Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Christian Response to Darwin

The common view of Darwin’s impact appears to be that his theories caused enormous problems for Christians, problems they have not recovered from since. This perception places science against the Christian faith with Charles Darwin waving the banner triumphantly. What did actually occur at this time?

What Darwin’s theories did do was refute the design arguments of William Paley. Paley’s ‘Natural Theology’ was a big influence on Darwin and was perhaps one of the cornerstones of his faith when he was a Christian. Paley’s views were popular, but not without Christian opposition, the most prominent being John Henry Newman who considered it a liability and a false gospel. With this in mind The Origin of Species could clearly only be a death blow to Paleyist apologetics. Recent trends in the study of geology had already been accepted by the Christian majority who were well aware of non-literal interpretations of Genesis.

Before Darwin there had already been many adjustments by theologians of Paley’s arguments. Some saw gaps in the design arguments which Darwin’s theories later filled, whereas others focussed on laws based on the approach of Aquinas centuries earlier. With the stage seemingly set for Christians to quite easily accept Darwin’s theories, how did they react?

The Anglican/British Response

The first Christian response came six days before the publication of The Origin. Darwin had sent an advance copy to Revd Charles Kingsley who instantly approved, stating that it is “Just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development…as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made.”

The publication of The Origin brought evolution by natural selection to the attention of both the public and the growing scientific community. The initial response was mixed, both in religious and scientific circles. Darwin’s friend Leonard Jenyns believed that humans must have been created separately from animals otherwise he could not make sense of Gen: 2.7 and 2.21-22 (note that this is not strict adherence to a literal Genesis).

In 1860, just 7 months after publication, came the infamous debate between the Bishop of Oxford, “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, and “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Thomas H. Huxley. The popular retelling shows a triumph of scientist over dusty old bishop with a well known backhanded quip from Huxley, contrary to what historians have found.
Wilberforce was there not just because he was a bishop, but because he had been a Vice-President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Wilberforce even emphasised that, “we have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.”

Wilberforce critiqued Darwin on mainly scientific grounds and Darwin (who did not attend) found his critique to be “uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.” One attendee of the Oxford meeting, Henry Baker Tristam, had been persuaded by The Origin but then ‘de-converted’ based on the strength of Wilberforce’s scientific arguments.

The meeting was far from a triumph of science over religion, as popularly depicted, but instead a scientific debate with very vocal and worthy opponents.

Frederick Temple, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury, gave the official sermon at the Oxford meeting, where he argued that God’s activities are discerned throughout the laws of nature, not in gaps of current knowledge. He espoused such positive views throughout his later occupation of the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.

Aubrey Moore argued that, “There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labour between God and nature, or God and law…For the Christian theologian the facts of nature are the acts of God.” Very modern sounding thoughts from a contemporary of Darwin.

Darwinism was not only accepted, it also brought benefits for some theologians. For Kingsley evolution brought greater nobility and a wider view of God. Moore Expressed the view that Darwin had done a service to Christianity by expelling a false deity, a semi-deistic travesty.

There was of course some opposition. A minority clung to ‘Scriptural’ ideas or Paley’s arguments, though the biggest faith opposition came from the refusal to accept that humans had evolved from ‘lesser forms’. The majority of Christian rejection was scientific, with many rejecting natural selection and favouring instead mechanisms like inherent drive (it was not until the mid 20th century that natural selection was finally favoured by the majority).

Ironically, Huxley rejected natural selection, as he believed it gave too much weight to random chance, which would give way to a deity; random chance is now one of the arguments used by creationists against theistic evolution!

The ‘war’ between science and religion at the time was very different to popular perception. During the 19th century the province of discovery of the natural world belonged to clergy members. These were being replaced by professional scientists – and that is where the tensions were. It was about power, not uncomfortable facts.

The American Response

America (second only to Turkey by percentage) is the home of modern dissent to Darwin’s theories. It may be surprising that the response to Darwin by American Christians was positive, even more so that it was mainly Christian scientists who spread the theory.

Darwin communicated with Asa Gray frequently, often debating and discussing evolution and design. In Darwin’s theories Asa Grey found comfort in the idea that life was interconnected and evolution’s explanations of the existence of pain as necessary for the evolution of human beings. James McCosh and Alexander Winchell were both prominent scientists and devout Christians who promoted the theories professionally.

George Wright, a theologian and geologist, believed, “that Darwin’s work actually allies itself with the Reformed faith in discouraging romantic, sentimental, and optimistic interpretations of nature.” James Dana, another Christian geologist, commented, “it is not atheism to believe in a development theory, if it be admitted at the same time that Nature exists by the will and continued act of God.”

According to the American historian George Marsden, “with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s.” The British historian James Moore concurs, “with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution.”

These days fundamentalism is synonymous with evolution denial; unlike the early fundamentalists who had a range of beliefs. The term ‘fundamentalism’ with regards to Christianity is derived from a series of publications between 1912 and 1917 titled ‘the Fundamentals’, designed to counteract liberal theology. Some, such as Dyson Hague, opposed evolution, however, many accepted it. George Wright was a contributor and the influential Benjamin Warfield called himself a “Darwinian of the purest water.”

James Orr insisted that Genesis was not a scientific text and argued that “evolution is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’, only that the creative power now works from within, instead of, as in the old conception, in an external, plastic fashion.”


It was not until the 1920s that Christian opposition began to build up in America, albeit from old earth creationists at first. It grew from political ideals, not science, as evolution had been abused to fit every ‘ism’ imaginable. This gave rise to YEC views in the ‘60s which continue to be believed by large amounts of Christians. Bizarrely YEC views are anti-science yet influenced by the idea that science is the most reliable source of knowledge; therefore they believe that theology and Genesis are more reliable if considered scientific.

Perhaps they should keep in mind the words of the Oxford historian of religion, J Estlin Carpenter, “Theories [about the Bible] once ardently cherished have been overthrown. Conceptions that had exerted immense influence for centuries, can no longer be maintained. On the other hand, the true value of the Bible has been enhanced. We have ceased to ask of it what it cannot five us; we cherish all the more highly what it can.”


Modern views would have us believe that the default position for Christians in face of evolution was and should be young earth creation, a view which is clearly false. Just as the Christian contemporaries of Darwin reacted admirably, so should we. Darwinism should be embraced now more than ever, as the evidence is far more powerful and convincing.

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