On Darwin’s Faith

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Depending on one’s perspective, Charles Darwin is a lightning rod and a foundation. Opposing sides in the theology-evolution issue use him in different ways. Whereas conservative Christians describe him as an immoral, hateful atheist who is a messenger from the devil, evolution supporters refer to him as a scholar, a brilliant thinker, and even an inspiration.

Interesting how the two views of one life differ based a perspective of a forced choice that some present. In terms of his religion, Darwin faith life was filled with struggle. Below are chronological moments in Charles Darwin’s religious life. Besides, February 12th is his 208th birthday.

1809: Charles Darwin is born into a family of a father who was a religious skeptic, a Unitarian mother, and 4 siblings (3 sisters and a brother) who attended church with their mother. His paternal grandfather was a deist, as was Darwin’s brother.

1817: Darwin’s mother died. Thereafter, his older sisters took him to an Anglican church where he remained and was educated. At the time, the Anglican church had a 6-day, young-earth creationist view of the world.

1828: After several years in medical school at the University of Edinburgh, Darwin enters Cambridge University to study theology. Studies introduce him to Paley’s Natural Theology, which influenced his beliefs in a God intervening in creation.

1831: Darwin graduates from Cambridge with a theology degree, but decided not to pursue being an ordained pastor. A geology field trip initiated the thought that the earth is very old, therefore developing a view of today’s old-earth creationists with an intervening God as the designer. Later that year he begins his 5-year journey on the HMS Beagle.

1831-1836: Through his many observations across the globe, Darwin is convinced God is present in nature and that God was the intervening designer.

1836-1839: After his journey, Darwin thought deeply about biology, geology, and theology, so he spend much time writing. He rejected origins based on Genesis 1 and eventually Christianity – but not God.

1839: Marries Emma (a Unitarian) in an Anglican ceremony. They would eventually have 10 children, two of which died in infancy.

1851: Annie, his second oldest child and the “apple of her proud father’s eye” dies after an illness of several years. This devastated Darwin, and some say this greatly impacted his view of suffering.

1856: Starts writing On the Origin of the Species.

1859: On the Origin of the Species is published. In it Darwin mentions god as the Creator on multiple occasions – signally his shift from a traditional theist to a non-traditional theist with God as the creator of the evolutionary process.

1860-1861: Reflecting on reactions people had about the book, Darwin writes to a Harvard botanist, “I had no intention to write atheistically … my views are not at all necessarily atheistical.” He also admits being troubled by the suffering that occurs in nature and in the world, but reinforces a belief in design by a Creator.

1871: The Descent of Man published. While acknowledging the “highly irreligious” will denounce his work, he supports his belief in a Creator at work in designing life. “The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance.”

1876: Because of his struggles with suffering, he continues to question God’s existence. In his biography Darwin explains his belief in God as an intelligent designed and states, “I deserve to be called a theist.” His writings point to one who believes in a god that is not assigned to one particular religion. Later he concludes, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is not solvable by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”

1879: Although agnostic, Darwin writes this powerful sentence about evolution and theology in a letter: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man be an ardent theist and an evolutionists. …. In my extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God …. I think that as I grow older, but not always, that an Agnostic would be a more correct description of my state of mind.”

1882: After a difficult 3 months with health issues, Charles Darwin dies – and never an atheist. Reports of him recanting his view of evolution and proclaiming Jesus Christ as savior lack evidence, therefore untrue. He is buried in London’s Westminster Abbey (Anglican).

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On Evolutionism

One should not confuse evolution and evolutionism because they are different. Whereas evolution is about nature (previously explained), evolutionism attempts to use evolution to express progress and value of society. Some even link biological and cultural progress back to God because humans are worth more to God as a result of this progress.

We can trace the concept of evolutionism back to Aristotle’s hierarchical Great Chain of Being. Numerous societal shifts during the 1800s as agricultural to industrial and rural to urban marked the growth in evolutionism. With these shifts in mind and the thought that the church was not addressing society’s latest needs, evolutionism became an ideology challenging the religious trends at the time of literalism, fire, and brimstone.

Hebert Spencer (1820-1903), a Darwin contemporary, used psychology, sociology, philosophy, and biology to embrace human struggles and evolutionism to justify social policies. Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (yes, Hebert Spencer, not Charles Darwin) because he saw evolution as a mechanism to explain social development. Because he influenced so many sociologists, some say that Hebert Spencer’s work has been more influential than Charles Darwin.

Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), another Darwin contemporary and Darwin confidant and supporter, also used Darwin’s theory to promote a social agenda in his challenge to the Church of England – deeming it as an obstructionist to human and culture progress.

It is the work of Spencer, Huxley, Francis Galton, Ernest Haeckel, and others morphed into “social Darwinism”, which some use to embrace selective breeding for humans. Interestingly, Galton (1822-1911), Charles Darwin’s cousin known as the founding father of eugenics – a socio-biological movement advocating methods for improving the human population through genetics.

Haeckel (1834-1919), a German biologist and philosopher, embraced Spencer and evolution, but not Darwin’s natural selection. Adolph Hitler mistakenly used Hackael’s “politics is applied biology” as one reason for justifying Arian dominance. It is this on this point that anti-evolutionists today inaccurately point to Charles Darwin’s evolution leading to a life of homosexuality, promiscuity, abortion, dysfunctional families, and other societal issues.

Today, evolutionism referred to as Social Darwinism, lies in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. One should not confuse this field with sociobiology, which studies social behaviors by animals. (Many recognize E.O Wilson for his work in this area.)

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is not about culture and values or a vehicle for exposing desired values – nor does it attempt to answer questions as why are we here, what is the role of humans, what is the role of God, or what would Jesus do. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is not tied to Nazism, Fascism, communism, and socialism. Darwinism is about genetics, adaptation, diversity, and the natural world.

Science is supposed to yield objective knowledge that is free from cultural values. Social Darwinism/evolutionism was not good science in the time of Hebert Spencer nor is it good science today because good science involves observation, measurement, experimentation, predictions, and conclusions that are free from societal norms and philosophy.

On Evolution

Contrary to what some believe, Charles Darwin did not develop or invent the concept of evolution as thoughts of origins and evolution go back to the Greeks (Democritus), Romans (Lucretius), and the Chinese (Tao). Within Christianity, the concept dates back to at least to the fourth century with Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 C.E.) and St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.). Darwin merely explained the how evolution occurs – and that is natural selection.

Darwin’s studies included theology, medicine, and geology; thus like many in at this time, William Paley’s Natural Theology influenced his view of nature. Since studying nature was Darwin’s primary love, in 1831 his five-year journey as the ship’s naturalist on the HMS Beagle began – a trip upon which he took copious, detailed notes about anatomy and geology.

Karl Giberson (Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, 2008) writes the following about Darwin’s journey and thinking.

He (Darwin) started his career as a naturalist viewing the world through the lens of natural theology and seeing intelligent design. But he began to notice that things didn’t fit: here is an animal with webbed feet on dry land; there is a bee that dies after stinging its prey, its stinger serrated in a way that prevents extraction after insertion; here is a cat apparently torturing a mouse before killing it. … (Later regarding the webbed feet) If this was the handiwork of God, it was surely a cruel joke, as anyone who has ever tried to walk in flippers knows only too well.

As we know today, Darwin also knew about how we use selective breeding (artificial selection) to produce offspring with favorable variations; and thus wondered if a similar selection process existed within nature. By continuing his studies after his journey, an essay by Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) about competition for food stimulated more thoughts. Since living things struggled for a limited resource, the most-fit organisms survive to reproduce – thus natural selection.

Variations are slight differences between organisms of the same species. Looking at the human face one sees two eyes, two ears, nose, mouth, various characteristics about hair, and numerous other features. On the other hand, consider all the variations that humans display in their face alone. Examining the orange breast of multiple robins shows differences as the interspersed white is not identical from bird to bird, thus variations of a trait within a species.

Natural selection favors organisms with the most favorable variations, so over time a population adjusts within species, and even the creation of new species. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote the following without knowledge of genetics:

Thus the small differences distinguishing varieties of the same species, steadily tend to increase, till they equal the greater differences between species of the same genus, or even a distinct genera.

Darwin did not publish his thoughts for 20 years, yet, a paper by Alfred Russell Wallace explaining natural selection from his studies in southeastern Asia pushed Darwin to publish. Yet the two men eventually jointly presented (in absentia) the theory of natural selection to the Linnean Society – and to think that Wallace is the one who coined Darwinism, which was also the title of his book (1889).

Knowledge about fossils and biology at Darwin’s time was shallow. Although the concept of a very old earth was already emerging, Darwin figured more answers would come over time with the discovery of life’s story within the fossil record lying below our feet.

