Some Problem Areas for the Compatibility of Religion and Evolution

Some Problem Areas for the Compatibility of Religion and Evolution December 8, 2016

Thomas Cole, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828). Source: Wikimedia Commons


I spend a lot of time talking religion and theology in pretty literate, mostly progressive Christian communities online. Despite a chunk of the typical postings being totally outside my wheelhouse (prayer requests and such), they’re among the few places to discuss the history of Christianity with any regularity.

I say mostly progressive because these communities are pretty big, and invariably attract a lot of other voices besides just progressive ones. Maybe it all evens out to where it’d be more accurate to say that, taken as a whole, these communities are only moderately progressive. But because of this, I think they might offer a fairly representative cross-section of wider Christian attitudes in general—at least in the Anglophone world.¹

In any case, as with other ideology-based communities, there’s a core sort of in-group camaraderie among their members: a shared identity as simply being Christian, wherever people might fall on the spectrum from conservative to liberal on any given issue. And this has a profound effect on how people are treated and interacted with. Just as atheist groups might sooner welcome an incredibly ill-informed atheist than they would a Christian, no matter how brilliant they were, I get the feeling that some in these Christian communities would rather have, say, a Young Earth creationist in their ranks than they would an atheist.

And I think this is because there’s a kind of attitude, whether it’s explicitly stated or even privately admitted or not, that even the most misguided Christian is still more “correct” in their approach to religion and spirituality—again, at least in that deep shared identity of being Christian—than the non-Christian.²

And this is all how it should be. Or at least it’s how it must be.

But, naturally, it’s easy for a community to suffer because of this. However many open-minded and progressive people there may be in a given community, otherwise reasonable sentiments or arguments that test the baseline status quo can be ignored or suppressed, while bad arguments and information can thrive—as long as you can find enough people willing to entertain the latter as the sort of lowest common denominator of in-group identity. And all this is true not just for the communities of online discussion forums, but for wider social groups, too.

I hope this all doesn’t come across as overly cynical. Above all, what I’m trying to highlight is that belonging to the communities that we belong to, whatever they are, establishes a kind of baseline of what’s considered reasonable discourse for us; and it distances us from rival groups whose discourse is considered unreasonable, or otherwise unappealing. On the Christian/atheist divide, the idea that God delivered his own Son (also fully God) as a sacrifice for human sin, once for all, is as intellectually repulsive to atheists as the notion that the God of the Old Testament commanded Israelites to sacrifice their firstborn children to him is to Christians.

Yet proponents of both ideas can appeal to any number of sophisticated arguments and “in-house” scholars lending support to these things.³

Ironically, it was precisely the absurdity of the idea of the sacrifice of the God-king-messiah, in the eyes of Jews and gentiles, that was transformed by the early Christians into a subversive, counter-cultural statement. Indeed, this became the main focal point for a new identity for them.

And despite Christianity’s large number of adherents, and its influence on any number of cultures throughout history subsequent to its early Jewish and gentile resistance, in many ways it seems destined to remain universally counter-cultural—certainly to many trends in the wider capitalist and secular world. Beyond the scandal of the crucifixion itself, its central teachings demand of its followers a stark confrontation with (and even assumption of) poverty, suffering, and even celibacy: things most of us would rather see pushed to the margins of society than embraced.

For that matter, it’s only a few lines into Saint Paul’s celebrated first epistle to the Corinthians that the message of Christianity is proclaimed as subverting intellectualism and rationality itself, running sharply against the wisdom “of this age” and of the world.

But even if this was only a kind of hyperbolic, rhetorically-strategic anti-intellectualism, comparable modern pronouncements would have little currency today for communities that are even moderately progressive.

To be sure, I think everyone can agree that when we talk about what Christianity is most essentially about, intellectualism certainly wouldn’t top the list—again, not over its ethics of humanitarianism and sacrifice, and so on. But still, at the same time as Paul shunned worldly wisdom in his letter to the Corinthians, he also “argued in the synagogue with the Jews . . . and also in the agora every day” (Acts 17:17), and engaged with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus; and as his apostolic counterpart Peter would later enjoin—or his amanuensis, or forger, depending on your perspective—”Always be ready to give a reasoned defense for the hope that is in you, to all those who ask it of you.”

Today more than ever, the twin pillars of fides et ratio, faith and reason, are held up as emblematic of a Christianity that’s up to the intellectual challenges of modernity. But what exactly does a reasoned defense of Christianity entail? What all needs to be defended?

