The work of Charles Darwin has implications far beyond science. His revolutionary insights have changed the way we think about society, ethics, and religion. This essay will focus on the impact of evolutionary science on religion, especially its impact on Christian thinking (though much of what is here would apply to the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam). By providing an account of the origin and diversity of organisms, Darwin was seen by some as mounting a serious challenge to traditional religious understandings of the creation of the world and humankind. Some adherents of religion have argued that Darwinian Evolution is utterly incompatible with religious belief. Therefore, they say, Evolution must be rejected. Similarly, some opponents of religion have argued that Darwin’s great achievement is to disprove the claims of religion. From this perspective, religion must be rejected. Both sides share a view that Evolution and religion are incompatible; both hold that Evolution entails atheism. But that is not the only way to conceive the relationship between Evolution and religion.
It is widely accepted that Darwin offers a brilliant account of how the variety of species came to be through a process of natural selection. Darwin’s account is purely naturalistic and materialistic. It is based on the observation of natural phenomena. All of which is to say that Darwin operates within the scientific method, collecting facts and then providing a theoretical framework to account for those facts. Darwin and his scientific successors have given an explanation of the origin and diversity of living organisms that relies entirely on natural processes. The picture that emerges is rich and complex. Human understanding of these natural processes continues to grow. This is the legitimate application of the scientific method.
The Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believe that God created the world, including all forms of life. Other religious traditions also share a belief in creation by the deity. Such beliefs are in the realm of religious affirmation, not scientific explanation. By asserting that the world was created by God, they do not necessarily specify how that creation took place. The accounts of creation in sacred texts make theological claims about the source and purposes of life. For centuries, religious thinkers have had serious reservations about taking those accounts as literal, scientific explanations.
What Darwin directly challenged was the view that God had originally created all species of plant and animal life, just as they exist today. One version of this view held that the species were unchanging, that the creation of the world took place only a few thousand years ago, and that the natural order we see today sprang directly from the mind of God. Another version of this view acknowledges the overwhelming evidence that the earth is much older and even acknowledges the evidence for evolution within species, but still denies the possibility of one species developing into another. According to both these views, the order of the world is unchanging because it is given directly by God. Everything about the world is as it is because God made it that way.
Darwin describes a world that is less tidy and orderly. Indeed, he presents a world that is much more complex and dynamic. He observed an abundance of forms of life, all struggling for existence and adapting—from generation to generation—to an ever-changing environment.
Although some religious communities rejected Darwin’s theory as inherently atheistic, many religious traditions have embraced it and have explored the ways Darwin has had a positive impact on religious thinking. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example, writes: “The theory of evolution has given theology an opportunity to see God’s ongoing activity not merely in the preservation of a fixed order but in the constant bringing forth of things that are new.” That is to say, Evolution can help religious people affirm that God’s creative work is a matter of continuing engagement over time. As a result, it is possible to acknowledge the openness and flexibility of divine creative activity.
Darwin’s theory of Evolution has also prompted a renewal of theological reflection on the manner of God’s creative activity and on the way God interacts with the world. Traditional religious teachings have held that contingent natural processes (such as the emergence and evolution of living organisms) are by no means incompatible with divine providence. Christian theologians, for example, speak of God’s creation of the world as a form of persuasion, as distinct from an intrusive or coercive intervention. Thus, creation is seen as a form of kenosis (self-emptying), in which God’s power is seen primarily through self-sacrificial love. God, in a sense steps back from the created world, in order to allow something new to come into existence. The created world is given autonomy so that it may develop into what it is most fully meant to be. Theologian John Haught maintains that the kenotic understanding of God allows us to make the following statements:
1) that God is the sole ground of the world’s being; 2) that God’s eternal self-restraint, by grounding the world’s (relative) autonomy and allowing for its self-creation, shows God to be more intimately involved with and powerfully effective in the world than a more immediately directive divine agency would be; 3) that God acts effectively in the world by offering to it a wide range of autonomously realizable possibilities within which it can “become itself”; 4) that God simultaneously gives the divine self away completely to the world which has by God’s will been encouraged to develop as something radically “other” than God; 5) that the phenomena of life’s evolution, including the randomness, the wandering prodigality, and the enormous amount of time required for the emergence of complexity and consciousness, become theologically intelligible when seen in the light of God’s self-limiting and persuasive love; and finally, 6) that the sufferings, struggles and achievements of the evolving world nonetheless take place within God’s own experience, not outside of it: God’s compassionate feeling and remembering of the sufferings, struggles, and achievements of the entire story of cosmic and biological evolution redeem and give meaning to everything, though in an always partially hidden way.
