Science, Religion, and Evolution


Evolution is one of the most controversial concepts for teachers to teach. The source of opposition to evolution primarily comes from a perception that acceptance of evolution is somehow incompatible with religion. In this paper, I shall discuss the sometimes bumpy relationships between science, religion, and evolution, and what this history means for teachers. First, however, I will define the critical terms evolution, science, and religion.



The broad definition of evolution is “change through time.” Not all change through time, however, is evolutionary; the water cycle, the rotation of the earth around the sun, the metamorphosis of insects and other invertebrates likewise involve change through time, but these should not be confused with “evolution.” Evolution must refer to a specific kind of change -- cumulative change through time. As such, we can talk about the evolution of a white dwarf to a supernova, or of the stars in a galaxy from gas clouds, or of the evolution of land forms on Earth. In all of these cases, there is a change through time, but a cumulative one, differentiated from the cyclical or fluctuating changes that are characteristic of other changes through time.
Biological evolution is a subset of this larger cumulative change through time. By biological evolution, we mean cumulative changes in groups of living things through time. It is the concept that living things have diverged in form from common ancestors. Darwin called this “descent with modification.” Biological evolution is a genealogical relationship among species which in the past shared common ancestors.
In this paper, when I use the term evolution, I will be speaking about the concept of shared ancestry of living things, of descent with modification. Unlike critics of evolution, I do not define evolution as a world view, or philosophical system, because to me, evolution is a science. So let me define how I will use science in this paper.



Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. As practiced in the 20th and likely in the 21st centuries, science restricts itself to explaining the natural world using natural causes. This restriction of evolution to explanation through natural cause is referred to as “methodological materialism”, materialism in this context referring to matter, energy, and their interaction. Methodological materialism is one of the main differences between science and religion (Scott, 1995). Religion may use natural explanations for worldly phenomena, but reserves the right to explain through divine intervention; science has no such option. Whether or not miracles occur, they cannot be part of a scientific explanation.
Most scientists don’t dwell much on philosophy of science; they restrict themselves to explanation through natural cause because it works. The evangelical theologian Alvin Plantinga has said that “Ascribing something to the direct action of God tends to cut off further inquiry”, i.e., it’s a “science stopper” (Plantinga 1997). By continuing to seek a natural explanation, scientists are more likely to find one. There also are philosophical reasons for restricting science to methodological materialism, having to do with the nature of science itself. (Scott, 1998). If science requires testing explanations against the natural world, and testing requires some ability to hold constant some variables, then divine intervention can never be part of science. If there is an omnipotent power in the universe, as religious people believe, then science is powerless to hold constant (control) its influence. As the old saw goes: “you can’t put God in a test tube.” In doing science, one has to proceed as if there were no supernatural interference in the operations of nature. This has worked remarkably well, resulting in an ever-expanding amount of knowledge of how the universe works.
Some individuals, impressed with the power of science in expanding human understanding and awareness of the universe, have derived from science a nontheistic philosophy based on science, known as philosophical materialism or scientism. This is the idea that there is nothing in the universe beyond matter, energy, and their interactions. Philosophical materialism postulates that there are no gods, no supernatural, no mystical powers -- nothing but matter and energy. To explain the natural world, material causes are sufficient because there is nothing else in the universe. Philosophical materialism should not be confused with methodological materialism, which is a practical rule for how to do science. In this paper, I will be speaking of science as an epistemology, not as a philosophy. Science is a way of understanding the natural world, using natural forces and processes. Period.



Of the three key concepts in this paper, religion is the one that is the most difficult to define. Although 86% of Americans are Christians (Kosman and Lachman, 1993), religious pluralism is on the rise in the United States and Canada, and it is not uncommon for teachers to have students from many religious traditions. Statistics show almost as many devotees of Islam as there are Episcopalians, and migration from East and Southeast Asia has increased the number of Buddhist and Confucian students. Native American students also may have religious views different from those of the majority -- and there are many, many different Native American versions of creation.
What all religions have in common is a concept or belief in something beyond the material world, an Ultimate, or Absolute, beyond the mundane. A sense of sacredness, awe, or mystery is common to those beliefs and practices deemed religious , and almost universal is the notion of spiritual (rather than corporeal) beings that have special powers: gods, witches, powerful spirits, and the like. Most, though not all religions, include the concept of life after death, and most include a component of worship. Intermediaries (priests, shamans) between people and the spiritual world are often very powerful and authoritative. Commonly there are special places for worship (temples, churches, holy sites) that are set apart from other sites (Stevens, 1996).
How believers in a particular religion conceive of the Ultimate varies enormously, from views similar to the Christian personal God to the considerably more diffuse Hindu conception of Brahman, a generalized “spirit behind, beneath, and beyond the world of matter and energy” (Raman, 1998-99:6). Even within Christianity, the concept of God varies widely from an anthropomorphic figure such as Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel creator God to a generalized force undergirding the universe that, although a source of awe, is neither personalized nor supplicated.
Table 1 compares science, religion, and philosophical materialism against a number of categories relevant to religion. The two philosophies, religion and philosophical materialism, contrast sharply, having little in common. However, science as a way of knowing about the natural world, restricted to explanation through natural processes, is neutral, not hostile toward religion. The primary interests and goals of science and religion are quite different. Science is restricted to using methodological materialism to understand and explain the natural world, whereas religion is concerned with the relationship of human beings to supernatural powers.



