Questions concerning the nature of our existence are no doubt the most important to philosophy. Why are we here? is perhaps the most challenging, in which the scientific theory of evolution has contributed an answer. However, evolutionary theory does not coincide well with the teachings of Christianity – a religion which informs us that man was created in the eyes of God. Can the two disciplines coexist in harmony, or do they ultimately conflict, thus undermining the religion as a whole?
During my childhood I dabbled in various religions trying to find meaning (much like Pi in Life of Pi). Upon receiving a free Bible at school, I recall meticulously scouring through it for answers. I was initially sold at what Christianity had to offer – an explanation as to why I was here and a purposeful reason for living. I memorised the Lord’s prayer and decided to recite it whenever I was feeling low. It helped, although I now realise this was probably just a placebo effect. As time passed, I wondered whether there really was any truth behind the scriptures. How could anyone be sure that Christianity was the one truth faith?
With over two billion followers, Christianity is the most popular religion in the world. Its teachings come from the Bible, which tell us that God is responsible for the world and everything in it. This includes animals and the first ever humans - Adam and Eve. The Christian God is powerful, loving, and can hear our prayers. Although transcendent, he is very much a part of our reality, and as long as we follow his rules, we can be united with him after we die.
As a teenager, I was taught in science class the theory of evolution. Evolution informs us that life evolved over billions of years, in which species either evolved or became extinct. Humans are also part of this majestic process, as we evolved from chimpanzees. We are simply a by-product of a very long, unguided process (with a substantial amount of evidence to prove it).
So how does the Christian respond? As the evidence for evolution has over the years become more overwhelming, Christians have had to accommodate the theory to fit with (the now seemingly eccentric) biblical theology of creation. They have divided themselves broadly into three camps:
In summary, the view of the creationist is that the Bible is right and science is wrong. So it isn’t surprising that The Simpsons had a field day with this. In ‘The Monkey Suit', Lisa Simpson acts as the voice of reason as she tries to encourage her fellow students to follow Darwinism.
Ned Flanders conversely believes that the Bible, word for word, is the ultimate truth. Although perhaps an outdated view, creationism is still currently backed by a significant number of Christian apologists, predominately in North America. The idea really took off in the 1960’s with the publication of The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (1961) by John C. Whitcom and Henry M. Morris. The book argues that a global flood actually occurred, dinosaurs walked with man, and the earth is potentially thousands, not billons, of years old. Although an insult to geology, the publication shockingly propelled creationism and Morris went on to form two organisations which are still thriving today: The Creation Research Society and The Institute for Creation Research. But despite contemporary advocates, creationism is ultimately labelled pseudoscience and has no validity in the scientific community.
Intelligent design arose in the 1990’s, and is a movement that argues there are features of evolution that are best explained by supernatural intervention. It was initially started by Phillip Johnson, a lawyer and author of Darwin on Trial (1991), and a few others have followed his work such as Michael Behe and William A. Dembski. The idea is to prove that evolution could not have happened on its own, for some features of evolution are too complex. A chimpanzee becoming human is far too much of a leap, therefore a heavenly switch must have been pressed. Enthusiasts have had many battles with education boards in court rooms in an attempt to have intelligent design at least mentioned in science classrooms, however the attempts have always failed due to the fact that it is predominately a religious concept. There have admittedly been gaps in scientific knowledge before, which always seem to erroneously invite a supernatural explanation. But in terms of evolution, the gaps have now vigorously been filled by many scientists. We evolved – and the evidence tells us that no supernatural intervention was required.
There is one more option. Theistic evolution is the notion that both evolution and religion can co-exist without conflict. Supporters do not deny the evidence for evolution, nor that humans evolved from animals. They also accept the age of the earth and universe as confirmed by science, and acknowledge that a global flood never actually happened. As science is embraced in this way, I am able to discuss theistic evolution in more detail as a potential solution to the problem, as opposed to intelligent design or creationism which can so easily be refuted.
