Darwinism, Faith and Morality

By Nick Strobel for a Levan Center panel given on October 13, 2009 at Bakersfield College

            <<slide 1>> Is Darwinism compatible with faith or a religious sort of worldview? I was asked to be on this panel because I am a scientist and I am an active member of the religious faith called Christianity, so I obviously think the two can be compatible. This panel is also a continuation in some respects of the panel the Levan Center had in 2006 on Intelligent Design. Several of the same sorts of issues come up.

I thank Norm Levan for his generosity that made it possible to create a place where issues and ideas like Darwinism and faith can be talked about, wrestled with, in a thoughtful, respectful way. I also thank Jack Hernandez for asking me to be on the panel. I am honored to be asked by someone of his caliber to share with you my thoughts on the compatibility between Darwinism and faith.

<<slide 2>> I do believe that the theory of Darwinian evolution by natural selection is compatible with a religious faith in a loving God and there are plenty of other scientists and theologians who do as well. On the religious side there are the over 12,000 Christian clergy, over 450 rabbis, and over 200 Unitarian clergy who have signed The Clergy Letter Project, “an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science [particularly Darwin’s evolution] can be compatible” (http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/rel_evol_sun.htm, October 2009). In Darwin’s day, there was the clergyman and novelist Charles Kingsley who welcomed Darwin’s ideas. On the science side there was the American botanist Asa Gray, also a contemporary of Darwin and a devout Christian who publicized Darwin’s evolution theory here in the United States. Charles D Walcott, the discoverer of the Burgess Shale Fossils, one of the most celebrated fossil fields, believed that Darwin’s theory of evolution was correct and also “that God had ordained natural selection to construct the history of life according to His plans and purposes” (Stephen Jay Gould, in a 1992 Scientific American review article, quoted from Language of God p. 166). Theodosius Dobzhansky was a key figure in the modern evolutionary synthesis of Mendelian genetics with natural selection and he was a believing Russian Orthodox.

<<slide 3>> In preparation for my talk I have been especially helped by three books written by scientists who are also devout Christians. In chronological order they are David L Wilcox’s book God and Evolution: A Faith-Based Understanding published in 2004 (Wilcox is a professor of biology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania), Francis Collins’ book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief published in 2006 (Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project and is now the director of the National Institute of Health), and John Polkinghorne & Nicholas Beale’s book Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief published in 2009 (Polkinghorne was a professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and is also ordained in the Church of England; Nicholas Beale is a social philosopher and management-information technology consultant). Other helpful books along my journey have been Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett’s book Evolution from Creation to New Creation published in 2003 (Peters is a professor of systematic theology at the GTU in Berkeley and Hewlett is a professor emeritus in the departments of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Medicine at my undergraduate alma mater, University of Arizona); and a collection of essays from international scientists called Science and the Search for Meaning published in 2006. There are scores of other recent books and essays that have been published of the compatibility between Darwinian evolutionary theory and religion including those in the “Big Questions” section of the John Templeton Foundation website.


            I believe it is possible to mesh Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection with a religious viewpoint of a loving God who created it all, including us, and who seeks to be in relationship with his creation. Before I explain how I believe it is possible, I think I should tell you a little about myself.

            I grew up in a family of eight boys who were all raised in the United Methodist Church. Our Christian faith was an important part of our family and social life. Three of my brothers went to seminary. Two of the three became ordained clergy and the other was what my church calls a “local pastor” and later became an elementary school teacher. I was the first of the boys that went the science route, becoming focused on astronomy when I was about 14 years old. Two younger brothers also got science degrees, one in biology and the other in geology. Like our parents all of us boys are active in our local churches, some United Methodist, some not. <<slide 4>> All of my life I have seen science and religion as compatible and I certainly did not feel growing up that my parents or brothers thought otherwise. I definitely had to do some wrestling within myself about the science and faith interaction in college when I was confronted with those who felt strongly that science (especially Darwinian evolution) and religion could not get along. How can I be a person of reason and still have faith? How can I honor the truths of both?

