Bishop's Blog

The Tension Between Religion and Science

A little girl asked her mother, “How did the human race appear?” The mother answered, “God made Adam and Eve and they had children and so was all mankind made.”

Two days later the girl asked her father the same question. The father answered, “Many years ago there were monkeys from which the human race evolved.”

The confused girl returned to her mother and said, “Mom, how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God, and Dad said they developed from monkeys?'

The mother answered, “Well, dear, it is very simple. I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his.”

Nevertheless, the bottom line for many people is that evolution remains one of the tensions between religion and science.

In October, 1996, Pope John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a gathering of scientists from all over the world, who were meeting in Rome to discuss the origins of life and evolution. In his remarks to this group, the pope said that new knowledge now "leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis."

Difficulties arise when people in either the areas of faith or science fail to be careful and responsible in their respective statements and claims.

The theory of evolution involves several large claims. Alvin Plantinga, not a scientist but a highly-respected scholar, identifies five distinct claims

  1. There is the claim that this earth is very old, possibly 4.5 billion years old. A huge amount of evidence supports this view.
  2. There is the claim that life has developed from simple to complex forms. Thus, species are not fixed and immutable; we should not think of them as all having been created by God just as they are today. One kind of organism can have descendants that belong to a different kind. Again, there is a lot of convincing evidence to support this claim, especially in the fossil record.
  3. There is the claim that all life on earth shares a common ancestry; all living things, the various kinds of animal and vegetative life, are related to one another by genealogy.
  4. There is the theory, first put forth by Charles Darwin, that the evolution of life from simple to more complex forms is the result of "natural selection." The "selection" takes place as follows. Individuals differ, because of different characteristics inherited from each "parent" as well as because of mutations arising from various sources. Such differences, in particular environments and among particular populations, give some individuals an advantage in the "struggle for existence." Over time, major changes come to prevail in that population.
  5. There is the theory that life itself developed from non-living matter simply as a result of purely natural causes.

The further one moves down this list of claims, the more contentious is the evidence offered in support. What challenges to faith does this scientific picture present?

First, some Christians, including some Catholics, adopt a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. The problem here is a failure to appreciate the literature of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. (cf. GENESIS by Eugene H. May and INSPIRATION AND INERRANCY by Richard F. Smith in The Jerome Biblical Commentary). In brief, the sacred stories are not “history” as we normally use the term, nor is “inspiration” the same thing as “dictation”.

The purpose of those stories in Genesis is to teach religious truths, not science. Pope John Paul II, paraphrasing Galileo, said, "The sacred writings are concerned with how one goes to heaven, not with how the heavens go."

Since the stories in Genesis are about the fact that everything existing owes its origin to God's act of creation, there is no conflict here with scientific attempts to decipher how things as we know them today came about (or how God created all things). To suggest an either-or approach—that we must either accept creation by God or evolution—is incorrect; the two positions are compatible.

Nor is there any need to appeal to something like Intelligent Design Theory (ID) in the effort to show that God has intervened in the evolutionary process at key points to bring about critical innovations.

According to ID theory, very simply expressed, the cell and several of its fundamental components are "irreducibly complex," and could never have come about simply through a process of natural selection. Some people appeal to ID theory in order to support a modified form of creationism, which envisions a series of direct divine interventions in the process of evolution. But there is no need to adopt such a view. God as the Primary Cause of all that happens is quite able to use chance and randomness in accomplishing the divine purpose.

Again, there are people who argue that evolution must be wrong because it involves saying that the higher comes from the lower, e.g. higher animals from simple one-celled organisms, and that this is philosophically impossible. But such people are thinking only of the material involved in evolution. We must keep in mind that there are also natural agents at work in the process, and above all God, the Supreme Agent, is involved.

Imagine a father is about to eat his breakfast. He sees a bouquet of dandelions on the table. If he was a physicist, he might wonder what is the wavelength of the flower's bright yellow. If he was a chemist, he would probably think of the quantity of mineral salts in the plant as a whole. As a biochemist, he would admire the remarkable efficiency of chlorophyll. As a biologist, he would remember the phytohormones responsible for the flowers' blossoming. As an artist, he would appreciate the harmony of colours and the proportions of the forms. But if his six-year-old little girl suddenly came into the room and jumped in his arms, saying,. "Happy birthday, daddy!", the bouquet transforms and becomes imbued with significance. It becomes the sign pure and beautiful love.

Scientists look to the "how" of things. Artists, philosophers and theologians, while not necessarily ignoring the “how,” tend to look to the "why" of things. They work in the realm of meaning. Obviously, these ways of looking at things are not opposite. On the contrary, they complete each other harmoniously, each projecting its ray of light onto beings. And the person who has kept his or her capacity for wonder from childhood is probably more apt to look at things in multiple ways.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs Office Bishop's Religious Education
Related Themes Religious Education Inter-Religious Catholic Teachings

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