Today, evolutionary scientists use genetics, DNA comparison, comparative anatomy, embryology, and the growing fossil record to determine life’s journey over time. Fossil discoveries continue to demonstrate that change obviously occurred and the sacred texts had not recorded these events. Meanwhile, the genetic changes Darwin described happen in genes, which Mendel and others discovered later.

Evolution is in action today through nature. Consider a tropical butterfly population evolving resistance to a killer bacteria or the increasing leg length in a toad species in their quest to secure the best habitat in a newly-introduced region. Think about impacts our daily lives today as flu vaccines are adjusted yearly in response to evolving viruses, or how bacteria become resistant to the antibodies we developed to protect ourselves against them.

Evolution is also a unifying concept serving as a common thread running through other biological concepts as maintaining a regulatory balance (homeostasis), the need for energy, organizing matter within life, continuing life through genetics, developing an organism from start to death, and organisms interacting with each other and with their surrounding environment. As evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Meanwhile, one can have a misunderstanding about science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

One can ignore science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

One can disagree with science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

On the Evolution-Creation Struggle: A Book

Many years ago, a student entered my science class with a frustrated look and asked, “What is the purpose of history?” Fortunately, my answer is one that I remember and one that I frequently remind myself: To know where you are going, you must know where you are. To know where you are, you must know where you have been – that’s history.

For the past, several years I have done may share of reading about the interchange between science and theology, especially around the topic of evolution. Not all that long ago, I noticed a certain book on the library shelf, but I admit, knowing the reputation of the writer I didn’t proceed. Good news is that I gave in and I’m glad I did.

The creation-evolution debate continues today – many times in a religious context. However, this debate has a story – it has a history that should help us understand today. As it turned out, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Michael Ruse, 2005) examines this historical perspective.

Although the core of the debate lies in the 1700s, Dr. Ruse starts the story with a view of Aristotle’s (the Great Chain of Being) that served as the baseline for many philosophical perspectives. Awareness of the thoughts before, during, and after Charles Darwin’s writings is paramount to understanding the situation.

While I differ with Dr. Ruse’s views about God, he primarily focused on the history – thus held-back his perspective until the final chapters. Surely, one can argue that Ruse injects his perspective throughout the book through his view of history, but I challenge critics to show me any unbiased analysis. Bottom line – The Evolution-Creation Struggle is worth reading because it helped me better understand the misunderstanding and misconceptions held by many.

On Evolution and Church

Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday (this past February) sparked many interesting posts; and I read many. The event also served as the foundation for polls from both Gallup and the Pew Research Center – and I read both. Collectively, I initiated expansion of my own knowledge base by focusing on three books:

  • Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (Karl Giberson)
  • Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (Kenneth Miller)
  • Storms over Genesis: Biblical Battleground in America’s Wars of Religion (William Jennings)

Angle Point 1
The primary sources of information for people are schools and churches. In terms of schools, my experiences lead me to believe that science teachers can be divided into groups regarding evolution: Those avoiding it, those teaching it poorly, and those teaching it well. My gut tells me that the latter group is the smallest.

Angle Point 2
I’m convinced that many don’t know how science works; most may even be most.

Angle Point 3
When it comes to churches, there’s no doubt that the congregations against evolution actively educate their members. Meanwhile, congregations who don’t have issues with evolution at the organizational level do NOT educate their flock about the relationship between religion and science, thus perpetuating misinformation held by the public. Christian denominations in this group include mainline Protestants, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. Interestingly Jews, moderate Muslims, Unitarians, and Buddhists are also supportive of evolution, but I’m unfamiliar with how they address this issue with their members.

Angle Point 4
Yes, some evolutionists are atheists, but not all. Yes, some evolutionists use evolution to say God doesn’t exist, but that’s a small number. There is more support in the religious community that people realize and the fundamentalists don’t speak for all Christians, thus churches should educate their members.

My Goal & Action Plan
At this point, I am concentrating my efforts at the congregation level in the church I attend. I’ve already had Round 1 discussions with one of our pastors about the importance of teaching a course on science and religion because members need to know that evolution is ok and here’s why. I have been promised additional discussion with others. After all, if I can move one domino, maybe others will fall.

The Bottom Line
As science has learned so much since Darwin and Alfred Wallace announced their findings, religious scholars continue to study and learn about the theological perspective. Although the conservative and fundamental Christians selectively point to Genesis to justify their means, I’m still amazed that they give God so little credit.

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