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Larson&Ruse Chapter 5--Darwinism and Belief

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, November 27, 2017

Ruse devotes this chapter to the philosophical background and perspectives of Darwinism and religion in general. He finds it noteworthy that Darwinism, by which he simply means Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, arose out of Western culture, springing up from a Jewish or Christian view of life rather than from a non-Western culture. He suggests three big questions that Christianity and Judaism (and Islam as well though it did not tie into the origin of Darwinism as much) try to answer.


1.      “Where did everything come from?” Ancient Greek philosophers didn’t ask that. Matter just is and there’s no point in asking about origins. “The ancient Hebrew people did think in terms of origins and beginnings, and Christians followed them in doing so. This is what Genesis is all about. God made the world and set it in motion. That is the answer to where things came from ‘in the beginning.’ Believers needed to know that is true. It is central to their theology.”

2.      “What kind of world do people live in?” This is not a question that everyone asks but most people have some degree of curiosity about the world we live in. “…ancient Babylonians typically saw it as a dreadful place dominated by gods who were at best indifferent to humans and at worst malicious.” (p. 139) Others see a wonderful world, cleverly put together. “It was Plato who drew the inference that such a beautifully functioning world could not be pure chance, there must be an intelligence (aka God) that lies behind it. Aristotle was more biologically minded than Plato. It was he who saw that it is in the living world of plants and animals than one really finds this intricate functioning, this designlike nature, which seems to be more than just random chance…And it is here that Christian theologian-philosophers, from Thomas Aquinas to William Paley, stepped in to make sense of it all. To them, the world does seem like it is designed, because it is designed---by an all-powerful, all-loving being---the God of Christianity.”(p. 140)

3.      “Where do humans fit into the scheme of things?” Though it is humans themselves who do the judging, it seems clear that “…humans are way ahead of all other organisms…a consciousness of their own existence and of a sense of morality and mortality far beyond that of any other kind of animal. They are not gods, but…made in the image of God and are given ‘dominion’ over the earth and all its nonhuman inhabitants.”(p. 140-141)


How did this pave the way for evolutionary perspectives? The scientific notions that came from astronomy and geology and paleontology changed the prevailing view of a static universe to one of directional change. As more evidence was obtained, there seemed to be progressive change over time, an idea that was tentatively extended to a new philosophy of progress. “Humans unaided except by their natural or endowed reason can make things better.” (p. 143) The vague idea of evolutionary change began to be more appropriate than stasis.


Evolutionary ideas, capped by Darwin’s seminal 1859 book, provided answers to all three questions, though the similarities were overshadowed by some key differences from the prevailing Christian views. The provocative answers continue to inflame discussions even today.


While the main focus is on the relationship between the major Western theistic religions and evolutionary thought, the question arises about other religions such as Buddhism. Similar to Hinduism and some other Eastern religions, Buddhism has little interest in the three big questions noted above. “Existence is eternal---always was and always will be.” (p. 151). Things just are, with no thing or no one responsible for anything or everything. The Buddhist will explore the nature of the world but that exploration is not about God. The world simply exists as it is. Humans are not the end result of progress but in the middle, above the vilest of beings but below the gods.


The problem of evil is one of the key dilemmas facing Christianity and Darwinism. For a Christian perspective, an all-powerful, all-good Creator is hard to reconcile with the existence of evil. Various scenarios abound but Darwinism exacerbates the issue by making natural evil (i.e. the predator/prey conflict and the struggle for existence in a Malthusian contest) the very engine of progress. Christians generally find some way of reconciling the existence of evil as a necessary aspect of the world that God created, enabling free will and humans capable of loving God.


Similarly, the clash between Providence and progress looms as a gulf between Darwinism and Christianity. The two are not easily reconciled. Yet, it is not an insurmountable difference.


“[I]nstead of being inevitable foes, Darwinism and Christianity might in some respects be compatible---or at least that was what the Christian Darwinist Asa Gray thought and said in his theory of theistic evolution…” (p. 158)

Tags:  Darwinism  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse 

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