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Darwin & Religion

| Development of Evolutionary Thought | Evolution and Religion |

Evolution and Religion

For many people of different religious beliefs, the theory of evolution does not pose a conflict. However, Christian fundamentalists, in particular, may portray evolution and religion as in opposition to each other. Some people think that, to accept the key tenets of evolutionary thought is to deny their religious beliefs, and this prospect can generate considerable conflict. This is not helped by some proponents of evolution, who make derogatory statements about religious beliefs and promote evolution as explaining all there is to know about life. It is important to understand that western science developed within the Church and Philosophers traditionally explained the wonders of natural life through a creator. However, our knowledge and understanding of the natural world, developed through the application of the scientific method, has provided us with a modern and testable explanation for the history and relationships of living things.

This writing team takes the position that there is no conflict between Religion and Evolution because they are two incompatible areas that have nothing to do with each other. We do, however, understand that this is not necessarily the opinion of all. We have, for that reason, prepared the following section to spark critical discussion and reflection on some of the issues.

Darwin and Evolution

Why were Darwin's findings so controversial, and why do they still pose a challenge to some people's religious beliefs.

Specialists' panel

We have documented a number of previously published statements from specialists, stating why the acceptance of evolution poses no threat to their faith, or to them teaching evolution at school.

Roundtable discussion

For the roundtable discussion we have asked scientists a set of questions to which they have replied. These could be used as a starting point for discussion and critical thought.

Darwin and Evolution

Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species" belongs to the category of scientific work that is much discussed but is often not actually read. His findings are amongst the most significant and important that have ever been produced by scientists. What makes them so special is that they concern all living things on Earth.

There is a wealth of very good information available about Charles Darwin and his ideas. Here we will very briefly address three questions:

  1. Who was Charles Darwin and what formed the background of his theory?
  2. What is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution?
  3. Why is there controversy about modern Darwinism?

1. Who was Charles Darwin and what formed the background of his theory?

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He was the son of Robert Darwin, who was a physician, and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin, who died when he was eight years old.

At age sixteen, Darwin left Shrewsbury to study medicine at Edinburgh University. Repelled by the sight of surgery performed without anaesthesia, he eventually went to Cambridge University to prepare to become a clergyman in the Church of England. After receiving his degree, Darwin accepted an invitation to serve as a "gentleman companion" to the captain on the H.M.S. Beagle, a British science 'around the world' expedition, which departed on a five-year expedition to the Pacific coast of South America in 1831. Later through the journey he took over the naturalist's responsibilities where he gathered many specimen that he later researched.

In South America Darwin found fossils of extinct animals that were similar to modern species. On the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean he noticed many variations among plants and animals of the same general type as those in South America. The expedition visited places around the world, and Darwin studied plants and animals everywhere he went, collecting specimens for further study.

Darwin's theory of evolutionary selection holds that variation within species occurs randomly and that the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by how well that organism is adapted to its environment. He set these concepts out in his book called, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" (1859) or "The Origin of Species" for short. After publication of the "Origin of Species", Darwin continued to write on botany, geology, and zoology until his death in 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charles Darwin developed his theory in a country that was facing unprecedented turmoil in economics, philosophy, social organisation and religion. The young Darwin lived in a society that had a passion for nature's way, which was fuelled by romantic poetry (i.e. Wordsworth and Milton). Public piety was very strong throughout the 19th century, with some books of church sermons being best sellers. At the same time many public figures, such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Ernest Dowson, turned away from the faith. With the rise of industry, England also began to experience a social blight previously unknown. Children were forced to work long hours and there was a high infant mortality rate, the result of underfed mothers forced to work long hours in factories. A large number of working class families lived well below subsistence level.

Social reformers were often outspoken heretics and some of their very successful improvements in education public health and other areas also aimed to change minds. The Anglican Church was mainly staffed by young clergymen, whose main concern was a secure living. Secular intellectuals resented Anglicanism with its immense social power. But the social milieu was changing and Christianity was losing ground.

2. What is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution?

Darwin has been praised and reviled more than any other scientist since Galileo. First he demonstrated the fact of evolution. He amassed convincing evidence that all life on Earth has evolved out of other forms that can be traced back to some ancestral matter in a warm pool. Darwin did not exclude mankind from this evolution, describing humans as the descendents of "hairy, tailed quadrupeds" and "probably arboreal in its habits". This statement came as a shock to Darwin's contemporaries as he removed humans from the centre of living things in the world, and gave them a new place in the cosmic order, very much like Copernicus did when he moved the Earth from the centre of the universe.