The only problem here is that theistic evolution is a broad term in which advocates are divided on the finer details. For example, if the Bible is compromised and key elements are disregarded (in order to reflect with what science has taught us), then theistic evolution runs the risk of becoming a non-Christian concept. On the other hand, if one does not fully take on board the full facts of modern evolutionary theory - that it is a blind, unguided process - then one cannot be classed as a true evolutionist. I am therefore worried that it is not possible to combine science and Christianity successfully, thus defeating the very point of theistic evolution.
I will discuss several parts of the Bible, and then confer on what some of the most prominent proponents of theistic evolution say. These brave advocates are Karl Giberson, Michael Ruse, and Francis Collins, all distinguished in science and/or philosophy, and all believe science poses no threat to their Christian faith (with the exception of Ruse who is agnostic).
Genesis & Creation
Creation, as described in a part of the Old Testament known as the Book of Genesis, happened approximately six thousand years ago and took six days. God ordered the sea to teem with living creatures, birds to fly in the air, and land mammals to exist. This includes Adam, the first human created in God's own image. Eve was created from one of Adam's ribs, and they were both placed in the Garden of Eden. Eve is then tricked by a serpent into eating fruit from a forbidden tree, so Adam and Ever are expelled from the Garden of Eden; their sin forever corrupting the world (known as the 'fall of man'). But with too much sin in the world, God is angered and goes on to initiate a catastrophic global flood which wipes out all of humanity, sparing only Noah, his family, and an ark containing two of every animal. More stories continue, involving other biblical figures such as Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.
Now to interpret the Book of Genesis as an account of true historical events requires a huge amount of faith, and more importantly, a disregard to empirical scientific evidence. There is no evidence of a global flood ever occurring, a six thousand year old earth would deny the cosmological evidence for an earth that is over four billion years old, and God creating organisms in this particular fashion goes against everything that evolution teaches us. Not only is the timescale of creation incorrect, but even the order of events are chronologically flawed, leaving it difficult to interpret the Book of Genesis as anything but fiction.
Today, theistic evolutionists are not as naive to science, and interpret the teachings from the Book of Genesis as stories with morals, rather than factual events. Theistic evolutionist Francis Collins in The Language of God (2006) states, “The first chapters of Genesis had much more the feel of a morality play”. Karl Giberson in Saving Darwin (2008), interestingly argues, “Creation, I hasten to point out, is a secondary doctrine for Christians. The central idea in Christianity concerns Jesus Christ and the claim that he was the Son of God, truly divine and truly human”. These ideas are certainly one way to escape the wrath of science, however I am not convinced that the earlier parts of Genesis can so easily be regarded as secondary information, or ‘unimportant’ to put it bluntly. The Book of Genesis is fundamental to Christianity and one of its central teachings is the creation of man. Jesus himself refers to Genesis in the New Testament, thus confirming its significance. Isn’t picking what is allegorical undermining the faith, and who is to say what we pick and choose anyway?
“God created man in his own image” (Genesis, 1:27). And so it is told, that humans, unlike animals, were uniquely created in the eyes of God, who “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis, 2:7). But evolution says otherwise. Humans evolved, not just physically, but mentally and culturally. Over millions of years we became more and more advanced in terms of our psychology, intelligence, and self-awareness. We learnt to communicate, enabling us to form better relationships, which led to huge advancements in our social and biological development. We are an amazing species, one that came about through a gradual process of millions of years, not one found upon in a fell swoop. And it is this story of human evolution that leaves little room for Adam and Eve.
Collins’ view is that that perhaps a breath of life was directly propelled into two chosen human beings at some point in time (I am assuming that by breath of life he means some of the attributes just mentioned - self-awareness, language perhaps). But God intervening really defies the point of theistic evolution and its commitment to take evolution in its fullest form seriously. Human evolution needs no intervention. I recognise that it is a deep, difficult theological problem, for if we admit there may not have been an Adam and Eve, then this could imply there was no fall of man, no sin, and no point in Jesus coming to save mankind. So I can see the desperation in trying to seek middle ground. Michael Ruse mentions in his book Can a Darwinian be a Christian (2011) the hypothesis of an original Eve, to which I assume he is referring to a kind of ‘Mitochondrial Eve’.
