Darwin is not the enemy of Christianity

Charles Darwin is often identified both by atheists and some Christians alike as an enemy of the faith. Andrew Brown argues otherwise. He notes that scientific challenges to literalism were already overwhelming before Darwin wrote his texts, and that Darwin’s evolution may offer an answer to the problem of evil in the world:

By the time that Darwin published the On the Origin of Species in 1859, it was already obvious that the God of the Bible was being squeezed right out of the educated world view. The physical world was increasingly revealed as law-bound; and Hume had argued that miracles (pdf)had to be understood as breaches of these natural laws, to be credited only when no other explanation was possible. The belief in the workings of providence in history could not among intellectuals easily survive the study of Gibbon and Voltaire. The literal truth of the Biblical narratives and even the credibility of their perspective on history had already been destroyed by the geologists’ discovery of the unimaginable age of the earth.

All this was true – and fatal to traditional Christianity – before Darwin published a line. The only theist argument that his work destroyed was the argument from design. But the argument from design is of interest only to nerds, whether atheist or believers. Most people just don’t have the kind of systematising imaginations which make the question of design in nature look compelling; other forms of imagination, while they marvel at the complexities of living things, don’t see why this should not be the work of a God responsible for the laws of natural selection.

. . .

What made Darwin threatening to Christianity was not that he abolished the argument from design, but that he threatened – and threatens – human uniqueness. Against this, though, two points can be raised. The first is that Darwinian explanations of humanity end up with accounts of us which are much more compatible with the Christian view of human beings as inherently sinful and “fallen” than is the simple faith in human moral progress that was a powerful alternative to Christianity. The second is that Darwin lets God off the hook for much of the suffering of the natural world.

The more we understand about the workings of biology, the more horrible much of life appears. Most of it is parasitic; most of it is unremittingly ruthless; all of it is doomed. Tennyson called nature “red in tooth and claw” in 1843, 16 years before Darwin published the Origin of Species. If God had personally designed every last parasitic wasp and tapeworm: if some celestial watchmaker had carefully sculpted the HIV virus to make it so effective, and had shaped Eve to make her die so often in childbirth, then the case against him would be morally quite unanswerable, as Voltaire saw.

Darwin’s theory allows Christians – whether they want to or not – to understand the hideous and constant cruelties of the world as part of the mechanisms necessary to produce any kind of intelligent life. Disease, decay and death need no longer be exhibitions of gratuitous cruelty on the part of a creator. This isn’t by any means a knock-down argument for belief. But it is a conclusive argument against one kind of morally outrageous god.

Read it all here.

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