths about God. But could certain aspects of evolution, while not refuting Christianity, still undermine its position? After all, we humans prefer to ground our beliefs on at least some concrete evidence. Should the scientific evidence from evolution incline us to believe Christianity is false? The Darwinian naturalist apparently thinks so. However, I would argue that this naturalist view comes from misinterpreting the evidence from evolution.
First, there is the issue of the uniqueness of human species. The descent with modification aspect of evolution tells us that we humans had no exalted beginning, but share the same ancestor as every other living creature on Earth. We are one subset of an unremarkable group of primates, inhabiting an insignificant planet, orbiting a pedestrian star located at the outer fringes of one of billions of galaxies. From this scientific evidence, the naturalist concludes that human beings could not possibly have been the purpose of this universe, but merely the products of a cosmic accident. However, I do not see how the naturalist can arrive at such a claim from the scientific facts. For the fact stands that evolution has still led to the development of thinking creatures with awareness of self and the capacity to worship God. We may not have been created in exactly the way described in Genesis; however, Genesis is not necessarily a literally true description of our origins. What is important is that through evolution, God’s ultimate goal to create beings in His own image has been consummated. We can reason, speak, love, and have fellowship with other human beings, which all reflect the characteristics of God as revealed in the Bible.
Let us extend our analysis beyond evolution onto the universe. We discover that the structure of our universe seems biased towards the creation of life. For example, if the gravity constant was even a bit different than it is, stars and planets could not have formed. Similarly, if the strong force varied just a little from its current value, then atoms would not exist. And if the electro-magnetic force were weaker or stronger than it is, then most chemical reactions would not be able to occur. It seems most of the laws governing the universe are tailor-suited for the creation of life. From this evidence, it is not improbable that God may have set the parameters of our world for the ultimate purpose of producing beings in His image. At the very least, the naturalist claim that the very structure of this universe is random cannot be counted as a scientific statement based on evidence. Granted, the existence of intelligent, self-aware beings capable of worshipping God does not prove this universe is purposeful. But then again, we expect too much from science when we ask it to irrefutably prove religious truths. As mathematician Blaise Pascal remarks in the Pensees, “We arrive at truth, not by reason only, but also by the heart.”
Now, some Christians may disagree with the idea of God structuring the universe to run by itself. They would object that this sounds like a deistic version of God: a God who winds up the clock and then leaves it alone to run by itself. And they would be right to object. The Christian God is not a deistic God. He did not only create the universe, but is even now in constant interaction with His world. He is a God you can talk to and pray to, and a God who has the power to influence real events.
Fortunately, we are not confined to the deistic view of God when we accept the theory of evolution. This is because the universe is not completely determined by its physical laws. Modern physics has shown us there is a level of uncertainty to every event, especially as you approach the quantum level where physical laws give way to apparently pure chance. This is what is known as the uncertainty principle. Quantum indeterminacy, while not directly noticeable at the macro-level, nevertheless exerts a profound influence on our world. For example, because the genes driving natural selection are small enough to be subject to quantum forces, random mutations can occur during transcription. This means there is an element of genuine uncertainty in evolution. As biologist Stephen J. Gould observes, “[A]ny replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.“4
Naturalists such as Gould equate the uncertainty of natural selection with randomness. To them, the fact that evolution could have taken any number of paths shows that we are the result of pure chance, and our existence without any purpose. However, this naturalist reasoning is flawed because indeterminacy does not equal randomness and pure chance. Indeterminacy only means the outcome very well could have been otherwise; that it was not pre-determined by existing conditions. To clarify, in an indeterminate situation, many options might be open such that one does not have to pick a particular choice; however, one might still choose a certain path for a reason and not randomly by the roll of a dice. Indeterminacy certainly does not rule out the possibility that God could, through the apparently random quantum effects, intervene in this universe. After all, quantum effects seem random to science only because science cannot empirically detect order at the quantum level, and not because such order does not exist at all. Quantum indeterminacy might prove to be the perfect way for God to intervene in evolution without allowing us to know He is doing so. This is because for God, it would be important that science cannot perfectly reveal His existence and His plans, for then there would be no need for faith. Of course, to the Christian, the exact mechanism by which God intervenes in this world is not important. The only important matter is that God can do so any time He wants.
Given the exclusive domains of science and religion, I sometimes wonder why people insist the two conflict. I suspect a major reason for this is that people believe science supplants religion in explaining how nature works. However, science is not supplanting religion in this regard; this was the role of science all along. Does the law of gravity endanger Christianity? How about the laws of thermodynamics? The answer is that no, these scientific explanations of how the universe works cannot undermine Christianity at all. The laws of physics do not conflict with Christianity because God can use these laws to run the universe. And what is true in physics or chemistry should also hold true in biology. Indeed, it would be rather strange for God to establish natural laws for every scientific discipline, but make an exception for biology, where He decides to supernaturally create life. Furthermore, the constancy of the laws of nature does not limit or marginalize God, but rather testify to His foresight and unchanging character. At the conclusion of Origin of Species, Darwin himself marvels, “There is grandeur in this view of life-that from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.“5
We have refuted the notion that God does not exist just because we might be able to explain the universe without Him. However, people who believe evolution and Christianity are incompatible will still ask, why did God use evolution to create life, and ultimately human beings? Why did God use such a circuitous method to achieve His goal when He had the power to create all of creation in an instant? The answer to this objection is two-fold. First of all, the Christian God does not care that He has to wait billions of years for the first life forms to evolve into human beings. He does not care because for Him, time holds no meaning. God exists outside of time because he created time. Popular theologian C.S. Lewis explains, “God is not hurried along in the Time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel.“6 As the author of time, God observes every moment in the story of evolution simultaneously as the now even though they may span billions of years from the human perspective.
But more importantly, God would be inclined to use evolution because it reflects His love for His creatures. But what do I mean by this? It may seem contradictory to say God shows His love to living beings by governing them with such a blind, indifferent, and pitiless process as evolution. After all, evolution is neither a kind nor gentle mechanism. The strong live on the weak. And the “less fit” are doomed to extinction. Critics will object, why does God leave His creatures at the mercy of such an indifferent law?
To resolve this conflict, we must understand the nature of love, for the Christian God is synonymous with love. Could God directly control us to save us from suffering? Yes, He certainly can. But, would doing so express true love? I think not. My reason for this is that true love requires freedom. A love that is compelled is not true love, but only a manipulated response. Philosopher Jean Sartre notes, “The man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. If the beloved is transformed into an automaton, the lover finds himself alone.“7 In the same way, a creation directly controlled by God in every minute detail would not be free, and thus incapable of truly loving and worshiping God. Such a world would only be God’s little sandbox, incapable of bringing glory to Him. Only by allowing His creatures to live under purely natural laws such as evolution, would God grant us a certain degree of autonomy from Him, and with it, the capacity to truly love Him. Evolution not only does not entail atheism, as the naturalists are wont to argue; it also perfectly fits God’s goal of creating creatures capable of truly loving Him, while reserving for Himself the power to intervene in their lives. Far from taking us farther from God, learning about the natural world around us can only deepen the Christian’s understanding and appreciation of his faith. Perhaps the Gospel of John best echoes this sentiment when it states, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, NIV).
- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 132–133. [↩]
- Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 1, Chapter 19. [↩]
- David Hull, “The God of the Galapagos,” Nature 352 (1991): 485–86. [↩]
- Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life (New York: W.W.Norton, 1989), 50. [↩]
- Darwin, The Origin, 560. [↩]
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 168. [↩]
- Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Pocket Books, 1984) 478. [↩]