Click to return to the Evolution Home Page
darwin change extinction survival sex humans religion
roundtable:science and faith Watch Show 7:
"What About God?"
on PBS
Check local listings
Several people have written that they have thoroughly studied both creation and evolution and find that both are forms of faith in that they assume events that occurred before the time of man. They both have an element of trust needed to believe that either are correct or incorrect. Please comment.
Must we take the first several verses of Genesis literally in order to respect the spiritual authority of the rest of the Bible? Conversely, must the literal nature of the Genesis creation story be discounted in order to reconcile religion with evolution, astronomy, physics, and other sciences?
Please tell us specifically how you handle the question of original sin. If God chose to create organisms, specifically mankind, through millions of years of evolution, what happens to the theological underpinnings of original sin and redemption without a real, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve?
If one accepts Darwinian evolution, how can one truly reconcile that theory with religion as practiced by most Americans? Even if evolution doesnŐt conflict with the existence of a God, it does seem to clearly refute the idea that God plays an active, day-to-day role in the course of earthly events.
Even if many people can reconcile religious and evolutionary world views, it seems that many evolutionary biologists cannot. Biologists seem much more likely to express hostility toward religion than practice it. Several persons have said that a religious person cannot be a true scientist. Does an evolutionary world view gradually drive a person toward atheism?


Q: If one accepts Darwinian evolution, how can one truly reconcile that theory with religion as practiced by most Americans? Even if evolution doesn't conflict with the existence of a God, it does seem to clearly refute the idea that God plays an active, day-to-day role in the course of earthly events.
Panelist Responses: < back to intro page
To me, religious inspiration, religious reflection, and religious life belong to different realms of human experience than scientific knowledge.

I'm sitting in my office, which is a corner office on the third floor of a building where my department is. And just outside my office is a park, and I see the trees. I don't actually see the ground, but I see the leaves of trees of many different species and many different colors. And in fact, now I can see hummingbirds around a plant I have on the terrace of my office. I know scientifically about these trees, members of different species, and I have knowledge about them. I have scientific knowledge about the hummingbirds and other birds.

Another way that I can look at this view from my office is in terms of aesthetic experience. There is much beauty to be seen there. The point I am making is that the same way I can look at reality from two different perspectives -- the scientific and the aesthetic -- there are still additional perspectives like an ethical point of view, philosophical reflection, and there is, of course, the religious dimension.

These are not contradictory or need not be contradictory, but complementary. If I can focus for a moment on a work of art, that famous painting, Guernica by Picasso, which reflects the first time in which air raids were used to destroy a civilian population, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in the town of Guernica in the Basque region in northern Spain.

We can have different descriptions of this work of art. We can describe the huge dimensions of this painting. We can give the coordinates if we want of all the figures in the painting, and we can talk about what colors and what pigments the painter used. If we do that, we give in some way a complete description of the painting. But we would have missed what is important about the painting, which is the meaning that it has, the message that it carries concerning the inhumanity of man to man.

Similarly, science, when it gives a description of the real world, may encompass all of reality -- material reality and also biological reality and the phenomena of life and of human life. When science has its say, there are still many other dimensions that transcend the scope of science, for instance, about meaning and purpose, for example, that belong to other kinds of knowledge, to other areas of human activity. Again, the religious perception of the world is one of them. I mentioned also philosophical and aesthetic considerations.

All of these have their own validity. They bring us different kinds of knowledge about what reality is. Science is important as the original perspective for the dimension that leads to technology, but precisely because of the natural scientific process, that science is not all there is to know about the real world.
Well, first of all, I think it's a very sad dilemma that some Americans at least have got themselves in the position of thinking it's either God or evolution. To me, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and I think if God was Creator, then we have to understand that God was creating through evolution. And I don't see that as particularly alarming. I think it does raise certain questions.

Clearly, biological death is not the result of sin in the way, to go back to the previous question, a literal understanding of the Adam and Eve is sometimes used to imply. But it does seem to me to be an exciting picture that God is all the time creating -- present tense -- through the processes of the natural world. New kinds of existence emerge through the natural laws and processes of nature, and all those laws and processes in nature are God-given. God gives the existence to the world with those laws and those processes, and they are the means by which God is actually creating all the time.

I think it seems to be that science unveils the work of God and creation in that way. I don't find any great conflict in this. Of course, how it's all arisen, particularly on the American scene, is a part of the social history of America. It is a particularly distinctive feature of the American religious scene at the moment. It's something like that in Western Europe, but not as intense as it has become in parts of America, I know.

I think what's exciting is that evolution shows very clearly how we as physical creatures have emerged from the physical world and are capable of mental life and capable of spiritual life -- that is, relating to God. And that's precisely, in a way, what in the Christian perception the doctrine of the incarnation is about: namely, of the spiritual capacities of the physical.

And of course, Christians believe at least that in one particular person this capacity of the physical to become spiritual reached its apogee, reached its consummation and its height in a particular person in history, whom they revere. And it seems to me this fits very well with evolutionary ideas.
The difference between the two parts of that question contains the answer to the question. The first question is: Do not the facts of evolution conflict with the way religion is practiced in the United States? And the second part of the question is: Does not evolution suggest that God does not play a day-to-day role in human events?

