April 1, 2010

The Descent of Darwin: Evolution in Religious Worldviews

The historical context of Darwinian theory

Examination of the origins of The Origin of Species demonstrates that evolutionary theory is neither original to Darwin, nor primarily the product of scientific observations. Darwin sought reasons to reject the scriptural doctrines of God and creation, and found them in Enlightenment deism. Ultimately, evolution is a thoroughly religious worldview.

What is Religion?

Paul Tillich has provided a definition of religion as good as any:

Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life.[i]

To understand the claim of Christianity in the contemporary world in context, one has to recognize the inescapably religious character of all human thought.  The Bible sees religion as taking two fundamental forms: the worship of the uncreated, infinite personal triune God; and replacement of the true God with a substitute non-dependent reality on which all that is not ‘god’ (“divine per se”) depends.  No one, on this basis, can escape religious pre-commitments.  Consequently, whatever has unconditionally non-dependent status in a worldview (energy, matter, the universe, chaos) becomes that philosophy’s concept of the divine – its god.

The Spirit of the Age

Despite its modern scientific veneer, the ancient doctrine of naturalistic evolution is inescapably religious in character, and is best described as a cultural myth. Since Darwin, the great ideas of our current culture can be summarized in two words: nature and liberty.  But how can a naturalistic, deterministic view of nature coincide with human freedom?  The evolutionary mythology smuggles in the concept of ‘progress’ to try and solve this problem.

Evolution as Religion

Metaphysically, evolutionism is a revolt against the sovereignty of God, His predestinating will and purpose and providential governance of all things.  Darwin so captured the spirit of the times that George Bernard Shaw said “the world jumped at Darwin.”  A new decree, one found in nature itself, without the restrictions of the God of Scripture, could be a replacement god!  A new teleology, a new vision of progress was bubbling away in nineteenth-century Europe.  And with this vision of progress, a new definition of ‘liberty’ was granted to humanity as the custodians of their own future

Ideological Origins of Evolution

Darwin was certainly not original in advancing a naturalistic explanation for life.  Rather, he served as the catalyst for a revival of ancient paganism at a timely moment in Western history. Darwin was critically shaped by the thinking of his time.  Of particular formative influence was the faith of the French philosophes of the previous century.  These men embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment, turning to a Greek conception of a “first cause” – not the God of the Bible, but a principle of rationality and natural law that operated independently of the Creator, who had long since withdrawn from creation.       

Evolutionary Theory before Darwin

Even the specifics of Darwin’s theory were articulated by others before him, such as William C. Wells, a Scottish scientist, and Patrick Mathew, a Scottish botanist (published in 1813 and 1831 respectively).  Charles’ grandfather Erasmus was also a prominent scientific figure and an advocate of evolutionary ideas that included natural selection, which he expressed in his widely-read Zoonomia, published 65 years before The Origin of Species.

Darwin’s own contribution to the foundational ideas of evolution, and their particular outworking, was in offering observations from his travels and suggesting that natural selection played both a negative role (the culling of mutated organisms) and a positive, creative role in bridging the gap between all of life, plant and animal.

Darwin’s Theology

The key to understanding Darwin, however, lies in rational theism, the prevailing doctrine of the church of the time. This enables us to see his doctrine of evolution for what it was – a theodicy (a response to the problem of evil).

From birth, Darwin had been exposed to a doctrine of God who was distant from creation and had set mechanistic laws in motion for the governance of the world.  Darwin’s dilemma was that the problem of morality seems to require a divine presence, but the problem of natural evil (imperfections, cancers, earthquakes and so forth) seems to need divine absence.  This is critical to understanding the modern effort to harmonize Christian theism and evolution and the inherent tension produced within this system of warring concepts.

Foundational Errors

As he looked at the rationalistic conception of God of the Victorian age and measured it against the observations of his own studies, he could not reconcile them.  However, his theory of evolution was a product of his faulty conception of God and was therefore a negative theological argument.  His false doctrine of God gave rise to a false theory in the natural sciences.  Having embraced the argument from intellectual necessity (that is, an unbroken continuity of natural causes) the foundation had been laid for Darwin to develop a theodicy, thereby distancing God from the imperfection, cruelty and evil in the world.

Like Milton, and Leibniz before him, Darwin was using a theological argument to absolve God of wrongdoing.


Thus, Darwin’s view of God was more akin to that of the Greeks – an impersonal principle or force.  He even later regretted reference to a creator in the Origin of Species, writing, ‘I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of ‘created’, by which I really meant appeared but by some wholly unknown process.’[ii]

Efforts to harmonize evolution and creation have as their goal a desire to reduce divine creation ex-nihilo to process, making it amenable to the reductionist ‘science’ of autonomous man.  But if this world is the creation of God, act takes priority over process (just like the miracles of Jesus Christ) and the eternal sovereign decree of God takes priority over the inner workings of nature – determination is from eternity and not nature and time.


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “The Descent of Darwin,” in the Spring 2010 issue of Jubilee.


[i] Paul Tillich, cited in, James C. Livingston, Anantomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, Fourth Edition (Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001), p. 5.

[ii] Herbert, Charles Darwin’s Religious Views, p. 116.

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