By Dr. Alister E. McGrath (adapted by Kaley Payne from Episode 19 ‘Scientific Theology’ of the Undeceptions Podcast)
It’s a frequently assumed that Darwinian evolution is in conflict with the Church’s teachings. Often, this is seen as one of the ‘greatest conflicts’ between science and the Christian faith.
Yet, Darwin himself spoke about the relationship of evolutionary theory and Christianity at several points and he made it clear that he could see no reason why his theory of evolution should cause Christians any discomfort.
Darwin is presented as if he knew his theory of evolution would be subversive of belief in God. But he did not think that.
That may surprise you, as very often Darwin is presented as if he knew his theory of evolution would be subversive of belief in God. But he did not think that.
If you were to ask Darwin this question, ‘Do you think your theory of natural selection is bad news for religion or in any way conflictive with religion?’ his answer is given, and it is “No”.
What has happened to make this a point of conflict? My own reading of what is a very complex situation is that there is a cultural agenda going on here. It’s about a certain group of Christians – mainly in North America – feeling threatened. As a result, they put up defensive walls against anything that they saw as being contaminating or threatening to their faith. Darwin’s theory of evolution was seen as integral to American scientific culture, which those Christians saw as an enemy. I don’t think any other Christian people do, but these North American Christians are seen as normative by people who want to tell a particular story.
In fact, the North American response to evolution is quite different from, say, the British Christian response to evolution. It’s actually quite a dramatic difference.
This should immediately suggest to any intelligent person that there might be a cultural element in this matter. It’s not Christianity versus Darwin. It’s very much an American form of Christianity (a very specifically American form) which arose in an American context, responding to an American agenda, not Christianity globally. But there are those who simply want to make their own points.
But from the beginning, there were Christian thinkers who said that Darwin’s theory of evolution is not incompatible with Christianity. Take Charles Kingsley, for example, a 19th century British clergyman and writer, who said of Darwin’s theory, “We used to think that God made things. Now we understand that God made things make themselves.”
Similarly, Frederick Temple, an academic, Anglican churchman who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1896 gave a well-known series of lectures called “Brampton Lectures on the Relations between Religion and Science,” in which he addressed the theory of evolution, saying:
“The doctrine of Evolution leaves the argument for an intelligent Creator and Governor of the world stronger than it was before. There is still as much as ever the proof of an intelligent purpose pervading all creation. The difference is that the execution of that purpose belongs more to the original act of creation, less to acts of government since. There is more divine foresight, there is less divine interposition; and whatever has been taken from the latter has been added to the former.”