When I was hired back in 2003 at a Christian high school in Arkansas, I was hired to teach mostly English, but also one class in “Worldview.” Specifically, I was to teach Senior Worldview—a class that looked at the major thinkers of the modern world. There was a unit on Karl Marx and a unit on Sigmund Freud. In my last post, I talked about Marx, and eventually I’ll write about Freud—both men, I believe have contributed greatly to the disintegration of the traditional Christian worldview in the modern world.
A third major figure from the 19th century that often gets lambasted for destroying the Christian worldview is Charles Darwin—the politics of Marx, the psychology of Freud, and the science of Darwin: all three have sounded the death knoll of Christianity in the modern world…at least that is what your typical Worldview class in many Evangelical Christian schools teach.
Speaking as someone who ended up teaching Worldview at Evangelical Christian schools for 12 years, I can say that Marx and Freud certainly are pretty bad, and deserve a lot of criticism. Darwin, though, has gotten a bad rap.
I’m going to devote a couple of posts to Darwin because (a) he really is important, and (b) he really has been misunderstood. The fact is, the creation/evolution debate isn’t going away anytime soon. So even if you don’t care specifically about it, you have to realize another fact: the creation/evolution debate really isn’t about science; the reason it’s a debate is because people are arguing religion and philosophy with it—that’s why it’s so controversial and often so confusing. And so, I’m going to do my best to bring come clarity regarding just who Charles Darwin was and why he is important to understand.
Let’s Meet Charles Darwin
It was in the 19th century that Charles Darwin (1809-1892) lived and made his contribution to history in the form of his theory of evolution. Now, unlike Marx (and later Freud), Darwin’s theory actually was scientific—it addressed biological questions in the natural world. Despite all the bluster of the misguided “creation vs. evolution debate” of the past century, it must be said up front that Darwin’s theory of evolution was a scientific theory, and not a philosophical worldview.
Now, it is true, Darwin’s theory certainly has had tremendous philosophical and theological ramifications—every scientific discovery impels human beings to rethink and adapt their philosophical and theological assumptions. Indeed, Darwin’s scientific theory is still challenging a tremendous amount of philosophical/theological contemplation regarding nature itself, not to mention God and human beings. But we must be clear: Darwin’s theory of evolution is a mere biological/scientific theory, and not some sort of atheistic/philosophical worldview that attempts to attack Christianity.
Despite the amount of ink, both from atheists and biblical literalists alike, that has been spilled on the theory of evolution—indeed, more probably, because of the amount of ink that has been spilled—most of the populace is utterly ignorant of precisely what Darwin’s theory entailed, and what his philosophical/theological worldview really was. So the best place to start is to give a brief explanation of what Darwin’s theory actually says.
By the time Darwin boarded The Beagle in 1831 to spend the next six years of his life travelling the world (until 1836), people had already begun to speculate on issues like the age of the earth and the development of all life in the natural world. In fact, many of the leading geologists and biologists of the day were, in fact, clergymen. Nevertheless, the influence of 18th century deism still held considerable sway. Deism was the idea that although there was a Creator God, that he had created the universe—in particular, the earth—to run according to unchangeable natural laws, much like a watchmaker makes a watch. Therefore, since “natural laws” governed the workings of the universe, God himself had no direct relationship with the natural world, not any more than a watchmaker would have to “intervene” with his watch to keep it running—it just would run.
Now the idea that the universe is governed by observable, rational, laws of nature was nothing new. In fact, the early scientists of the High Catholic Age (although they would call themselves “natural philosophers”) based their scientific undertakings on this very assumption: that God was a rational and orderly God who created a natural universe to run according to rational and orderly laws. And because of that, it was possible for human beings, being created in God’s image, to use their own rational faculties to observe the natural world that God created and to understand it, for the purpose of fulfilling the biblical mandate to have dominion over and to care for God’s creation. Simply put, the philosophical presupposition that there was a rational and orderly Creator God led the early scientists to investigate God’s creation.
The Enlightenment and William Paley
During the so-called Enlightenment, though, secular thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau took the Christian conviction of a Creator God who created a rational and orderly universe and—no surprise—secularized it. They accepted the concept of “God” in a general—in fact, pantheistic—sense by equating “him” with the laws of nature itself. The result was deism, and the belief that the universe was nothing more than just a giant machine, running according to the laws of nature—a personal “God” was not needed; the universe could run all by itself, thank you very much!
The philosophical worldview of the universe as nothing but a giant machine, though, prompted some Christian apologists like William Paley (1743-1805) to argue that the precision by which the universe ran was in and of itself a rational argument for God. Simply put, Paley was one of the first people to advocate the “intelligent design” argument. Very well then…the orderliness of nature point to the probability of a “Designer God.” But in reality, this idea was nothing new—the Bible itself says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
But it must be pointed out that Paley’s underlying assumption, though, was in fact one put forth by so-called Enlightenment thinkers: namely that the natural world was a machine. Such a view, given the time period, should not be surprising. The industrial revolution was radically changing, not only economics, but also men’s philosophical categories. Simply put, before the industrial revolution, no one would have put forth the categorical concept of the natural world as a machine.
