Evolution and religion: separate or complementary?

AP:Associated Press

Alister McGrath
Published at 6:10PM, August 29 2014

Michael Gove’s legacy as Education Secretary has been much debated in recent weeks. One radical change that received relatively little coverage is his decision that, from next term, evolution will be taught in primary schools. It’s an important development, which raises some interesting questions.
For a start, it’s rather difficult to convey the basic ideas of evolution to children of such a young age (Year 6 pupils, who will be taught evolution, are aged 10 to 11). It’s important to distinguish between the phenomenon of evolution and specific theories of evolution. It’s relatively easy to explore how the fossil evidence points to the evolution of species. It’s rather more difficult to explain to primary school children how that process happens. Recent educational research in the United States has demonstrated that the core Darwinian ideas of “adaptation” and “natural selection” are so complex that they are generally misunderstood by children.
Researchers such as Deborah Kelemen (Boston University) have shown how one of the best ways of teaching evolution at this age is using storybook approaches which help children to grasp the idea of natural selection imaginatively by carefully designed and engaging stories. Robert Winston’s delightful Evolution Revolution (2009) shows the potential of this approach.
Yet while evolution will be taught in science lessons, it clearly has wider cultural implications, some of which can be grasped by primary school children. I recall overhearing a conversation during a train journey from Oxford to London, in which a highly engaged child asked his mother why apes weren’t allowed to vote. “After all, we’re related to them!” It’s a line of thought that underlies the philosopher Peter Singer’s critique of what he terms “speciesism”, and it’s not going to go away.
Some of these wider issues are religious. As the recent “Trojan horse” scandal in Birmingham has made clear, many conservative Muslims see any idea of evolution — especially human evolution — as contrary to the traditions of Islam, and oppose its teaching in schools. My own conversations with Muslim school students in London over the past five years suggest that some of them see the compulsory teaching of evolution in schools as part of a western anti-Islamic agenda, and thus react against evolution for non-scientific reasons. The same issue arises, although to a lesser extent, within British Christianity, where forms of “creationism” (generally holding that the world was created in six days about 6,000 years ago) are becoming increasingly influential, particularly within Pentecostalism.
There are really two issues here: the theoretical question of how evolution relates to religious faith, and the more pragmatic question of what can be done to lessen religious anxieties about evolution. Because these questions are complex, raising different issues for different faith traditions, I will focus on Christianity, and allow readers to make any necessary adaptations. There are three broad positions to consider.
First, there is the view that science and faith are completely separate worlds of thought and action, and ought to be kept apart. Science gets taught in the classroom, and faith gets taught in the home or at church. It’s a neat solution in some ways, and keeps science and religion out of each other’s way. But it’s problematic. What, for example, if religion teaches something that is scientifically questionable? Or if some scientists resist a new theory because it seems “religious”? The astronomer Fred Hoyle famously resisted the “Big Bang” theory because it sounded too much like religious ideas of creation. Second, there’s the view — often referred to as the “warfare model” or “conflict thesis” — which holds that science and faith are locked in mortal combat. This approach began to emerge in the late 19th century, and has been popularised in recent decades by the biologist Richard Dawkins, particularly in his God Delusion (2006). Dawkins believes in a permanent conflict between science and religion, and regards Darwin’s theory of evolution as the atheist’s weapon of choice against faith. For Dawkins, any talk about an “alleged convergence” between religion and science can only be “a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham”.
Although this view has received increased media attention in recent years, it’s important to note that this was not Darwin’s view. Darwin repeatedly emphasised that he could see no fundamental religious reason why a Christian couldn’t accept his theory of evolution. Although popular history tends to present the Church of England as hostile towards Darwin, there was much support for Darwin’s ideas at the highest levels in the late 19th century.
The third position is a mediating approach which holds that science and religious faith exist in a complex relationship. This is characterised by moments of tension and synergy, yet opens the way to an enriched vision of reality which is both existentially and rationally satisfying. We find it in Augustine of Hippo (354-430), probably Christianity’s most important theologian, who argued that the idea of “creation” was best understood as an instantaneous moment of initiation, followed by a long process of development, in which new forms of life came into being over an extended period. I belong to this school of thought, and see it as a way of holding together and affirming the strengths of science and faith, while recognising the limits of both.
What can be done to lessen religious anxieties about evolution? In a recent article in The New York Times, Brendan Nyhen considers what happens when science and faith are in tension. His argument deserves to be heard: “We need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on highprofile issues.” If religious believers of whatever type are made to feel that they must choose between their faith or evolution, they are likely to choose their faith. They may be criticised for doing so — but so must those who put them in that position by insisting that evolution and religious faith are irreconcilable, when this is so clearly contestable. Religious fundamentalists are the chief beneficiaries of the ridiculously simplistic slogan “you can’t believe in evolution and God”.
It’s time for a more serious conversation, both about the theoretical issues and their wider implications.

Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford

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