Religion and the theory of evolution have often been cast as antagonists. But that need not be the case. One may accept evolution as a fact without losing their religious belief.
What is the relationship between evolution and religion? Since evolution is a notion of Western science, I will restrict my discussion to evolution to Christianity, although I am sure it could be broadened to other religions. When I talk of evolution, I mean modern science’s thinking on the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection. I will structure my discussion around the widely acknowledged and accepted four-part division of the science-religion relationship proposed by the late Ian Barbour (1988), physicist and theologian.
- Warfare: Science and religion are competitors; only one can be right.
- Independence: Science and religion talk about different things.
- Dialogue: Science and religion are different, but they speak constructively to each other.
- Integration: Science and religion are or will be one.
Warfare. Science and Christianity can disagree (Ruse 2019, 2023). No modern geologist can accept Noah’s Flood. No evolutionist can accept the Bible taken literally. In the past, it is thought that our ancestors got down to a group of about 10,000 people. Never two, Adam and Eve, and never did sin start with them. The parents of the smallest group of proto-humans were nice and nasty. So were their parents, all the way back. Substitutionary atonement is simply wrong. There was no original sin, so the crucifixion of Jesus cannot be interpreted in terms of his taking our sins on his back.
There are alternatives to the time on the Cross. Orthodox Christians think that Jesus was serving as an example of unconditional love – Quakers think this too. In any case, St. Augustine taught us not to take the Bible too literally. The ancient Jews could not understand modern science. You can be a good Christian and deny original sin. Despite the beliefs of some – Creationists like Duane T. Gish (1973) and evolutionists like Richard Dawkins (2006) – in this respect, you can be a Darwinian evolutionist and a Christian. You might think there are other reasons to reject one or the other, but the very fact that one is science and the other is religion is no bar to holding both.
Independence. The cobbler should stick to his last. Science is about the empirical world. There have been four billion years of evolution on this planet. Religion is about the spiritual world. Why is there something rather than nothing? From the Independence perspective, evolution cannot clash with Christianity because they are talking about different things (Gilkey 1981). The kids and I took mum to a picnic in the park. Science version: we made sandwiches, went to the park, and got caught in a traffic jam on the way home. Religion version: we took mum to the park to show her our great love and gratitude towards her.
Perhaps independence is true, but as we just saw in discussing warfare, there must be a certain amount of adjustment (Ruse 2022). As an evolutionist, you cannot accept that Adam and Eve and that wretched apple are responsible for original sin. You can accept that we are all sinners, and God sent Jesus to show us perfect love. There is nothing wrong with this adjustment or choice of one option rather than another. Christians have been adjusting their religion since it started. Early Christians were pacifists, but soldiers were allowed when Christianity became the official Roman religion. Catholics made the Pope Numero Uno. Protestants very much did not. In short, independence is possible, but it demands ongoing hard work.
Dialogue. Science and religion are different, but they work together. Christians accept two sources of belief. Faith, where God speaks to you directly – revealed religion or theology. Reason and evidence infer God’s existence and nature – natural theology. Revealed religion is going to go its own way. It doesn’t have to speak to anyone! No need for dialogue. Natural theology is where you will find dialogue.
A perfect example is (nineteenth-century theologian) John Henry Newman’s response when asked about adaptations like the hand and the eye. “I believe in design because I believe in God; I do not believe in God because I believe in design” (1971). Newman is saying, that for him, dialogue is one way forward. Natural theology can speak to revealed theology, for instance, showing the intricacies of God’s creation. Revealed religion has no need to speak to natural theology, but it should, helping to put our world in context.
Particularly fascinating and challenging is the problem of evil. If, as Christianity claims, God is all good and all-powerful, then why do we have evil? It is usual to divide the problem into two: moral evil – Auschwitz – and natural or physical evil – the Lisbon earthquake (Ruse 2023). As far as natural evil is concerned, Richard Dawkins (1983) of all people has a powerful argument. With few exceptions – Descartes in his Meditations being one – it is agreed that God cannot do the impossible. God cannot make 2 + 2 = 5. To have a functioning life, you must have a process that produces adaptation, as well as a livable environment. Processes like Lamarckism – the inheritance of acquired characteristics – or saltationism – evolution by lucky monsters – simply don’t work.
It is natural selection or nothing. But if natural selection, then you must let the world run according to unbroken law with its consequences – the struggle for existence, for example. You are bound to get pain and strife. Something like childhood leukemia is just the luck of the draw. You produce complex machines like humans, and you will have failures and malfunctions. And to produce sunshine and fertile fields and so forth, you must pay the cost of earthquakes and the like. I am unsure how appreciative Dawkins would be to learn that he did not reach this point first. It was Aquinas: “Lions would not thrive unless asses were killed” (1981, 1a, 25, 6).