It’s one thing to point to the orderliness of the natural world as an indication that it was created by a rational God; it’s quite another to (in fact) reduce the natural world to being solely mechanistic. Such a worldview reduces not only nature, but also God, for it reduces God to…nothing more than a cosmic watchmaker; one who cannot have any personal relationship with his creation, any more than a watchmaker can have a relationship with his watch.
All this goes to say that this was the over-arching view of nature and God in the early 19th century. What Charles Darwin theorized—somewhat metaphorically—amounted to throwing a giant monkey-wrench into the philosophical idea of the “cosmic machine” (although at the time, it was thought to actually verify it). At the same time, his theory of evolution also provided the rationale for the later dark and twisted ideologies of Communist and Nazi regimes alike. Needless to say, Darwin’s theory of evolution opened a Pandora’s box of philosophical and theological conundrums that, as of today, still have not been adequately understood and figured out.
Still, the key thing to remember is this: for all the philosophical and theological ramifications Darwin’s theory evoked, the theory itself is not philosophy or theology; it is a biological theory, limited to the workings of the natural world.
Darwin’s Actual Theory
After years of study and research, in his ground-breaking work, The Origen of Species, Charles Darwin put forth the biological theory that the variety of species and life forms in the world have come about through a long, slow process of natural selection. Now, “Nature” is not some being that “chooses” and “selects,” but rather what Darwin what suggesting was that somehow organisms adapt to their environments, and given enough time, they can change so much that they end up “evolving” (i.e. adapting) to become entirely different species.
At the time, given the cultural climate of the industrial revolution, Darwin’s theory was couched in the mechanistic terms: namely, “natural selection” provided the mechanism for adaptation and evolution into the variety of species in the world today. Therefore (given the cultural influence of the deism of the time), some began to claim that Darwin’s theory “proved” that there was no need for a God in creation: natural selection was the industrial-like mechanism that did it all!
As the Anglican priest and scientist John Polkinghorne has stated: “Charles Darwin…presented us with natural selection as a patient process by which such marvels of ‘design’ could come about, without the intervening purpose of a Designer being at work to bring them into being. At a stroke, one of the most powerful and seemingly convincing arguments for belief in God had been found to be fatally flawed” (Christianity on Trial, Vincent Carroll, 78).
But is that really true? Did Darwin’s theory provide a “natural mechanism” that, by nature (oh the irony!), ruled out the need for God? The answer is a simple, “No.” We must be clear, the “god” that Darwin debunked was not the Creator God of the Bible; it was the distant watchmaker of 18th century Deism; and ironically, the “intelligent designer god” of William Paley.
What the Bible Says…
Any common sense reading of the Bible, and any competent understanding of Church history, should make it quite clear that the Bible does not give a detailed, ‘nuts and bolts’ description of the way in which God created—indeed, creates—the natural world. It simply isn’t there, not in the pages of Scripture, and never dogmatized in Church history. The Bible tells us essentially two things about God and his relationship to the natural world (and to us as human beings as well): (1) God created everything, and (2) God is a personal being who is intimately involved with his creation.
The Bible does not tell us how He created—unless, of course, you happen to fall into the camp of young earth creationism. That being said, it must be stated at present that the current form of the “creation/evolution debate—namely, that of young earth creationism vs. Richard Dawkins’ brand of “new atheism” couched in scientific garb—was not the form of the 19th century debate.
The basic point here is that Darwin’s theory was never an attack on the biblical God of Christianity. It was a scientific/biological theory regarding species, and the varieties of life we observe in the natural world. When it was invoked within philosophical/theological debates, two things must be stated clearly:
(1) Darwin’s theory was still being couched in deistic terms (i.e. mechanism; natural selection), and therefore was still being discussed and debated from a presuppositional worldview of 18th-19th century deism—and that has created problems and had muddied the waters up to today; and
(2) the “god” that Darwin’s theory rendered irrelevant was the “god” of deism, not of Christianity.
Unfortunately, because of the influence of deism, so-called Enlightenment philosophy, and the industrial revolution, 19th century Christianity had come be described with largely deistic/mechanistic terminology, and this caused much confusion. For all his good intentions, William Paley’s “intelligent designer” argument for God was nothing more than an apologetic for a Christian-sounding deistic watchmaker God. Darwin’s theory threatened Paley’s arguments, for sure; but Paley was arguing for a deistic god, although he thought he was arguing for the God of the Bible. The failure to realize this has been the source of much confusion regarding Darwin’s theory, the biblical God, and the natural world, ever since.
In my next post, I will continue to look at the effects of Darwin’s theory.