Good religion needs good science 
 by Rev Dr Malcolm Brown 

Good religion needs good science

by Rev Dr Malcolm Brown
Director of Mission and Public Affairs
The Church of England

The trouble with homo sapiens is that we’re only human. People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception. When a big new idea emerges which changes the way people look at the world, it’s easy to feel that every old idea, every certainty, is under attack and then to do battle against the new insights. The church made that mistake with Galileo’s astronomy, and has since realised its error. Some church people did it again in the 1860s with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. So it is important to think again about Darwin’s impact on religious thinking, then and now – and the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 1809 is a good time to do so.

Theories raised moral questions

But if Darwin’s ideas once needed rescuing from religious defensiveness, they may also now need rescuing from some of the enthusiasts for his ideas. A scientist has a duty to the truth: he or she is called to be fearless in discovering the way the world works. But how a scientific theory is used, and the ways in which ideas can be deployed politically or ideologically, are the responsibility of a less easily defined constituency. 'Darwinism' has become something bigger than Darwin’s own theories, and raises many moral questions. This doesn’t make the church of the 1860s right to have attacked Darwin, but it does suggest that the question is deeper than deciding whose side you would have been on in that historic debate between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Darwin’s supporter, Thomas Huxley.

Nothing in scientific method contradicts Christian teaching

Darwin was, in many ways, a model of good scientific method. He observed the world around him, developed a theory which sought to explain what he saw, and then set about a long and painstaking process of gathering evidence that would either bear out, contradict, or modify his theory. As a result, our understanding of the world is expanded, but the scientific process continues. In science, hypotheses are meant to be constantly tested. Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25–33). Christian theologians throughout the centuries have sought knowledge of the world and knowledge of God. For Thomas Aquinas there was no such thing as science versus religion; both existed in the same sphere and to the same end, the glory of God. Whilst Christians believe that the Bible contains all that we need to know to be saved from our sins, they do not claim that it is a compendium of all knowledge. Jesus himself warned his disciples that there was more that he could say to them and that the Spirit of truth would lead them into truth (John 16: 12–13). There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that scientific theories can be overtaken in their turn even as old ideas prove to have an enduring quality. Most of us get by with some version of Newtonian physics and understand little of Quantum Theory. Newtonian ideas suffice for most of our everyday needs – but we now know that we can’t push them too far as there is plenty that they do not adequately explain.

Reaction now seems misguided

Darwin’s meticulous application of the principles of evidence-based research was not the problem. His theory caused offence because it challenged the view that God had created human beings as an entirely different kind of creation to the rest of the animal world.

But whilst it is not difficult to see why evolutionary thinking was offensive at the time, on reflection it is not such an earth-shattering idea. Yes, Christians believe that God became incarnate as a human being in the person of Jesus and thereby demonstrated God’s especial love for humanity. But how can that special relationship be undermined just because we develop a different understanding of the processes by which humanity came to be? It is hard to avoid the thought that the reaction against Darwin was largely based on what we would now call the 'yuk factor' (an emotional not an intellectual response) when he proposed a lineage from apes to humans.

But for all that the reaction now seems misjudged, it may just be that Wilberforce and others glimpsed a murky image of how Darwin’s theories might be misappropriated and the harm they could do (see the section Darwin and the Church). Even if they were blind to the future, it remains that the legacy of Darwin (rather than Darwin’s own achievements) has had a shadow side.

Social misapplication of Darwin

If evolution is continuing, and humanity as we know it is not the final summation of the process, it is not difficult to slip into a rather naïve optimism which sees the human race becoming better and better all the time. Despite our vastly expanding technical knowledge, even a fairly cursory review of human history undermines any idea of constant moral progress. Humanity’s advance in terms of technical prowess and achievements has not, to most people’s eyes, fully liberated us from our burdens. Christians believe that all of us are constrained by sin and that only through the death and resurrection of Jesus can we move beyond what constrains us, to a fuller and more human way of living. But Christians are not the only ones who are sceptical of the idea that evolution means moral progress.

Natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense. Translate that into a half-understood notion of 'the survival of the fittest' and imagine the processes working on a day-to-day basis, and evolution gets mixed up with a social theory in which the weak perish – the very opposite of the Christian vision in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). This 'Social Darwinism', in which the strong flourish and losers go to the wall is, moreover, the complete converse of what Darwin himself believed about human relationships. From this social misapplication of Darwin’s theories has sprung insidious forms of racism and other forms of discrimination which are more horribly potent for having the appearance of scientific “truth” behind them. Darwin’s immense achievement was to develop a big theory which went a long way to explaining aspects of the world around us. But to treat it as an all-embracing theory of everything is to travesty Darwin’s work. The difficulty is that his theory of natural selection has been so effective within the scientific community, and so easily understood in outline by everybody, that it has been inflated into a general theory of everything – which is not only erroneous but dangerous.

