Today marks the anniversary of an iconic book’s publication: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, first released in 1859. The day has long been remembered (known to some as Evolution Day), and lamented by some religious believers. But is Darwin’s culture-shifting theory still controversial?
By Joseph Hartropp | Christian Today
Darwin’s work is considered to be the foundational document for modern understandings of evolutionary biology – although scientific consensus has progressed and in some ways deviated from some of his ideas. At its heart it has come to represent the idea that humankind was not ‚created‘ in its current form but as a species has evolved over a process of millennia, descending from apes and developing through natural selection.
It has been characterised as a cornerstone of secular, naturalistic materialism – since it supposedly pushed God and the Bible’s account of creation out of the picture. It certainly did spark a new antagonism between science and religion, promoting a popular caricature between reasonable science and irrational faith. Was our world the work of an intelligent designer, or just the result of indifferent evolutionary processes?
It’s worth noting that Darwin himself intended no such fight: he believed in God, and though he admitted his theology was ‚a muddle‘ – his main struggle with Christianity was not about how humankind came to be, but the existence of pain today. Although his theory certainly challenged prevailing paradigms, and presents a puzzle for theologians trying to understand our origins – Darwin didn’t see his work as a ‚God-killer‘.
But a century and a half later, what is to be made of On The Origin of Species? Among mainstream Christians today, evolutionary theory isn’t that controversial. That is largely because, contrary to popular caricature, science isn’t the enemy of faith. Darwin himself had an American friend, Asa Gray who believed evolution and Christianity to be perfectly compatible.
It’s easy to imagine Christians just retooling their theology in the wake of Darwin to, for example, be a little more relaxed about interpreting the six-day Genesis account of creation. But thinkers as early as fourth-century theologian Augustine understood Scripture to be complex, and warned against taking literally what wasn’t intended as such.