Are Christianity and Darwinism Compatible?

Victor J. Stenger

For "Reality Check" in Skeptical Briefs Vol. 12, no. 2, June, 2002
Draft of April 28, 2002 7:27 am for comment only.

When the theory of evolution by natural selection first burst on the scene in 1859, many clergymen saw it as a great threat to their faith. As one put it, "If this hypothesis be true, then the Bible is an unbearable fiction...then have Christians for nearly two thousand years been duped by a monstrous lie."

However, not all churchmen regarded Darwinism as a threat to the faith. The Bishop of London saw theological merit in the new idea: "It seems something more majestic, more befitting him to whom a thousand years are as one day, thus to impress his will once and for all on his creation, and provide for all the countless varieties by his one original impress, than by special acts of creation to be perpetually modifying what he had previously made."

Today, Christian leaders remain deeply divided on the issue. For many years the otherwise highly conservative Catholic Church has allowed the teaching of evolution in its schools and universities. In 1996 Pope John Paul II stated before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that "the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis," implying he regarded evolution as an established fact. He made it clear, however, that evolution of mind was not included. Liberal Protestant denominations also seem to have accepted evolution. Indeed, many clergymen and believing scientists have worked hard to support the teaching of evolution in schools. Apparently they see no incompatibility with their faith.

 More conservative Protestant leaders, however, vehemently disagree. Lawyer Phillip Johnson is the author of several books which challenge evolution and blame it for most of the ills of society--as if society had no ills before1859. He writes, "[Evolution] doesn't mean God-guided, gradual creation. It means unguided, purposeless change. The Darwinian theory doesn't say that God created slowly. It says that naturalistic evolution is the creator, and so God had nothing to do with it."

 He has a point here. Evolution by natural selection provides a mechanism by which life evolved from its initial, unknown origin by purely natural processes including a large element of chance. As Stephen J. Gould has noted, if we were to wind back the tape of evolution and start it all over again, without changing a single law of physics or chemistry, homo sapiens sapiens would not again evolve. This would seem to be in gross contradiction to the teaching of Christianity, and indeed most religions, that the human race is a special creation of God--an intimate participant in God's plan for the universe.

 A number of theologians and theistic scientists have proposed theologies that they claim are compatible with evolution and at the same time consistent with the essence of Christian belief. Most, however, still imagine a kind of guided evolution, in which God occasionally pokes his finger in the works to make sure things come out as planned. This is Intelligent Design creationism, not Darwinism.

Templeton Prize winners physicist John Polkinghorne and chemist Arthur Peacocke see chaos as providing an opening for God to act in the world without having to violate any natural laws, or at least not violating them in any noticeable way. Neither visualizes God as selectively injecting huge amounts of energy into various places in the universe needing his intervention, thus violently breaking the law of conservation of energy. Rather, in Polkinghorne's scheme, the deity injects information. God provides a gentle nudge that moves a complex system along the path he wishes it to go, taking advantage of the amplifying effect of chaos.

 Peacocke's vision of the role of chaos is different from Polkinghorne's, although Polkinghorne has not explicitly rejected this approach. Peacocke does not imagine God interfering in any specific event but acting on the whole by a process called top-down causality. In a trivial example, if you rotate a wheel you are causing all the atoms of the wheel to move in a circle.

Christianity Today editor-at-large John Wilson does not think much of Peacocke's theology. He writes: "[It] turns out to entail a rejection of anything resembling Christian orthodoxy from the first century to the present. There was no Fall as recounted in Genesis (whether interpreted literally or in symbolic terms)....Scripture is discarded whenever it is convenientÐso no virgin birth, no atonement (unless redefined so as to be unrecognizable in biblical terms), no crude notions of a brazenly "intervening" God such as we see dealing with Abraham and Moses and Elijah (that God doesn't square with quantum indeterminacy; now we know better)."

 Theologian John Haught sees a theistic alternative to guided evolution: "A God whose very essence is to be the world's open future is not a planner or a designer but an infinitely liberating source of new possibilities and new life. It seems to me that neo Darwinian biology can live and thrive quite comfortably within the horizon of such a vision of ultimate reality."

 Physicist-theist Howard Van Till has also proposed a theology in which God does not micro-manage. Rather God has created a "possibility space" along which life could evolve by many pathways. Any of the pathways, including, presumably, the non appearance of humanity, would fulfill God's purpose. Still, a reality without humanity does not much resemble the reality of common Christian perception.

 Johnson does not buy any of these apologetics: "Religion cannot survive in a naturalistic academic culture if it opposes science, and so religion must accommodate to science on the best terms it can get. Effectively, that means that God must be exiled to that shadowy realm before the Big Bang, and He must promise to do nothing thereafter that might cause trouble between theists and the scientific naturalists."

To Johnson and his cohorts, Christianity is right so Darwinism must be wrong. The alternative is unacceptable--that Darwinism is right and so Christianity must be wrong.