Tuesday, September 22, 2009

God and Evolution

Is man a created or evolved being? This question of man's origin has enormous implications for a person's existence here and now. I wrote recently about the debate over stem cell research and how the basis one uses to determine the value of life informs one's position on that issue. Similarly, perhaps even more fundamentally, the question of man's origin informs one's position on so many other issues. Tackling that question head on is a daunting task, but related questions can be helpful in shedding light on it. One such related question was asked by the Wall Street Journal last week: "Where does evolution leave God?" The commissioned responses by Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong provide some insight to the state of the discussion over God and evolution.

Armstong's response suggest that God becomes a necessary myth for man to explain suffering. "Religion," she says, "was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace." God is a fairytale that helps us satisfy our conscience, that provides something we can point to for the inexplicable things in life. The summary of her position lies in this paragraph,

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.

Armstrong might be on to something in describing religion as "a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational" but she comes far short of a full picture of God. God is not an abstract, transcendent entity that exists for us to pawn off the unanswerable questions on. The ambiguous, distant, mythical God -- divorced from reason -- is to small a picture of him. Any full understanding of God requires reason and spiritual faith. God is mysterious and yet personal.

There is much more to say about the nature of God (I would point you to A.W. Tozer's book, Knowledge of the Holy), but in general I think the modern world tends to have far to small a view of God because we have an elevated sense of man or, in Richard Dawkin's case, of nature.

Mr. Dawkin's article idolizes natural selection above anything else, which I assume is the focus of his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth. I must give him credit for having a deep appreciation for the natural world that he lives in. He asks, "What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics. But although life never violates the laws of physics, it pushes them into unexpected avenues that stagger the imagination. If we didn't know about life we wouldn't believe it was possible..." His awe of nature goes so far as to cause him to claim that "the universe created us." Indeed, he begins his manifold assertions with one quite bold; "Evolution is the creator of life." He assigns the origin of man to a process.

While I share Mr. Dawkin's awe of nature, I would ask him just one question. If man is the product of an impersonal evolutionary process why does he bother respecting his fellow man? I do not think he would deny that moral categories exist for humans (he makes a moral claim by simply saying that life is a good thing). Yet, if man than has intrinsic value as a person, he must receive it from somewhere. Man can only have the value of personhood if he is the creation of a person of infinite worth -- a personal, creator God. This God is the one Mr. Dawkin's denies and Mrs. Armstrong diminishes to a nice fairytale. They both would do well to consider a God who is capable of both creating them and loving them personally. Dawkin's naturalism and Armstrong's fairytale are insufficient explanations of man's origin because they do not address the question of man's intrinsic value. If they deny that value, than we have a whole other debate.


  1. Zach, this is a really interesting post! Great questions and answers. I do not think the issue is so black and white, however. I strongly believe mankind is a created thing; however, humans have also evolved (that is, changed) throughout the centuries. Microevolution has allowed him to adapt, but man did not, for example, come from apes.

    Evolution is completely compatible with Christianity, but I think modern-day scientists take the theory of evolution too far (especially macro) and seek to explain everything with it. They are trying to cut God out of the picture by giving the credit of man to prokaryotes. The line has to be drawn that it does not have to be either religion or science to explain—God gives us both to answer His great mystery of Life. Our God, a very real and tangible God, created the world and under His loving watch, allows it to change and adapt.

    In terms of man’s humanity, I believe that comes from the Logos, that divine spark found in each of God’s children, but that’s a post for another day. Sorry for the long response; I love discussing things like this :)

  2. I am sure I left many unanswered questions about evolution, that is because there are a multitude that could be addressed. But, Julie, you raise an important distinction between micro and macro evolution. If by microevolution you mean incremental changes within a species over time, then yes I agree with you. For example, a dog may change in size, color, but it will never become a cat (or any other new species). Macroevolution asserts that amoeba can become fish, and apes become men -- species change. Perhaps Christians can believe in a microevolution. But, I do not believe Christians can rightly believe in Darwinian, natural selection, macroevolution. And the reason why is because it denies the need for a savior.

    The most fundamental belief of a Christian is that man's sins were redeemed by the saving work of Christ on the cross. If we believe this is a literal, historical truth then there must have been a place when sin entered the world. Of course, this comes at the Fall in Genesis. But, if you subscribe to a evolutionary view of the world, how does sin fit into that picture? When did man sin? Did apes sin? Did the Neanderthals sin? You see my point, I hope, that an evolutionary man leaves no room for sin. Evolution denies a moral universe for man because he is not created but evolved. How do you evolve into morality? The conclusion to this argument is that if Creation and the Fall was not literal than Redemption was meaningless. And if they were both metaphorical, than we are in danger of becoming like Miss Armstrong's mythical God that exist simply as target to pin our unanswerable questions on. A convenient myth.

  3. Zach, I appreciate that you made a clear distinction between macroevolution and microevolution. To my knowledge, there is no informed human who would deny microevolution.

    My own personal rejection of macroevolution is not based on it's moral or theological implications, but simply because the evidence for it is nonexistent. The hypothesis of macroevolution is not scientific because it is not a measurable, repeatable event. If it did occur, then it is a historical event, which must be catalogued by a historian or some sort of eyewitness. Unfortunately, neither the origins of the universe nor the evolutionary origins of man are capable of being witnessed and recorded by any person, since they both predate human existence.

  4. My favorite part of this post is the Tozer plug. Very nice, Zach ;)

  5. Zach, nice work. I also read this article the day it came out, and thought it clouded the debate rather than clarified it. Neither side "won" by any means, and the choice of Armstrong to represent the theistic viewpoint was awful! The article follows in the recent vein of journalism picking religious scholars who, at best apologize for misunderstandings of God in past history, and at worst committ to allowing the idea of God change and mold to societal needs.