Secondly, Darwin discovered the mechanism by which evolution works on plants and animals through differences in their reproductive success, i.e. the number of offspring that each individual produces. He supported his conclusion through three facts: exponential growth - the tendency of all living things to increase rapidly in numbers, variation - within each populations exists a small variation from one individual to another and inheritance - all living things inherit traits of their parents.

Building on these three observations Darwin formed his theory of evolution, which says that a population will grow until it reaches the limit of its resources. In the resulting struggle for existence that results, individuals with traits that help them to overcome the adverse forces of the environment are more likely to survive and have offspring. At least some of the offspring will inherit these new traits and carry them on to the following generations. Offspring with less favourable traits will slowly diminish and over the course of many generations this process will preserve some traits while reducing others, gradually transforming species.

3. Why is there a controversy about modern Darwinism?

The explanation of evolution according to Charles Darwin appears to be straightforward and easily understood. Subsequent researchers have gone on to add to his extensive body of evidence for evolution. The rediscovery of Mendel's work on inheritance provided a mechanism for heredity that was not available to Darwin, and scientists continue to add to our understanding of genetics and molecular biology.

The new data that have been added have caused controversy amongst the scientific community. For example, we now know that evolution does not always occur by the mechanism of natural selection. Early eukaryotic cells first appeared as a result of endosymbiosis , with the result that the cells thus formed acquired a set of features instantaneously rather than by the slow, gradual process that Darwin envisaged.

In fact, the speed of evolution - but NOT the fact of evolution itself - has been the subject of healthy debate among evolutionary biologists. While Darwinian evolution assumes the gradual evolution of traits, in some circumstances evolutionary events may occur very rapidly and are then followed by long periods of stasis, a phenomenon known as punctuated equilibrium.

Fossil fraud, has also contributed to a flawing of Darwin's ideas. The very lucrative business of fossil trading has resulted in some cases proving to be hoaxes that undermine the work of many honest and hard working evolutionary biologists.

The existing debates within the field of evolutionary biology are a part of the normal scientific process. They do not negate the fact that evolution has occurred, but centre on the concept that natural selection is not the only mechanism by which evolution can progress.

Read more about Darwin and his ideas in:

Birkett K (2001) The Essence of Darwinism. Australia: Matthias Media.

Darwin C (1996) The Origin of Species. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Jastrow R (Ed) (1984) The essential Darwin. Canada: Little, Brown and Company.

Specialists' panel

Various specialists have stated here why the acceptance of evolution poses no threat to their faith, or to them teaching evolution at school.

Pope John Paul II - Head of the Catholic Church:

"Today, more than a half century after [Pius XII's 1950 Encyclical], new knowledge leads us to recognize in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis. ... The convergence, neither sought nor induced, of results of work done independently one from the other, constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory."
"Consideration of the method used in diverse orders of knowledge allows for the concordance of two points of view which seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure with ever greater precision the multiple manifestations of life and place them on a timeline. The moment of passing over to the spiritual is not the object of an observation of this type, which can nevertheless reveal, on an experimental level, a series of very useful signs about the specificity of the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of the awareness of self and of its reflexive nature, that of the moral conscience, that of liberty, or still yet the aesthetic and religious experience, are within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology extracts from it the final meaning according to the Creator's designs."

Source: http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP961022.HTM

Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent evolutionist

Stephen Jay Gould has frequently argued that science and religion deal with two separate realms and seek to answer different questions; he sees no conflict between the two:
"... [Once] we recognise that the specification of morals and the search for a meaning in our lives cannot be resolved by scientific data in any case, then Darwin's [theory of evolution] will no longer seem threatening, and may even become liberating as a rationale for abandoning a ...search for the purpose of our lives, and the source of our ethical values, in the eternal workings of nature." (Gould, 2002: 248)

Gould, Stephen Jay (2002). I have landed: the end of a beginning in natural history. New York: Harmony Books

Jamie Crannell, a High School teacher from Chaska, USA and a member of the Minnesota Academic Standards Committee

The science we teach in Minnesota ought to be limited to science. Theology and religious views should not be confused with science.

