The idea of evolution had been around a long time before Darwin wrote about it. What was new in Darwin’s theory was the idea of natural selection. The problem with natural selection is that it makes God’s direct interaction with humanity unnecessary. The God of the gaps of the natural theologians was being squeezed out of yet another gap. But it’s important to note that this specifically challenges the supernaturalist position (that God acts directly on all things rather than delegating his powers to natural things), not all of religion. It seems likely that if the English speaking world had not created two centuries of Natural Theology and had not come to rely on it so heavily for proof of God’s existence, then natural selection wouldn’t have provoked such a strong religious response.
Religious philosophies that were not reliant upon Natural Theology were primarily concerned about Darwinism from the standpoint of materialism, presented by thinkers like biologist Ernst Haeckel:
The cell consists of protoplasm, composed chiefly of carbon with an admixture of hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur. These component parts, properly nursed, become man. With this single argument, the mystery of the universe is explained, the deity annulled, and a new era of infinite knowledge ushered in.
This is materialism, atheism, scientism all wrapped up into one (and with astonishing arrogance, according to Principe). From the religious perspective, many theologians were not bothered at all by the thought that man might have evolved from the ape. In fact, a new natural theology developed in accordance with natural selection – the world was evolving all according to a pre-determined blueprint.
Darwinism rejected progressivism (that evolution means constant advancement). But the ideals of advancement worked perfectly with the Victorian ideals of social and political progress and this sometimes found its way into natural theology, too. Natural selection was interpreted in two ways: monogenism – origins from one species. And polygenism – origin from several species. Polygenism was very popular to imperialist England because it supported the idea that some species had the right to rule over others species based on origin. This was a position rejected by the Catholic Church but supported by much of Protestantism (polygenism was used to support slavery in the American South).
Acceptance of Evolution became a way for intellectual theologians to distinguish themselves from non-intellectual theologians. Accepting Evolution was a mark of being a modern and enlightened theologian. Of course, whenever you create one group, you create another group of those on the outside of the group you have created. The less formerly educated formed opposition to this elitism through opposition to Evolution. Opposition to Evolution became a badge of membership. (Many recent American sects define themselves in practice as much through opposition to evolution as to adherence to specific religious doctrine.)
Most of the opposition to evolution has has been Protestant, not Catholic. Catholicism had a different reaction to Evolution. Catholics were typically neither Biblical Literalists nor Natural Theologists. What Catholics rejected was specifically polygenism and materialism. Pope Pius XII allowed communication between theologians and scientists, but noted that Evolution was a hypothesis. Pope John Paul II noted that there was enough evidence that Evolution was no longer a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a provisional statement, a supposition in the process of being tested.
John Paull II called Evolution a “theory”. This is different than a hypothesis. Theory doesn’t mean a guess or supposition. A theory is not something waiting to be proven. It is far greater than a fact could ever be. A theory is a well-supported explanatory structure capable of explaining and predicting a range of phenomena. A fact is just an isolated tidbit of knowledge. A theory organizing facts, concepts and predictions into a functional, scientific framework. The theory of gravity is a theory. But nobody ever says that the theory of gravity is “just a theory”. So what John Paul II was doing was updating Pious XII’s statement. Evolution is no longer a hypothesis, it now holds the status of a theory – a powerful, organizational structure for biology.
Evolution created a religious equivalent of theistic evolution which said that evolution was a natural process guided or directed in some way by God. This was developed by scientists. Evolution is what made humanity what it is, but it is God who gave man “soul”.
I find this extremely interesting – there is more religiously motivated opposition to Evolution in America today than there was at the start of the 20th century. By 1900, Evolution had gained wide acceptance within both the scientific and theological communities. Literal interpretations were becoming things of the past. But by the 1920s, literalism came back with a huge bang in the United States.
Fundamentalism is an American product. The Fundamentals, by A.C. Dixon (1910-1915) were mass produced. It was in opposition to modernism which is a movement towards new theological perspectives in Protestantism (particularly within Episcopalianism and Methodism). Fundamentalism is a reactionary movement and was primarily Baptists and Presbyterians who responded to the fundamentals.
Fundamentalism can be divided into two groups: theological and socio-political.
Fundamentalist theological beliefs:
- naive literalism
- biblical inerrancy
- 19th century millenarianism
The idea of the rapture developed from millenarianism. The rapture is the notion that the supposed faithful would suddenly disappear at the start of the millennium. This was a belief totally unheard of before the start of the 19th century. Biblical innerancy and naive literalism became a natural consequence of these sorts of beliefs.