Even before college I accepted the evidence for a very, very old Earth and an even older universe that were both much older and vaster than a strictly literal interpretation of what the two Genesis creation stories would say. I never stopped believing in God nor going to church almost every Sunday but in college I was faced with having to come to terms with how I could accept what science has found about how our universe works and also accept the truths of what I find in my faith’s holy scriptures, the Bible. This is still a work in progress! I hope that I’m wiser about this than I was in college and I hope I’ll be wiser about this when I retire than what I am now.

<<slide 5>> One of the things I think I’m wiser about is that I now realize that a lot of the conclusions you draw from science and religion are the result of what initial choices you make as the starting point. There are assumptions we all start off with and then we use our power of logical reasoning to make sense of our experiences within that set of assumptions or worldview. Logic has to start off with a premise or some axioms and then reason takes it from there. That logical proof doesn’t tell you if your starting point, your metaphysical assumption, is correct or true. Your worldview really does make a difference in how you see the world, how you interpret the data, what conclusions you make. This is true in every human endeavor including science and religion. However, I don’t carry this to the extreme and say we might as well not try to find the truth in nature or the spiritual realm because we just make up or invent the truth based on whatever cultural filters we’re starting out with—it’s all relative, different strokes for different folks, etc. Perhaps I’m too entangled up in my belief that there is an objective reality and that we should really care about our explanations, but this is what makes science possible. The extension of this belief to the spiritual realm is what makes a spiritual faith and a relationship with God possible. (I am not a philosophical materialist.) Furthermore, your study of the reality of the physical and spiritual world can make it possible to change your worldview as it did in Francis Collins’ case.

I am not going to spend my brief time here with an argument for the existence of God. One cannot use science to prove or disprove God. In fact, a lot of heat, but not much light, is generated by extremists on both sides when they confuse “absence of evidence” with “evidence for absence.” More capable people than I have written entire books arguing for and against the existence of God. The good ones on both sides make logical sense. The best reasoning can make a plausible case for the existence of God, even for one who is intimately involved with his Creation. For me, an astronomer, the existence of the physical laws and how they can explain what we find in the universe makes it more plausible that God exists than not and the experiences of my life make much more sense to me if there is a God who cares about his creation, including even me. It is a faith stance but not a blind faith stance.


<<slide 6>> I start off with the assumptions that not only is there only one God, but that God is also the creator of the universe which is intelligible, established its laws, that God continues to create—God is in an active relationship with nature and that God has a special, loving relationship with human beings who have been called by God to be God’s image in the natural world. This is a biblical viewpoint. Science is our endeavor to understand God’s creation. Theology is our endeavor to understand Scripture. In writing about these two human endeavors, Wilcox says, “Both science and theology have the same source of authority: God. And both fields of inquiry have the same faulty interpreters: human beings. If the Bible is from God and nature is from God, then the Bible and nature cannot be in conflict. Thus any conflict that arises represents flawed human understanding of nature, of Scripture, or of both. Not surprisingly, both theology and science tend to blame the other for the errors that give rise to conflict.” (Wilcox 2004, p. 13-14) In honoring the truths of both science and religion I have arrived at the succinct phrase of science gives us the “how” and the Bible gives us the “why”—the meaning. Polkinghorne and Beale agree. They write “One could summarize the difference between science and religion by saying that they are asking different questions about the nature of reality. Science is concerned with the question, How?—By what process do things happen? Theology is concerned with the question, Why?—Is there a meaning and purpose behind what is happening?” (Polkinghorne & Beale 2009, p. 7)