    A few observations, since this topic has been on my mind a lot lately:

    First, Darwinian evolution, as a natural mechanism, is not at all inherently atheistic or "godless." That's a misrepresentation that too many creationists and short-sided biologists propogate. A common error in the debate over evolution is the unwillingness in both camps to find any middle ground. Either you're an atheist and think evolution gives you absolute grounds for it, or you're a Christian that must believe in six-day creationism (or else be close to a heretic)-- Macroevolution can be invoked to explain how so many diverse species have come to be and explain current scientific findings, without becoming an all-encompassing Theory of Everything. Many Christians who are scientist have no problem reconciling accepted scientific accounts of origins as well as holding an orthodox faith. To me, the pressing concern is THAT God created, not HOW he created.

    Second, I don't think it's accurate to say that no evidence exists to date for the process of macroevolution. I'm not sure Silas' conditions for accepting "evidence" work either. On his view, even if glaring evidence (let's say fossil evidence) for macroevolution existed, we couldn't accpet it, as we have no historical account saying that "speciation happened in such and such a way." That doesn't work for me; and on top of that, most of ancient history that we accept as valid came to us via oral tradition for hundreds of years before it was ever transcibed by an historian. We are still able to test and examine explanatory theories without having to repeat them (i.e. a murder trial)

    Concerning the actual proposed evidence for evolution: http://biologos.org/questions/fossil-record/

    Also, Zach, your concern about preserving core doctrines about sin, Fall, and redemption is great, and I share it completely. But again, I do think it is possible to hold to a kind of evolution by natural selection without destroying these doctrines. I think Genesis is both historical/poetical, and I think a real Adam and Eve existed. I also think a real Fall took place, because Paul and Jesus both did. But whether Adam and Eve came into existence by God instilling a human spirit, image, and consicousness on a pair of hominids, or specially created them doesn't seem to compromise the Biblical message of sin and grace to me...

    Overall, really good :)

  6. A belief in the Fall is absolutely necessary for man's understanding of sin, which leads to one's understanding of what it means to be human. Have you ever read the Humanists, mainly Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More or T.E. Hulme? We'll have to talk about them some time :)

  7. Aaron, perhaps you are correct that belief in God and macroevolution is not mutually exclusive. I am, in fact, willing to entertain that possibility. And there is some compelling evidence for macroevolution. But, one of the major difficulties I have in accepting that is the origin of man's spirit. Genesis says God created man in his own image and God, being a spirit, created man with a spirit. So, did the evolutionary animanls before man have a spirit?

    This dilemma leads to a second. The evolutionary process is not immediate and occurs incrementally. So, if one group of apes had some limited ability to reason (the distinguishing factor for being a human) when Adam reached the state of being a man, did God give just Adam a spirit? Why not the both? Timing then becomes a problem.

    All that to say, the God I believe in is more than capable of doing all that. The question is, does Genesis clearly say one way or the other... I am not entirely sure, but I am more persuaded that it does not.

  8. Hey Zach. I'm pretty sure we've never met but we do appear to share some mutual friends. Susana sent me a link to this post and suggested I join in, so blame her for this response. I've talked about this sort of thing with her an Aaron before and it's always fun.

    Regarding the mechanical details of evolution, I think most biologists today would not make a dramatic distinction between microevolution and macroevolution. In fact, the difference between the two essentially boils down to time and location. To oversimplify things a bit, macroevolution is lots and lots of microevolution over long periods of time. So new species can arise when, for example, a segment of one population becomes geographically isolated from the main population. Once separated, each group continues down an independent (micro)evolutionary path. Microevolution won't produce drastic changes from generation to generation, but let it run for several thousand or million years and those changes will add up to something substantial. Eventually, enough genetic differences will have accumulated for the two isolated populations to be considered separate species.

    Regarding the implications that evolution has for Christian theology, I would tend to agree that if human beings emerged through the process evolution, then it's hard to take the Biblical account of creation and the subsequent Fall of Man literally. But does that mean there's no room for sin? While I don't have a lot of personal investment in this question (I'm an agnostic or secular Buddhist depending on my mood), I would just point out that there are many strong Christians who fully embrace Darwinian evolution. Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins are two of the most prominent. Both have lengthy videos on YouTube discussing science and religion, although only Collins addresses the theological issues in detail (Miller has written a couple books on the subject). Collins also has a website devoted to his particular take on science and religion that you might find interesting. There's a section called "The Questions" that has lots of articles dealing with these sorts of issues, including one specifically about the Fall.

  9. Uh oh. Looks like I was a little late. When I started my response Susana had the last comment but now I see there have been several others. Sorry if my comment is a bit redundant in light of Aaron's.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts, Ethan. And for thinkers and article you shared. I read the one article (in "The Questions") and it was helpful. I will look further into this "reading" of the Genesis text because it seems that it might lend credibility to the historical view of evolution and the Fall of man.

  11. For the benefit of all those who read this post and the comments, I submit this article by Al Mohler: "A Tale of Two Atheist" (http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/09/14/a-tale-of-two-atheists/)

    It is a response to the WSJ article by Dawkins and Armstrong. Enjoy.

  12. I would commend Hugh Ross as an excellent Christian thinker who has tried to reconcile an "old earth" belief with his exegesis of Scripture. Unfortunately, too often Christians who are thinking about these matters are weak on exegesis and strong on science. There must be a solid interplay between them.