There is a very vocal minority of Minnesotans who are passionately determined to have the theory of "intelligent design" offered as an alternative to the scientific theory of biological evolution. The theory of intelligent design -- while an interesting, and for some a compelling argument -- is not a scientific theory. The science that underlies biological evolution should not be minimized to appease this group. Allow me to briefly explain my understanding of how science works. Observations are made. Data is analyzed and relationships between data (laws) are described. Explanations as to how the world works (theories) are proposed. Predictions are made based on the observations, relationships, and explanations. These predictions are checked for their validity, and the relationships and explanations are verified or altered.

Laws are statements -- usually mathematical -- that describe cause-and-effect relationships. Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation are examples. Theories are complex and broad in scope. For example, Einstein's theory of general relativity explains gravity through the idea that objects travel in straight lines through four-dimensional space-time. According to the theory, objects with mass affect the fabric of space-time so that a straight line in four dimensions does not appear straight in three. Theories do not become laws. Laws are statements of relationships. Theories attempt to develop a broad and rational explanation for observations and relationships. A theory may be so overwhelmingly supported that it is accepted as true -- but it does not become a law.

There is a common misconception about science, perpetuated by everyday language, that theories are easily created, tested and modified. Scientific theories form the framework for the scientific view of the world. Modern scientific theories are interwoven and offer a cohesive and integrated understanding of how the world works.

Occasionally there is a "revolution" in science, and a theory is replaced. In order for this to happen, the new theory must offer a more compelling explanation for everything the old theory did, and more. It must be rational, logical, and based on observation. Some examples that come to mind include: the rejection of the existence of an "aether" through which light was theorized to travel through space, the rise of plate tectonics, and the quantum model of the atom.

Scientific theories do not address theological questions that people wrestle with such as "Why are we here?" Scientific theories attempt to determine the mechanisms through which the world works. People are free to ascribe whatever controlling force they personally choose to understand how God fits into the workings of the world.

Biological evolution blends factual observations and theories from multiple disciplines within science (such as the geologic principle of superposition, genetics, microbiology, radioisotopic dating, and biochemistry) to develop a coherent and rational explanation of as much data as possible. The theory addresses specific mechanisms of how the biological diversity seen today, and in the fossil record, could have occurred. It is important to point out that this theory does not attempt to include or rule out an "intelligent designer." It would be a disservice to the citizens of Minnesota to portray "intelligent design" as a viable alternative to the theory of biological evolution. It would give a false message regarding the rigor that goes into establishing or altering a scientific theory. Intelligent design simply does not rise to the level of a scientific theory.

We have an obligation to the citizens of Minnesota to ensure that the K-12 Academic Science Standards enable our students and citizens to understand how science works and to know the scientific view of our world. Intelligent design is a wonderful idea and certainly worth exploring -- but not as science. The theory of biological evolution is how science understands the fossil record and the diversity of life that is observed through time".
"Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. This comment was published in the Star Tribune 11/09/2003. Republished with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written consent of Star Tribune."

Professor John Campbell, Department of Communication at the University of Memphis, USA

"I am not a biology teacher but as a classroom vet [veteran] of many seasons in the basic communication classes I have a keen respect for the kind of "hands on" knowledge that only an experienced classroom teachers can possess.

  1. I start from the assumption that we really must (all of us educators) find a way of getting a basic and accurate knowledge of Darwin's theory to our students. Esp. in the high schools.
  2. I am aware that many of my colleagues in science do not want to teach anything in their classes that is not "science" and I respect them for this. Tactically I would be willing to experiment with alternative teaching strategies.
  3. I do not believe public school teachers should "cave" to popular pressure about what is taught in their classrooms. I reject the thesis that religion (or for that matter irreligion) should be taught in the public school classroom.
  4. Having said all of this, as one who also insists that students do responsible research on their topics, and who has made a career of teaching classes where controversial topics constitute much of the curriculum I think it is possible for people in my profession and yours to learn from one another-in ways that will promote public education and the knowledge of science esp. of Darwin's theory.


There are studies by science educators that argue that discussion/debate and related activities provide the best cognitive approach to get certain students to drop the defences that prevent many of them from considering Darwin's theory at all. Professional science educators are thinking about ways of addressing the natural questions that students have and finding ways of addressing them in ways that will foster the teaching of biology rather than foster students being suspicious of science because they think it is out to challenge their religion. If I have a panacea it is this-teaching inquiry allows teachers to use controversy to advance knowledge. I say there has to be a way to use student's questions as goals to further learning rather than as blocks."