<<slide 7>> Genesis 1 is not meant to be a science textbook literally telling us what happened. Rather, it tells us the meaning. Among other things, Genesis 1 tells us that “nothing exists except through the creative will of God.” (Polkinghorne & Beale 2009, p. 7) God is the Creator and is very much in charge of nature. We find a different creation story in Genesis 2 that in a literal reading is at odds with the one in Genesis 1; for example, God creates man at the start before the plants and the animals. In the second creation story we hear about our humble origins, that we are made from the dust of the Earth like the other animals. Here, too, God is the Creator and is very much in charge. In both stories we hear about the special position or status of humans in creation. In Genesis 1 humans are at the culmination of creation, as if all of the rest of creation was leading up to our arrival. We are made in the image of God. The scripture doesn’t say our creation is good. No, God says we’re “very good”! In Genesis 2 the most important thing is created first and the rest of creation was created for us out of God’s love for us. We humans have the breath of God in us. Humans are special.

<<slide 8>> So how do I approach evolution by natural selection and faith? Well, evolution is simply the way that God has created new types of life forms including humans. The science of biology has shown us how the processes created by God have led to the creation of a vast diversity of organisms over very long periods of time. The sciences of geology and astronomy confirm the long time periods. In astronomy we have learned of how the raw materials were created and what had to take place to create a rock-iron planet on which life could get a start. When I study the universe I start from the position of a believer and I am in awe of the vastness and I’m amazed by the cleverness of the Creator. The processes we have learned in science are much more amazing and imaginative than the scientific details in the Bible but we shouldn’t be surprised by this. The Bible was not meant to be a science textbook.

I have to admit that with astronomy, my chosen science, it is much easier to have a worshipful attitude from its findings than biology. Biological processes can be very messy, harsh things. There seems to be a lot of waste, even cruelty and suffering in the process of evolution by natural selection. <<slide 9>> In the time I have left I had better get to what I think is the crux of the problem most religious people have with evolution, particularly with Darwin’s explanation of it. There is the role of chance in his scheme that seems to reject the role of God and the purely natural mechanism of natural selection that seems to get rid of a purposeful plan. Deeper to the core is that Darwin’s theory seems to deny the specialness of human beings who are worthy of attention. If humans did develop from a common ancestor with the apes, how can we be so special? If humans will eventually evolve into another species (or multiple species) in the far future, what does that say about the image of God (“imago Dei”) view of scripture for current humanity? If evolution is to be accepted then a few hundred years from now, humans are going to be pretty much the same as we are now (if we don’t kill each other off via war or poisoning the Earth) but a million years from now, we are going to be significantly different.

<<slide 10>> First let’s look at the role of chance in evolution and purpose. Collins writes that since God is out of time and space, what appears to us as evolution being driven by chance, is from God’s perspective an outcome entirely specified. “Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.” (Collins 2006, p. 205) Wilcox writes that “chance reveals the will of God. Chance is, in fact, the hand of God… [Evolutionary] processes are, instead, processes in which the structure of the universe is contingent on the unpredictable, freewill acts of God.” (Wilcox 2004, p. 63) God is still in charge of nature rather than nature being autonomous. Polkinghorne & Beale give nature some more independence as a result of God’s love. They write, “The gift of love is always the gift of some due form of independence granted to the beloved. The creation has been endowed with great potentiality, but the manner in which that potentiality is brought to birth in particular ways is through the shuffling explorations of the evolutionary process. The history of the universe is not the performance of a fixed score, written by God in eternity and inexorably performed by creatures, but it is a grand improvisation in the which the Creator and creatures cooperate in the unfolding development of the grand fugue of creation.” (Polkinghorne & Beale 2009, p. 15) They return to a purposeful plan though to talk about the eventual rise of self-aware, moral beings when they use a metaphor from William James: “The image is that of the history of creation as a game of cosmic chess, with God the Grand Master and creatures the club players. The club players are free to make whatever moves they like, but the Grand Master will win the game in the end because he understands it in the deep way that enables him to bring about his intended purpose.” (Polkinghorne & Beale 2009, p. 15)

<<slide 11>> What does evolution say about “imago Dei”, humans as the image of God? Both Wilcox and Collins give an overview of the convincing and overwhelming evidence from the study of genetics of how humans are intimately connected to the rest of life and that humans developed from a common ancestor with the apes. No fossils are needed to prove it. What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Polkinghorne & Beale give eight respects from scripture that we are like God:

1)         We are persons, capable of true love—and hence endowed with free will and living in a universe with “free processes”—reasonably but not totally predictable.

2)         We are capable of moral choices.

3)         We are intrinsically part of a loving community. The fact that the Trinity was present at creation adds an extra dimension to “let us make humankind in our image,… male and female he created them” (of Genesis 1:26-27).

4)         We are intrinsically valuable in God’s eyes.

5)         We are creative—indeed called to be co-creators.

6)         We are capable, by God’s grace and redemption, of perfect union with God—(Christians believe) Jesus is “the (perfect) image of the invisible God.”

7)         We have the power to fathom the deep structure of the universe through science.

8)         We have been granted “dominion”, understood in the sense of a caring shepherd-king rather than an exploitive despot. Human cultural activity and development were to reflect the activity, intentions, and character of God, increasing the goodness of the creation, tending and extending the garden of God.


<< slide 12>> The intrinsic novelty of human self-consciousness that can perceive time flowing past is something that conventional Darwinian theory cannot explain. In the young field of complexity, we find that when we look at complex systems as a whole, that there are properties that emerge that cannot be explained from a reductionist viewpoint of the interacting parts. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Beale writes that “in any complex system, there are subtle thresholds that, when they are crossed, radically transform the system’s behavior….It is clear that several of these thresholds have been crossed in human development…The moment complex symbolic communication and languages become major factors in the ability of individuals in a species to survive and reproduce, evolution takes on additional dimensions and can no longer be considered at a purely biological level.” Polkinghorne follows up with a consideration of human mathematical abilities. “For survival, we need not much more than counting and a little elementary geometry. Whence then has come the human ability to study noncummutative algebras and to prove Fermat’s last theorem?” In order to explain this capacity we have to believe that reality consists of more than just the physical and biological.


It is a theological stance that “contrary to some Darwinian views, all human beings matter equally and that genetic variations are, in a fundamental sense, irrelevant. (The Christian view is that) each human being is important enough to God for his son to die for.” (Polkinghorne & Beale 2009, p. 80-81) <<slide 13>> Some revel in what astronomy has shown as to how tiny and insignificant we are— have you seen the image of Earth taken by Voyager from beyond the orbit of Pluto?

That little pale blue dot in the orange band is the Earth.

However, I choose to take the view of Psalm 8. Despite our puniness, we have been made a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor. It is a faith stance.

                     <<slide 14>> I’m going to end with a section from near the end of Wilcox’s book about an honest approach to evolution, science, religion, and faith.

                     “How can we as persons of faith be honest, humble, and objective in our search for truth? We begin by acknowledging that we operate out of a worldview that enables us to see patterns and to find purpose. In fact, both Christianity and materialism are comprehensive worldviews. As with all worldviews, they shape (bias) our perceptions of data and patterns….

                     When the data seem to confirm our commitments, seriously seek other possible interpretations…

                     Be slow to reject interpretations that we dislike….

For the Christian in science, theory formation and testing is akin to wrestling with an angel. Our commitment to truth is a commitment both to the truth of God’s Word and to the data of God’s creation.” (Wilcox 2004, p. 142)

            In my wrestling with how my knowledge of the world and universe from science logically meshes with my religious faith, I have found that I can accept the evidence for evolution by natural selection acting on mutations in the genetic code over very long periods of time. In fact my study of nature, even Darwinian evolution, has made me appreciate even more the artistry around us. My thanks again to the Levan Center for giving me the chance to share with you some of my wrestling with the meaning of evolution and to all of you for your patience in hearing me out.


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