Evolution is terrifying for many Christians/religious people, but does it need to be?

Written by Christopher Emerling, Ph.D.

This is the third post in a series. Here are links to the first and second posts.

  Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008,    The geologic time spiral    —A path to the past  (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Public domain. Click on image to enlarge.

Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008, The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Public domain. Click on image to enlarge.

Evolution is terrifying.

No, not the process itself. Frankly, it's rather mundane.

And no, maybe it’s not terrifying to you. But to some individuals, it can be a very scary thing.

Let me elaborate: To many people, evolution and the existence of God/Higher Power/the divine are mutually exclusive. This is not an idea that has been around for a long time, particularly since evolution was not widely accepted until after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Yet sometimes the falsity of evolution seems to be a doctrine as old and important as the Ten Commandments. 

"You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not believe that complex organisms descended from more simplistic organisms, and you shall not believe that humans descended from monkey-like ancestors. Especially that last one.”

Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew wasn't recorded in its entirety as engagement in evolutionary theory nows needs to be added to the list.

“If you hate your brother, you have committed murder in your heart. If you lust after another woman, you have committed adultery in your heart. If you so much as learn about the theory of evolution, you have committed Darwinism in your heart.”

So why does this make evolution so terrifying? To the religious person, since the presumed falsehood of evolution is so deeply integrated into their religion, they reason that if evolution is true, then, by extension, their religion is not true. If their religion is not true, the train of thought goes, there is no God, their life has no purpose, and there is no afterlife.

You can imagine a Yoda-ism along these lines: “Evolution leads to a God-less universe, a God-less universe leads to no afterlife, no afterlife leads to a meaningless life. Depressing this is, yes.”

 Image is in the Public Domain.

Image is in the Public Domain.

This may sound like an extreme case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but this is frequently how religion, or any worldview, can be built up in our minds. We live our lives thinking that what we believe about the universe is true, and typically we assume that these beliefs are unassailable.

It doesn't help when religious leaders preach from their pulpits that if any aspect of their religion is found out to be untrue, then it’s all untrue. It seems to be that, at least for Christianity, this is a distortion of one of the Apostle Paul’s comments: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). The resurrection of Jesus being the cornerstone upon which Paul and other early Christians built their faith upon has somehow been appended with numerous unrelated beliefs.

Think about all of the beliefs that are typically associated with Christianity. The Bible is literal and infallible; Hell is the eternal destination of "non-believers"; in the future Jesus will return on a cloud and set up a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth; life begins at conception; God is three persons in one.

Could all of these beliefs be false, and yet Jesus could have risen from the dead? Absolutely. Especially noting there are many different theological interpretations of resurrection. 

Could they be false and yet there is a Higher Power, an afterlife and a purpose to your life? Of course. 

I’m not saying all of the former are false and all of the latter are true, but the point is that these beliefs are not mutually exclusive despite their frequent portrayal as such. In the same way, evolutionary theory is not mutually exclusive with all religious beliefs; just a few like, “God created all life 6000 years ago” and “Every species of land animal was on Noah’s ark and subsequently migrated to their present day habitats.” You can believe in evolution and the Trinity, Armageddon, the resurrection of Christ, the principle of transubstantiation…heck, practically anything associated with religion. Even that the Bible is inerrant and infallible if you consider that the Genesis creation accounts may have been more symbolic or general summaries of the origins of life rather than a rigorous historical document.

 Image from  Latvianvia  via Flickr.

Image from Latvianvia via Flickr.

I think it’s critical that individuals stop propagating the idea that all religious beliefs and the theory of evolution are inherently at odds with each other. Not only because it is patently untrue, but because it will prevent many religious individuals from learning about the evidence for evolution. If there is a fear that believing in evolution will overturn everything they believed about the nature and meaning of the universe, they’ll avoid it like the plague.

For individuals interested in understanding how to reconcile evolution with religious belief, there are numerous resources to aid in your efforts, two of which I’ve listed here. Finding Darwin’s God is an excellent book by Kenneth Miller, a molecular biologist at Brown University and a practicing Catholic. BioLogos.org, an organization started by Francis Collins, director of both the Human Genome Project and the National Institute of Health and a Christian, provides valuable resources for navigating the seemingly difficult issue of reconciling one’s faith with evolution.

Christopher Emerling is a postdoctoral fellow in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, studying genomic adaptations in vertebrates over long time scales. Chris is Middle Circle's resident scientist and blogs occasionally with Middle Circle. You can check out his regular blog here.