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By Kenneth Silber : BIO| 18 Sep 2020
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Angela Rawlett is a college student facing a personal dilemma. Wanting to be a veterinarian, she had planned to major in biology. But this will involve studying evolution, which seems to be in conflict with her Christian faith. Angela's father scoffed at the idea that whales are descended from land mammals that returned to the sea, and pointedly asked his daughter whether college was turning her away from God's word. And in bio lab, Angela is teased about her religion by her oafish fellow student, Lenny.

Angela is a fictional character whose story is interwoven through The Evolution Dialogues: Science, Christianity, and the Quest for Understanding. The book, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is an unusual offering for a scientific society in its focus on religious issues. Targeted especially at Christian adult-education classes, The Evolution Dialogues contributes a thoughtful discussion to the highly charged debate about evolution and its implications. Written by Catherine Baker and edited by James B. Miller, the work was developed with input from scientists and theologians.

The book underscores that there is a substantial middle ground between the polar opposites that dominate much public discussion of evolution and religion. On one side, a number of prominent defenders of evolutionary theory espouse atheism and see the theory as lending support to an atheistic worldview. On the other side, there are the antievolution doctrines of creationism and Intelligent Design; the latter school of thought, though purporting to lack any definite religious commitment, often is presented by its adherents as a bulwark against atheism (often labeled "materialism" or "naturalism").

One might get the impression from such debate that if Darwin was right about biology, then God doesn't exist. Yet a broad and formidable intellectual tradition militates against such a conclusion. Some see evolution and religion as complementary in that they involve different types of knowledge and aspects of existence; the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould argued for this position, which he called "nonoverlapping magisteria." Others make arguments that evolution and religion are not just compatible but interrelated; one such view, stated by Anglican theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke, is that God operates "in, with and under" the evolutionary process.

The Evolution Dialogues traces scientific and religious thinking about evolution from before Darwin's time to the present. (Decades before Darwin's Origin of Species, naturalists were discovering evidence of extinctions and were rethinking the age of the Earth.) The AAAS book provides an overview of evolution and the evidence for it; this evidence ranges from cellular similarities among organisms, to anatomical similarities (such as the common humerus-radius-ulna arrangement of forelimb bones in diverse species), to the presence of transitional fossils indicating cross-species change (such as those showing a gradual shift from early horse species with four toes to later ones with single-toed hooves), to geographic patterns in the distribution of organisms (such as Hawaii having a huge assortment of fruit fly species, the result of the insects filling multiple ecological niches over millions of years).

A key theme of the book is the diversity of Christian responses to evolution over the past century and a half. The Catholic Church placed some evolutionary works on its Index of Forbidden Books in the early 20th century, but later became gradually more receptive to the theory, culminating in Pope John Paul II's 1996 description of evolution as "more than a hypothesis." Mainline Protestant churches generally have been amenable to evolution; the Episcopal Church, for example, defends evolutionary biology in its Catechism of Creation.

Evolution has long received a positive response from some evangelical Christians as well. For example, Princeton Theological Seminary scholar Benjamin Breckenridge (B.B.) Warfield (1851-1921) upheld both biblical inerrancy and evolutionary theory. Warfield argued that evolution occurs through natural laws, which are instruments of God's will. Accordingly, he disagreed with descriptions of evolution as an unguided process, pointing out that these were philosophical, not scientific, statements.

However, Christian fundamentalism, emerging as a distinct movement with the publication in 1910-1915 of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, increasingly came into conflict with evolution. The Scopes Monkey Trial was an early clash over the teaching of evolution in public schools, and controversy resurged when the post-Sputnik emphasis on science education in the late 1950s restored evolution to a prominent place in curricula. Young-Earth creationism, positing a literal six-day creation thousands of years ago, soared in popularity among fundamentalists in the 1960s. Other fundamentalists espoused old-Earth creationism, rejecting evolution but taking various views on creation's timing.

In addition to its Christian focus, The Evolution Dialogues touches upon stances taken within other religions toward evolutionary biology. The book portrays a "relatively placid" reaction by major non-Christian faiths, noting for instance a Jewish tradition of interpreting scripture in light of contemporary science, and an Islamic emphasis on the importance of the natural world. Hinduism's lengthy time cycles can be seen as congruent with evolution, while Buddhism does not focus on accounts of creation.

In the book's fictional interludes, college student Angela Rawlett engages in searching discussions with her biologist faculty-advisor and the campus minister, among others. She contemplates the beautiful orchids studied by the biologist, and the minister's rumination that "whether you credit evolution or not, the lion kills the antelope." The book refrains from stating exactly what spiritual conclusions Angela draws from all this, but it is clear she becomes comfortable with studying evolution. By book's end, she is planning to participate in a paleontology dig, and while there to attend a sunrise service.

Kenneth Silber is a TCS Daily contributing writer who focuses on science, technology and economics.

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