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Was Christianity at war with Darwin? Part II

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 two, about how the Christian church reacted to Darwin’s theory of evolution. 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, the fourth on how people misunderstand the story of Darwin.

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 to today, one needs to understand another science that appeared in the nineteenth century. This is Higher Criticism.

Higher Criticism is the study of the literary methods and sources behind a text. When Higher criticism levelled its gaze on the orthodox view of scripture, with the philosophical assumptions of the Enlightenment and Modernism it challenged much of Christian belief. There was no official response given by the church on Higher criticism, Evolutionary theory or Darwinism, however individuals within the church did deem to respond to these intellectual challenges. Responses were indeed inevitable if merely by virtue that these ideas became engrained in the culture.

These responses can be categorised into four distinct groups:

  • the Liberal response,
  • the Neo-Orthodox response,
  • the Evangelical response and
  • the Fundamentalist response.

The Liberal response to Higher criticism was acceptance. Liberals rejected the authority of the Bible and traditional Christian orthodoxy and therefore did not consider conflict with science possible[1] – science and religion were non-overlapping magisteria. The Neo-orthodox response was dialectical, and so to a lesser extent did the same as the Liberals and accepted their insights.

The Evangelical response was that of accommodation. This was in the tradition of Calvin and in-line with Augustine who advocated perceived conflicts could be reconciled with better interpretation of either the Bible or of nature. John Calvin (1509–1564) the French theologian gave to science two gifts. First, he encouraged the study of nature. Nature demonstrated the wisdom of God and provided proofs of his glory.[2] Second, he removed the need to interpret the Bible literally. By offering people a hermeneutic of “accommodation” he made the emergence of the natural sciences possible[3] and firmly grounded a tradition within evangelicalism of allowing science to be integrated with the scripture.[4]

Evangelicals therefore attempted harmonisation with the insights of Higher criticism, which would eventually yield new insights in theology and breakthroughs in historical Jesus research. Harmonising with evolutionary biology specifically meant a variety of differing positions like Theistic Evolution and Progressive Creationism. Both these labels are broad umbrella terms that encapsulate a variety of different positions with different gradations of confidence attached. Other categories may be added, but both of these sit squarely inside the Evangelical response.

It was the reaction of Fundamentalism that was to have the most profound impact on the way the relationship between science and Christianity is perceived. Higher criticism and Darwin’s popularisation of evolutionary theory elicited a negative reaction by some who felt that society was becoming more and more depraved in their thinking. Fundamentalism, distinguished by cultural isolationism and a dogmatic biblical literalism, decided to judge science by the Bible. Evolution was therefore a fraud. This response represents a “circling of the wagons” and as evolutionary theory gained prominence it created a siege mentality. This is why many describe Fundamentalism as obscurantist, insular and militaristic.

Essentially Fundamentalism is Evangelicalism on the defensive, though there is a range of responses to both sciences encapsulated by the term.[5] All refuse the grand evolutionary story for its atheistic implications, but there are a great variety of opinions to the extent of which evolution has played a role in the development of the diversity of life. Some criticise evolution on the basis of flaws in the theory, others dogmatically refuse in principle and offer no more explanation. Some in the twentieth century sought to re-interpret the evidence without the Rationalist and Materialistic presuppositions and developed Creation Science, which, for the most part, militantly rejects evolution in favour of a young earth and a literal 24-hour, six-day creation period.

It is Fundamentalism that fueled the Creation/Evolution controversy in the 20th century, and this is nowhere more typified by the Scopes Trial – referred to now as “The Monkey Trial” – in 1926. John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution and, backed by the ACLU,[6] lost when the Tennessee law was upheld, but the fall-out from the media sensationalising the trial at the time lent credit to the Conflict Thesis – the idea that science and religion are both pulling opposite ways on the rope in a game of tug of war. The influence of that media storm made it the subject of a play Inherit the Wind (1955) later adapted to a movie by the same name in 1960. The idea that science and religion are at war is still very much a part of the general public’s consciousness, even though it is not “religion” as such, but one specific branch of Christian belief that insists on literal interpretations.[7]

Today the relationship between science and Christianity is very healthy. It is believed the renaissance of Christian philosophy over the last fifty years has been so successful the effect has been the resurrection of Natural Theology, including powerful refurbishment of design arguments fro God’s existence.[8] The increasingly powerful Intelligent Design movement can be viewed as a trickle-down effect of this renaissance in Christian thinking, and the so-called “New Atheism” of the early 2000’s an aberration in the general trend – perhaps even a reaction to it – and represents a movement out of touch with the academy that rejects the Conflict Thesis.[9] There are many other models that are used to describe the relationship between science and religion, but as Brooke says “general theses are difficult to maintain.”[10]

Alvin Plantinga views Christian belief as fundamentally congruent with science and only peripherally hostile.[11] Gary Ferngren summarises,

“While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonisation. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule”[12]

Concluding, Kenneth Samples writes:

“Conflicts between scientific theories and the Christian faith have arisen through the centuries, to be sure. However, the level of conflict has often been exaggerated, and Christianity’s positive influence on scientific progress is seldom acknowledged.”[13]

There is more to say on the relationship between Christianity and science, but enough has been said to conclude that there was never a war between the two. Although many people presuppose and, implicitly if not explicitly, accept the Conflict Thesis, this is largely dead in academia. A particular type of Christian belief remains reactionary towards a particular type of science, namely Fundamentalism towards the theory of evolution. The broad mainstream accepts contemporary science, including evolution, as useful to theology, particularly in supporting the project of Natural Theology, and an adopting of a hermeneutic of “accommodation” goes a long way to harmonising apparent difficulties.

Footnotes

  1. David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 14.
  2. “In order than no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place them in our view, in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him. . . To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advances proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.” (Institutes I.v.1-2)
  3. Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 11
  4. “Prior to the nineteenth century there was a widespread agreement in the West, particularly in Protestant Christian circles, that resolution to these questions could be achieved by combining insights from both science and Scripture in a unified field of knowledge. If such an integrated view on the level of method and reference was established, it would become the focal point on which the understanding of life depended. Consequently, science and the Christian faith were presumed to be on the same die, mutually compatible, and dealing with the discovery of truth through a uniform epistemology.” Diepstra, George R. and Gregory J. Laughery. “Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1-3” European Journal of Theology, 18:1, p. 6.
  5. The term is also employed to describe a quagmire of other things, such as theological positions and hermeneutical methods, social agendas and political associations, etc., which make the title an honorific, a slur, and without context too vague for proper use.
  6. American Civil Liberties Union
  7. Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 22.
  8. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp. 69-85. Ed. M. Martin. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2007  also Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.
  9. “God Is Not Dead Yet.” Christianity Today. July, 2008, pp. 22-27.
  10. John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 5
  11. He also convincingly argues that it is naturalism that is fundamentally hostile and only peripherally congruent. (Science and Religion: DVD, Naturalism ad absurdum).
  12. Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. p. ix
  13. Kenneth Samples, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (Link here; Retrieved 20 June, 2019), June 21, 2011.
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