It is important to note that a theological account of creation that is compatible with evolutionary theory offers no scientific proof of religious claims. Nor can the evolutionary science disprove religious claims. At most, one may argue that the findings of evolutionary biology and the assertions of religious faith are not by necessity incompatible. There is a certain ambiguity about the world as we find it. Whether the world came about by random chance or was created by a loving God, the world would look just the same. The claims of religion must be tested and affirmed on other than scientific grounds.
A growing number of theologians and scientists maintain that religion and science are not in conflict. They see in the findings of science even more reason for religious wonder and awe. Cell biologist Kenneth Miller, for example, argues for their compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory. In Only A Theory, he writes:
The evolutionary cosmology that emerges from physics and biology tells us that we are indeed made, just as Scripture claimed, from the dust of the earth itself. But the details of that story are grander than any of the authors of Scripture might have dreamed. For human life to have developed on our planet, we need a universe even vaster than the nighttime sky. We require a cosmos of inconceivable age, finely tuned fundamental constants to stoke the fires of trillions of suns, and a balance of light and heavy elements forged in the embers of dying stars. And we do indeed have all of them.
This sense of wonder is famously conveyed on the final page of Origin of Species, where Charles Darwin wrote:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Ayala, Francisco. Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion.
Haught, John F. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 2000.
Haught, John F. Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution. NY: Paulist Press, 2001.
Miller, Kenneth. Finding Darwin’s God. NY: Harper & Row, 1999.
Miller, Kenneth. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. NY: Viking, 2008.
Russell, Robert John, William R. Stoeger, S.J. and Francisco J. Ayala, editors. 1998. Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. Jointly published by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.
Speaking of Faith: A conversation with James Moore, co-author of the biography Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist and The Post Darwin Controversies. He's been researching and teaching Darwin for more than 30 years in Cambridge, England.
Kenneth Miller’s Evolution website. Contains a number of links to articles and video clips.
The Counterbalance Foundation's website, Perspectives on Evolution, offers counterbalanced perspectives on complex issues.
The Clergy Letter Project is an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue.
For a sample of the diverse opinions of evolution held by Religious communities visit the links provided in the section “Evolution and Religion” at the One Book One Northwestern website.
For questions about this essay, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
—by Asa Gray
WHAT IS DARWINISM?
The Nation, May 28, 1874
The question which Dr. Hodge asks he promptly and decisively answers: ‘’
Leaving aside all subsidiary and incidental matters, let us consider–1. What the Darwinian doctrine is, and 2. How it is proved to be atheistic. Dr. Hodge’s own statement of it cannot be very much bettered:
‘’ (pp. 26-29).
Now, the truth or the probability of Darwin’s hypothesis is not here the question, but only its congruity or incongruity with theism. We need take only one exception to this abstract of it, but that is an important one for the present investigation. It is to the sentence which we have italicized in the earlier part of Dr. Hodge’s own statement of what Darwinism is. With it begins our inquiry as to how he proves the doctrine to be atheistic.
First, if we rightly apprehend it, a suggestion of atheism is infused into the premises in a negative form: Mr. Darwin shows no disposition to resolve the efficiency of physical causes into the efficiency of the First Cause. Next (on page 48) comes the positive charge that ‘’ maintains that ‘’ As to the negative statement, it might suffice to recall Dr. Hodge’s truthful remark that Darwin ‘’ and that ‘’ In physical and physiological treatises, the most religious men rarely think it necessary to postulate the First Cause, nor are they misjudged by the omission. But surely Mr. Darwin does show the disposition which our author denies him, not only by implication in many instances, but most explicitly where one would naturally look for it, namely–at the close of the volume in question: ‘’ etc. If that does not refer the efficiency of physical causes to the First Cause, what form of words could do so? The positive charge appears to be equally gratuitous. In both Dr. Hodge must have overlooked the beginning as well as the end of the volume which he judges so hardly. Just as mathematicians and physicists, in their systems, are wont to postulate the fundamental and undeniable truths they are concerned with, or what they take for such and require to be taken for granted, so Mr. Darwin postulates, upon the first page of his notable work, and in the words of Whewell and Bishop Butler: 1. The establishment by divine power of general laws, according to which, rather than by insulated interpositions in each particular case, events are brought about in the material world; and 2. That by the word ‘’ is meant ‘’ by this same power, ‘’[VIII-2] So when Mr. Darwin makes such large and free use of ‘’ causes, we are left in no doubt as to the ultimate source which he refers them to. Rather let us say there ought to be no doubt, unless there are other grounds for it to rest upon.