Anthropologists studying both tribal and world religions conclude that most religions include at least some explanations of natural phenomena. Sickness, death, meteorological phenomena such as rain or tornados, the existence and location of mountains and other land-forms, earthquakes, volcanos, the passage of seasons and the positions of the sun, stars and planets frequently have religiously-based explanations. In fact, for most people living in tribal, non-industrialsettings, there is not the division between the natural world and the spiritual world that we find in western culture: the two realms are blended. Because the creation and evolution controversy in North America is predominantly a concern of Christians, my discussions of religion hereafter will refer to Christianity, unless otherwise indicated.
The Bible provides some explanations for the natural world. According to a literal interpretation of Genesis, God created the universe all at one time and gave humans dominion over it. Death is the result of human sin, and in the Bible God sends sickness and plagues. There are statements of factual error in the Bible, such as in the discussion of the dietary laws of the Jews in Leviticus. Hares are falsely claimed to chew the cud in Leviticus 11:6, and bats are described as “fowl” in 11:19, and so on. The Bible contains explanations for heredity quite at variance with those of Mendel, proclaiming in Genesis 30:35-43 that peeled sticks placed in water troughs will cause goats and cattle to produce offspring with spotted coats. In this as in many other observations, the Bible presents inaccurate explanations of the natural world — but to most Christians today, its value lies as a religious guide, not as a science textbook.

Explanation of Natural ProcessesReligionSciencePhilosphical Materialism
a)logic and empirical evidenceincludedmain focusmain focus
c) mystical/personal states of beingyesnono
d) supernatural powers intervene in natural worldmostno opinion
(cannot use as explanation)
Belief in existence of non-material (supernatural) worldyesno opinionrejects
Belief in Supernatural Beings (Gods, powers)yesno opinionrejects
Afterlifemostno opinionno
Concern with ethical, moral issues, evilcommonno opinionyes
Sense of awe, mystery, sacredyesno opinionyes, from natural phenomea

Table 1: A Comparison of Religion, Science and Philosphical Materialism

In the early centuries of the Catholic church’s existence, Augustine (354 - 430 AD) admonished Catholics not to “talk nonsense”, i.e., accept statements in the Bible about natural phenomena as true when they contradict “reason and experience”. When Scripture is contradicted by empirical evidence, it is the duty of a Christian to scrupulously examine the argument, and if it cannot be refuted, then to accept it. Augustine was concerned that potential converts would not accept the spiritual message of Christianity if the Scriptures were found to be in error on empirical matters:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, while presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. ... If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about the Scriptures, how then are they going to believe those Scriptures in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven? How indeed, when they think that their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (Taylor, 1983)

Modern science grew out of the Enlightenment, though it was based on earlier Greek ideas of materialist explanation. Paralleling the history of religion, the history of science in Europe reflects a tug-of-war over whether revelation or empiricism should be used to understand the natural world. Early scientists were content to see both natural law and Divine intervention at work. Newton, writingin the mid-17th century, that God caused all things, but He worked through natural law. This was important for religious reasons, as documented by Murphy:

It is ironic, perhaps, that Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, two of the scientists who led the move to exclude all natural theology from science... did so for theological reasons. Their Calvinist doctrine of God’s transcendence led them to make a radical distinction between God the Creator and the operation of the created universe, and hence to seek to protect theology from contamination by science. The metaphysical mixing of science and religion, Boyle and Newton believed, corrupted true religion (Murphy, 1993:33).