Roundtable discussion

For the roundtable discussion we have asked scientists a set of questions to which they have replied. Use these as a starting point for discussion and critical thought. Two scientists, Dr Carolyn (Kim) King from the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Waikato, New Zealand and Professor John A. Campbell from the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis, USA were asked to comment on these questions we posed around the issues of perceived conflict between the Church and Science.

Each of our guests kindly answered the questions we posed:

  1. If the literal account of the creation, given in Genesis, is incorrect - which is what Darwinian evolution tells me - then what does this mean for the authority of the rest of the Bible? Is it also rejected?
  2. It's difficult to reconcile the Biblical version of our past, and in particular the literal Genesis creation story, with the evidence provided by evolution, physics, and astronomy. Does this mean I must ignore the Genesis account?
  3. But what about original sin? If humans arose through the process of evolution, then what does this mean for the concept of original sin? How can there be original sin, and later the redemption, without a real-life Adam and Eve?
  4. How can someone be both religious and an evolutionary biologist? Surely it's not possible to reconcile the two? Evolution may not say that there's no God, but it certainly seems to say that God plays no part in the way the world works.
  5. Many people say that, after studying both creation and evolution as explanations for life's history, they feel that both are forms of faith. This is because they deal with events that occurred prior to human history. These people say that to accept either explanation requires trust and and element of belief. What are your comments?

1. If the literal account of the creation, given in Genesis, is incorrect - which is what Darwinian evolution tells me - then what does this mean for the authority of the rest of the Bible? Is it also rejected?

Professor John A. Campbell:

"If a student asked me that I would say "Sally that is a good question. Clearly there are religious people who do and there are religious people who do not. This is not a question for me to answer for you, but one for you to decide yourself." Then I might, or might not (what do you think about this) give them a short list of books in two columns one on the "pro" side and one on the "con" side. I might say that most scholarship on the Bible does not favour a literal interpretation of Genesis. Again I would be tempted to say "Here are some books I have found helpful on the question." Again my aim as an educator would be to honour the question, praise the student for asking it, put the question in the student's court and offer the student some beginning resources. Or, I might just limit myself to specific questions in biology or science. I might say "As a biologist ..." Even then I would try to offer my students some literature (the best of it I could find) that went against my view as well as the standard sources that supported it."
Dr Carolyn (Kim) King: "Fundamentalists say yes, but few academic theologians agree - creationism is largely a matter of American politics, rooted in a deep fear of social freedom and change - but there is a very large body of rigorous and intellectually respectable theology that is much more interesting and fruitful than creationism."

2. It's difficult to reconcile the Biblical version of our past, and in particular the literal Genesis creation story, with the evidence provided by evolution, physics, and astronomy. Does this mean I must ignore the Genesis account?

Professor John A. Campbell:

"Sally this is another good question. I cannot tell you how to do this. There are opinions on both sides of the question. As your teacher I have to tell you that most scholarly opinion on the Bible follows regards the scientific and religious issues as separate. Here are some books about this debate that you might want to consult."
Dr Carolyn (Kim) King:

"As literal stories, Gen 1 and Gen 2-3 conflict, so one or both cannot be taken as literally true. For people who insist on finding at least some literal truth there is some salvation in realising that the text of Gen 1 says clearly that God's commands were addressed to the earth and to the seas, not to the creatures themselves, so creation was indirect from the start (let the earth bring forth, etc). Also, God rested after the 7th day so the earth had to continue producing without supervision either, after that. So traditional Anglican theology (that is, before American fundamentalism was ever thought of) always assumed creation was indirect, running according to laws laid down in the 1st 6 days.

But ultimately this sort of argument is evading the issue, which requires coming to terms with the different origins and histories and intent of the two stories, which cant be done unless we take them very seriously on their own terms, in the specialist and very important meaning of myths, not trying to impose on them our own meanings that the original authors and listeners would have rejected completely".

We can't do any of that unless recognise the difference between literal and metaphorical truth. Both are real and important but they are NOT the same."

3. But what about original sin? If humans arose through the process of evolution, then what does this mean for the concept of original sin? How can there be original sin, and later the redemption, without a real-life Adam and Eve?