A lot of the research I’ve been doing over the last several years has focused on historic Christian defenses of Biblical history itself.

In this regard—and to start to move toward the main subject of this post—I think it’s clear that Christianity’s⁴ confrontation with evolution was first and foremost a crisis of history. In short order after Darwin, the human story would for the first time be conclusively extended far beyond the apparent late Neolithic setting of the early chapters of the book of Genesis—in which the true creation ex nihilo of humanity itself was recounted, as it had been all but universally understood in Christendom up until then⁵—and instead as just one moment (albeit a crucially important one) in a much wider and much older zoological scheme, building on the groundwork of Linnaeus and others.

From what I’ve seen over the past few years, however, especially in the moderate-to-progressive Christian communities that I mentioned earlier, recognition of Christianity’s original confrontation with evolution as a crisis is unpopular these days.

There seems to be a working assumption that other than a few fundamentalist hold-outs, as there still are today, the entry of Christianity into the post-evolution world didn’t mark much of an eventful transition at all. Instead, it’s thought that this reconciliation, and especially the demise of some of the mainstays of Biblical historicity entailed by it, had long been presaged in the interpretive works of seminal figures like Origen and Augustine, from early in Church history.

Before saying anything else here, it should be acknowledged that for Christianity as a whole, in all its 19th century varieties, the reaction to evolution was varied. For that matter, as I discuss further below, the strong reaction to evolution from some branches of Christianity also had to do with this being bound up with developments in other academic disciplines at the time—some of which might be said to have posed more direct threats to tenets of Christian orthodoxy.

But as for the idea of Christendom defaulting to early interpretive traditions in which the narratives in the book of Genesis and elsewhere in the Old Testament were understood not as recounting true historical events, but were appreciated more on their literary merit alone, as offering instructive lessons in the guise of metaphors or allegories: many people are surprised to learn—in fact, some react to it incredulously, if not almost violently—that many of those appealed to as figureheads of this approach, like Origen and Augustine, weren’t nearly so keen on it as imagined.

To the contrary, as I’ve discussed at length in a recent post, at many different places throughout their writings we find clear indications or explicit statements as to the great importance of the literal historicity of various events in the Biblical narratives—beginning at the fall of Adam and Eve, to the genealogies of their descendants (including their extreme lifespans), and on to the flood of Noah and beyond. Nowhere in the early Church can you find more unequivocal statements to this effect than in texts like Augustine’s City of God, where on the subject of Biblical history—specifically in the context of discussing the archaeological evidence, or lack thereof, for the existence of Biblical giants, as well as the multi-century lifespans of early Biblical figures—he writes that “our refusal to believe what it relates [historically] would be as shameless as our evidence of the fulfillment of its prophecies is certain.”⁶

Considering Augustine and others’ great influence on historic Christian tradition in this regard, then, it’s no small wonder that various intellectual advancements of the 19th century, whether anthropological or archaeological—both of which threatened Biblical history in ways that it never had before—posed a profound challenge for orthodox Christians.

Accordingly, the early response to these threats was terse. For example, facing the onslaught of any number of things here (from the insights of Darwin to those of the Epic of Gilgamesh) against the bulwark of Biblical inerrancy and the theological tradition that had developed around it, Pope Leo XIII wrote in his famed 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus that “nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures.”⁷

Some progressives might be disconcerted by the seemingly fundamentalist attitude displayed here by Leo XIII, especially as they read his words more fully. Isn’t it presumptuous to think not only that there’s nothing in physical science or archaeology that’s challenged anything in Scripture so far, but that there will never be anything that could do so, either?

But still, even if disconcerting, is it that far outside the bounds of what’s considered reasonable discourse? Is it really that unfamiliar?

I’m led to wonder whether the de facto assumption that there’s no conflict whatsoever between evolution—with whatever this might entail—and religion (or obviously, in this example, Christianity in particular) isn’t in some way the inheritor of this presumptuous inerrantist legacy, or something like it.

To be sure, the idea of the essential compatibility of religion and evolution isn’t one that exists solely on the religious/Christian side of things. In many ways it was a fundamental part of Stephen Jay Gould’s well-known non-overlapping magisteria. Yet what’s often been recognized about Gould’s approach is that it wasn’t just descriptive, but prescriptive; and he could only affirm this by taking away things like historical claims from the true magisterium of religion, relegating its role to the construction of existential meaning and ethical values. (Similar in this regard seems to be a quote by the well-known Orthodox rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “science takes things apart to see how they work, while religion puts things together to see what they mean,” mentioned in a recent guest post on BioLogos by N.T. Wright.)

As suggested above, however, stripping religion of its claim to history, broadly construed—whether the cosmological or anthropological claims made here, or other claims of crucial events or divine interventions into history, some of us which definitely fall into territory of falsifiability—inevitably undermines crucial foundations of orthodox Christianity, among other things.

What then is the relationship between religion and science and history here?

What concerns me is that closer to the orthodox side of things, some of the historical gestures toward compatibility have been suspiciously asymmetrical. Often times the way it’s outlined isn’t so much that religion can never contradict science and history, but that science and history can never challenge religion. Yet even the former seems to rest on the presumption that religion can’t ever fall short of science and history; and so both sentiments open the door for a kind of dominion or control of religion over science, and not the other way around.⁸

It’s this, then, that to me frames how we might assess attitudes relating to the compatibility of religion and evolution, too.

I’ve already mentioned how the history of Biblical interpretation itself has been skewed, seemingly in order to lend support to the compatibility of Biblical truth and various types of historical criticism—again, often at the expense of historical and theological accuracy itself. Closer to the beginning of this post, I also mentioned how ideological communities often appeal to certain “in-house” scholars or specific trends in academia to further legitimize their own discourse and ideology. On this note, then, one wonders if there hasn’t been an ongoing effort on the part of large Christian communities to not just gloss over or rewrite the history of the relationship of evolution and Christianity, but to downplay or ignore ongoing philosophical and other theoretical work on the issue, too.

In effect, then, the very characterization of the academic state of play on the issue that many encounter may be skewed. And there does seem to be a widespread notion (at least in Christian communities) of a consensus among theologians that the idea of incompatibility between evolution and religion is a outdated relic of the past, and is only resurrected as a historically and philosophically illiterate New Atheist fantasy—part of the defunct conflict thesis that sees religion and science as necessarily opposed to each other, throughout history and in many ways continuing today too.

Perhaps most interestingly though, one wonders if there isn’t something of a “bottom-up” effect where the compatibility of evolution and religion/Christianity that seems necessary for a non-dissonant lived Christianity in the first place—and obviously important for the self-identity of larger communities that see themselves as rational and critical—in fact shapes academic theological opinion on the issue in the first place. (This would certainly be a part of the larger conversation that’s been broached about the extent to which much work in academic theology and philosophy of religion itself is often done in the wider context of a confessional Christianity.)

Evolution, Philosophy of Religion, and Cognitive Science

I might be getting ahead of things in my last sentence; but the truth is that in serious contemporary academic treatments of the issue, especially on the philosophy of religion side of things, there are a lot of uncertainties as to where religion and evolution, or specifically Christianity, are compatible or potentially incompatible.¹

Naturally, because of this, scholars actually working on the issue—again, unlike many laymen—are typically much more cautious about making any kind of blanket judgment that evolution (and the full gamut of things potentially entailed by its study) and, say, Christian theology in toto are completely, unproblematically compatible; and the same goes for evolution and other specific religions, too, or indeed for “religion” itself.

To that effect, I just want to broach a few of potentially serious problems that play into the compatibility or incompatibility of the two, as have both been explored—and neglected—in philosophy of religion and beyond. To start out,

  • Perhaps first and foremost, there’s the issue of the foreknowledge of God/gods, and whether God² truly does know the future, and how this ties into evolutionary development.

Even if, say, God initiated the evolutionary process—or initiated the thing that initiated the evolutionary process—if God doesn’t know the future, or doesn’t know it exhaustively (as is argued by some prominent theologians and philosophers),³ then there might be a sense in which the things that emerged in the course of evolution weren’t directly intended by him.

And this could be connected with the evidential problem of evil, where there’s a preponderance of natural “evil” in the world, and throughout history—something often connected particularly with the evolutionary process and the great death and suffering that it’s entailed⁴—that’s virtually impossible to explain as having some greater purpose and having been ordained by a perfect, compassionate entity.

As suggested, this apparently meaningless suffering may of course be more easily explained on the hypothesis that God was simply unaware of what all the creation of the universe would eventually entail; though in modern philosophy of religion, it’s often suggested to decrease the probability that an omnibenevolent God exists at all. (As for God’s unawareness, however: at least in regard to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we might think of the prelude to the flood in Genesis 6, in which God expresses regret that he had created humanity, having seen “that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.” At least in the original perspective here, this seems to imply God’s imperfect knowledge of the future, a la the limitations of other gods attested in other literature from the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world.⁵)

Also related to this:

  • If asked for a justification of the compatibility of evolution and (a specific) religion in general terms, an explanation is often given along the lines of God directing evolution in order to “set the stage” for the revelation of religion, or a specific religion.

This of course raises the issue of how deeply involved God has been in the evolutionary process over its millions of years; but I think it also creates a more serious problem, having to do with the fundamental variability or arbitrariness of human religion itself.

In what’s commonly known as theistic evolution, the emphasis is often on the beginnings of evolution or the origins of hominids in particular as having been directed by God. Surprisingly, though, much less attention had been paid to some of the teleological aspects that seem to be implied by this.
However, it seems to me that for those who accept the idea of God’s having directed the development of evolution, one of the main desired (and consciously-intended) outcomes for God here was the emergence of a human consciousness and freedom which could interact with—and in some ways mirror—God’s own.

Now, any number of statements and quotes could be culled from theists to the effect that human consciousness is an inherently supernatural phenomenon, possible only through divine endowment. But, again surprisingly, less frequent are studies of the teleology of divine intention vis-à-vis evolution. Nonetheless, we can find a few studies and statements that broach the issue. For example, Justin Barrett writes

The atheist may suggest that the evolved human mind happens to encourage [religious] belief. If Christian theology teaches that God created humans so that they might enjoy a relationship with Him, why would God leave such important cognitive capacities to chance plus natural selection? A couple of responses exist for the Christian. First, God could have instantiated this world out of all the possible worlds because in this world natural selection brought about the kind of creatures capable of a loving relationship with Him. Second, God could have guided natural selection to develop the sorts of minds humans have. Perhaps the ‘random mutations’ from which natural selection selected were not random after all. The environmental contingencies that favored one organism over another could have been designed or directed to bring about humans with their particular minds. (“Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology,” 97)

Charles Taliaferro and Jil Evans, in their monograph The Image in Mind, go so far as to understand “theistic evolution” to specifically entail teleological intention and the development of consciousness:

Evolutionary history must include the recognition that when conscious experience came to be, there arose a radically new reality. We believe that the best account of the evolution of consciousness lies in the creativity of God. This need not involve envisaging God making multiple distinct individual acts of creation; it may instead be part of God’s general will that consciousness-conscious subjects come into being when physical organisms evolve with certain structures and constitution. This may be called theistic evolution. (The Image in Mind: Theism, Naturalism, and the Imagination, 101)

In some even more specific harmonizations of evolutionary anthropology and theology as are offered for the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God, after initiating the evolutionary process, waited—presumably—until hominids had become sufficiently evolved (cognitively, ethically?) before making his first true self-revelations to them. These ideas, and teleological evolution more generally, have ample precedent in the history of post-Darwin Christian theology: for example, as early as 1873, Willibald Beyschlag wrote of the “gradual, planned evolution . . . striving towards the emergence of man,” and that “the last step in this evolution, the step from the animal to man, could of course only have been accomplished by God breathing something of his own personal spirit into the animal form most fit to receive it” (Ein antiker Spiegel für den “neuen Glauben” von D.F Strauss).

In more recent times, and more informed by modern evolutionary anthropology, Kenneth Kemp, in his “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” offers several suggestions about God’s direct intervention in a small early hominid population, in order to endow his chosen Adam and Eve with intellects in the first place, and extend to them “the offer of divine friendship.”

All this might be understood to be reflected in different aspects of the early chapters of Genesis, if only represented figuratively: the creation of humans in God’s own image, with whatever that all entails, as well as their consciousness of the divine presence—God’s appearances and revelations to humans. And the latter here are arguably represented even more broadly in the Hebrew Bible, not just in God’s interaction with the figures of Adam and Eve, but elsewhere in the revelations to Abraham, Moses, and others.

And if these were all events preordained in the timeless will of God, then, when specifically talking about Judaism and evolution, we might say—perhaps must say—that in this theological perspective, both evolutionary history and religious revelation are part of the same schedule of divine predeterminism. Interestingly though, it’s not just the earliest revelation as appears in the Hebrew Bible—ostensibly to the true earliest humans, as implied in Genesis—that’s part of this schedule of predeterminism. At least if we’re speaking of the combined Judaeo-Christian Bible here, this predeterminism must be said to include the revelation of Christianity, too, both in the sending of Christ himself (1 Peter 1:19-20) and in the choosing of the true Christian “elect” who would ultimately be saved (Revelation 13:8; 17:8; Ephesians 1:4; Matthew 25:34).

Does all this pave the way toward a theology in which Abrahamic monotheism, or even Judaism or perhaps Christianity itself, is something of a preordained outcome of the evolutionary process—at least insofar as the earliest chapters of Genesis have been interpreted to represent and convey the dawning of the first human consciousness of the divine unity?⁶ᵃ

Of course, however attractive some of the aforementioned harmonizations of Genesis/creation and evolution might be, I imagine that many more honest and critical Jews and Christians might dispute some of these things. Among other problems, despite that Adam is created from the ground in the Genesis creation narrative, this isn’t easily harmonized with the idea of development from hominid precursors. (For an introduction to the various problems here, see Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.)

For that matter, a theology that locates Christianity as somehow emerging from the evolutionary process itself is even more difficult. In whatever ways the early Biblical narratives might be coaxed into supporting the idea of the revelation of the divine at an apex of early human development, there would still be any number of thousands of years between this and the emergence of Christianity itself in the first century CE; not to mention the issue of the Fall.

Yet in another sense, the story of Judaism, with Adam and Abraham and all, was taken over as an integral part of the story of Christianity—brought together with it to construct one continuous story of revelation, from Adam to Jesus (the “last Adam,” 1 Corinthians 15:45). Of particularly interest here might be the historical outline offered by the church father Eusebius of Caesarea, synthesizing the history of Israelite religion leading up to Christianity. Employing biological or agricultural imagery, Eusebius characterizes the early appearances of God’s messengers to pivotal Jewish figures (Abraham and Moses, et al.), the revelation imparted by them, and its effects: “the seeds of true religion had been strewn by them among a multitude of men.” Finally, at the end of his survey of Israel’s story, “when all men, even the pagans throughout the world, were now fitted for the benefits prepared for them beforehand . . . [Christ] . . . appeared at the beginning of the Roman Empire in a human body which in no point differed essentially from that which our nature wears.”⁶ᵇ

Like nations and people having originally been dispersed over the earth from Babel/Babylon (Genesis 11:9-10), Christianity was now spread throughout the world via the reach of the empire of Rome: the new Babylon, as it was for many. Here, however, this didn’t represent the disunification of humanity, as it did in Genesis, but rather its unification in a new Christian identity. In this and other ways, then, the beginnings of humanity (including its fall into sin and the disunity) were integrally linked with its renewal in Christianity, presaging the triumphant End.

But if for a timeless God, knowing the future perfectly, the original fall of man was eminently foreseeable—and if also its remedy was singular: the sending of his own Son, to redeem humanity—then perhaps there’s indeed theological room to see Christianity as more integrally embedded in the larger evolutionary fabric of the world and humanity than we might think. For that matter, some have been inclined to see the Fall not as a uniformly regressive event, but as a necessary one, and one that advanced the human story forward into the future in ultimately positive ways. For example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a prominent early Catholic harmonizer of evolution and Christianity, wrote that “evil is not an unforeseen accident in the universe. It is an enemy, a shadow which God inevitably produces simply by the fact that he decides on creation.” (Here we might of Philo of Alexandria’s comment “sin is congenital to every created being, even the best, just because they are created.”)

In tandem with this, especially in the Eastern Orthodox interpretive tradition there’s been a notion of the felix culpa, the fortunate fault/fall, in which the salvation offered by Christ as a remedy for the Fall actually allows humanity to ascend higher—we might say evolve higher—than it ever could have in the first place had the Fall not happened.

But if, considering the standard Jewish and Christianity theological considerations that I’ve mentioned, all of this may be implicit in some notions of theistic evolution, one wonders if there might not be similar implications that emerge from a suggested evolution-religion compatibilism in other religious traditions, too.

And yet this might lead us to a wider criticism, both of what’s been mentioned so far, and also something more universally applicable for evolution-religion accommodationism itself. That is, if, in our post-Darwin world, theists are going to continue to appeal to the idea that God could have directed evolution and other social and cultural processes with the emergence of human consciousness ultimately in mind—and, by implication, a sensus divinitatis, and even more particularly so that a specific religion or religions would eventually emerge—then this same argument is going to be able to be made for whatever religions currently exist.

So it’s just as easy to suggest that God could have directed the evolutionary process to ensure the development of, say, Hinduism as it is to say this for the particular monotheism of Judaism and Christianity, etc. (Incidentally, many of the more science-inspired new religious movements often understand human history in manifestly evolutionary terms, focusing on the supernatural transition from primitive human consciousness to the “heightened consciousness” of the present and future; from ape to angel, as it were—with many in these movements of course understanding themselves to represent the apex of the self-awareness of this process, and as uniquely positioned to help others make the conscious transition to their predetermined future state.)

Here, then, we seem to be confronted with a host of the problems of religious pluralism.

And these aren’t easily resolved in any way. For example, even if, from a more traditional perspective, someone suggested that God could have wanted there to be rival religions to give people greater free will to pick the one true religion—which obviously opens a whole new can of worms in and of itself—the mere concept of the “right religion” here is itself kind of arbitrary. There’s no guarantee that any particular religion that claims ultimate truth for itself is even going to continue to exist down through the millennia, or longer.⁶ᶜ

For that matter, speaking of the fundamental variability or arbitrariness of human religion: this itself can almost certainly be accounted for ultimately by how cultural and human behavioral tendencies were shaped by evolution. In this view, humans may be religion-producing engines; but there’s no guarantee that there will be any uniformity or coherence between religions beyond just vague commonalities. In light of this, ascribing a true sovereignty over evolution to God might in a certain sense risk making him the “author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33), in the sense that, here, God—at least insofar as some currently hold that certain religions are truer than others, or even that it’s divinely ordained that only a single religion is true—might in effect be insisting that humans avoid or resist the very things that it was in their nature to create; again perhaps inevitably so.

Is it possible, then, that typical appeals to theistic evolution might actually entail, if only unwittingly, a kind of religious pluralism, insofar as the very idea of theistic evolution itself has only been inferred in conjunction with specific religions, and yet no existing religion can make a greater claim to have been more naturally “intended” than any other? Ironically, then, there’s a sense in which theistic evolution as invoked by particular religions might refute itself.

As a final note here, I think it’s nothing less than utterly embarrassing to find myopic statements like “The diversity in god concepts we see is a consequence of human error and not divine design” (Barrett, “Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology,” 97) in volumes from otherwise respectable academic publishers—and, premised as such statements are on traditional confessional Christian perspectives, perhaps indicative of more fundamental failures in Christian theology, if not the critical intellectual abilities of theologians themselves.7ᵃ

Moving on from this, we might also find

  • The species problem

There are probably several different iterations of this. One has to do with religions that have salvation schemes and/or eschatologies in which persons are (divinely) judged based on their actions, and whether these actions conformed to certain moral dictates or not—which more often than not are taken to be those of the religion in question itself. This is obviously particularly applicable to Abrahamic religions.

But if a particular religion espouses the belief that everyone will be judged, where’s the line between truly ethically culpable persons and those who are inculpable?

One of the lines that might be drawn here is between primate species. This has certainly been the trend in Catholicism, with its historic emphasis on the spiritual culpability of “true humans”—whatever this exactly means—as opposed to others.⁷ᵇ Yet when we start to think more deeply about what exactly separates primate species in this regard, I think we’ll invariably find that the lines here are a lot less clear and justifiable than some might hope. (On all this, see Joshua Moritz’s recent “Does Jesus Save the Neanderthals? Theological Perspectives on the Evolutionary Origins and Boundaries of Human Nature.”) In fact, they’re probably no more clear than with the different levels of culpability among modern humans—something that all should be able to concede, considering those who are intellectually disabled, etc.

I think one big takeaway when all’s said and done here, similar to the reflections on predeterminism from the last section, might be a diminished notion of free will; but that’s another can of worms that I don’t really intend to open any further here.

I’ve broached the subject of religion itself as emerging from the evolutionary process. But now, to expand on this further:

evolution gives us a framework for understanding the fundamental processes that shaped the emergence of human consciousness and behavior—and most importantly, via these, the emergence of religion itself (and in a true sense, all religion); and it does so in a much more satisfactory way than the accounts offered about these things in some traditional religions themselves.⁷ᶜ

To put it more specifically: evolution “produced” the machinery/substrate for human consciousness, and shaped how it interacts with its environment, both natural and social. Among the various cognitive, behavioral and social phenomena that emerge from this, are attested more or less universally,⁸ and can be related to religion include

  • subjective human experience with no correspondence to true external reality: including visionary experience, hallucination, etc.—which can obviously lead to erroneous notions of supernatural intervention in our world
  • a heightened and in some ways flawed sense of agent detection; and also a tendency to sometimes draw erroneous correlations between unrelated phenomena. For example: a person in the village commits adultery, and shortly after this there’s a serious famine; this is then erroneously attributed to supernatural forces that were angered by the transgression. We might also think of animal sacrifice here—as something that was perhaps above all thought to be a guarantor of the favor of the gods, and thus of cosmic and social order
  • The drive toward feelings of meaningfulness, as well as personal “chosenness”; and also individual participation in communal religious rituals themselves. Consider also the socio-political expediency in associating human actions or institutions with divine actors: “the gods ordained me to come to power, and they approve of my rule”; or the idea that the gods were the true authors of what were in actuality thoroughly human law-codes

For some of these, the line drawn to primitive cognitive mechanisms and behavior is an indirect one, obviously, mediated by cultural institutions; but again, anytime we’re talking about human consciousness, behavior and interaction, we certainly have to talk about the deep biological and social origins of these things. Also, see further below on how some of these things are found specifically in Judaism and Christianity, and how they problematize them.

On that note, shifting toward Christianity and its mother religion: there are a few ways in which evolutionary considerations affect these religions disproportionately, or uniquely. First,

  • The notion that Jewish and Christian interpreters and theologians have more or less always recognized the figurative/fictional nature of the creation narratives from the book of Genesis and elsewhere—as well as of other seemingly chronological and historical claims presented in early Biblical narratives—is a highly erroneous one; and this might pit Biblical history against evolutionary history and anthropology

Earlier in my post, I briefly discussed how the modern development of geology, evolutionary biology, and other fields revealed a world with a much longer history than the one that had been universally assumed in historic Judaism and Christianity, going back to early centuries. But now to go even further here: we might ask that if seminal early Christian historical figures—even those like Jesus and Paul themselves—had known what we know today about these things, would they have even placed as much trust in what they thought about Biblical history and divine revelation itself in the first place, and the theological principles that they offered seemingly on the basis of an uncritical understanding of these? (Any number of things come to mind here, but to take just one example: in the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ main defense of monogamy is an appeal to Biblical creation and anthropology, as originally offered in the book of Genesis: “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female'”; cf. Mark 10:6.)

Further, for those branches of Christianity today that still place great stock in the historical accuracy of the Biblical texts themselves, the ways that understanding evolution has reshaped our understanding of history itself might problematize the notion of Biblical inspiration. I’ve often highlighted here how the Septuagint (the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) appears to present a quite specific historical chronology that’s pretty easily anchored to events that we can accurately pinpoint chronologically. Yet because of this, it yields a notion of history that’s vastly out of sync with what we actually know actually happened—including a very specific but incredibly late date for the creation of humanity itself, in the Neolithic Age; not to mention other events that are irreconcilable with the known historical record.

And seeing how the Septuagint was the main form of the Bible used in early Christianity,⁹ I think the ramifications of this can’t be understated. Some major Christian branches, like Eastern Orthodoxy, may even affirm the inerrancy of the Septuagint.¹⁰ For that matter, among the numerous Jews and Christians throughout history who were influenced by the Septuagint’s chronological scheme, it may in fact underlie the genealogy of Jesus himself as it’s presented in the Gospel of Luke, as well as tie into specific eschatological notions here.

In the end then, the cumulative evidence suggests that the seriousness with which the Septuagint’s chronology was taken—not as part of a kind of figurative history, but of a quite literal one, and yielding quite specific dates for Biblical events that are in fact absent from the historical record at these times (whereas everything suggest that they shouldn’t be)—has served as a crucial element of the foundations of Christianity itself.

Beyond this,

  • Obviously some traditional Christian ideas about humans being supernaturally invested with a soul—the contrast to other hominid species here, the behavioral implications of this, original sin, etc.—have to be rethought in light of more recent insights in (evolutionary) anthropology. While there’s already been a lot of academic work done on this, there’s still little by way of consensus.

Above, I mentioned how “evolution ‘produced’ the machinery/substrate for human consciousness, and shaped how it interacts with its environment, both natural and social,” and then listed a few different phenomena that emerge from all this. And

  • Several of the listed phenomena have relevance for historic Christianity and Judaism in particular.

