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Conversion on Mount Improbable: How Evolution Challenges Christian Dogma

Watch the video "Richard Dawkins and Mike Aus discuss The Clergy Project" at the American Atheists National Convention on March 25, 2012 here


During most of my years as a liberal Protestant minister, I never saw a contradiction between my Christian faith and the fact of evolution. Like many progressive Christians, I did not understand evolution as a challenge to the doctrine of divine creation ex nihilo; evolution was merely the mechanism that God used for creating life on our planet. Aside from a cursory discussion in an undergraduate biology course, evolution never played much of a role in my world view. Evolution was interesting but peripheral. In four years of seminary training, evolution was never mentioned once. We just skirted the issue and went on doing our theology. After all, even the conservative Pope John Paul II himself had acknowledged the reality of evolution in an encyclical issued in 1996.

So the vehement opposition of evangelicals towards evolution had always puzzled me, along with the obsession with “intelligent design” and “creation science.” I wondered how conservative Christians could be so insistent on a young-earth theory in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. After all, even the Bible itself seems to admit the relativity of time from the perspective of the Deity. The Psalmist wrote: “A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past.” (Psalm 90:4), a theme which is reiterated in 2 Peter 3:8. It seems that not even scripture requires one to believe that creation happened in six days.

My indifference towards evolution changed dramatically when I ran across Richard Dawkins’ analogy of natural selection as “climbing Mount Improbable.” In that memorable and vivid metaphor, Dawkins illustrates the truly incremental and gradual nature of the evolutionary process. Opponents of evolution have contended that, while change within species can occur, the leap from one species to a new species is just too improbably great to have happened by purely natural processes. Outside assistance must have been involved. Dawkins addresses that claim by acknowledging that, yes, the leap from one species to the next seems improbably difficult—like scaling the cliff of a mountain to reach the peak. However, if one approaches the peak not from the formidable cliff but instead moves slowly along the slope on the other side of the mountain, reaching the peak of “Mount Improbable” becomes quite possible, although it might take a very long time.

This simple illustration has helped a slow learner like me to appreciate the excruciatingly glacial nature of speciation. It altered the way I view the world, and I eventually came to see how evolution challenges the basic doctrines at the heart of Christianity. I also came to understand why Darwin sat on the manuscript of “On the Origin of Species” for twenty-five years before publishing it. He knew it was cultural dynamite.

Which core doctrines of Christianity does evolution challenge? Well, basically all of them. The doctrine of original sin is a prime example. If my rudimentary grasp of the science is accurate, then Darwin’s theory tells us that because new species only emerge extremely gradually, there really is no “first” prototype or model of any species at all—no “first” dog or “first” giraffe and certainly no “first” homo sapiens created instantaneously. The transition from predecessor hominid species was almost imperceptible. So, if there was no “first” human, there was clearly no original couple through whom the contagion of “sin” could be transmitted to the entire human race. The history of our species does not contain a “fall” into sin from a mythical, pristine sinless paradise that never existed. (I realize, of course, that none of this makes sense from the point of science; this is the world of theology. Please bear with me and enter into the willing suspension of disbelief for a bit.)

The role of Christ as the Second Adam who came to save and perfect our fallen species is at the heart of the New Testament’s argument for Christ’s salvific significance. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to salvation and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) Over the centuries this typology of Christ as the Second Adam has been a central theme of Christian homiletics, hymnody and art. More liberal Christians might counter that, of course there was no Adam or Eve; when Paul described Christ as another Adam he was speaking metaphorically. But metaphorically of what? And Jesus died to become a metaphor? If so, how can a metaphor save humanity? Really, without a doctrine of original sin there is not much left for the Christian program. If there is no original ancestor who transmitted hereditary sin to the whole species, then there is no Fall, no need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as a sacrifice efficacious for the salvation of humanity is pointless. The whole raison d’etre for the Christian plan of salvation disappears.

Actually, what Christianity traditionally describes as “sin” appears to be a theological attempt to explain the tension all humans feel between selfish and altruistic proclivities. St. Paul memorably wrote about his own sense of inner turmoil: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:19-20) Science has now shown us that both selfish behavior and altruistic impulses are at least partially heritable traits. The instinct for self-preservation and a concern for the well-being of other individuals appear to have both played a role in the survival and evolution of our species. If that is the case, then the tension between “sin” and selflessness might actually help define who we are as humans. The project of religion has been sin eradication, and that approach now appears to be a fundamental denial of human nature.

Doctrines of sin and redemption are not the only areas of Christian thought impacted by the theory of evolution. Christianity and many other religions claim that human beings have a soul, comprised of neither matter nor energy, which survives the body’s death. This belief is vividly expressed in the popular Roman Catholic prayer to Our Lady of Fatima: “Save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven.” Religionists will often say that the possession of a soul is what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Never mind, for a moment, the fact that nobody has ever actually identified the location of the soul; just looking at the concept through Darwinian lenses raises numerous problematic questions for the doctrine. If all humans have souls, does that include all members of the genus homo? What about homo erectus, homo habilis and other hominid species that are no longer with us? Did they have souls that needed saving as well. In 1996 Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical affirming the reality of evolution. But he also insisted that evolution does not explain everything about humanity and at some point in the process of human development God had infused humans with a soul. The Pope, however, did not share when, exactly, the soul insertion event happened. And even if we forget about the predecessor hominid species and just assume that only homo sapiens needs saving, our species has been around some 200,000 years. Jesus came just two thousand years ago. What took him so long to show up? Humans must not have needed salvation all that badly if he left them without it for 198,000 years or so.

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world. Religion, even “enlightened” liberal religion, is generally not interested in the facts on the ground. Religion is really not about “knowing” anything; it is about speculation not based on reality.

It took me a long time but when I finally came to appreciate the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory, I could no longer claim that it was irrelevant to religion. Evolution impacts everything. I have traded Mount Calvary for Mount Improbable, and life is now a far more interesting journey. And I also now understand why so many evangelical Christians are hostile to evolution. They too, know that evolution impacts everything, and as more and more people come to see the beauty and power of Darwin’s insights, they know that humanity will inevitably leave religion behind.

TAGGED: ATHEISM, RELIGION


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