Professor John A. Campbell:

"Again, if I were in the firing line and were getting questions such as this on a regular basis I would deflect the question as best as possible-this is a biology class. I would certainly not want this question, or those like it, to take over the class. At the same time that I tried to limit the class time spent addressing these issues I would have some resources that would offer pro/con sources. One of the points that the recurrence of questions such as this suggests to me is the need for a curriculum that offers a perspective-that anticipates these questions in advance."
Dr Carolyn (Kim) King:

"The Hebrews thought that anything made by a good God must itself be good. The fact that the world has such a lot of observable bad in it could not be attributable to God so therefore someone must have stuffed it up. All political power in the ancient world was absolute so they assumed God's power was the same only more so. Ancient emperors laid down rigid commands and authorised terrible punishments for those who disobeyed. So it seemed not only right but only to be expected that God created Adam directly, gave him a law (don't eat the apple) and threw him out when he disobeyed. In its context the story is remarkable not for the curse but for the tender care God showed to Adam and Eve by making clothes for them before seeing them to the door. We don't see that bit because we get hung up on the other details, but the rest of the Old Testament is more about God's sorrow over how people continue to reject his love for them and to disobey him than about the frightful punishments which any other god of the time would have brought down on their heads. But if there had been any other way for them to the interpret the paradox of evil in a world made by a good God, the Hebrews wouldn't have needed the whole story - and that's why we don't need it in the literal sense, because socio-biology has a better explanation - we constantly have to choose between the default setting of our inherited animal nature (look after number one) and our culturally imposed social duty - natural selection against cultural selection - as St Paul said, the good that I would do, I don't do, instead I end up doing what I know to be wrong. He couldn't understand it except in terms of sin, we can see a scientific reason for it."

4. How can someone be both religious and an evolutionary biologist? Surely it's not possible to reconcile the two? Evolution may not say that there's no God, but it certainly seems to say that God plays no part in the way the world works.

Professor John A. Campbell:

'Here on this one I more secure of my ground. I would feel strong enough here to say "nonsense." But I would try to be more tactful. "Sally, your question seems to assume that science is our only reliable guide to life. Whatever the truth of evolution God is perfectly capable of acting directly at any moment. In the final line of the Origin Darwin speaks of how life was first "breathed by the Creator" (3rd edition) "into a few forms or into one." Evolution in particular and science in general tells us nothing about how we should live and leave open the great questions of "in what may I hope?" or "Does life have meaning." Sally, science is a good thing-but it is not everything. Many of life's most important questions it leaves entirely unaddressed. Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, pointed out we do not use the same method in physics as we do in ethics, I would urge you to keen this in mind. The events that happen to us in life, meeting a new friend, finding a subject that interests us, discovering a passion for acting, music or even science, are unique and particular, as is our relationship to God. Science knows nothing of this. A wise person follows different methods of reasoning in thinking about different things. Again as Aristotle said-there is no science of the particular. Your call of conscience neither follows nor breaks any scientific law. Neither did God's call to Abraham."
Dr Carolyn (Kim) King:

"Only if you still think of God as personally responsible for all that happens. That's just a kids story - for grownups we can face the harder idea that WE are responsible for a great deal of evil in the world by misusing our freedom and intelligence, and God can't stop it without taking back the personal freedom which is the necessary pre-requisite of love".

5. Many people say that, after studying both creation and evolution as explanations for life's history, they feel that both are forms of faith. This is because they deal with events that occurred prior to human history. These people say that to accept either explanation requires trust and and element of belief. What are your comments?

Professor John A. Campbell:

"Well here I tend to go a long way with St. Augustine when he observed "I believe in order that I may know." Science believes the physical world makes sense because it operates by what we call "natural law." That sounds like a useful assumption. Let's give it a whirl and see how far it can go to justifying its faith in the reasoned character of the world. If one asks why do we believe that-- a pretty good answer is that in opposition to other societies the west (including Islam) traditionally has believed in a creator God and this has been a big impetus historically to the development of empirical science. There are quite a number of very good books on this very theme".
Dr Carolyn (Kim) King:

"This is a question about the nature of knowledge and how we deduce information from models of invisible realities. The forms of faith are different but you are right, both require trust, one in intellectual processes and one in spiritual experience".

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