I recently watched a PBS documentary called What About God? for my evolutionary biology class. It addresses how modern-day Evangelical Christian students reconcile the apparent conflict between the origin of man as taught in biology class and in Sunday school. Several students and teachers in STEM fields of study, as well as some ecclesiastical leaders, were interviewed and asked about their viewpoints. The responses were varied. Some concluded that the theory of evolution of species is false; some expressed ambivalence and found it difficult to discuss their tentative ideas with their hard-core creationist friends and family. Still others asserted that there is no conflict at all, or that both evolution and creationism are valid hypotheses that should be taught equally. In the end we, the viewers, were left to make our own conclusions.
Since the original publication of Charles Darwin’s* On the Origin of Species in 1859, the theory of evolution has been ruffling religious feathers. Many fear that evolutionary theory contradicts scriptural accounts of the creation of the world and its inhabitants; they also claim that evolution “takes God out of the equation”. The fundamental question stands: can a person be a Bible-loving Christian and espouse Darwinian evolution? In my mind, the answer is—it depends. It depends on one’s definition of Christianity, and on what kind of Christian one chooses to be. Christianity is by no means a single religion with a single set of beliefs. In fact, very few Christians of the exact same sect agree on every point of doctrine. As such, some Christians may very well be evolutionary biologists, while others consider a belief in evolutionary theory a one-way ticket to hell.
If we assume that to be a Christian, one must interpret every word of the Bible literally, then the answer is no. No, a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis is not reconcilable with Darwin’s theory of evolution. One of evolutionary theory’s main points is that change happens gradually over long periods of time. This means that the creation of Adam and Eve would have taken millions of years. If an individual decides to believe that the creation occurred over a period of six Earth days, even that the creation of humans occurred in one twenty-four hour period (as is taught in Genesis), then, to that person, evolutionary theory must be considered absolutely false. However, if there is any room for metaphorical interpretation of the Bible in Christianity, then evolution may be acceptable. One may decide that the term “day” used in the Bible refers to stages of creation, rather than literal twenty-four hour periods. One may even conclude that the Biblical creation story is highly metaphorical, and is simply meant to teach that God is behind all creation. People who align themselves with this view of Christianity can then accept that God may have used evolution as the mechanism of creation, and that the theory of evolution reveals that God is much bigger and better than we could have imagined.
I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I consider myself a Christian, though many others do not because a number of my beliefs (heck, even a few Mormons think I don't belong). I believe that the Bible is the word of God, but is not a scientific document, and does not describe the method of creation. I believe that God has absolute knowledge of natural laws, and that hir** purposes are accomplished through these natural laws. I believe that God is a man and a woman, that God has a body of flesh and bones, that God reveals things to us today. I believe that God is more powerful, wise, and majestic than we can imagine; that all of us, to a degree, try to limit God by defining what God can and cannot do (as one creationist in the documentary ironically exclaimed, “man’s wisdom is foolishness before God”. That logic cuts both ways, my friends). I believe that humans are currently walking the evolutionary path from intelligences, to spirits, to mortal embodied beings, to immortal embodied beings, to gods. And I believe in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many say my beliefs are not concurrent with the definition of Christianity. If that be the case, then perhaps Christianity is not compatible with evolutionary theory. But in my opinion, I am a Christian (specifically a theistic evolutionist), and evolutionary theory enhances my Christian beliefs. Religious convictions are very personal and are unique to every individual. While several Christians in What About God? determined that the theory of evolution is in direct opposition to all religious beliefs, I side with the documentary’s overall theme: that every individual who calls hirself a Christian must assess hir own unique beliefs arrive at hir own conclusions.
*I'm thinking of naming a first-born son Charles Darwin Herrick in homage to the man who synthesized the unifying principle of biology. Also one of my grandfathers is named Charles. Can you imagine the reaction at that baby blessing?
**Hir=the gender-neutral pronoun. I'm giving it a try. It's growing on me, if only because writing "him or her" is cumbersome and going with "their" is grammatically incorrect.