Keith Ward, Big Questions in Science and Religion 3: Is Evolution Compatible with Creation?

This chapter begins by noting that many religious worldviews take for granted that things are getting and will continue to get progressively worse, not better. Ward then moves on the the view in the medieval epoch that the cause of anything must be greater than the thing caused. It took the Enlightenment era’s newfound openness to the possibility of historical change and progress to foster the exploration of evolutionary ideas.

Unless one is committed to taking some parts of the Biblical creation accounts literally (no one successfully takes them literally in their entirety, whatever they might claim), then there is no fundamental incompatibility between evolution and creation. God may be the ground of the whole universe which includes evolution, or God may bring into existence the universe that evolves life, or God may in some sense be or be embodied in/as the evolving universe, or some other relationship. Ward argues (pp.68-69) that it is important to distinguish between creation (the idea that the material universe depends for its existence on something that transcends it) and creationism (which in practice usually means pseudoscience – that’s my statement, not Ward’s). In a similar way, Ward takes a favorable view of positing “design” as a way to account for the character of our universe that produces life and allows it to evolve, but not of seeking specific instances in which a Designer “intervened” to “tinker” (again, that’s my way of putting it).

When discussing the concept of God one might adhere to in the context of an evolutionary universe, Ward emphasizes that “the idea of God has not been fixed for all time by some philosopher or religous text a thousand years or more ago. Like ideas in science, ideas of God change, and they are capable of changing again, if developments in knowledge require it…It will not be surprising if modern knowledge of evolution prompts us to make some revisions to our idea of God” (pp.76-77). Ward notes as one example the evidence that we have not fallen from some golden age of primordial innocence. But ultimately, the questions about how one thinks about God (if at all) in the context of our current scientific worldview are philosophical, rather than something biology or other scientific disciplines themselves can answer.
I will end by pointing out that the universe contains suffering, and that raises issues for religious belief. Evolutionary theory does not create this problem, and by placing suffering and death in the context of the “creation” of sentient life forms, it may make the process seem worthwhile. Of course, the objection may be raised that it would have been better to skip directly to such life as us without the long and painful road that got us here. But we cannot claim to know that that is in fact possible. It may be that, unless organisms arise through a process ultimately originating in the realms of quantum uncertainty and building up slowly from there, then there simply cannot be sentient free beings. We do not know. Religious faith cannot demonstrate any more than science can whether some other universe could exist in reality. But an important point, in my view, is that religious faith not seek either to excuse God or ourselves for the existence of suffering, nor seek to deny its reality. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with those who cry out in pain at the meaninglessness of life in the face of suffering, and not offer religion as a pill that makes the suffering better, but as something that makes us want to alleviate it wherever and whenever we can.
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