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Dispatch 3: Evolution, Evil, and God

Summary of post one in the series: I grew up rather convinced of the Young Earth Creationist position. That position led me to the conviction that any sort of serious Christian faith could not possibly co-exist with a belief in the theory of evolution. There are numerous reasons to doubt that false dichotomy. Summary of post two in the series: Some very brief and basic observations about the Bible and evolutionary theory: it is assumed by many that one cannot “believe” the book of Genesis and “believe” the theory of evolution. But this, too, is a false dichotomy. Believing the theory of evolution and granting some high authority to scripture need not be mutually exclusive, and there are a multiplicity of ways to hold these two things together, two such possibilities noted.

Summary of this post: But I suspect most people, if they are frank, don’t really care about biblical interpretation or careful investigation of scientific data. Why then might people be so fearful of the theory of evolution, and why might less than half the U.S. population believe that humans evolved from earlier species, when to most scientists, such overwhelming data supports the basic tenets of biological evolution?

In Ken Miller’s very helpful book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, he suggests that the roots of this widespread American fear of evolutionary theory can be found in the hostile rhetoric of many evolutionists themselves: that is, they depict evolutionary theory as a philosophical conviction which undercuts our most basic convictions regarding the nature of our existence. More pointedly, many popular evolutionists depict human life as a meaningless, amoral, purposeless existence. (Here I mostly follow Miller’s chapter six.)

The well-known evolutionist Richard Dawkins, as a case in point, insists that the sort of universe which knows materialist evolution

“would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” 

A universe governed by “blind, pitiless indifference” surely stands as a grave threat to even the most basic Christian, Jewish, or Islamic convictions.

Similarly, Miller points to Cornell biologist William Provine as another, perhaps even more blunt and threatening, case in point:

“Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society. . . .  We must conclude that when we die, we die, and that is the end of us. . . .  Finally, free will as it is traditionally conceived—the freedom to make uncoerced and unpredictable choices among alternative courses of action—simply does not exist. . . .  There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make moral choices.”

Now we have finally hit upon a genuine, real dichotomy; it does appear that we must really choose, cannot have it both ways: a universe as depicted by Dawkins and Provine, in which there is no such thing as good and evil, in which everything is reducible to physical forces and genetic replication, in which no real freedom exists or can exist, or a universe as depicted in the most basic Christian theological convictions, that freedom can and does exist, and that such freedom entails responsibility, culpability, and accountability.

It is worth noting—and I shall probably note this at greater length in subsequent posts—that it is this sort of most basic question that was very much at the heart of the great debates ninety years ago that gave rise to the famed Scopes Trial in the summer of 1925, with the showdown on a blazing hot July day between the great orator and politician William Jennings Bryan and the highly sought-after defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Whether one buys or not—and I do not—Bryan’s line of biblical interpretation, it seems quite legitimate that Bryan was altogether disturbed with the possible social consequences of Darrow’s philosophical convictions.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

The year prior to the Scopes Trial, Darrow had served as the defense counsel in the Leopold and Loeb case, a murder trial that was dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” At the time of their crime, Leopold and Loeb were aged 19 and 18, sons of great wealth and privilege and Ivy League opportunity. They had kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy named Bobby Franks. They confessed that they did so for the “pure love of excitement . . . the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different . . . the satisfaction and the ego of putting something over.” Darrow had them plead guilty, and then went to work to keep them from getting a sure death sentence.

His tack? That these boys committed this grotesque thrill killing not out of any (ir)responsible exercise of moral freedom, but because of environmental, psychological and social factors. Their behavior was determined, not chosen.

And within a year, Darrow was down here in Tennessee to make his case for the evolutionists in the trial that would serve as one of the most important cultural signposts in the supposed but nonetheless growing animosity between “science and faith.”

So, is there, in fact, any way to deal with this very real dichotomy?

Alas, I know it is saddens you, but I have reached my blog post word limit. But I shall not leave this question unanswered.

Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?

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