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The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?

I have presented a quick sweep of the challenges that can be placed before theology when the case for special providence is considered to have been seriously weakened by evolutionary theory. While simplistic, I believe they are defensible thumbnail sketches of arguments that could be developed further. Special providence is an embattled notion and this has real implications for theology.

However, were sufficient space allocated to a discussion of each of the challenges, it could also be shown that stressing the link between evolutionary theory and each challenge is often a very inadequate first approximation of the issues involved. In many cases the challenges come from multiple sources, some of which substantially predate Darwin’s theory.

For example, writing twenty-five years before the publication of William Paley’s Natural Theology David Hume had provided full-bore critiques of both the argument from design and miracles.Most notably in David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (London: Penguin, 1990). By the time Darwin published the Origin the great age of the Earth had been established through geological findings and largely accepted. It is simply incorrect to characterise all pre-Darwin believers as committed to a purely literal-historical reading of the Genesis creation account and so ill-prepared for his subsequent refutation of scriptural truth. Serious challenges to the authority of scripture were already in discussion in the form of higher criticism, principally from Germany, although critical reflection on the interpretation of scripture dates back to Augustine and beyond.

The challenges are real, but it is not appropriate to tie them all to evolution in retrospect. Bertrand Russell famously challenged the claim that humans are the central purpose of Creation. From an evolutionary point of view, humans appear to be far from central. In fact, they are a very late addition. Why would God wait so long to get around to the main task, Russell had asked?William Buckland’s rather clever response was that the Earth was being prepared for our arrival; coal and other resources were being deposited where we might access them easily when needed. Note, however, this critique does not flow from Darwin’s work, but from prior geological findings. This type of critique was in turn a restatement of the challenge to human status posed three hundred years prior when a geocentric cosmology had been questioned and rejected.

Speculation on extra-terrestrial life can be traced back to antiquity and to Giordano Bruno’s proposal in the sixteenth century that other stars had planets with their own inhabitants. This, of course, prompted heated debate within the church, and an equally fiery end for Bruno. Even the suggestion that the features of our world are ultimately due to chance can be traced back to the Greek Atomists; materialism and determinism were very much ‘live’ philosophical options before Darwin, and they were potentially no friend to Christianity. It should also be noted that forms of evolutionary thinking predate Darwin, most notably in the writings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), and Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In short, Dawkins overstates the case; it was quite possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist before Darwin.

Having set the scene and shown a little of the complexity behind the issues, I shall next review the current state of the evolutionary sciences, attempting to represent them independent of any philosophical or theological inferences. Once this appraisal is in place, the question ‘Does evolution do the work of a friend for the Christian religion?’ can be better assessed.

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The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to human uniqueness and status?
A challenge to purpose in creation?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?
A challenge to Christian morality?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Holmes Rolston III
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix