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An essay donated by Kyle Jorstad

Part 1 of 2

Religion & Science: The Evolution Controversy

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Although most members of the scientific and atheistic community alike often tout science as the downfall of religion, theories regarding Darwinian evolution and the age of the earth are not necessarily incompatible with traditional Christian views on creation. While differing on the professed method by which life occurs, the core tenants of multiple such theories are shared under the broad theoretical framework on the origins of life. Despite the routine exclusion of religious creation theories from the public square on the grounds of being utterly incompatible with concrete scientific knowledge, many such theories are more compatible with modern science than many secular scientists and atheists are willing to admit. With careful analysis of the conclusions reached by modern science and consideration of religious beliefs on the nature of creation, the individual doctrines of each not only allow for but provide strong evidence in favor of the compatibility between both stances.

Following the 1859 publication of "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," Charles Darwin was being simultaneously praised by the scientific community for his biological research and lambasted by Christians defending biblical creationism. 1 Although periodically challenged since the The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes trial of 1925, greater and more accurate evidence has since solidified the hold of evolution in the minds of scientists around the world as well as in the classroom. 2 Darwin’s theory, in succinct review, is based upon the idea that all life is related and descended from a common ancestor. Life began with the replication of these few infinitely basic organisms. Life gradually evolved through genetic mutation into more complex beings until life as we know it was formed. Through the process of natural selection, those creatures with modifications granting them a functional advantage in their habitat survived and reproduced while less capable members of the ecosystem went extinct. As a result, those species which best adapted to their particular environment survived. 3 Since presenting his ideas in 1858, Darwin’s theory on life has grown firmly entrenched in the minds of modern society. As this scientific unanimity forms the crux of every case against theistic creation theories, its contemplation is crucial in analyzing the claims of religious creationism.

Another general consensus reached by the scientific community necessary for consideration is the age of the earth. While varying by several million years, the scientific community largely agrees that the earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old and that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, conclusions mainly derived from radioactive dating methods. 4 Though this calculation was not personally arrived at by Darwin, who posited the age of the earth as several hundred million years based on geological processes such as the thickness of sedimentary layers, the two theories are intrinsically linked. 5 Not only does this scientifically derived “earth age” supply the necessary time required for Darwin’s extensive, long-term evolutionary processes, but it fortifies scientific claims against young-earth creationists who defend a literal interpretation of Genesis from the Bible. Together, Darwinian evolution and the scientific age of the earth are able to explain not only the wide variety of life forms across the planet, including fossils at various levels of development such as dinosaurs, but also the geological formation of the earth cited by Darwin as evidence of an “aged” planet. 6 Between Darwin and modern science, it would appear that religion is no longer tenable as a source of accurate historical information on the rise of humanity.

So how can Christian theism be reconciled with science? In order to fully comprehend how these scientific theories clash with Christian creationism, it it is important to gain an understanding of the various perspectives held by members of the Church. Pinpointing one particular stance by any religious denomination is difficult because there is no single creationistic theory adhered to by all Christians; in fact, there are numerous perspectives. These stances, however, can be effectively narrowed into two categories: creationism and theistic evolution. A third view, Intelligent Design (ID), will also be addressed but remains agnostic and uncommitted towards defending any sacred religious text or doctrine, Christian or otherwise. 7

While Christianity allows some flexibility on individual creation doctrine, there are several core prerequisite tenants:

  • God alone created the universe “ex nihilo” (out of nothing);

  • God transcends, upholds, and sustains creation; and

  • He does so freely of His own will. 8

In short, the Church argues for special creation: that the universe and all life in it originated in its present form by unconditional fiat or divine decree. Both creationism and theistic evolution firmly adhere to these core beliefs, yet differ widely on the professed method by which life arose. Theistic evolutionists hold true to the Christian doctrine that God is the ultimate creator of all life on earth and is active in maintaining it, but allow for some compatibility with scientific theories. While God is the ultimate creator, Darwin’s theory or another similar biological process is still true to the extent that these progressions are the result of God’s guiding intervention. Of religious creation stances, theistic evolution is the most similar to that of evolutionists, though Darwinists generally reject this theory outright. Theistic evolutionists argue that evolution is scientifically supported and well-founded, but maintain that evolution takes place only by God’s will; while evolution could be an indirect process of creation, humanity is ultimately a direct creation of God. 9

Creationism, the other common theological perspective on creation, directly contradicts both theistic evolution and established science. Most commonly attributed to “young-earth creationists,” creationism is a Scripture-centered theory espousing the literal interpretation of creation as presented in Genesis. Creationists use biblical time cues to defend the concept of creation of the world and life in six literal days roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. 10 God directly intervened to create humans and other species of life; at no point did evolution or natural selection take place in the development of life. A new branch of creationism called “scientific creationism” began to distinguish itself in the early 1960’s. Scientific creationism is “biblical creationism stripped of explicit references to God, Adam, and Noah,” providing scientific ancestry and explanations for all of life within the parameters of no life before Adam and no death before the fall of man. 11 In other words, it is an adjusted version of strict creationism without the explicit connections to religion, and is used by creationists who attempt to justify their theologically-founded theories on creation to secular individuals.

It is extremely important to distinguish between creationism and intelligent design; although often closely associated by naturalistic Darwinians who coin it “intelligent-design creationism," the two are very different. 12 As stated earlier, while creationism seeks to defend the literal biblical creation story, intelligent design is a scientifically-centered attempt to empirically determine whether life is simply a chance product of natural laws, or if there truly is an intelligent designer behind nature who is not necessarily God. 13 While creationism and intelligent design might both reach similar conclusions, the process of arriving at these findings is thoroughly different, a fact exacerbated by continued criticism from creationists who argue that “design is not enough!” 14 Many creationists strive not only to reject evolution but intelligent design as well on the grounds of its openness to a designer other than God. 15 In fact, the intelligent design movement shares more theoretical aspects with Darwinism than it does with creationism. Standard intelligent design advocates typically make no attempt to explain how life got here while asserting that natural selection alone could not have resulted in life today. Moreover, many of its adherents often grant evolution and natural selection a secondary role in the development of life. 16 There are less-than-mainstream branches of intelligent design who posit a “who” for the existence of life; one such branch, the Raëlian Movement, which claims over 35,000 members worldwide, asserts that life arose as a result of biological experiments by aliens — the Elohim — who created all life on earth. 17 Such movements are not granted much international credit.

It must be understood that among religious clergy, as well as much of the laity, the controversy between science and the Bible is a question of Scriptural inerrancy. Since Vatican I, the Catholic Church has upheld Scripture as divinely inspired and “must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” 18 However, this does not mean that everything written in the Bible can be taken literally. Christian understanding of Scripture largely has to do with hermeneutics, which deals with the interpretation of biblical and literary texts. The Bible is written in various genres and contexts, and it is sometimes necessary to distinguish between what is written versus what is actually meant by the Holy Spirit.

It is for this reason that the Catholic Church encourages higher criticism, a form of sophisticated biblical exegesis which permits a broad range of scriptural interpretation. 19 According to Dei Verbum, the incipit of the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, an inerrant doctrine can only be found in Scripture if it is relevant to human salvation. Consequently, if human salvation does not hinge upon the question of evolution, we will be unable to identify an absolute Scriptural answer. 20 As the question of evolution is a question of doctrine rather than salvation for the Catholic Church, Catholics have at large tended towards embracing evolution as a credible and well-supported scientific theory. However, leaders, such as Pope Benedict XVI, caution against an overly narrow view of mans’ origins and human existentialism. 21 Similarly, St. Augustine wrote on the impossibility of truly understanding the events transcribed in Genesis, warning against restricted perspectives which risk the faith being perceived as ridiculous. 22

This stance on evolution and Scriptural infallibility by the Catholic Church represents only one of various Christian denominations. Most mainline Protestants argue for the compatibility of modern science and the Bible, and as a result they are more willing to reinterpret Scripture and accept evolution as factual. 23 On the other hand, fundamentalists, other evangelicals and other doctrinally conservative Protestants more commonly hold literal interpretations of the Bible. Being fully invested in the authority of the Bible, such conservative traditionalists forcefully oppose evolution as questioning Scriptural teaching and the Genesis account of creation. 24 Quite often these groups, especially fundamentalists, criticize both the Catholic Church and theistic evolutionists for allowing Scriptural reinterpretations which are too broad and thus distort its supposed true meaning. 25

These attitudes towards evolution and the actual personage of Adam and Eve are reflected in a study of data collected from the Combined Clergy Survey of 2001-2002. The results showed that:

  • 91.4 percent of evangelical clergy rejected evolution as “the best explanation for the origins of life,” while 91.8 percent thought “Adam and Eve were real historical persons.”

  • This contrasts with only 51.4 percent of mainline Protestants rejecting evolution and 34.8 percent believing in Adam and Eve.

  • Roman Catholics by far were shown to be the most open to evolution with 55.5 percent of clergy embracing evolution as the best explanation for life, and 70.7 percent rejecting the historical personage of Adam and Eve. 26

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. Larry A. Witham, Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 16-21.
  2. Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum, Intelligent Design: Science or Religion? Critical Perspectives (New York: Prometheus Books, 2007), 23-30.
  3. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection (Birmingham, AL: Gryphon Editions, 1987), 459-470.
  4. R. H. Steiger and G. R. Tilton, “Lead Isotopes and the Age of the Earth,” Science 150 (1965): 1805.
  5. Victor Stenger, “Darwinism and the Age of Earth,” CSI: The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, June 2003. Accessed February 12, 2015, http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/darwinism_and_the_age_of_earth
  6. Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 346-355.
  7. John G. West, “Intelligent Design and Creationism Just Aren't the Same,” Discovery Institute—Center For Science and Culture: Research News and Opportunities in Science and Theology. Accessed February 1, 2015, http://www.discovery.org/a/1329
  8. Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Profession of Faith: The Creator.” Accessed February 1, 2015, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p4.htm
  9. Philip E. Devine, “Creation and Evolution,” Religious Studies 32 (1996): 1-2.
  10. Jonathan Sarfati, “Refuting Evolution: How Old is the Earth?” Creation Industries International. Accessed February 12, 2015, http://creation.com/how-old-is-the-earth
  11. Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 5.
  12. Baird, Intelligent Design: Science or Religion, 153.
  13. West, “Intelligent Design and Creationism.” Accessed February 1, 2015, http://www.discovery.org/a/1329
  14. Henry M. Morris, “Design is Not Enough!” Institute for Creation Research. Accessed March 14, 2015, https://www.icr.org/i/pdf/btg/btg-127.pdf
  15. Ibid.
  16. West, “Intelligent Design and Creationism.”
  17. Baird, Intelligent Design: Science or Religion, 158.
  18. Vatican II: Dei Verbum, Chapter 3: “Sacred Scripture, its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation.” Accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
  19. Ted G. Jelen and Linda A. Lockett, “American Clergy on Evolution and Creationism,” Review of Religious Research 51 (2010): 278-279.
  20. Vatican II: Dei Verbum, “Sacred Scripture.” Accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
  21. Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Meeting of the Holy Father Benedict XVI with the Clergy of the Dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso.” Accessed February 12, 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2007/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20070724_clero-cadore.html
  22. Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Profession of Faith: The Fall.” Accessed March 14, 2015, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm
  23. Jelen, “American Clergy,” 278.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Numbers, The Creationists, 38.
  26. Jelen, “American Clergy,” 281.


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Original posting: 2015-NOV-04
Latest update : 2015-NOV-04
Author: Kyle Jorstad

 

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