Darwin and the Christians

Posted on March 27, 2011

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A while ago I reread something Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “always do what you are afraid to do.” I take this to mean don’t shy away from the difficult decisions and challenges we face in life.

Among the most difficult—unless you are at the fanatical end of either side of the spectrum—is reconciling science with religion, or, in a much larger context, reason with faith.

Which is right? Do we find the true answers in religion and faith, or in science and technology?

The questions and answers associated with this issue have deep historical antecedents that go back centuries. Nonetheless, in the nineteenth century, an English scientist, Charles Darwin, generated enough heat to fan the embers on the nature of life on earth to explode into a full fire.

Darwin—unless you slept through all those history and social science classes in high school and college—of course kicked off perhaps the greatest debate in history with his theory of evolution.

In a book published in 1859, The Origin of the Species, Darwin gave modern form to a theory that had been floating around the scientific world for a while, especially among geologists and other natural scientists who studied the ancient past of the earth and how it had changed over time.

Darwin’s theory, in its simplest expression, was that plants and animals had evolved into different, mostly higher, forms through the ages through a process of mutations in response to the habitat and conditions they lived under. Darwin, like all great scientists, was not working in a vacuum, but building his understanding of the world on the backs of others.

On a voyage around the world as the duty scientist on board the H.M.S. Beagle in the 1830s, he read Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology which ridiculed Old Testament stories such as Noah’s worldwide flood and argued for a very old earth, rather than one created by God a few millennia earlier.

Darwin, although educated at Cambridge University with the intention of going into the ministry, began to formulate his own observations of plant and animal life on this voyage into his famous principles.

Earlier in the sixteenth century a Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, published a work based on his observations, with the somewhat startling but generally well received theory—called heliocentrism—that the earth moved around the sun and was, in fact, not the center of the universe.

Then in the seventeenth Galileo Galilei, an Italian scientist, got in deep trouble with the Inquisition of the Catholic Church for boldly interpreting Scripture when only clerics had the right to do so. The Inquisition tried him, and then tried him again for insisting to speak out on the relationship between Biblical revelation and natural and physical sciences.

When Darwin exploded into the scene, science was on the rise in the West. It seemed to offer much more rational explanations for the natural world, based on empirical observation, on rational analysis, on objective analysis.

The Bible was not only a source of faith over the centuries for Christians, but also a source of revealed knowledge about how the world came into existence, and the nature of the heavens and earth. It seemed antiquated, mystical, unfathomable to the “modern” mind. The Bible was instead filled with elements—like Noah’s flood—which were the stuff of fables and myths rather than proven by scientific observation and deductive analysis. It was a turn off to scientists.

The lines were drawn in the sand.

In 1925 one of the most famous trials of the century, in Dayton, Tennessee, pitted evolutionists against creationists, terms usually associated with the followers of science and believers of the Bible, respectively.

A teacher, John T. Scopes, challenged the law in Tennessee against teaching evolution and two of the greatest lawyers in the land, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, weighed into what became a public spectacle that titillated Americans listening to a trial broadcast on radio for the first time across the land.

Nothing was settled by the Scopes Trial, sometimes more colorfully labeled the Monkey Trial since some evolutionists claimed that man had evolved from apes.

It was clear to the ancients and to fundamentalist Christians who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible that the heavens and the earth were God-given, and God-made, all confirmed by Scripture.

God, when he spoke to Job, chastising him for his pride, asked him pointedly,

31“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth? (Job 38)

The great problem occurs where science and faith intersect. Separately, evolutionists and believers think they can exist quite nicely one without the other.

But the world cannot be subdivided into nice cubby holes where we live isolated one from the other. We are part of a whole, like it or not.

Do you have to choose between faith and reason? Between a belief in science, or in the deep wisdom of religion where ultimately it is not facts but faith which guides your mind and soul?

In our country, we can still choose our faith, or chose to ignore religion altogether. Or, even more agile, subscribe both to science and our faith, seeing the hand of God at work everywhere, sometimes in mysterious ways we will never fathom in this world.

I’m glad I live in a free country where we have the above choices. I’m also glad I’m a believer in a faith, Christianity, which puts the liberty of the individual pretty close to the top of the pecking order of principles and doctrines.

Science, for all the wonderful wonders it brings to us—from aspirins to computers—doesn’t say much about human liberty and the human spirit.

We need both science and faith, however strident, self-serving and smug evolutionists and creationists may occasionally get at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

This article also published in The Tuscaloosa News, March 27, 2011.

Posted in: History