Saturday, 15 October 2011

Is Evolution Compatible With Christianity?

In the last couple of posts I talked, very briefly, about how it is that I came to believe in evolution (and, simultaneously, to reject young earth creationism).  I mentioned, at the outset, that evolution played a "side dish" role, in my de-conversion from Christianity, so in this post I'd like to examine that connection a little further. 

Is evolution compatible with Christianity?  It would seem this is a million dollar question, and also one that nearly everyone has an opinion on these days (usually a very strong opinion).

But, are we really asking the optimal question here?  I believe there is a better, and more helpful, way to frame the conversation about evolution & Christianity.  When one asks "is evolution 'compatible' with Christianity" many Christians will simply interpret this as a challenge, and it's one they will very often willingly accept, "in defense of the faith".  To the believer the question then becomes "can you think of a way that evolution and Christianity could both be true?".  The hidden implication is that, if it can be demonstrated evolution and Christianity don't irrefutably contradict one another, the believer has won the argument and Christianity remains true, as if that were automatically the case by default.  (This is a category error, but that's a whole different discussion.) 

As such, I think a better way to frame the question is something along these lines..."Does the fact of evolution make Christianity less probable, more probable, or does it have no effect?".  Or, perhaps, "if evolution is true, does it make Christianity any less likely?".  I think the answer, to this latter question, is "yes".  Evolution may not disprove Christianity (although, as it happens, I think a reasonable case could actually be made for this), but it does diminish the likelihood of Christianity.  There are two points I'd like to make in this area...

1) Firstly, Christian theology is inexorably tied to the creation story in Genesis.

According to the Christian narrative, sin entered the world through the fall of Adam.  God, being perfect and holy, cannot look upon sin, so he sent Jesus to take our place, satisfying his wrath and allowing mankind to be reconciled to himself.  But, what if Adam & Eve never even existed?  This is precisely what scientists now believe.  (Christianity Today has an excellent 8 page article, on how Christian theologians are currently grappling with this new problem, right here.  It's worth a read.)

As it happens, the difficulties are yet deeper still, because both Jesus and the apostle Paul believed in a historical Adam.  Listen to Paul, in Romans 5..."Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people...death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come...For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!...For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!"

This leads believers straight into the middle of a very sticky the New Testament wrong, or are modern day scientists wrong??  Sadly, many Christians will see this as another opportunity to take a stand for Jesus (so they will reject the science, without so much as a nagging doubt about the validity of their faith).

2) Secondly, if evolution is true, why didn't God send Jesus sooner?

Christopher Hitchens has made this point many times, in his public talks, and here's one example...

I can't say it any better than Christopher, so I'll leave that one right there.

There are many other relevant issues, along this same theme, such as the intense (and pointless) suffering that animals go through.  Sure, Christians believe that we live in a "fallen world", but does God not care about the unspeakable suffering of animals?  (What did they do to deserve this?)

Let's circle back to where we started..."Is evolution compatible with Christianity?"  Well, not really, but I suppose one could try and make it so via strenuous and creative arguments (and many do just that).  But it's sort of like shoving a square peg into a round might get it in there, eventually, but that still doesn't mean it's supposed to go there (and both the square and hole will get damaged in the process). 

One need not prove something impossible in order for it to become improbable (even highly so).  In my observation there are many Christians who utterly fail to understand this key distinction.


  1. More!! I am LOVING this blog and check it every day! Keep up the good work!!

  2. Wow, thanks anonymous (I'm trying to post new material a little more often, but "life" keeps getting in the way, so thanks for hanging in with me)! Some musings on "sex" coming in the next day or two...

  3. Have you thought about how the argument from design in relation to this question?

    I like the idea that you don't believe something for a single reason but because there are several reasons in favor and several in disfavor and the favorable outweigh the unfavorable.

    So when thinking about Christianity you might see that there is a lot that seems wrong but the overwhelming evidence that the universe is clearly designed makes them easier to ignore. It makes it more difficult to accept atheism and more likely to think that the choice must be between an evil god and a good god. The god who designed the world must also have designed our sense of right and wrong and why would he make us believe in right and wrong unless he believed in those concepts himself and was good?

    Before Darwin et al you had lots of people who looked at the endless suffering and cruelty of Nature and became atheists or deists because they concluded that they didn't understand why things were designed so but it all just didn't square with the idea of a benevolent interfering god, and that's fine, it's perfectly reasonable to accept a theory (there is no benevolent interfering god) that fits well with some of the data and has big question marks and even a few outright contradictions with the rest of the data, but the question marks are very annoying. They niggle at you. They make you uneasy in your beliefs.

    The argument from design used to be a way to tilt people away from atheism--the idea tha things are designed for a purpose explains design better than the
    idea that things are's a complete mystery--but with the introduction of the theory of evolution it now goes the other way--the idea that things things slowly adapt to their environment explains zillions of observations much better than the idea of an omnipotent creator.

    I guess that's sort of subtle. Another way evolution undermines Christianity is that it is damaging to see Christianity stubbornly cling to it's beliefs--because it has to believe in claims made thousands of years ago when people knew much less about how nature works--when the evidence just keeps on piling against it. A person thinks, if they're so wrong about one thing then what see might they be wrong about? Maybe that's more damaging than design changing from an argument in favor of Christianity to an argument against it.

  4. All those words I posted above and I am not sure I made my point. My point is, besides (the theory of) evolution directly arguing against Christianity you also have the indirect effect of evolution taking away an argument against atheism. So Christianity becomes less likely because the alternate theories are more likely.

  5. Happy Spider, I agree, thanks so much for these thoughts.