Nonetheless, Newton’s calculations of the orbits of the planets suggested that there was a need for occasional divine adjusting of orbits. Theologically, this was not very satisfactory, as it suggested that God didn’t (or couldn’t?) get it right the first time, and from time to time had to tinker with His creation. Later, when La Place was able to show that the planets could remain in their orbits without such tweaking, that natural law was sufficient, many theologians considered this not to be a blow against the Glory of God, but rather praise that God had designed things so well.
God was seen by these devout scientists (and virtually all 17th and 18th century European scientists were Christians) to be the Ultimate cause of everything, but not necessarily the proximate cause. “Let there be light” did not require God to personally break light apart into rainbows. The growth of Deism, the theological doctrine of a more distant, less hands-on (if more majestic) God, is correlated with the growth of science in the 18th century.
History shows that Christianity gradually ceased trying to explain the natural world through the direct hand of God largely because science was so successful at it. There were theological reasons as well. If God's wishes are offered as proximate explanations for events, then as science explains more and more, God is diminished. Theologians call this the "God of the Gaps" problem, where God is plugged into ever-narrowing gaps of knowledge that science has not yet explained. If sound waves cause thunder, and evaporation and condensation cause rain, there is less for God to do. Christianity's solution was to withdraw from the business of explaining nature, thus avoiding a major arena of potential conflict between science and religion.
By the mid 19th century, Darwin’s proposal that living things shared common ancestors indeed contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible, but yet was not especially shocking. It was well-established among men of letters that the Earth was old, and the succession of fossils (to say nothing of anatomical similarities among living forms) certainly cried out for the inference of a genealogical relationship among species. The large amount of information Darwin marshalled for the idea of evolution was in fact accepted without much fuss. A bigger stumbling block was Darwin’s other claim that he had found a purely natural mechanism to explain descent with modification, a process he called “natural selection.” Evolution, like rainbows, did not require the direct hand of God. It could occur through natural law.
Natural selection was a way to explain design in nature -- the observation that structures and organisms were “fitted” to their environments -- without recourse to Special Creation. The streamlined shape of a fish need not be the result of a direct creative act; it and the equally streamlined shape of a sea mammal could be the result of a natural selection of traits that made creatures with that shape more likely to survive and reproduce in an aquatic medium. Darwinian natural selection overthrew the old Aristotelian doctrine of teleology, or design according to a previously specified outcome, which had been incorporated into Christian Special Creationism, the view that God created everything in essentially its present form, all at one time (Durant, 1987). Darwin’s materialist mechanism to explain design was the theologically most difficult part of The Origin of Species, not the argument that evolution had taken place (Bowler, 1989).
Some Christian scholars such as Charles Kingsley, Asa Gray, and Aubrey Moore accepted both evolution and natural selection with enthusiasm. Moore stated that Darwinism was “infinitely more Christian than the theory of special creation” because it implied “the immanence of God in nature, and the omnipresence of his creative power.” (Moore, 1889). There were rejections, to be sure, but the majority of both British and American intellectuals were able to make the final theological step to accepting both evolution and Darwinism (Numbers, 1998).

Within twenty years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, nearly every naturalist of repute in North America had embraced some theory of organic evolution. The situation in Great Britain looked equally bleak for creationists, and on both sides of the Atlantic liberal churchmen were beginning to follow their scientific colleagues into the evolutionist camp. Although the majority of Bible-believing Christians undoubtedly remained true to the idea of a specially created world, evolution was infiltrating even the ranks of evangelicals by the closing years of the nineteenth century. (Numbers, 1992:3)

If everything got here by evolution rather than through Special Creation, then theology itself would have to change. In Britain:

In the 1920's modernists such as Charles Raven and E.W. Barnes insisted that the church must take evolutionism more seriously by rethinking the doctrines of the Fall and the Atonement. If humans evolved from apes,there was no original state of grace and the concept of Original Sin must be reinterpreted. (Bowler, 1999:39)

The exception to this accommodation arose from conservative American Protestants during the second decade of the 20th century. The theological position called “fundamentalism” was — and is — a back to basics approach to Christianity stressing the authority of the Bible. Although the Twelve Fundamentals, the defining documents of fundamentalism, were not strongly antievolutionary, over the years the movement took on a more biblical literalist cast, and evolution became seen as contrary to the Bible. Biblical literalism still underlies a part of the conservative Christian movement today, and provides a substantive theological foundation for the rejection of evolution for many Americans.
Many if not most Americans think of the creation and evolution controversy as a dichotomy with “creationists” on one side, and “evolutionists” on the other. Along with this assumption comes the unfortunate conclusion that because creationists are believers in God, that evolutionists must be atheists. The true situation is much more complicated. I like to encourage teachers and others to reject the creation/evolution dichotomy and recognize the creation/evolution continuum. What is clear is that creationism comes in many forms. If a student tells a teacher, “I’m a creationist”, the teacher needs to ask, “What kind?”
(click preview to display image in new window)(click preview to display image in new window) Figure 1 presents a continuum between creationism at one end and evolution at the other.
I will begin with the strictest creationists, the Flat Earthers.