Such ground there must be, or seem to be, to justify or excuse a veteran divine and scholar like Dr. Hodge in his deduction of pure atheism from a system produced by a confessed theist, and based, as we have seen, upon thoroughly orthodox fundamental conceptions. Even if we may not hope to reconcile the difference between the theologian and the naturalist, it may be well to ascertain where their real divergence begins, or ought to begin, and what it amounts to. Seemingly, it is in their proximate, not in their ultimate, principles, as Dr. Hodge insists when he declares that the whole drift of Darwinism is to prove that everything ‘’ ‘’ cries the theologian, ‘’ But, as we have seen, Mr. Darwin does say that, and he over and over implies it when he refers the production of species ‘’ and likens their origination to the origination of individuals; species being series of individuals with greater difference. It is not for the theologian to object that the power which made individual men and other animals, and all the differences which the races of mankind exhibit, through secondary causes, could not have originated congeries of more or less greatly differing individuals through the same causes.
Clearly, then, the difference between the theologian and the naturalist is not fundamental, and evolution may be as profoundly and as particularly theistic as it is increasingly probable. The taint of atheism which, in Dr. Hodge’s view, leavens the whole lump, is not inherent in the original grain of Darwinism–in the principles posited–but has somehow been introduced in the subsequent treatment. Possibly, when found, it may be eliminated. Perhaps there is mutual misapprehension growing out of some ambiguity in the use of terms. ‘’- These are sweeping and effectual words. How came they to be applied to natural selection by a divine who professes that God ordained whatsoever cometh to pass? In this wise: ‘’ Then Dr. Hodge adduces ‘’ to the purport that natural selection denotes the totality of natural causes and their interactions, physical and physiological, reproduction, variation, birth, struggle, extinction–in short, all that is going on in Nature; that the variations which in this interplay are picked out for survival are not intentionally guided; that ‘’ (which Dr. Hodge takes to be the denial of any such thing as final causes); and that the interactions and processes going on which constitute natural selection may suffice to account for the present diversity of animals and plants (primordial organisms being postulated and time enough given) with all their structures and adaptations–that is, to account for them scientifically, as science accounts for other things.
A good deal may be made of this, but does it sustain the indictment? Moreover, the counts of the indictment may be demurred to. It seems to us that only one of the three points which Darwin is said to deny is really opposed to the fourth, which he is said to maintain, except as concerns the perhaps ambiguous word unintended. Otherwise, the origin of species through the gradual accumulation of variations–i.e., by the addition of a series of small differences–is surely not incongruous with their origin through ‘’ or through ‘’- One or both of these Mr. Darwin (being, as Dr. Hodge says, a theist) must needs hold to in some form or other; wherefore he may be presumed to hold the fourth proposition in such wise as not really to contradict the first or the third. The proper antithesis is with the second proposition only, and the issue comes to this: Have the multitudinous forms of living creatures, past and present, been produced by as many special and independent acts of creation at very numerous epochs? Or have they originated under causes as natural as reproduction and birth, and no more so, by the variation and change of preceding into succeeding species?
