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Evolution & Faith: Understanding Charles Darwin

from Einstein’s God

From the Scopes trial to school board controversies in our day, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution are often portrayed as a refutation of God. Darwin, it turns out, did not argue against God, but against a simplistic understanding of the world, its beauty, and its unfolding creation.

Charles Darwin was born over 200 years ago in February 1809. He published On the Origin of the Species in 1859. He was the son and grandson of physicians, a gentleman in early 19th-century Britain. He grew up in the world of Jane Austen’s novels – a world of manners, politeness, and rigid class structure.

This social structure was held to be divinely ordained like every condition of plant and animal, fixed and static, and eternal. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century had brought biblical certainties to laypeople in their own language. And they read the story of creation more literally than the classic theologians had.

As a young man, Darwin was headed for a career in the church, a respectable path for a man of his social standing. But he was also a passionate amateur naturalist, and at the age of 22, he seized a chance at adventure, a place on the near five-year scientific journey of HMS Beagle. This took Darwin across the globe and to the southernmost tip of South America. There, he observed a vast and vigorous spectrum of life that filled him with amazement and with questions.

There are two ways of viewing faith and science. One assumes that God’s works (nature) should be interpreted through God’s Word (sacred texts). The other view assumes that God’s Word (sacred texts) should be viewed through the lens of God’s work’s (nature). Darwin introduced a third way to view God and nature. Science simply describes the processes at work in nature; belief in God is optional. Faith is fine, but not a necessary part of the explanation. Believe in God if you want, but it doesn’t really matter.

Darwin introduced a new paradigm of organic development: things – including culture, ideas, religions, and peoples – don’t remain static, but evolve over time. The past was simply an earlier version of now, but a different version. This was a new idea at the beginning of the 18th century – the idea of history as that which brings about something new and unique, and the present as that which brings new things in the future. Even things we might believe are “lost” (old species, old ideas, old beliefs), all contribute to what is now.

What happens to science without faith? What happens to faith without science?

This essay is from Einstein’s God: Science, ¬†Faith, and the Life of Wonder, one of eight modules in the Small Group Discussions on Being published by Morehouse Education Resources in collaboration with Krista Tippett’s American Public Media radio program.¬†

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