Independent Thought in an Evolution-Soaked World (Part I)
In the New Haven, Connecticut auditorium sat an audience of 2,200 people, mostly students and staff from prestigious area colleges such as Yale University. On the stage were major apologists—scholars whose careers were based on defending the faith. Josh McDowell, Norman Geisler, Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias— these were but a few of the participants at this particular Truth For A New Generation worldview conference.
I was moderating as the panel of scholars took questions from the audience.
Raising her hand, one woman asked, “Can you be a Christian and still believe in evolution?”
Dr. Norman Geisler offered to give his answer to the question. I called on him to respond, and will never forget his response. “Sure,” said the esteemed apologist. “It is possible to be born again and believe in evolution. You can be a Christian and still believe lots of cockamamy things.”
Some in the audience laughed, some bristled, and some seemed to furrow their brow in confusion. For the rest of the day, the conference center was abuzz with discussion about Dr. Geisler’s answer. As I walked through the auditorium’s lobby during a break, several people confronted me about this. One man, clearly agitated, said, “Tell those speakers that no rational person questions evolution!”
Looking back, I believe that the person asked a fair question, and I think that Dr. Geisler gave a good answer. Among its supporters and rejecters, evolution prompts impassioned reactions. Have you ever thought about why? Let’s dig into the subject a bit.
Evolutionary Theory: Origin and Impact
The 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species introduced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to masses of people. Darwin was not the first thinker in history to set forth an explanation of life’s origin in completely naturalistic terms. Ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Roman thinkers set forth versions of the idea. During the 4th century (fifteen hundred years before Darwin’s theory would be published), Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 would include assertions that new species might emerge from existing material.1 But with his proposal of gradual change and the “transmutation of species” through natural selection, Darwin sparked a scientific and public awareness breakthrough.
Within a decade of the release of Darwin’s Origin, books both praising the theory and condemning it began to be published. On both sides of the Atlantic, controversy surrounding Origin fueled discussion among academics, clergy, politicians, and the public. By the late 1800s, sentiments among Americans regarding evolution were sharply divided. “Freethinkers” and “infidels” (labels used to refer to atheists) had newfound power in their arguments against belief in God: A creation that needed no Creator. Apologists for Christianity (who, since the 1700s, had leaned heavily on William Paley’s argument that this well-designed world must have come from a Designer), scrambled to respond.
“Design arguments” had been a “trump card” for 19th century defenders of God and the Bible. Apologists of the 1800s could scarcely have dreamed of compelling lines of evidence for Christianity that would gain strength in the 20th century. Discoveries in archaeology, the emergence of thousands of ancient Biblical manuscripts—along with discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology— all would ultimately bolster the case for a Creator. The discovery with perhaps the most negative implications for defenders of naturalism would come in 1917: Einstein’s conclusion that the universe had a beginning.
But during the mid-to-late 1800s Christian thinkers recognized that Darwinism demanded a response. High-profile ministers (such as Boston University’s Luther Townsend) and scientists who were believers (such as Amherst College’s Enoch Burr) offered reasoned critiques of Darwinism. In 1874 Princeton Seminary president Charles Hodge wrote the book What is Darwinism?, warning that, “Darwinism is a form of atheism.”2
But another constituency that found Darwin’s theory useful were certain Americans who opposed passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution (the signing of which— in 1865— would abolish slavery). Tragically, some in America felt that Darwin’s theory validated their racial biases. In response to such ideas, African-American scholars such as Benjamin Tucker and W.E.B. DuBois (both of whom were Christian) warned of the racist implications of Darwinism. They each spoke out against the Darwinian inference that blacks were not fully human and that “survival of the fittest” would doom the African races to extinction.3
Evolution: Controversy and Acceptance
By the early 20th century, a growing assumption in the minds of many was that the facts of science mitigate against faith in God. In July 1925, the attention of a nation was fixed on a tiny Dayton, Tennessee courtroom, as William Jennings Bryan (a Christian) struggled to respond to the oratory and bluster of Clarence Darrow (an evolutionist and atheist). In the aftermath of this, the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial, public opinion would forever be skewed in favor of the assumption that faith and science are at odds.4 One may choose Christianity or evolution, but not both.
How these apparently incompatible theories about the universe came to be meshed is a story in itself. Prior to the Scopes trial, several known leaders had promoted a harmonization between the Bible and evolution (New York pastor Henry Ward Beecher, Princeton’s James McCosh). But two men especially influential to promotion of “Christian Darwinism” were Rev. Lyman Abbott and John Fiske. Abbott was Beecher’s successor at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church. He taught that Christianity must evolve and change, just as living things (supposedly) do. Abbott’s reasoning sounded benign enough: “The science of evolution and the science of theology have the same ultimate end. Both attempt to furnish an orderly, rational, and self-consistent account of phenomena.”5 Fiske was a popular commentator and philosopher of the day who was famous for insisting, “Evolution is God’s way of doing things.”6 The influence of these two men continues to be felt.
Questions for Group or Family Discussion:
- The release of Darwin’s theory brought controversy— and this continues to the present day. Why might religious people be concerned if Darwinism were true? Why would nonreligious people be pleased that Darwinism might be true?
- Darwin is often praised (by pro-evolutionists) as being one of history’s towering intellects. There is no denying his influence, but if his theory isn’t true, does that diminish his stature as a “brilliant thinker”? What should his place in history be?
- Arguments for the existence of God based on design were temporarily weakened in the initial aftermath of the release of Origins. But does this refute design arguments entirely? Why, or why not? Have you talked with anyone about the design and order of the universe as proof for God? Was this approach effective?
- Many feel that ministers who advocated for Darwinism betrayed the Scripture, fellow Christians, and, ultimately, God. What do you think? Given the negative reaction to ministers like Lymann Abbott, who supported Darwin, what does this say to Christians about how carefully they should be with their reputation and influence?
1. Augstine (353-430 AD) is sometimes cited by those who wish to defend evolution. It is obvious, however, that Augustine would not have believed in a godless, undirected universe. It is believed that Augustine may have handled Genesis as he did in an attempt to prevent Christian thinkers from wrongly interpreting the Bible through the changing scientific lenses of their own times. See: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/may/22.39.html.
2. Hodge, Charles. What Is Darwinism? New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1874, page 177.
3. Proceedings of the National Negro Conference 1909: New York, May 31 and June 1 (1909). See also: “The Double Crisis of Black Christianity,” by David S. Wills, quoted in: Noll, Mark A., ed. Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1983, pp. 351-352.
4. McFarland, Alex. 10 Answers for Atheists. Ventura, California: Regal Publishing, 2012, pages 183-184.
5. Abbott, Lymann. The Theology of an Evolutionist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1897, page 4.
6. John Fiske, Excursions of an Evolutionist, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1902.