Those who accept the latter alternative are evolutionists. And Dr. Hodge fairly allows that their views, although clearly wrong, may be genuinely theistic. Surely they need not become the less so by the discovery or by the conjecture of natural operations through which this diversification and continued adaptation of species to conditions is brought about. Now, Mr. Darwin thinks–and by this he is distinguished. from most evolutionists–that he can assign actual natural causes, adequate to the production of the present out of the preceding state of the animal and vegetable world, and so on backward–thus uniting, not indeed the beginning but the far past with the present in one coherent system of Nature. But in assigning actual natural causes and processes, and applying them to the explanation of the whole case, Mr. Dar-win assumes the obligation of maintaining their general sufficiency–a task from which the numerous advocates and acceptors of evolution on the general concurrence of probabilities and its usefulness as a working hypothesis (with or without much conception of the manner how) are happily free. Having hit upon a modus operandi which all who understand it admit will explain something, and many that it will explain very much, it is to be expected that Mr. Darwin will make the most of it. Doubtless he is far from pretending to know all the causes and operations at work; he has already added some and restricted the range of others; he probably looks for additions to their number and new illustrations of their efficiency; but he is bound to expect them all to fall within the category of what he calls natural selection (a most expansible principle), or to be congruous with it–that is, that they shall be natural causes. Also–and this is the critical point–he is bound to maintain their sufficiency without intervention.
Here, at length, we reach the essential difference between Darwin, as we understand him, and Dr. Hodge. The terms which Darwin sometimes uses, and doubtless some of the ideas they represent, are not such as we should adopt or like to defend; and we may say once for all–aside though it be from the present issue–that, in our opinion, the adequacy of the assigned causes to the explanation of the phenomena has not been made out. But we do not understand him to deny ‘’ in Nature. This would be as gratuitous as unphilosophical, not to say unscientific. When he speaks of this or that particular or phase in the course of events or the procession of organic forms as not intended, he seems to mean not specially and disjunctively intended and not brought about by intervention. Purpose in the whole, as we suppose, is not denied but implied. And when one considers how, under whatever view of the case, the designed and the contingent lie inextricably commingled in this world of ours, past man’s disentanglement, and into what metaphysical dilemmas the attempt at unraveling them leads, we cannot greatly blame the naturalist for relegating such problems to the philosopher and the theologian. If charitable, these will place the most favorable construction upon attempts to extend and unify the operation of known secondary causes, this being the proper business of the naturalist and physicist; if wise, they will be careful not to predicate or suggest the absence of intention from what comes about by degrees through the continuous operation of physical causes, even in the organic world, lest, in their endeavor to retain a probable excess of supernaturalism in that realm of Nature, they cut away the grounds for recognizing it at all in inorganic Nature, and so fall into the same condemnation that some of them award to the Darwinian.
Moreover, it is not certain that Mr. Darwin would very much better his case, Dr. Hodge being judge, if he did propound some theory of the nexus of divine causation and natural laws, or even if he explicitly adopted the one or the other of the views which he is charged with rejecting. Either way he might meet a procrustean fate; and, although a saving amount of theism might remain, he would not be sound or comfortable. For, if he predicates ‘’ he may ‘’ that the Duke of Argyll and Sir John Herschel ‘’ the latter of whom is blamed for thinking ‘’ and the former for regarding ‘’: while if he falls back upon an ‘’ endowing matter with forces which he foresaw and intended should produce such results as these contrivances in Nature, he is told that this banishes God from the world, and is inconsistent with obvious facts. And that because of its implying that ‘’ We italicize the word, for interference proves to be the keynote of Dr. Hodge’s system. Interference with a divinely ordained physical Nature for the accomplishment of natural results! An unorthodox friend has just imparted to us, with much misgiving and solicitude lest he should be thought irreverent, his tentative hypothesis, which is, that even the Creator may be conceived to have improved with time and experience! Never before was this theory so plainly and barely put before us. We were obliged to say that, in principle and by implication, it was not wholly original.
But in such matters, which are far too high for us, no one is justly to be held responsible for the conclusions which another may draw from his principles or assumptions. Dr. Hodge’s particular view should be gathered from his own statement of it:
‘’ (pages 43, 44).
Far be it from us to object to this mode of conceiving divine causation, although, like the two other theistic conceptions referred to, it has its difficulties, and perhaps the difficulties of both. But, if we understand it, it draws an unusually hard and fast line between causation in organic and inorganic Nature, seems to look for no manifestation of design in the latter except as ‘’ second causes, and, finally, refers to this overruling and controlling (rather than to a normal action through endowment) all embryonic development, the growth of vegetables, and the like. He even adds, without break or distinction, the sending of rain, frost, and snow, the flight of an arrow, and the falling of a sparrow. Somehow we must have misconceived the bearing of the statement; but so it stands as one of ‘’ and the right way, of ‘’
In animadverting upon this latter view, Dr. Hodge brings forward an argument against evolution, with the examination of which our remarks must close:
‘’ (pp. 45, 46).
