2009 July 20
Thomas Fowler: "Overview of Theological and Religious Interpretations of Evolution"
Part of a session on "200 Years of Darwin"
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, we can survey the history of the science initiated by Darwin. Its majestic sweep and enormous explanatory and integrative potential have combined to make it a pivotal intellectual issue of our time. Because evolution can illuminate an enormous range of phenomena, its impact extends far beyond the confines of biology. Of the greatest importance is how evolutionary thinking has affected and continues to affect philosophical and theological matters: our place in the universe, our belief (or non-belief) in the supernatural, and our relationship with creation as a whole. Darwinian evolution makes certain claims in these areas—or has been interpreted to make them—that appear to be in direct conflict with key beliefs of many of the world’s major religions. Thus the stakes are extremely high because it appears to many that our civilization is based on a view of man fundamentally incompatible with that emerging from Darwin’s theory. This has naturally led to the development of many philosophical and religious interpretations of evolution, as well as to criticisms of the theory itself. The interpretations range from atheism to Creationism, and include many varieties of theistic evolution, as well as agnosticism, and Intelligent Design. Some of these interpretations are linked to alternate scientific theories to explain observable facts; but all recognize the importance of dealing with the challenge that evolution represents. These various interpretations are reviewed here, together with their critical assumptions.
The positions can be visualized as a spectrum, with atheism on one end and Creationism on the other, and the varieties of theistic evolution in the middle, along with other views tending to one side or the other. Curiously, the extreme positions, while diametrically opposite in some ways, share some fundamental deep-seated (and widespread) assumptions about the nature of knowledge. They assume that knowledge is monolithic in the sense that all “facts” are on the same level, specifically, the direct observational level. Thus contradiction between religion and science can—and does—occur at many points, at least in their view. Theistic evolution eschews such confrontation, and in its various forms always starts from a different assumption, namely that knowledge is multi-tiered, and “facts” cannot all be assumed to be on the same plane, much like the movement of airplanes in the sky: two airplanes may seem about to collide, when viewed by an observer looking straight up, though in fact they are flying at different altitudes. So basically accepting empirical science at the direct observational level, theistic evolution argues that (1) matter was created with the power to engender life and (2) we must step back and recognize the essentially hierarchical nature of human knowledge, with the direct observational level forming only part of it; philosophical and religious knowledge lies deeper, manifested by the many questions that cannot be meaningfully formulated in scientific language. Are these assumptions correct? And to what degree do they resolve the inherent conflict between materialistic and atheistic/agnostic views and religious belief?