Man, has it been a busy few weeks for science deniers everywhere! Last month, Bill Nye went head-to-head with Ken Ham in a much ballyhooed debate about Creationism, and by most accounts Nye roundly schooled the Young Earth creationist on his own home turf. Ham’s loyal supporters dutifully praised him for his performance but the bulk of their accolades centered around the fact that he managed to robotically rehearse “the plan of salvation” multiple times during his presentation. They couldn’t have cared less about the science-y part of the debate, which in itself says an awful lot about that subculture. But then over the last couple of weeks the first two episodes of Cosmos aired, and creationists of all kinds are having virtual aneurysms. Some of them are complaining (again from Ham’s alternative reality) that all that science Neil deGrasse Tyson keeps dropping on the world needs to be balanced by…well, let’s call it what it is: ancient mythology.
First Tyson had the nerve to say that there is strong evidence to suggest that the Big Bang Theory presents a valid model for what happened at the earliest moments of the cosmos. Young Earth folks snickered and rolled their eyes at that claim (“Show us this evidence!”), but it was only a matter of a few days before news broke that a team of researchers had correctly calculated primordial ripples in the fabric of space left over from the initial inflation of the universe. Of course, that’s one of the beautiful things about science: It supplies models from which we can make precise predictions in order to either validate or else falsify the ideas which structure our thinking. The many varieties of Creationism (including Old Earth and “Intelligent Design”) cannot do that because they always rely on asserting at some point, “You can’t explain that!” A school of thought whose answer for everything unknown is simply that “God did it” has nothing to contribute to the scientific disciplines. You cannot formulate testable predictions out of “it was a miracle.”
Then episode two aired, which focused largely on evolution. You could almost hear the teeth grinding from multiple corners of the religious world. You could virtually see their blood pressure shooting up at the mention of Charles Darwin. See, it’s not just the bizarre Ken Ham types who deny common ancestry. Many Christians who accept that the universe is billions of years old and know better than to take stories like Noah’s Ark seriously still refuse to accept the idea that one species can develop from another. That idea both contradicts how the Bible says God did it (with each species created separately and independently of one another) and it blends man and beast in a way that fundamentally challenges their theological understanding of what makes us different from other living things. Call it human exceptionalism. Christianity teaches that humans are uniquely important in the universe and that things which are just natural for other animals are “sinful” for us. Once you blur the line between man and beast, you threaten the very ground on which the whole Christian story is built. Without the concept of sin, you lose the need for salvation, and the whole Christian message falls apart.
But which Christian story are we talking about? Defining Christianity is exceedingly difficult. For starters, I’m not convinced there ever was one single monolithic tradition which we could call True Christianity™. It seem obvious to me that there were always “competing christianities” even in the very earliest days of this religion. But more than that, this faith (or rather this constellation of faiths) has been reinvented so many times in so many different contexts and cultures and vocabularies that one can scarcely even speak of this belief system in the singular. For almost any dogmatic belief you pick, there are a dozen sects of the same religion which vehemently oppose that doctrine, saying that it contradicts the clear teaching of the word of God (or of the Mother Church, or whatever). Seeing this difficulty, some would enjoin us to simply strip away the non-essential issues and boil things down to what C.S. Lewis romantically termed “mere Christianity,” meaning that which has been believed by most Christians for most of the religion’s history.
That’s not as easy to do as it sounds on the surface, and good luck getting them to agree about which issues are “non-essential!” But for the sake of today’s question (Does evolution contradict Christianity?) I can make this as minimalistic as Steve Jobs’ old apartment. At its barest roots, anything which can be called Christianity teaches there is a personal God who cares for the things and people he/she/it creates. With all extraneous trappings removed, all Christian traditions profess a belief in a deity who is personal, loving, and who intervenes in some way or another in the affairs of the real world. Sure, there are plenty of other concepts of God out there (many of them polytheistic), but any version which makes God an impersonal Force, or a Being completely detached from and uninvolved with what he/she/it has created cannot sensibly be called a “Christian” concept of God. Can we at least agree on that? The Christian God is a personal God who intervenes in the world out of care for what he/he/it has created.
A Reluctant Conclusion
It seems to me that when rightly understood, evolution fundamentally contradicts this concept of God.
I want you first to know how vigorously I have fought against drawing this conclusion. I want desperately to find common ground with my friends and family who are Christians, and saying that evolution contradicts their religion cuts the legs from under that endeavor. I don’t want to draw this conclusion. I want to agree with brilliant and well-meaning people like Francis Collins and Peter Enns and all the other brave souls at Biologos who take an essentially Theistic Evolution position, arguing that there is no contradiction between science and the more intelligent versions of the Christian faith. But Paula Kirby once articulated* the problem with this approach:
But of course evolution poses a problem for Christianity. That’s not to say it poses a problem for all Christians, since many Christians happily accept evolution: they see Genesis 1 as merely a metaphor, and declare that if God chose to create us using evolution, that’s fine by them. I used to be this kind of Christian myself; but I must confess that my blitheness was only possible because I had only the vaguest possible idea of how evolution works and certainly didn’t know enough about it to realize that unguided-ness is central to it. While I welcome anyone who recognizes that the evidence for evolution is such that it cannot sensibly be denied, to attempt to co-opt evolution as part of a divine plan simply does not work, and suggests a highly superficial understanding of the subject. Not only does evolution not need to be guided in any way, but any conscious, sentient guide would have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving. Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work. An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that populate the Earth today would be many things – but loving would not be one of them. Nor perfect. Nor compassionate. Nor merciful. Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love.
