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Was Christianity at war with Darwin? Part I

This post is adapted from an original on 28 November 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Conflict for the Darwinian Dispute.” This is part one, about several unknown or mythical aspects of Charles Darwin, his evolutionary theory, and how the church reacted to it. It comes in a broader series of the relationship between Christianity and science. The first, on the Conflict Thesis, the second on Galileo and the Copernican controversy, the third on the Newtonian worldview.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) is often portrayed as a believer struggling with doubt, reluctantly yielding to rational thinking in light of the evidence he found while journeying on the HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands. Benjamin Wiker points out that while Darwin’s ideas are well known, much of the story of his life is either unknown or mythical.[1] To summarise just a few of his more relevant points;

First, evolution was less innovation and more popularisation, having been believed by his father before him and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. During Erasmus’ time there was a resurgence of interest in the philosophy of the ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucrecius, who propounded evolutionary ideas. Evolutionary thinking was already part of the ethos of the age we call Modernism and Charles Darwin was a man who set out on the Beagle to find proof of evolution, rather than someone who reluctantly came to accept the idea because of the weight of the evidence.

Second, Darwin’s brief tenure studying theology was less from conviction or faith in God, and more to maintain a social acceptability by conforming to what was then considered to be stabilising cultural norm – the church. His departure from that institution was less from lack of belief, and more to follow his true interest – the study of nature.

Third, Darwin’s thesis was not the bombshell it has been made out to be. Many Christian’s of the day, including the eminent scientist and founder of modern geology Charles Lyell (1797–1875) easily accepted evolutionary ideas and yet remained critical of the Darwinian posturing toward God no longer being necessary to explain the origin and diversity of life. Darwin’s associate and co-discoverer of evolutionary theory Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913) became convinced that natural selection alone – without God – would not suffice. The beauty and intricateness of such a process, he thought, was too grand and astounding, and still could not explain human morality, rationality and even physical nature. Dr. Matthew Flannagan argues evolutionary theory only undermines a specific design argument for God’s existence leaving the rest of Christian theism on solid ground.[2]

Fourth, the idea that there was a thoughtless rejection of evolutionary theory on behalf of the church when Origin of Species (1859) and the Decent of Man (1871) were published is mainly rhetoric. Christian thinkers, both scientists and theologians, were for the most part civil and maintained a friendly dialogue. Asa Gray (1810-1888), an Evangelical and so-called Father of American botany at Harvard University was one of these: a friend and long-time correspondent of Darwin who saw design and order in the natural world of evolutionary progress. Moore writes,“There was not a polarisation of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of learned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organisation apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.”[3]

In order to understand the variety of responses given by Christians, the avid rejection of evolutionary theory by some Christians, the acceptance by others, and the relationship between Christianity and science through the 20th Century until today, one needs to understand another science that appeared in the nineteenth century. But that will be saved for part two.

Footnotes

  1. Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (2009)
  2. Matthew Flannagan, “God, Darwinian evolution, and the teleological argument,” cited Online; 20 June 2019, http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/08/god-darwinian-evolution-and-the-teleological-argument.html
  3. James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 99.
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