Eminent Notre Dame historian Mark Noll has written a pithy and provocative piece for the National Association of Evangelicals on American Christians and science. Here’s an excerpt on the reception of Darwinism:
The Newtonian picture of a static, law-ordered world was breaking down before Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Napoleonic warfare, conservative political reaction, industrialization (William Blake’s “dark, Satanic mills”), class conflict and rapid population growth unsettled the social landscape into which Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) announced his version of evolution. That version made “natural selection” the key (organisms vary, more offspring are produced than can survive, those that survive are better adjusted to their environment for the purpose of survival).
Darwin, who had been reared on Paley’s idea of a creation whose order was transparent to human inspection, thought of his own theory as random purposelessness. By contrast, many theologians and most Christian scientists of the day came to accept some variety of evolution (though not always natural selection), while affirming that it too reflected order and design consistent with a divine creator. Asa Gray of Harvard, who was Darwin’s chief promoter in the United States, always maintained his commitment to traditional Christian supernaturalism while trying to convince Darwin that his theory was compatible with a view of God as creator.
Responses to Darwin were strongly affected by many factors unrelated to science. Conservative Protestants in Scotland mostly made their peace with evolution, because they accepted a progressive view of human knowledge and were much more worried about destructive biblical criticism. Conservative white Protestants in the American South mostly opposed evolution, because it undercut the biblical literalism that had provided their defense for slavery.
The era of fundamentalist-modernist controversy saw issues of biblical interpretation replace questions of design as the most contested scientific questions. Modernists criticized fundamentalists for defending literal biblical interpretation — for the book of Revelation as well as the book of Genesis. As a result, loyalty to the Bible for many in the United States moved easily into loyalty to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1–3. So strong was this reaction that some even came to question the broad acceptance of an ancient age for the earth that Christian geologists in the 19th century had embraced.
Today the Christian world contains a diversity of opinion on questions related to evolution and considerable controversy over proposed responses to climate change. Ethical questions about the application of science conclusions to genetics and stem cell research can also be controversial. These hot spots also co-exist with a nearly universal acceptance of scientific conclusions and empirical methods in all other areas of life.