This shift was also social. The U.S. was undergoing a shift from an agrarian culture to an urbanized, industrialized one. There was also a lot of immigration. So there was a lot of anxiety. The trend toward Biblical exegesis also added a lot of stress because unless you were an intellectual, you couldn’t follow this trend. The Ku Klux Klan sprang from similar social consequences, too. People suddenly began to realize they didn’t have a privileged place in an increasingly pluralistic America.
Fundamentalism developed around negativity. A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something. What they are angry about has changed over times. Early on, the anger was toward Higher Criticism, not Evolution. The anger toward Evolution started with WWI. This was the first technological war and suggested that something had gone fundamentally wrong with Western Culture and its promises of progress and enlightenment.
1900-1920 witnessed an unprecedented growth in high schools. America’s rural populations were suddenly exposed to modern thought and science for the first time. This was intelligentsia invading rural America.
Improved education in 1957, thanks to Sputnik, launched another overhauling of public education – especially in terms of text books. But this improved education, which used Evolution as an organizing principle, set off new attempts to ban Evolution.
Anti-evolutionists turn to a new strategy – equal time strategy. This is when creation science becomes a legally promotable evolution alternative. The Creation Science Society was founded in 1963, after the publication of The Genesis Flood (1961). In 1987, Creation Science was recognized by the Supreme Court as a religious doctrine and not science.
Creation Science is a minority view and should not be confused with that of orthodox Christianity. It’s from young earth creationists. Virtually every mainstream Christian denomination, Catholic and Protestant, voted to strike down the equal time law.
The next generation from Creation Science is neocreationism. This is the abrupt appearance theory: new life forms abruptly appeared. This is creationism without mentioning God. This was not a successful adaptation. A more successful adaptation is Intelligent Design.
In American public education, the strategy has been to downplay evolution in order to keep upsets to a minimum. Textbooks have minimized their coverage of evolution for the same reason. If you want to learn about evolution in America, you need to attend a Catholic school or another private school not set up by a fundamentalist curriculum.
Science and Theology
Science and Theology share a great deal in common:
- They are both human strivings for knowledge: operating by the cooperative exercises of faith and reason
- They are both activities of human beings and both expressions of human desire – especially our human desire “to know”
Theology developed some of the methods and approaches that modern science takes for granted and sometimes thinks to be it’s own creation. Theology developed within Western culture, a culture of dispute. Try to imagine good science without dispute. The same is true for theology. The foundations of naturalism for science lie with the medieval theologians who realized that only secondary causation is really comprehensible to the human mind. Therefore only secondary causation has any explanatory power.
Theology, no less than science, is a search for the truth. It is not just about opinion. Christian theology has proven itself remarkably flexible in its ability to adopt, adapt, and explore new scientific findings – to see what they mean.
It used to be that the only way to become a theologian was through elite training. It would take years of training to become a theologian. On the other hand, it used to be that being scientist only required observation. Anyone with a keen sense could consider themselves a scientist. But trends have changed. To be considered a scientist today requires elite training, yet theologians abound who have no training whatsoever.
The current theological conflict involves whether Genesis 1 should be read literally or not. Intellectually speaking, it is very difficult to find this trivial and non-interesting compared to earlier issues. If this is all the general public is exposed to, it’s no wonder the status of theology is in decline.
Historical religion tells us that the issue of biblical literalism and evolution is a non-issue. Old-time religion isn’t a problem. It is current Biblical inerrancy that raises the issue. But even the person who first advocated Biblical inerrancy (Warfield) was open to the idea of Evolution!
While some fundamentalist justifiably warrant conflict and create the error of collectivism, but so do some scientists. Hawkins, Sagan, Hoyle, Dawkins, and their tribe create good reason for anxiety. These people promote the gospel of materialism and scientism. Very often the claims these folks make are full of philosophical naivism, arrogant sarcasm and arrogant disdain. This does not promote productive discussion.
The battle between science and religion is a battle of extremists. Extremist views are simple and easy to feature in a 15 minute soundbite. They alienate the more moderate viewpoints. Extremists want the division between science and religion, but this division doesn’t really exist.
Things are not always what they are now. It is important to understand history, historically – not according to modern understanding.