Most Christians who finally capitulate to common ancestry will simply conclude “that’s how God did it,” and that conclusion makes perfect sense to me up to a point. Like Kirby, that’s what I did once, too. But in time I came to see how utterly wasteful, brutal, and cruel this process has been throughout the hundreds of millions of years that it’s been operating. You simply cannot view the complete random unguidedness that is our biological history and say that anything intelligent was behind it, not in any ostensible way, at least. Or if you insist that an Intelligence stood by and watched as this harsh and unfeeling process unfolded, you will have quite a time reconciling that with the notion of a personal Being who has sympathetic impulses toward his creation at any level. Only a monster could have the power to limit suffering of this magnitude and yet do nothing about it. Forget cancer, tsunamis, birth defects and child molestations. That’s just a sampling of the suffering of our species over a few thousand years, and Christians usually shift the blame for all of those things onto the Fall of Adam anyway (yes, even the catastrophic weather events). Leaving that aside, unspeakable waste and suffering has befallen millions of species over our long planetary history, the majority of which predates the evolution of the human race. There is no reasonable way to see an all-powerful deity possessing even a smidgeon of compassion guiding this process at any level, not if you really see the process for what it is. You will have to turn a blind eye toward some aspect of it or else it won’t compute. You will always be trying to gloss over the messiness of it all in order to find some kind of purposeful direction inherent therein. Your determination to see “intelligent design” behind it will always lead you to misperceive and misrepresent the way things actually happened.
Which God Were We Talking About Again?
As I said before, you cannot critique any single Christian tradition without drawing at least a few objections from some of the other traditions going by the same name. That’s one of the great frustrations with trying to have constructive dialogue with this constellation of faiths. They keep shouting either “Straw Man!” or else “No True Christian!” without ever acknowledging that the Christian sitting right next to them embodies everything you just described. This makes reasonable discussion very difficult and it drives most of the sane skeptics away from these conversations entirely, leaving behind only the insensitive jerks to troll the faithful in fruitlessly circular insult-slinging matches. I have my petty moments, too (my patience does have its limits), but I try my best to acknowledge the diversity of belief that exists whenever I can. In that spirit, I’ll briefly mention two varieties of belief which call themselves “Christian” but could accept the cold, brutal wastefulness of the evolutionary process rightly understood as an unguided process.
First, hypothetically speaking, are the Calvinists. Calvinism embraces the deterministic worldview presented in the Bible without trying to sugar coat it according to modern sensibilities. Our obsession with free will is a modern phenomenon, unknown to the biblical writers who saw everything as guided by God, whether beneficial or catastrophic.
When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? –Amos
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. –Isaiah
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. –Jesus
[God] works all thing according to the counsel of his will. –Paul
In theory, the Calvinists could reconcile the wastefulness of unguided evolution without difficulty because they’ve already resigned themselves to the idea that God doesn’t love everybody the same. Some he chooses to hate (see Romans 9:13-18). The Reformed version of God can be brutally cold to 99% of all species and even 99% of all humans. He can do as he pleases and you have no right to find any fault with this. Does that sound terrible to you? Would you believe they’re just being biblical?
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)
So again, in theory, because of the Calvinist’s fierce determination to be biblical, he could very well be cool with this situation except that the very same strict biblicism which teaches him in Romans that God hates a lot of people also tells him back in Genesis that God made people separately from all other animals. Calvinists are inerrantists, so they must reject common ancestry out of hand. Many of them despite their erudite elitism are even Young Earth creationists (What can I say? The human mind is ingenious at clinging to contradictory things). That rules out the Calvinists.
The only other group I can think of which calls themselves “Christian” and yet could unreservedly accept the randomness of evolution without trying to pretty it up would come from the ranks of liberal Christianity (although most of them would still have a hard time seeing God so cold and unaffected by suffering). In order to maintain a loving picture of God—one in which he loves everyone, not just a select few within one species—you would have to limit his powers in such a way that he is no longer omnipotent, as most historic Christianity sees him. Process theology, for example, sees God not as fully developed, all-knowing and all-powerful, but rather continually developing and growing, himself evolving along with us. The truth is, once you no longer feel bound to biblical categories for God, there’s no end to the number of theological innovations you can imagine. But it’s not intellectually honest to call those innovations “Christian.” One could argue that since Christianity itself is consistently being reinvented, there’s no harm in taking it a few steps further away from its original varieties. That’s not really my battle, so frankly I couldn’t care less. But I do think you should be up front and honest about how consciously discontinuous with Christian tradition you are being. It significantly impairs fruitful dialogue when so many people carelessly use the same label to describe such wildly different and irreconcilable things.
The Christian concept of God intervenes in the world and directs the affairs of the human race. You can abandon biblical literalism, jettisoning the six-day creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark and still call your beliefs “Christian.” Shoot, there are many liberal Christian traditions which even teach that you can deny the literal resurrection of Jesus and still be a Christian. They spiritualize the whole thing and say it’s just a metaphor. It seems to me that departs from “mere Christianity” but whatever. Even those folks still believe that God intervenes in the world to make things happen which wouldn’t naturally happen on their own without his intervention. There just isn’t any concept of God that can rightly be called “Christian” which envisions a disinterested absentee Creator keeping his hands off while such a wasteful, destructive, and completely random mess of a process unfolds. You either have to pick a different God, or superimpose a guidedness that isn’t there. I’m not saying you can’t believe in a God; I’m just saying these two things don’t fit together at all.
* Paula Kirby’s piece entitled “Evolution Threatens Christianity” seems to have been pulled from both its original location at the Washington Post and on Richard Dawkins’s website. I’d love to hear if anybody knows why.