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Christian Opposition To Evolution Is Neither Inevitable Nor Universal

We can see that among Christians there are in fact radically different ways of thinking about science that need not disturb faith.
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"The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the theory of evolution is true," Gallup News Service reported in June 2007, following significant interest in the topic during the GOP primaries that summer. With Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo all indicating that they did not believe in evolution, Gallup conducted several polls showing how closely Americans' beliefs about evolution correlate with their religious behavior.

"Those who attend church frequently," Frank Newport reported for the news agency, "are much less likely to believe in evolution than are those who seldom or never attend." The results also pointed to a strong connection between Americans' beliefs about evolution and their political philosophy. "Being religious in America today is strongly related to partisanship," Newport determined, "with more religious Americans in general much more likely to be Republicans than to be independents or Democrats."

As doubts about evolution continue to abound in the current Republican primaries, with Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum all indicating that they are firmly Creationist in their beliefs and Herman Cain and Ron Paul dismissing evolution as "just a theory," it might seem as if, on this issue, little had changed among Republicans. But with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman adopting the Mormon position that there is no conflict between their faith and the principles of evolution, and Newt Gingrich assuming the same stance as a Catholic (and former Southern Baptist), striking intellectual differences on this issue have emerged among the candidates. By underlining them, we can see that among Christians there are in fact radically different ways of thinking about science that need not disturb faith.

In 1950, encouraged by Pope Pius XII, the Roman Catholic Church found a way to reconcile itself to evolution. In the years since, it has moved from neutrality on the issue to implicit acceptance of it. The Vatican continues to insist that humans are a special creation requiring the existence of God (premises that Darwinism considers neither necessary nor particularly likely). But the principle of "theistic evolution," where God is said to embrace evolution in advance, allowed the Church to narrow the gulf between faith and scientific evidence, doubtless to minimize the risk of its followers having to choose between either.

Nor were even earlier Christian responses to Darwin consistently fearful or angry. Many devout scientists in the 1860s and later not only accepted his argument about natural selection through adaptation, but also found it relatively easy to reconcile with their beliefs. They simply claimed that evolution was one of the ways in which God worked. On the basis of such thinking, the Christian Darwinist Aubrey L. Moore felt able to state in his 1889 collection Science and the Faith, "Panic fear of new theories" such as Darwin's was "as unreasonable as the attempt to base the eternal truth of religion on what may eventually prove to be a transient phase of scientific belief."

Two years ago, when the Yale Divinity School Library held an exhibition on transatlantic Christian responses to Darwin, the curators called Moore "the clergyman who more than any other man was responsible for breaking down the antagonisms toward evolution then widely felt in the English Church." The description was perfectly accurate, but the reforms were hardly limited to England.

On this side of the Atlantic, the exhibition also stressed key thinkers such as Harvard botanist Asa Gray, an evangelical Calvinist, who also worked to reconcile Christians to evolution. Gray was a lifelong friend of Darwin's who arranged the U.S. publication of his famous treatise "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," to the point of negotiating for royalties on its author's behalf. Gray's 1874 collection Darwiniana pointed out that "the attitude of theologians toward doctrines of evolution... is no less worthy of consideration, and hardly less diverse, than that of naturalists."

Large numbers of evangelicals in America are well-known to have adopted a quite different tack, turning Darwinism into a threat to their bedrock beliefs because it implies that the opening verses of Genesis aren't statements of literal truth. That challenge to Genesis has of course come from many quarters other than Darwin, including from geologists in the 1790s doubtful of the planet's creation in six days. But it was the passing of a 1925 law in Tennessee, essentially making it unlawful in state schools for teachers to deny the biblical account of man's creation, that led to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Repeal of the law in 1967 has had many beneficial effects, but it has done little to resolve the underlying problem of antipathy towards evolutionary theory and its scientific argument, due to biblical literalism.

Still, it is important to stress that other branches of Christianity have found a way to embrace science and evolution by treating Genesis (as one Victorian commentator put it) with the "latitude of poetry." When Republican Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman recently chided his fellow Republicans for "becom[ing] a party that was antithetical to science," he essentially took the same line.

Huntsman clearly has his work cut out for him convincing his party of his position on evolution and of his candidacy. But in breaking with Republican doubts about evolution, his stance usefully reminds us that there's nothing inevitable about Christians opposing science and, indeed, the study of evolution.