This might be plausible if we can bring ourselves to believe there actually was a first biological human female from whom we all descend, which science cannot confirm. But are we not then compromising the view that God created Adam first? Ruse ultimately admits that we are stuck on the matter and “seem to have reached an impasse”.
To have the Adam and Eve story meshed with science just seems so alien as to what was intended in the original biblical scripture. Perhaps we should admit - there is no literal truth in Adam and Eve. When one attempts to amend the story to fit with science, something abysmally fails.
Evolution happened. It is a scientific fact, and theistic evolutionists know it. Therefore they have no qualms with the idea that life evolved through natural processes, they simply coincide the concept with God as creator. But a controversial fact throws doubt on this coalition - the fact that evolution is a blind, unguided process. If evolution was to be replayed from the start, things may very well have been different. For example, dinosaurs may have triumphed if changes to their environment didn’t kill them. And why did they exist (only to become extinct) anyway, if God was responsible for evolution?
Collins thinks he can certainly resolve the whole problem by insisting that “evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified”. And I predict that this is probably the view that many religious people hold - we cannot ignore the facts of science, but somehow God must have known what evolution would entail. But there lies a problem. How can we attribute purpose to a purposeless process? It just doesn’t make logical sense. We would have to imply that there was information implanted in the physical world to ensure evolution took place, but evolution does not work in this way.
I have analysed various elements of the Christian faith in conjunction with evolutionary theory, and as expected I am not satisfied that theistic evolution works. Not only do advocates differ in their individual approaches (thus making it difficult to reach an agreed consensus), but each approach fails to whole heartedly commit to either discipline.
The Bible is undoubtedly the foundation and heart of Christianity – it is the provider of its principles, teachings, and origins. But unfortunately, a proportion of its content have been falsified by science, which raises doubt on Christianity as a whole. If the Bible was the true word of God, should it not contain all the things we would expect it too – a detailed, in-depth description of the majestic process that is evolution, or an overview of the universe and its mechanism in all its glory. Instead we are left with an elementary view that would coincide with the education of people who lived two thousand years ago. And back then, creation stories would have been prevalent – for without science, the only way in which people could understand their existence was by invoking tales of creation. It is only natural for us to want to know where we came from.
“Religion utilizes and piggybacks onto everyday social thought processes, adaptive psychological mechanisms that evolved to help us negotiate our relationships with other people, to detect agency and intent, and to generate a sense of safety”.
J. Anderson Thomson (psychiatrist)
Our existence could only be speculated by looking up at the stars, and seemingly it would appear as though we were at the centre of the universe. This was the general Christian view - heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. Therefore it was no surprise that Copernicus’s heliocentric view was such a controversy. The emergence of science has only recently been filling the void that religion so incompetently has been dominating for centuries, and now it is hard to shake off the traditions that encompass it. As for evolution, nobody had a clue. And I suspect that the authors of the Bible did not have any more proof of a supernatural existence than we do today, and therefore offered their own interpretations about how the world was created and what our purpose is. And like other religions, this information has been passed down from generation to generation. The Book of Genesis is clearly a dated, mythical stab at why we exist, and has unfortunately sustained throughout the ages and gained mass popularity.
The amount of other faiths which are prevalent in today’s society also pose a problem. Why should Christianity have preference over these, are the other religions just wrong? Is it not more plausible that civilisations may have also been subject to speculation of their existence, and also passed down a similar story of creation, with teachings, superstitions, and rituals? This would easily explain the varied, diverse mix of creation stories that we have today.
We are slowly uncovering the truth about our origins, with science pushing the envelope further and faster than ever before. Only in the last two centuries we have begun to unravel the mystery of our origins through groundbreaking evidence. Who knows what else will be discovered in the next two centuries. Humanity will ultimately end, so our time is short. Once sentient life becomes extinct there may never be consciousness in the universe ever again. Science and its power to reveal our origins may impact our future significantly, but religious antiquity is holding us back. Invoking stories from the Bible as facts will ultimately slow us down and prevent us from moving forward as an intelligent race and informed society.