Charles Darwin published his culture-shaking Origin of Species in 1859. It immediately provoked a passionate controversy. This is hardly surprising. The Darwinian culture shock can be compared to an earlier one: the Copernican one. Copernicus made people see the earth as one of several planets circling the sun, rather than as the center of the universe. Darwin placed humanity squarely within the animal kingdom rather than outside it as its master. Both radical changes in worldview upset everyone, but the more recent one more directly challenged the traditional understanding of the Bible, especially the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. The Copernican view of the solar system makes it difficult, for example, to accept a Biblical story in which the sun stood still. However, there are not too many such stories. The Darwinian account of evolution radically questioned the Biblical story of the creation of Adam and Eve just a few thousand years ago. The Victorians argued about all this to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond. Today, more than 150 years later, Darwin’s ghost is still rattling in the attics of the culture, especially in those attics inhabited by Evangelicals. Liberal Protestants quite early came to terms with evolution, except for its application to society by so-called Social Darwinism, which used the notion of the survival of the fittest to justify the most ruthless capitalism—in direct opposition to the Social Gospel favored by many if not most liberals. Catholics have been less bothered by evolution—their, as it were, cognitive anxieties circle around the Church rather than the Bible.
The July-August issue of Christianity Today offers palpable evidence of the continuing controversy among American Evangelicals. The cover story is about two scientists, both fervently Evangelical, but one a “young earth creationist” (I love this very lyrical term—it means that the age of the creation must be dated in literal adherence to the Biblical chronology), the other an “ancient earth creationist” (less lyrically inspiring term—it means that the age of the earth and of the human species is dated in accordance with conventional science, which also means that creation is seen as a gradual process). The two scientists are, respectively, Tom Wood and Darrell Falk.
Tom Wood grew up in a rural community in Michigan, where his family attended a small Baptist church. He first came across biology as an undergraduate at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia (the “largest Evangelical university in the world”, founded by Jerry Falwell). He went on to study biochemistry at the University of Virginia. At no time did he doubt the six-day creation story of Genesis, and his entire career as a scientist was devoted to finding empirical evidence for it. For example, he argued that the genetic similarities between species are due to common descent from Noah’s ark. He explained in a memorable sentence: “I want to understand what God is thinking. Why did he make chimps almost the same as humans?”.
Darrell Falk grew up in British Columbia, near Vancouver. His family attended a Nazarene church. (The Nazarenes were an offshoot from Methodism, their distinguishing belief asserting that perfection can be attained in this world. The belief is shared by the larger Holiness community.) At age 10 he experienced the “second work of grace”, the spiritual baptism of the Holiness tradition. He read a textbook of biology in junior high school and was troubled in his faith by the theory of evolution. However, as he read more biology in college his reaction changed: “I had known the beauty of Christianity. Now I discovered the beauty of genetics. When I saw how the cell worked, it was unbelievably beautiful”. He went on to study genetics at the University of Alberta, where he joined a less fundamentalist Nazarene church (the denomination contains a spectrum of theological positions). His mission has been to reconcile evolution with the Christian view of God as creator, broadly speaking in sympathy with the co-called “intelligent design” movement. He went on to teach at Point Loma Nazarene University in California, then at Bryan University in Los Angeles; he also heads the BioLogos organization, which advocates a belief in God’s creation as continuing over millions of years. Falk’s book Coming to Peace with Science has become a defining text for the Intelligent Design movement.
The ongoing debate over evolution is a particularly interesting case of the relation between modernity and religion. I have been arguing (I cannot develop this argument more fully here) that modernity is not necessarily secularizing (in the sense of bringing about a decline of religion). Modernity does (I think, necessarily) lead to pluralization—the co-existence of diverse worldviews and moralities in the same society. This pluralization occurs in the institutional order, but also in the consciousness of individuals. There is a secular discourse which is the lingua franca of most people in a modern society; science has powerfully shaped this discourse. But in much of the world, very much so in America, this discourse has not done away with various discourses deriving from religion. To be a modern person holding religious beliefs means to be able to switch between these discourses in different spheres of one’s life. This process has been brilliantly described in two recent books: by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, in When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Experience with God, and by the sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. The balancing act is by no means limited to Americans or Christians. What makes it very interesting here is that the United States is the most religious western country, and that Evangelicals are the most dynamic religious community in the country.
Christianity Today follows up the story about the two scientists with a useful overview of the positions in the current debate over the Darwinian heritage:
- Creationism: The creation account in the Book of Genesis, is literally true, and scientific evidence supports it.
- Intelligent Design: Evolution is true, but science requires an external intelligence to explain the diversity of life.
- Theistic evolution: God created diversity through the evolutionary process.
- Scientism: No divine creator is responsible for life and its diversity.
Each of these positions has its problems. Creationism flies in the face of the scientific evidence (all those fossils!), and a very imaginative legerdemain is needed to re-interpret the evidence so as to fit the religious presuppositions.
Intelligent design reflects an intuition shared by religious believers, at least in the three monotheistic faiths—William Blake’s “fearful symmetry” of the universe pointing to its creator; the trouble here is the claim that this intuition can be based on science. It cannot. It is not falsifiable by any scientific methodology.
Theistic evolution, if I understand it correctly, shares the ID intuition, but does not claim that it results from science; this position, I think, is best suited to enable the balance between the discourse of science and the discourse of faith. It does not help to address the problem of theodicy raised by evolution—the enormous mountain of suffering and death incurred by all living beings in the process of natural selection—“designed” or tolerated by a compassionate creator? If that problem can be addressed at all, it cannot be on the basis of a “theistic evolution” alone.
As to scientism, I doubt whether this is a position held by any believing Christian (or Jew or Muslim)—unless the term means that science and faith are two sharply discrete ways of looking at reality that should not be mixed. The term does apply to the so-called “new atheists”, among others, who make of science a quasi-religion—a fundamentalist faith of its own.
Survey data show that large numbers of Americans are creationists of the most robust sort. This kind of religion tends to wither or at least be modified with the spread of higher education. Barring some dramatic catastrophies falling on American society, one would not predict a rosy future for creationism (quite apart from the fact that the federal courts are barring it from the schools). But I think it would be a mistake to simply attribute its prevalence to lack of education. Underlying it is another intuition, which has nothing to do with evolution or the age of the earth: The perception of the distinctive and sacred dignity of every human being. In the famous debate between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at the “monkey trial” of 1925 (which humiliated Bryan and traumatized American Evangelicals for decades), Darrow was right in showing up the implausibility of a literal reading of the Bible. But on a deeper and finally more important level, Bryan was right—and it is a good thing that Evangelicals are getting over the trauma.