Belief on Darwin Day

I know I am a little late but just last Sunday was the 208th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. He certainly belongs in the pantheon of scientific greats like Newton or Einstein because he not only revolutionised the science of biology but our understanding of natural life through the theory of evolution. His discoveries were comparable in effect to the Copernican revolution of the heliocentric model. Christians however have had an uneasy relationship with the 19th century geologist turned father of evolutionary biology.

The theory of evolution is right at the centre of the American culture war with many Christians out right rejecting it. The ironic thing about the myth that science and Christian faith are diametrically opposed is that when Darwin first came out with his evolutionary theory, it did not cause a stir in the church. In fact some Christian thinkers fully embraced it. This might seem a bit odd but there were Christians then as there are today who do who do not have a problem with the theory of evolution.  Evolution explains how different species of organisms arose but it does not explain the origin of life itself. In other words, contrary to much popular thought, the theory of evolution nowhere near explains away the need for a creator. For me as well as other Christians I imagine, evolution does not undermine the basic Christian beliefs. It rather makes me think more carefully and recognize more fully God’s creative brilliance.

It’s not just that evolution says nothing about God’s existence or activity, it is simply not designed to discuss it. To do science we adopt an ideology sometimes known as methodological naturalism or methodological atheism. It is atheistic in the sense that we assume god or any other supernatural agents are not a part of the natural world where science is done. The scientist adopts a materialistic view of the universe, that is, he assumes all that exists is physical so he can restrict himself to the investigation of physical reality that has regular, observable features, without having to worry about a non-physical entity, such as a god or a spirit, interfering with the results of empirical enquiry. This stance of course makes perfect sense because “God did it” does not cut it as an empirical explanation.

It is true that the theory of evolution does not say God created life but it also does not say that he didn’t because that is not a question that it even bothers with. Science is by definition agnostic so you can just teach science knowing that it in no way authoritatively addresses Christian theism. The problems began when people who had already committed to a worldview of philosophical naturalism (the belief that all that exists is the natural physical world without any supernatural entities like a god or a spooky spirit interfering) seizing upon the theory of evolution as the indisputable confirmation of their worldview. A biological theory became a theory of everything, something that it does not claim to be. That is a theory about biology became a theory about the nature of life. It’s not that biological evolution does provoke questions about how we understand life. Darwin himself wrestled with the philosophical out workings of his theory but they are precisely that, philosophical implications and not scientific ones.

If you have certain prior philosophical commitments about atheism you will definitely come to some conclusions within that worldview with evolutionary theory. Accepting evolutionary science in itself does not lead to atheism or theism. Knowing that the scientific method is deliberately designed not to answer questions of theological belief I find the question “do you believe in evolution or creation” thoroughly bewildering. The theory of biological evolution is not an article of faith, at least not in the Christian sense of the word. Christian faith is founded on the happening of particular historical events and not the empirical results of the scientific method. Strictly speaking as a Christian, biological evolution, germ theory, the theory of relativity and every other scientific theory and conjecture are things we neither believer or disbelieve. Christian faith is not dependent on any of these things and therefore we do not apply the biblical language of faith in describing them. There are somethings we accept by faith and there are others that we do not. That is a basic biblical teaching. Science is particular body of knowledge based on certain ways of knowing so you either accept or reject its claims based on scientific criteria.

I am oversimplifying the relationship between scientific knowing and knowing by faith but generally speaking they are both filtering lenses through which we observe the world. They therefore present different non-competing, non-comprehensive images of the same real world. They are both talking about reality but in very different ways concerning different aspects of it. Faith in the Christian worldview actually means not having all the answers but trusting in the one who does. So there is definitely room in it for scientific enquiry. Science can tell us how somethings are the way they are but it is not designed to tell us why there is something rather than nothing. It is perfectly right to ask if a person believes in creation but biological evolution is not a matter of Christian faith. It is simply the wrong question framed with the wrong language.

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One thought on “Belief on Darwin Day

  1. I am always baffled by the idea that if you believe Darwin’s theory of evolution, you cant believe in God as a consequence, what nonsense! 🙂

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