Capacity to love consistent with Darwin

Christians will want to stress, instead, the human capacity for love, for altruism, and for self-sacrifice. There is nothing here which, in principle, contradicts Darwin’s theory. Humanity has acquired the capacity to reflect, to imagine, and to reason from what is known to what is not yet known. Some animals may have these features in a very rudimentary form, but the human capacity is so much greater as to be effectively unique. It is our capacity to imagine other people as more than bodies, but as persons, which marks us out. It is that, above all, which has enabled the human mind and will to achieve so much. And if this capacity – which we can characterise as the capacity for love – is consistent with Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, it suggests that our capacity as a species to act in ways which appear to be against our personal interests has, paradoxically, enabled us to survive as “fitted” to our context and environment. So the pseudo-Darwinian reductionism, which elevates selfishness into a virtue and celebrates power and dominance, is not only a misunderstanding of Darwin but may even contribute to human decline by eroding those aspects of being human which have given us such a natural advantage. Even the more sophisticated versions of 'Social Darwinism', which interpret all human behaviour in terms of the struggle for dominance and the maximisation of genetic advantage through the generations, risk presenting us with an image of being human which makes us slaves to some kind of evolutionary imperative, as if we are programmed in ways we cannot over-rule. But the point of natural selection is that it is precisely by being most fully human that we demonstrate our fitness. And being fully human means refusing to abdicate our ability to act selflessly or lovingly and to challenge thin concepts of rationality which equate “being rational” to material self interest. It is vital that Darwin’s theories are rescued from political and ideological agendas that are more about controlling human imagination and unpredictability than about good science.

Discerning where culture threatens Christianity

All that I have said so far will remain contentious in some circles. Some Christian movements still make opposition to evolutionary theories a litmus test of faithfulness and – the other side of the coin – many believe Darwin’s theories to have fatally undermined religious belief and therefore reject any accommodation of one by the other. Why should this be?

The Church of England in 1860 was already facing challenges to its former pre-eminence. Freethinking and non-conformist Christianity were confronting the power of the established church – and then came Darwin. These were nervous times for Anglicans, and when worldly power is thought of as God-given, threats to power are perceived as attacks on God. What was true for Anglicans in 1860 is largely true for all kinds of Christians today, although (depending where you are in the world) the threat may be perceived to come from radical Islam, secularism, consumerism or atheism. The cultures within which Christians try to be faithful are widely seen to be hostile, at least in some respects, and discipleship means, at some level, standing against some social trends. The problem for all Christians is discerning where the surrounding culture is really a threat and where it is compatible with our understanding of God. Because “science” has been widely regarded as offering a total theory of everything; because some scientists have encouraged this claim; perhaps because we all know how reliant we are on scientific ideas which we barely understand and which make us nervous of our ignorance; and perhaps because the churches have not been good at equipping people to see God at work in the contemporary world – for all these reasons and others, a parody of science has become a focus for certain forms of social unease. In so far as the practice of science has its hubristic side, there is a case for science to answer. In so far as 'Social Darwinism' has diminished our sense of being human and being in relationships, there are real problems to address. But first it is important to recognise that the anti-evolutionary fervour in some corners of the churches may be a kind of proxy issue for other discontents; and, perhaps most of all, an indictment of the churches’ failure to tell their own story – Jesus’s story – with conviction in a way which works with the grain of the world as God has revealed it to be, both through the Bible and in the work of scientists of Darwin’s calibre.

Rapproachment between Darwin and Christian faith

At a university in Kansas, I asked a biology professor how he coped with teaching Darwin’s theories to students whose churches insisted that evolution was heresy and whose schools taught creationism. “No problem,” he replied, “the kids know that if they want a good job they need a degree, and if they want a degree they have to work with evolution theory. Creationism is for church, as far as they’re concerned. Here, they’re Darwinists.” Perhaps he was over-cynical. But he was also pointing to young lives which could not be lived with integrity – the very opposite of how Christians are called to live. There is no integrity to be found either in rejecting Darwin’s ideas wholesale or in elevating them into the kind of grand theory which reduces humanity to the sum of our evolutionary urges. For the sake of human integrity – and thus for the sake of good Christian living – some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential.

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.