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Effects of Darwinism on the Religious Constructs of Individuals Believing in Creationism

Robert Waxman


In 1859, Darwin's theories of natural selection and evolution began spreading rapidly around the world. Many individuals embraced evolutionary theory immediately, while others dismissed it for religious reasons. Darwin's conclusions were not in agreement with the Biblical account of creation, and God's role as creator was being questioned. For many theologians and devout believers in the Bible, Darwin's startling theories were radically different from their existing religious beliefs. For the first time in history, a man of science was offering a complete humanistic theory that was not only opposing creationism, but was also stating that human beings were not exempt from the laws of nature. Those individuals who believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible were shocked, defiant, and hostile to the theory of evolution. They viewed Darwinism as an attempt to destroy their faith in God and the Bible. However, others were able to reconcile their faith with Darwinism and could accept the notion that humankind had descended from the lower kingdoms of nature. They understood that evolution was a science that was bringing new knowledge to the human experience and were able to integrate Darwin's ideas with an allegorical interpretation of the Creation.   

I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion - Charles Darwin (Letter 12757 - C. R. Darwin to E. B. Aveling, October 13, 1880)


           A watershed moment in the human experience occurred in 1871 with the publishing of Charles Darwin's landmark book The Descent of Man. For the first time in history, Christians, Jews, and Moslems were faced with scientific evidence indicating they were not created by the Biblical God. Darwin's theory of evolution provided the basis for the supposition that humankind is part of the natural world and is not exempt from the laws of nature. Additionally, Darwin's evolutionary claims laid the foundations for a unified theory of nature which accounted for the extraordinary changes and developments to all forms of life over millions of years. According to Smith (1997), "The evidence that human beings have evolved from physical nature vindicated the conclusion that human nature and physical nature are understandable in the same terms." Besides having a great impact on the scientific community, the theory of evolution also advanced many other fields of the Human Sciences such as anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. However, the reactions from the theological community ranged from anger, to disgust, to confusion. These emotional responses translated into either an outright dismissal of evolution, or reconciling evolution with a continuing belief in God, or accepting evolution and no longer believing in God. Over the last 140 years, these three opposing religious constructs (concerning the relationship between nature, humankind, and God) have created one of the central conflicts in the human religious experience in Western culture. Therefore, it is important to examine Darwinism's effect on individuals believing in creationism and their subsequent choices to either accept, reject, or reconcile the differences between evolutionary theory and the Biblical creation story.          

Non-Evolutionary Theistic Model

            Since the publication of The Descent of Man (Darwin, 1871), the American public's response to the validity of evolutionary theory has been divided by wide margins. According to a Harris poll conducted in 2008, 40% of Americans believe in creationism. Catholics are more likely than Protestants to believe in evolution (by 52% to 32%), and Protestants are slightly more likely than Catholics to believe in creationism (by 54% to 46%) ("More Americans," 2008). With 40% of American believing in creationism, there is a need to understand how this religious construct has survived for so long.

            In the years following the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), there was a public outcry from religious individuals. According to Becker (1973),

...the hysterical reaction of the 19th century believers against Darwin only shows the thinness and unimaginativeness of their faith. They were not open to ordinary awe and wonder; they took life too much for granted; and when Darwin stripped them of their sense of "special wondrousness" they felt as good as dead.       

Becker is describing a reaction of extreme despair by individuals who believed they were God's children and were being told for the first time they were just one step above the animal kingdom. Many others were not as "hysterical" but could not bring themselves to accept the ape as their ancestor, and they felt that Darwinism had removed God from "his" role as creator and father. Consequently, those individuals who were considering the validity of evolutionary theory may have struggled with the following questions: if God did not create man, then what else did "he" not do as described in the Bible? What other miracles did "he" not perform? What else did "he" say that was not true? God's credibility was at stake. If Darwinism caused people to question their faith in a personal god, eventually they might ask themselves whether or not "he" actually existed. According to Giberson (2008),

The conflict [between science and creationism] resides at the much deeper and far more important worldview. It centers on one central question: Can there be a role at all for God in our own creation story? If accepting evolution means abandoning God, then evolution should be opposed.  

            Once the theory of evolution was introduced into the 19th century human experience, many individuals found themselves questioning the role of God as the ultimate creator. For the first time in history, theologians and followers of the three Western religions were confronted with scientific evidence that refuted the stories in the Bible. Accordingly, these individuals were facing a psychological, philosophical, anthropological, and theological dilemma. Was humankind the successor to the ape, or did God breathe life into the nostrils of the Biblical Adam? If ordinary people were to accept the theory of evolution, they needed to remove the 3,000 year-old religious construct of being created in God's image. However, if one Biblical thread began to unravel, there were many other threads that would come loose as well. For example, once man's creation on the "sixth day" was called into question, then the other "five days" would be questioned as well. Furthermore, if the "divine order" of the "six days" was no longer divine or orderly, there was no alternate explanation for the entire creational process. Psychologically, without a creational order, chaos would reign and the fear associated with nihilism could replace the comforting theological construct of God creating the universe. In order to avoid such dreadful feelings, many individuals preferred to deny the validity of Darwinism and simply dismiss any progressive, scientific theories.  

