The Guardian series also contains this article from theology professor Richard Harries, arguing — surprise! — that evolution and Christian faith are compatible. Let’s have a look.
Here’s paragraph two:
As the Victorian novelist Charles Kingsley put it, God does not just make the world, he does something much more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. More generally, the scientist Asa Gray, a close friend of Darwin, said that there had been no undue reluctance amongst Christians in accepting Darwin’s theory. So how it is that some people still think the church was opposed to evolution? And what about creationism?
I think it’s highly debatable that letting the world “make itself” via eons of evolution by bloodsport, needing an assist from five separate mass extinctions to get it over various humps, is really better than making it all at once via the puff of smoke method so beloved of the creationists.
As for why people think the church was opposed to evolution, it is because Harries is being awfully selective about who he quotes. Darwin found some support from the clergy, but there weas no shortage of others who decried evolution from the beginning. The opinion of Charles Hodge, who asked “What is evolution?” and answered, “It is atheism,” was hardly an uncommon one at the time.
The next element in the story is the rise of fundamentalism in America in the 1920s. Originally, this movement was not particularly committed to the literal truth of the Genesis story, but that is how it has come to be defined. This obscures the truth of sober historians of science – that the Christian public quickly accepted Darwin’s theory and found no incompatibility between it and their Christian faith.
Those sober historians of science are making stuff up. It’s not as if we have any actual data, from public opinion polls, say, that would tell us whether or not the Christian public quickly accepted evolution. What we know is that a handful of prominent preachers warmed to Darwin’s theory, while many others did not. As for the public, I suspect that then, as now, most of them knew nothing of Darwin’s theory and that those who knew of it at all did so in only in a very simplified and caricatured way. I very much doubt, however, that people at the time were more keen than people today to accept the idea that we evolved via natural processes from simple beginnings over billions of years.
Add to this the rise of Richard Dawkins and we have the curiously symbiotic relationship between him and creationists, so that they both need one another, and feed one another. If there were no creationists, there would be no enemy for Richard Dawkins to focus on. If there were no Richard Dawkins, creationists would have less reason for their feelings of beleaguered self-righteousness.
Total garbage. Neither Dawkins, nor anyone else, needs creationists. Were the creationists, and all other forms of religious lunacy, to disappear off the face of the Earth, Dawkins would happily go back to writing about science. Dawkins, like all mentally healthy human beings, does not need an enemy to focus his energies.
From the other side, it is clear that Harries has only a cartoonish understanding of how creationists think. Beleagured self-righteousness is their stock in trade. It is an essential part of their worldview that they are a tiny island of righteousness adrift in an ocean of godless immorality. This shines through on virtually every page of their prodigious literature. Removing Dawkins from the scene would be like removing one drop of water from that ocean. It would take the creationists all of two seconds to come up with a new target for their ire.
It is relatively late in his essay that Harries turns to the reasons people think evolution and Christianity are at odds:
Good intellectual work has been done on understanding the mechanism of natural selection and genetic mutation in theological terms, particularly by the late scientist and theologian Arthur Peacock. It is the combination of the fixed and the random that allows new forms both to form and then stabilise. If we only had the random element, then nothing would last. If we only had the fixed element, nothing new would emerge. Genetic mutation allows the new to emerge, and the steady pressure of natural selection ensures that certain forms can stay, at least for a period.
There seems a necessity and logic about this which is congruous with a creator who gives creation a life of its own, and wants to weave it from the bottom up.
More nonsense. Natural selection, a violent and bloody process that virtually entails massive pain and suffering, that flouts every moral precept human beings hold dear, is hardly the logical or necessary mechanism of creation for a loving God wishing to commune with intelligent creatures. If it is so congruous, one wonders why no Christian theologian in the centuries from the rise of the Church to the coming of Darwin ever conceived of the idea.
Happily, Harries does not completely evade the main point:
But there remains the extraordinary prodigality of nature, its immense waste and – certainly in the higher mammals – the capacity to experience pain, which is so distressing.
This points up another factor in the persistent myth that somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the theory of evolution and religious faith are opposed to one another. Our very real human difficulties about reconciling the waste and apparent cruelty of nature with a loving and wise creator is displaced, and focused on the idea that the theory of evolution as such must be inimical to faith.
In fact it is not evolution that is the problem but the character and quality of the natural life it reveals which distresses us. The problem is particularly acute for us moderns, because with anaesthetics, pain killers and the general improvement in health for so many in the developed world, we take pain so much less for granted than our forebears. Only last week someone came to me, held up the photo of a much magnified mosquito, and said, “I just cannot believe that a God of love made this.”
It is cluelessness of a high order to suggest that conflict between evolution and Christianity is a myth, or that there is any substantial body of evidence to gainsay the notion. In the United States, at least, public opinion polls consistently show that close to half the population accepts the young-Earth creationist view of the matter. There is a reason that there is a nearly endless succession of books trying to reconcile evolution and Christianity, while there are very few making the case from the other side. Richard Dawkins, for example, actually says very little about evolution when he is defending atheism, and when he does bring it up it is mostly just to refute the argument from design. Harries is welcome to bury his head in the sand and deny the obvious if that is his desire, but I would suggest that a few minutes attending a meeting of the Kansas School Board might make him a bit less sanguine.
And lines like, “In fact it is not evolution that is the problem but the character and quality of the natural life it reveals which distresses us,” is pure, grade-A, USDA prime, theological argle-bargle. I’m not even sure what it means.
The character and quality of nature, specifically its general awfulness and cruelty, was obvious to everyone long before Darwin came along. It was already a powerful argument against the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful deity prior to anyone realizing that it was the result of an especially brutal evolutionary process set in motion by that very deity. The young-Earthers at least have an answer of sorts to this point: they say the cruelty of nature is not what God created, but is rather the result of sin entering the world. It’s not much of an answer, but at least they acknowledge the problem. Sophisticated theologians like Harries have no answer at all to this point (and notice that Harries does not even suggest such an answer here.) And, as I have already indicated, it really is evolution itself which is the problem. Theistic evolution makes God Himself the author of all that pain and suffering.
Look folks. Christianity claims that human life is the result of a direct act of will by an all-powerful God who loves His creation. Evolution tells us that we are the chance result of an awful, amoral, bloody evolutionary process that has been going on for billions of years and offers no guarantee of ever obtaining anything better than single-celled organisms. That’s pretty close to X on the on hand and not X on the other. If Harries has a serious argument to make for why it is reasonable to think they are nonetheless two sides of the same coin, then I will be happy to hear it. Until then, I will not take seriously his eye-rolling at those of us who refuse to duck the issue.