Making Peace Between Darwinism and Christianity

Are science and religion fated to mutual enmity? Every schoolchild learns how Galileo was forced to his knees to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, or how the Church was up in arms again in 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species , arguing that all living organisms, including humans, result from a long, slow process of evolution. Today, especially in America, many Christians, so-called Creationists, still argue that mankind's origins are to be found in the early chapters of Genesis, not in any scientific discovery.

But the interplay of evolution and religion is more complex than opposition and conflict. Evolutionary ideas are born of religion. The ancient Greeks had no idea of progress, directional time, and linear history, culminating in humankind. This concept is a legacy of Judeo-Christianity, and in the 18 th century the earliest evolutionists--people like Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus--framed their ideas within the context of this religious account of origins.

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Darwin himself was much influenced by Christian ideas, especially where we least expect it: in his belief in natural selection--the bane of the Church--as evolution's motive force. Darwin argued that more organisms are born than can survive and reproduce; that this leads to a struggle for existence; and that success in this struggle partly reflects the physical and behavioral differences between the winners and the losers. The winners are those that are well adapted to their environment--that is, they develop features that help them to survive and reproduce.

Behind Darwin's emphasis on adaptation lay his Christian upbringing. One traditional argument for the existence of God, the so-called "argument from design," stresses that organic parts are adapted, and argues that the only way they could have come into being is through the workings of some kind of intelligence. The eye, for example, is like a telescope. Since telescopes have telescope makers, the eye must have an eye maker--the Great Optician in the Sky. Darwin accepted the design-like nature of organisms and their parts. But rather than the Christian God, he appealed to the scientific concept of natural selection.

Science and religion still wrestle over the legacy of Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. As the well-known Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins notoriously remarked, "Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Without natural selection, the appeal to God made sense. But after Darwin and natural selection, we have a non-God-driven explanation for adaptation, making it possible to be a non-believer, even in the face of design-like organisms and their parts.

But Dawkins goes further and argues that if one is a follower of Darwin, then sensibly one ought to be an atheist. Dawkins agrees with the Creationists on one thing: the incompatibility of Darwinism and Christianity. In his book River out of Eden , he writes, "The universe 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."

Elsewhere he attacks religion directly: "The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is. The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited."

Now, I, for one, am not quite sure how poky the medieval universe actually was. Most thinkers back then accepted the Arab estimates that the universe was two hundred million miles across, which is enough room to swing quite a few cats--or Oxford atheists!

But obviously, whether or not you do believe in the existence of the Christian God (or any other kind of god), Dawkins's gloomy conclusions do not follow. You may not have to be a Christian in the light of Darwinism, but this does not mean that you cannot be one.

In fact, Pope John Paul II, a man not usually described as soft in his religious commitments, has openly endorsed evolution, even Darwinism. True, he demands a special intervention for the arrival of human souls, but souls (if such there be) are hardly scientific concepts anyway.

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People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions.

There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs--and stays within these boundaries.