If Dr. Hodge’s meaning is, that matter unconstructed cannot do the work of mind, he misses the point altogether; for original construction by an intelligent mind is given in the premises. If he means that the machine cannot originate the power that operates it, this is conceded by all except believers in perpetual motion, and it equally misses the point; for the operating power is given in the case of the watch, and implied in that of the reproductive telescope. But if he means that matter cannot be made to do the work of mind in constructions, machines, or organisms, he is surely wrong. ‘’ vel scribendo; he confuted his argument in the act of writing the sentence. That is just what machines and organisms are for; and a consistent Christian theist should maintain that is what all matter is for. Finally, if, as we freely suppose, he means none of these, he must mean (unless we are much mistaken) that organisms originated by the Almighty Creator could not be endowed with the power of producing similar organisms, or slightly dissimilar organisms, without successive interventions. Then he begs the very question in dispute, and that, too, in the face of the primal command, ‘’ and its consequences in every natural birth. If the actual facts could be ignored, how nicely the parallel would run! ‘’ For an animal to make an animal, or a plant to make a plant, supposes it to select carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, to combine these into cellulose and protoplasm, to join with these some phosphorus, lime, etc., to build them into structures and usefully-adjusted organs. A man who can believe that plants and animals can do this (not, indeed, in the crude way suggested, but in the appointed way) ‘’ Yes, verily, and so he probably will, in spite of all that atheistical philosophers have to offer, if not harassed and confused by such arguments and statements as these.
There is a long line of gradually-increasing divergence from the ultra-orthodox view of Dr. Hodge through those of such men as Sir William Thomson, Herschel, Argyll, Owen, Mivart, Wallace, and Darwin, down to those of Strauss, Vogt, and Buchner. To strike the line with telling power and good effect, it is necessary to aim at the right place. Excellent as the present volume is in motive and clearly as it shows that Darwinism may bear an atheistic as well as a theistic interpretation, we fear that it will not contribute much to the reconcilement of science and religion.
The length of the analysis of the first book on our list precludes the notices which we intended to take of the three others. They are all the production of men who are both scientific and religious, one of them a celebrated divine and writer unusually versed in natural history. They all look upon theories of evolution either as in the way of being established or as not unlikely to prevail, and they confidently expect to lose thereby no solid ground for theism or religion. Mr. St. Clair, a new writer, in his ‘’ takes his ground in the following succinct statement of his preface:
Of his closing remark, that, so far as he knows, the subject has never before been handled in the same way for the same purpose, we will only say that the handling strikes us as mainly sensible rather than as substantially novel. He traverses the whole ground of evolution, from that of the solar system to ‘’ He is clearly a theistic Darwinian without misgiving, and the arguments for that hypothesis and for its religious aspects obtain from him their most favorable presentation, while he combats the dysteleology of Hackel, Buchner, etc., not, however, with any remarkable strength.
Dr. Winchell, chancellor of the new university at Syracuse, in his volume just issued upon the ‘’ adopts it in the abstract as ‘’ (whatever that may mean), accepts it practically for the inorganic world as a geologist should, hesitates as to the organic world, and sums up the arguments for the origin of species by diversification unfavorably for the Darwinians, regarding it mainly from the geological side. As some of our zoologists and palaeontologists may have somewhat to say upon this matter, we leave it for their consideration. We are tempted to develop a point which Dr. Winchell incidentally refers to–viz., how very modern the idea of the independent creation and fixity of species is, and how well the old divines got on without it. Dr. Winchell reminds us that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were model evolutionists; and, where authority is deferred to, this should count for something.
Mr. Kingsley’s eloquent and suggestive ‘’ in which he touches here and there upon many of the topics which evolution brings up, has incorporated into the preface a paper which he read in 187i to a meeting of London clergy at Sion College, upon certain problems of natural theology as affected by modern theories in science. We may hereafter have occasion to refer to this volume. Meanwhile, perhaps we may usefully conclude this article with two or three short extracts from it:
Pronouncing it to be the duty of the naturalist to find out the how of things, and of the natural theologian to find out the why, Mr. Kingsley continues: