Is evolution in conflict with Christianity?

According to my own definitions of each term, no, evolution and Christianity are not in conflict. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is rejected by approximately half of self-described Christians in the U.S. (according to surveys).  The most conservative churches take explicit stands against the theory.  The Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant denominations, however, find evolution and Christianity to be compatible (for example, a vast number of Christian clergymen and women have signed here).  In general, those individuals and churches who treat the Bible as inerrant and interpret it literally with regards to historical or scientific matters are compelled to reject the theory of evolution.  Those who interpret books like Genesis allegorically, or who admit the possibility of errors in the Bible (at least with respect to scientific or historical details), are free to follow the scientific evidence, on which there is a wide consensus in favor of the theory.

Personally, I am in the latter group (see here for more on how I view the Bible), and find no incompatibility between evolution and Christianity.  This position, called theistic evolution, is typical of most Christians inside of the scientific community (or of a scientific disposition).  The most well-known proponent of this view in present-day America is Francis Collins, the leader of the Human Genome Project.  He presently (as of 2012) serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health under the Obama administration.  The BioLogos Foundation he founded in 2007 plays an important role in promoting the harmony of faith and science.

Nonetheless, I can appreciate the passions on both sides of the issue, and I think that Christian churches and individuals in the half that accepts the theory underestimate the seriousness of the problem – and the opportunity – that the theory presents.  Allow me to explain what I mean by each.

First, the problem.  In church/science conflicts of the early scientific age, such as the question of heliocentrism, what was at stake was simply a literal reading of certain passages of Scripture, such as (in that case) Psalm 104:5 or Ecclesiastes 1:5.  Galileo, for his part in that controversy, did not make any kind of general attack on religion.  He took the Biblical writers not as anti-scientific, but as being unconcerned with communicating mere scientific truths that man could deduce from nature.  His self-defense, laid out eloquently in his 1615 letter to Grand Duchess Christina, casts himself squarely inside of the mainstream tradition of Catholic philosophy going back to St. Augustine.  It is easy to see how later Catholic leaders could reflect on (and apologize for) the poor treatment of Galileo and the heliocentric theory by earlier Catholic leaders, and move on from there without upsetting anything central to Catholic doctrine.

Darwin’s theory, on the other hand, poses more of an existential threat to Christianity than heliocentrism ever did.  The Bible is not an astronomy textbook, and its references to the earth and sun were peripheral to the main theme (and completely unproblematic if taken to be poetic).  The Bible is, however, at its core an exploration of human nature, and purports to enlighten man as to the source and purpose of his life.  As originally laid out by Darwin, evolution was a scientific description of a biological process and man’s physical ancestry.  It made no scientific claims about the existence and/or immortality of the soul, or the truth or falsity of the 99% of the Bible that is concerned with matters other than biology.

However, over the years the idea that man’s physical nature evolved through natural selection has become incorporated as a central pillar of a much more general (and older) philosophical system known as metaphysical naturalism, the idea that things in nature, as described by the natural sciences, are “all that exists”.  Evolution provided what naturalism had lacked, some kind of account of man’s origins.  In doing so it made the system more attractive to a wider audience.  Of course, if naturalism were true, then the Bible would not simply need to be interpreted allegorically at some points.  Rather, the entire system of Christian thought would come crashing down.  Without the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, the objective reality of the moral law, and the immortality of the soul, there really isn’t anything important left of Christianity, certainly nothing worth basing one’s life upon.

That is the problem for Christianity, but therein also lies an opportunity.  Atheists have existed at all times in history, but not all atheists have been metaphysical naturalists.  When atheism is simply a rejection of something (the existence of God), there is really not much to discuss.  In arguments with such folks, all a Christian can do is try to defend the reasonableness of the core elements of his faith, and lay out the evidence that can be marshaled in favor it, which always falls short of proof.  There is no means of counterattack because there is nothing there to attack (or, perhaps, many highly individualized atheistic worldviews).  With metaphysical naturalism, there is something to push back on.

In naturalism, a purely physical explanation for everything is purported to be available, at least in principle.  This idea can be attacked with methods, such as (my favorite) the argument from consciousness (more on that here).  Different lines of attack, such as C.S. Lewis’s essay on the Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism (as much as I admire the rest of his work, I found this one a bit of a stretch), may resonate with some more than others.  Finally, a good in-depth exploration about the various difficulties of naturalism can be found in Goetz and Talliaferro’s book, Naturalism.

These days, if you press an atheist to lay out some kind of positive philosophy, you will most of the time get back  metaphysical naturalism; it may not carry that name but it will likely have most of the core ideas.  A survey here seems to suggest that belief in free will, a non-physical view of the mind, theism, etc., are all minority positions – and that something looking like metaphysical naturalism is in held by a majority – within the not-exactly-pious demographic of professional philosophers in academia.  To make a loose military analogy to the debate, Christianity should rejoice that its most formidable intellectual enemy has gathered all its forces in one place, on a patch of ground that is hard to defend.  I would note that in mentioning an enemy, I am alluding here to the ideology itself, not of any individual adherent to it (whose soul, for all I know, might be in better shape than mine).

An unfortunate side-effect of the whole conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism (of which Christianity is one variety), is that evolution as a purely scientific claim is dragged into the middle of much larger philosophical debate.  Whether fossils demonstrate that a man is a physical descendant of an ape is a technical matter of the sort best left to experts in biology, and I am inclined to accept their conclusions.  It has nothing directly to do with the question of whether a man is nothing more than the physical atoms that make up his body.  Perhaps one is tempted to see a link because science deals with things like fossils and laboratory work, and not “soul-searching”.  This is because the scientific community, for quite practical and appropriate reasons, embraces a methodological naturalism, which is loosely related to but certainly does not imply metaphysical naturalism.  In other words, for scientists to communicate productively with one another, they have to stick to things that can be observed and reproduced from a third-person perspective.  Keeping one’s first-person subjective observations “inadmissible” in scientific communication is a ground rule that makes sense, just as certain types of evidence are inadmissible in a courtroom (whether true or not) because to admit them would be bad for the functioning of a judicial system.

In my own field (finance & investments), financial risk is often communicated between practitioners using models or metrics (value-at-risk, Black-Scholes volatility, etc.) that make people more productive.  A first-person judgment call about risk is not admissible in certain situations (deciding whether a particular portfolio is contrary to solvency standards, for example), even if it may have merit, because there is no way of a third-party objectively reproducing someone else’s judgment call.  This is all fine, unless of course the practitioner is so seduced by the elegance of the models .  This problem is well-recognized in finance (see here), but I suspect something similar is at work whenever well-deserved admiration for the physical sciences leads anyone to the unwarranted leap that any claim that is “unscientific” (such as the claim that I have a soul, or that I wrote this post at least in part due to free will) is by definition untrue or not worthy of careful reflection.

It is true that much of what I discuss on this blog is unscientific, and that many of my own claims on these matters are neither quantifiable, nor falsifiable, nor reproducible.  In short, they are not scientific.  This makes it understandably difficult for people to make progress rather than talking past one another in discussing these things.  So why do I bother? Because this kind of thing has been helpful to me.  Instead of “let me prove this to you”, the really great religious writers (such as Mr. Lewis) have a talent for expressing ideas as “try looking at this topic this way and see if what you see inside yourself resonates with what I see inside myself”, and sometimes a genuine insight that is new (to me) results.  I’m not in that league, of course, but if my blog can help change even a few lives (or clear away some intellectual cobwebs, allowing someone else, maybe even God Himself, to complete the job), then the effort will not have been wasted.

Given the low quality of any debate that takes place in “sound bite” form, I fear that many are led to dismiss evolution or Christianity with a firm understanding of either, because of their trust in one and the perceived opposition of the other.  I don’t blame the listeners (who among us has time to become expert in everything?), and I suppose for those on either side of the debate who (unlike myself) do see an irreconcilable difference here they have their own reasons for fanning the flames.  I guess the only thing I can do in response is try to write posts like this one.