It’s easy to see how the universal phenomenon of subjective human experience with no correspondence to true external reality is a major factor potentially problematizing traditions and theology in both of these religions. (Particularly for Christianity, one would be hard-pressed to find a more sophisticated discussion of the problems posed here than in the sixth chapter of Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters—particularly around 264ff.)

The tendency to sometimes draw erroneous correlations between unrelated phenomena might be particularly relevant for the Biblical portrait of divine punishment for sin, too—especially in the notions of either personal or corporate/national misfortune being ascribed to divine wrath for various reasons.

Further, any number of things relating to the idea of Biblical revelation and prophecy, or the divine demand for animal sacrifice (or other notions related to sacrifice and its supernatural effects), etc., where these notions can be viewed with skepticism based on historical or other critical grounds, can thus be connected with a sort of naïve understanding of supernatural agency: one not just experienced subjectively, as with individuals who undergo one of a variety of religious experiences and otherwise believe they receive unique supernatural revelation, but also relating to a greater susceptibility toward accepting these claims when they’re made by others, as well as an acceptance of rulers and social institutions that value these things, and participation in rituals that celebrate them.

This of course elucidates not just varieties of Judaism and Christianity and other religions with a more well-known social pedigree, but aberrant groups and cults too (some of course within Judaism and Christianity). In terms of academic analysis along these lines, look particularly toward various essays in the volume The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior, edited by Eckart Voland and Wulf Schiefenhövel.

Again, the line drawn to evolution for some of these things isn’t direct one; but for scholars like Jonathan Jong, these are all bound up with what’s referred to as the Evolutionary Cognitive Science of Religion. 

Finally, for Christianity in particular, there’s a kind of

  • Problem of continuing history.

I think this problem ultimately emerges merely from the fact that the evolutionary process has invested us with the inevitable drive toward sexual reproduction. Where this becomes problematic for Christianity is mainly due to the eschatological principle in which the Second Coming won’t take place until the gospel’s been “proclaimed to all nations” (Matthew 24:14). But if this principle is ultimately about the unreached being reached—and that seems pretty uncontroversial—what this overlooks is that the entire population of future humans to be born and grow up in the next generation is currently unreached. And as soon as any number of them are reached, there’s going to be a new batch of unreached with their own future offspring; and this goes on, ad infinitum.

(This also connects with the problem of the arbitrariness of human religion. For example, it’s just as likely—and in fact, seemingly inevitable at this point—that Christianity disappears from a particular “nation”¹¹ in the future than that it reaches a new one. Of course, again, it could be argued that this all has less to do with evolution itself than other more proximate factors. But when we start looking at ultimate causes, I think we’re still going to be looking at how human nature has been shaped by evolution as a main culprit here, and the problem of how some of the basic implications of this aren’t adequately dealt with—clearly weren’t ever considered in the first place—in religious theology. This itself could also tie into religious teachings on chastity and even celibacy, where the deep drive toward sex may always overpower the ability of all but a small number of people to actually abide by these. And could we bring monogamy itself into the conversation here, too?)

In the end, it’s disappointing that studies on the intersection of evolution and religion in the academic theological literature—or especially Christianity and evolution in particular—have often been myopically focused on the Biblical creation narratives themselves, with a large chunk of research here focusing even more narrowly on the implications of evolution for the metaphysics of original sin, etc. But while there’s definitely a lot of room for interesting work here, this certainly shouldn’t exhaust research into the interaction between the two.

Thus far, the prospects for creative engagement on the intersection of evolution and religion have been slightly better in philosophy of religion, outside of confessional Christian contexts. But there’s still a lot of work yet to be done here—and, as mentioned, perhaps some ideological hurdles to be overcome, too¹²; and to that effect, one might think that the construction of a more robust bridge between Christian theology and philosophy of religion here is a desideratum.

To this end, I’ve offered just a few preliminary thoughts on some areas for exploration. But if the beginning of wisdom is wonder, then the beginning of wonder has to be in a willingness to think beyond ideological confines, no more what sort of uncomfortable territory it might eventually lead to. If in the past, some took us too far in the direction of a sort of uncritical essentialism in driving a wedge between religion and science, I don’t think the answer is in driving us to the exact opposite of the spectrum, either. But to find out where we’re right and wrong, we have to be willing to go where the evidence might take us first.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂

(Footnotes can be found on next page.)

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