Despite so much evidence, evolution remains difficult to accept because it implies everything living is largely accidental. Stephen Jay Gould, an American evolutionary biologist, who died in 2002, argued that misunderstandings about Darwinism were rife not because the theory is difficult to understand but because people actively avoid trying to understand it. He thought a misunderstanding about progress was the problem. ("Science and Technology," 2009)  

Evolutionary theory was also rejected by many individuals because it required the use of the intellect rather than feelings coming from the heart. According to Fromm (1976), within the intellectual complexities of proving the validity of evolution, there is a separation that begins to occur between the reasoning mind and the emotions of the heart. For those theologians and individuals with heart-felt religious convictions, Darwin's intellectual theories were threatening the perception that God's love was being bestowed upon them. Peck (2010) emphasizes this point, "Surely such a loving, personal Deity would have created in a way with less trial and error, fewer false starts, fewer mindless species extinctions, fewer pointless cruelties, and less reliance on predation to sort the fit from the unfit." Therefore, for those believing that God loves "his" creation, there is great difficulty trying to defend the brutality, suffering, and death that are inevitable consequences of evolution.

Evolutionary Theistic Model

            Many other religious individuals during the latter half of the 19th century were able to reconcile the theory of evolution with an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. Although Darwin's claims contradicted the Genesis story, Sir Isaac Newton had already introduced the notion that portions of the Bible should not be taken literally (Armstrong, 1993). Interestingly, Darwin was very sensitive to the gravity of his message and concentrated his writings on natural selection rather than on cultural or spiritual evolution (Smith, 1997). He was married to a devout Christian woman and was reluctant to deliver a scientific message that was associated with speculations and a radical political philosophy (Smith, 1997). Additionally, he did not want to offend the religious community, so he positioned himself as a scientist who was investigating the workings of the natural world. As a result of his scientific approach to this controversial topic, a significant number of Christians allowed themselves to interpret Darwin's theories as modern science and not as a competing form of theology (Armstrong, 1993). Smith (1997) describes how Darwinism became fashionable in the late 19th century, because many individuals appreciated a plausible explanation for the natural development of human life. Eventually, Darwin's theories became the basis for a natural science which provided a reasonable explanation for the natural progression of all life forms.

            Theologians and individuals accepting Darwinism did not need to relinquish the Bible, nor their faith in God. Compatibility between Biblical teachings and evolutionary theory is possible when Bible stories are viewed as allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic. The common use of metaphor and allegory are specifically referred to in Mark's gospel (4:34) as a teaching technique used by Jesus: "But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples." The biblical writers also left behind clues to indicate that the creation story should not be taken literally. For instance, by tracing back the life spans of the biblical characters the date for the Creation was pegged at 4004 BCE. However, the sun was not created until the "fourth day", and without the sun there is no way to measure the length of the first three "days". Therefore, a biblical day is not a twenty-four day, and the date of the Creation in 4004 BCE is not accurate. This point was expounded upon by Clarence Darrow during the "Scopes Monkey Trial" in 1925 when the issue of teaching evolution in the public schools was hotly debated. Darrow proved that the literal interpretation of the creation story defied logic, but he lost the case and Scopes was ordered to pay a fine (Linder, 2008). However, by the 1930's public opinion had shifted in favor of teaching evolution in public schools and universities. Eventually, the national debate on evolution calmed down, and even religious institutions became more amenable to combining theology with the concept of evolution. According to Peck (2010), there is a compromise position to support an "evolutionary theology":

Temporal Theism - this viewpoint seems most open to theistic Darwinism by providing an opening for God to be part of the unfolding of the universe. This view continues to be the most promising way to harmonize the two fields and is the perspective largely embraced by Catholic scholars Teilhard de Chardin and John Haught.  

Under these circumstances, God is "unfolding" in an abstract, immeasurable manner, but the fundamental premise of "gradual evolution" remains the same. Accordingly, the Hermetic axiom of "as above; so below" is applicable because correspondences are found between the macrocosm (God's unfolding) and the microcosm (nature's evolution). Additionally, a singular pattern of evolution emerges when incremental developments are observed in the microcosm and then applied to the macrocosm.

            Important questions remain that cannot be answered at this time: how did evolution come to be in the first place? Who (or what) created the patterns of evolution? Can anyone prove or disprove the existence of a divine architect who designed the evolutionary process? These unanswerable questions support the notion that science has limitations, and there is no substitution for faith when attempting to know the unknowable. No one has yet offered a logical explanation for the "intelligent design" of evolution, and therefore, the concept of an evolutionary theism cannot be easily dismissed. This type of religious construct would help advance the human experience and allow for the possibility that contextual theology and the science of evolution are compatible.


            Before 1859, most religious people in Western culture held the belief that God created human beings. The creation story of Genesis had been taught in Judaism for over 3,000 years, in Christianity for over 1,700 years, and in Islam for over 1,200 years. As a result of all three religions relying on the Bible to explain the creation of humankind, a deeply-rooted religious construct had formed within many countries, races, communities, and families. Suddenly, within the course of a decade, a pivotal relationship between humans and God was threatened, and many reacted with hostility to scientific theories that were viewed as separating them from God. Interestingly, in The Descent of Man (1871, p. 468), Darwin states, "There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an omnipotent God." He explains that over a long period of time the need for gods arose to explain the unknown forces of nature (1871). Furthermore, in same book, Darwin posits that human beings have evolved from needing many gods (polytheism) to one personal God (monotheism). Therefore, we may speculate that as humanity continues to evolve over the millennia, the question of whether humankind will have a continuing need for personal gods will be answered by far-distant, future generations.   

            Darwin charted a course that continues to change the way most Westerners think about nature and God. Today, the study of evolution is accepted science throughout the world, and millions of people have abandoned the religious construct of creationism. However, millions of others still believe in creationism with 40% of American public rejecting the theory of evolution. In the years to come, it will be interesting to monitor the statistical trends of those believing in creationism or evolution. It will also be interesting to note the percentage of individuals whose religious constructs are changing as a result of accepting the premise of evolutionary theism. 


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