Well, I think if I were to say to you that the world was created 20 minutes ago complete with memories, then you would not have any better handle of the question of whether God plays the role in day-to-day events than if you say the world was created 5,000 years ago. The problem of special creation is it doesn't speak to the question of God's purposes, presence, or intentions. It doesn't, one way or the other.

I don't see what is gained by giving up the intellectual and emotional power of the scientific method to explain natural phenomena by underlying, straightforward, understandable mechanisms. I don't see what's gained by throwing that out in place of unreproducible special events which then do not tell you anything more about when God will return.

So to me, the question contradicts itself. I find it more pleasant in those terms to imagine God everywhere and at all times rather than having picked one moment to step in and then step back. So to me the question cancels itself, or I don't understand it.

Also, one would have the problem, inside special creation, of understanding why create a universe of perfection and eternal stability and imbue it with death? Why then must we die inside a world of special creation? Inside a world of natural selection, death is the very essential motor of natural selection. Death allows replacement by variants which eventually become new things. Without death, there's no evolution. But inside creation, why death?

So it seems to me that [mortality] is consistent with natural selection more than it is with special creation. In other words, the system we're in is a system of ever-evolving change and new understanding. That seems to be consistent with a Creator's intention that we arrive at a moment of saying, "Thanks for the mercy and the justice" by our own choice. Without the possibility of change, you're either an angel or you're dead. And none of us are angels.

In any event, I don't consider when I pray that I'm negotiating. It seems to me that the gift of God is a universe which is, as I say, informed by the purposes of mercy and justice which will play out in the long-term. And I don't claim, nor do I think anyone else I know of any religion claims that those purposes pick me as their enactor. They pick me as a player, but certainly not as a favorite.
I think at least two things must be said here. If by Darwinian evolution someone means a theory about all of life that affirms basic materialism, if it's a theory of life that refuses to countenance the possibility of any kind of design in nature, any kind of purpose in nature, then the questioner's issue is entirely accurate. That kind of Darwinian evolution is simply incompatible with religion that is practiced by not just many Americans, but many believers in Africa, and Asia, and the Middle East, and all around the world.

The second thing that needs to be said, however, is that evolution means many different things to many different people. If evolution is taken to be the series of conclusions that responsible scientists deliver responsibly about, say, DNA similarities throughout the life chain, about geological evidence, about other sorts of evidence concerning what actually went on in the past and what goes on in the present with living organisms, then it's an entirely different matter. Then we're talking about an issue that I think can be handled fairly easily by traditional believers.

And the way that that issue is handled fairly easily is by reference to the doctrine of Providence.

The doctrine of Providence in Christian, and I believe Jewish and Muslim teaching also, does not say that God's ruling of the world is going to take place as opposed to natural material conditions. It's not a zero-sum game, where the presence of God means the absence of things we can figure out by nature, or the things we can figure out by nature means the absence of God.

Rather, Providence says God works in, through, with, under the material processes of this world. Many believers, for example, pray when they're sick and go to the doctor. And that's an entirely legitimate thing to do in terms of theistic faith, because by going to the doctor someone is trusting what science has discovered; by praying, a believer is showing the belief that God, in fact, controls the process of the material world.

A fancy word was developed in the Catholic Middle Ages -- "concursus" -- that was then picked up by a variety of Protestants in the 16th century and continued on in theological discussions in the 19th and 20th century. Concursus just means that there may be in many, many, most important aspects of life multiple ways of explaining what's going on. And certainly it's entirely possible that some form of evolutionary science might be entirely true and a very strong view of the active presence of God in day-to-day life would also be true.

I think the reason this question is an important one and really disturbs a lot of people comes not from sober, responsible work done in either religious sphere or the scientific sphere, but from the draconian, the extreme, the hyperbolic statements made by spokespersons on the fringes of either side. So for example, I've got a whole page of quotations collected for me by a friend who's a high school biology teacher, who can show that some scientists just go bonkers when it comes to claiming claims for evolution. "The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptiveness and diversity of the world solely materialistically; it no longer requires God."

Well, if you have great comprehensive claims like that in the name of evolution, it's no wonder that people like the questioner worry about carrying on religion that is practiced by many believers. But what should be recognized is that these are extreme, metaphysical, irresponsible claims. More responsible understanding of divine Providence, more responsible understanding of how science is done, I think, alleviate much of the burden that lies beneath this question.
I will like to reiterate what I said earlier. My view is that we can have different descriptions of reality, different realms of knowledge, within which we try to understand reality from different points of view. To me, the scientific in no way excludes the religious view.
  related web activities  
Darwin's Diary
Delve into Darwin's secret inner world.
Evolution Revolution
Explore the revolution and the controversies around it.
Frequently Asked Questions About Evolution  
  related topics  
  Science, Faith, and Politics  
  Why Evolution Matters  
Source Credits      
Videos Web Activities Site Guide About the Project FAQ Glossary Site Map Feedback Help Shop