Some – emphatically not Richard Dawkins! – would combine this kind of thinking with the view that this struggle is a good thing, for we come out better in the end. Popular here is the sentiment of the poet John Keats. “The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven – What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making’.” Thanks to suffering, we become stronger human beings.
What of moral evil? The usual God-exonerating argument is that it is a function of free will. Better to let people sin than to make them robots. If the latter, they do not have the potential to be good or bad, a consequence God most certainly did not want. Of course, you must now accept that the free will of Heinrich Himmler was equal to the worth of six million Jews; more modestly, of equal worth to one Anne Frank. But, as the saying goes, you cannot make an omelet without cracking eggs. Does Darwinian evolution have anything to say about this? A powerful distinction is made between r-selection and K-selection (MacArthur and Wilson 1867).
The former, r-selection, is good in times of fluctuation and instability. A good reproductive strategy is to have lots of offspring, even if the consequence is little parental care. Herrings, for instance. When times are good, you are ready to take advantage of them; in bad times, you are not much worse off. The latter, K-selection, is good in times of stability. Few offspring and lots of parental care, demanding decisions. Then you are maximizing your chances of success. Humans! So in a sense, one might say that some dimension of freedom is the virtue of – or, more pessimistically – the tragedy of having evolved with large brains able to make choices. Either way, far from precluding the essential Christian belief in free will, Darwinism explains its necessity.
The basic thesis is quite simple. The world and life within it reveal an ongoing dynamic, a process of evolution of ever greater complexity, from the inorganic through the simplest organisms, up through various stages of existence to the highest, the “noösphere.” This is the domain of humankind, culminating in something Teilhard called the Omega Point.
Integration. Seemingly here we face an impenetrable barrier. Christianity makes humans unique and at the top of the living world. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1: 27). Darwinism is relativistic, and humans are not special. In the immortal words of the paleontologist, the late Jack Sepkoski: “I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival” (Ruse 1996, 486). One must here reach out to an alternative theory of evolution. As it happens, there is an alternative, more favorable to integration with Christianity.
This is a version that goes back to the German Romantics, like Goethe and Schelling. It sees the force behind evolution coming from within, as change occurs in the individual: acorn to oak, monad to man. It was endorsed in England in the nineteenth century by Herbert Spencer and Henri Bergson in the twentieth century in France. This theory was picked up by the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who, in his The Phenomenon of Man, written in the 1930s although only published posthumously in 1955, made the basis of an innovative integration of evolution and Christianity.
The basic thesis is quite simple. The world and life within it reveal an ongoing dynamic, a process of evolution of ever greater complexity, from the inorganic through the simplest organisms, up through various stages of existence to the highest, the “noösphere.” This is the domain of humankind, culminating in something Teilhard called the Omega Point:
Our picture is of mankind labouring under the impulsion of an obscure instinct, so as to break out through its narrow point of emergence and submerge the earth; of thought becoming number so as to conquer all habitable space, taking precedence over all other forms of life; of mind, in other words, deploying and convoluting the layers of the noosphere. This effort at multiplication and organic expansion is, for him who can see, the summing up and final expression of human pre-history and history, from the earliest beginnings down to the present day. (Teilhard 1955, 190)
Inventively, if very controversially, Teilhard identified the climax, the Omega Point, with God as incarnated in Jesus Christ: “The universe fulfilling itself in a synthesis of centres in perfect conformity with the laws of union. God, the Centre of centres. In that final vision the Christian dogma culminates” (293). This, we learn, perfectly coincides with the Omega Point. We see the ever greater value the closer we get to humankind, with the corollary that the more humankind grows in complexity, the more value we have and the more value we want to generate: “conquered by the sense of the earth and human sense, hatred and internecine struggles will have disappeared in the ever warmer radiance of Omega. Some sort of unanimity will reign over the entire mass of the noösphere. The final convergence will take place in peace” (287).
And that is a good note on which to end our survey of evolution and Christianity.
Aquinas, St. T. 1981. Summa Theologica. Translators Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London: Christian Classics.
Barbour, I. 1988. Ways of relating science and theology. Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding., 21-48. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory.
Dawkins, R. 1983. Universal Darwinism. Evolution from Molecules to Men. editor D. S. Bendall, 403-25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.
Gilkey, L B. 1981. Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History. New York: Seabury.
Gish, D. 1973. Evolution: The Fossils Say No! San Diego: Creation-Life.
MacArthur, R. H., and E. O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Newman, J. H. 1971. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, XXI. editors C. S. Dessain, and T. Gornall. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.
Ruse, M. 1996. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
———. 2019. A Meaning to Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 2022. Understanding Natural Selection. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2023. Understanding the Christianity-Evolution Relationship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. 1955. The Phenomenon of Man. London: Collins.