And God made Darwin

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“If you’re interpretation of the Bible contradicts demonstrable facts, then it is your interpretation that needs to change, not the facts.”

I’m not a biologist but I’m very confident that evolution by means of natural selection is a real thing. That’s partly because people who are biologists are themselves very confident of this fact and have been for a very long time. It’s also because evolution is an ongoing process we can see happening, for example, when bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics.

There is only an ongoing debate about this notion because some people take it as a challenge to their religious faith. This is a strong trend within Islam. But as I’m a Christian, I’m going to focus on my own tradition.

I was moved to write about this by a Ted talk by Dr. April Maskiewicz, an academic who teaches biology at a Christian University.

She reports doing straw polls of her students that indicate that 90% of them reject evolution. Their motivation appears to be a belief that one must choose between God and natural selection: a belief in one proposition apparently negating the possibility of the other. As a student, Dr. Maskiewicz herself was apparently told this by both her priest and her biology lecturer. She spends the 17 minutes of her talk patiently and politely disassembling this notion.

Allow me to be blunter. When one reads in Genesis that ‘God created the world in 6 days’, it is not the ‘in 6 days’ part that is significant. What matters is that he brought all things into existence. If he had the power to do that, then he clearly also has the power to set in motion a process whereby some matter coheres into simple life forms which then evolve into a host organisms including humans.

This is not some out there liberal re-interpretation of the Bible. It is something believed by a figure as unbending as the last Pope who has said that:

We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities.

Now it is true that accepting evolution means we can no longer credibly argue that ‘the only way for complex organisms to have come about is for a creator to have made them’. But all evolution does is push that kind of reasoning back a stage. We still have to explain how a universe where evolution could occur came about and indeed why it appears to have been ‘fine tuned‘ for that purpose.

Besides, we’re in trouble if we start choosing evidence that fits our conclusion rather than the reverse. If you’re interpretation of the Bible contradicts demonstrable facts, then it is your interpretation that needs to change not the facts.

Now, I would not want to give the impression Dr. Maskiewicz’s students are typical of Christians. Indeed, given that ‘theistic evolution’ is supported by the Catholic Church, most mainline protestant denominations and a large number of Eastern Orthodox adherents it is likely to be the majority position.

Nonetheless, ‘Creationism’ is still  an idea that creates problems. Dr. Maskiewicz recounts how having being told that she had to decide between her faith and the clear evidence for evolution, she opted for evolution and only found her way back by discovering that she had been presented with a false dichotomy.

And what sensible person wouldn’t do what she did? If a belief system demands believing that black is white then it deserves to be rejected. It, therefore, seems highly likely that there are people who would be Christians had they not come to associate it with anti-scientific bunkum. Creationism is thus a barrier to faith that ought to be demolished.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. The reaction against evolution among some Christians doubtless owes something to the fact that a number of prominent New Atheists are evolutionary biologists. Richard Dawkins is of course the most obvious example. But might the direction of causality also run the other way? Would Dawkins and his ilk still have become implacable opponents of evolution if they hadn’t faced believers claiming that an incidental detail of a methaphor in Genesis refuted something demonstrated time and again by paleontology, genetics and zoology?

 

Hat tip: Rachel Held Evans

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