In earlier BLOG entries I gave a history of creationism. Though creationism is based on religious beliefs rather than science, it is really intended as a type of science; specifically its purpose is to make people feel comfortable with a literal interpretation of the Bible. This entry gives a perspective on the problems that theologians had with evolution.
It’s a bit of a shame, at least in my view, that so many people reject the concept of evolution. While no polls were conducted way back then, it might very well be the case that more people accepted the idea that populations of organisms changed over time before Darwin than they do now. In other words they believed in evolution at a higher rate than what people believe now.
It’s always been the case among conservative Christians that humans are considered a ‘special case’ and the result of a ‘special creation’. But people saw new dog and cat breeds all of the time and though they didn’t understand a mechanism for it, most accepted the idea that similar things were probably happening in nature as well.
Effectively the average person, even a few years before Darwin, believed:
1. Life was created as just a few ‘created kinds’
2. Life on Earth has changed to be more diverse since then.
3. That process was continuing.
(Ironically many modern creationists embrace effectively the same idea about what happened in the aftermath of the Flood of Noah.)
The point is that the majority of people didn’t find any conflict between their religious beliefs – even those who believed in an inerrant and infallible Bible – and evolution (though that word had not been used in the same sense that Darwin used it).
Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” didn’t talk specifically about human evolution, but neither did it distinguish between humans and other life forms. If you accepted natural selection for “lower” animals, there is no reason not to extrapolate that to humans as well.
Over time people started to see the conflicts. That was particularly the case when Darwin’s book “The Descent of Man” was published in 1871. People, Christians in particular, started to look at their religious beliefs and found two major conflicts.
1. The Bible “clearly” says that the Earth was created just a few thousand years ago and Darwin’s ideas about the mechanism of evolution require much more time than that.
2. There is no room for “original sin” if humans evolved. But the very reason for Jesus coming to Earth was to save us from that sin. If a literal Adam and a literal Eve and a literal Garden of Eden didn’t really exist, how can there be original sin?
One theologian has put the problem like this:
“The starting point for Christianity is not Matthew 1:1, but Genesis 1:1. Tamper with the Book of Genesis and you undermine the very foundation of Christianity. You cannot treat Genesis 1 as a fable or a mere poetic saga without severe implications to the rest of Scripture. The creation account is where God starts His account of history. It is impossible to alter the beginning without impacting the rest of the story ― not to mention the ending. If Genesis 1:1 is not accurate then there’s no way to be certain that the rest of Scripture tells the truth. If the starting point is wrong, then the Bible itself is built on a foundation of falsehood.”
It is worth noting that over the many years since Darwin most Christian congregations have been able to find an accommodation between Christianity and evolution despite these two seemingly insurmountable issues. As I mentioned previously, I was raised as a Methodist. Here is what the Methodist church's highest legislative body said in a resolution passed in 2008:
“We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues, and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.” [emphasis added]
Similar official statements have been issued by many other Christian denominations.
Since the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is the largest Christian denomination in the world, their views are the most significant. Multiple popes have expressed support for evolution. As long ago as 1950, Pope Pius XII stated in an official ruling (called an “encyclical”) that “there is no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of faith about man and his vocation”. However the Pope did not actually endorse evolution in 1950. Instead he merely considered evolution to be a “serious hypothesis’.
However, in 1996, Pope John Paul II, in an official letter, said that “evolution is more than a hypothesis”.
Because of the papal support of evolution, you don’t see many creationists in Latin American and other countries whose citizens are largely members of the RCC.
There are still holdouts, of course. But their number is indeed diminishing.
Thank God. (Wait! Can I say “thank God’?)
 Dr. John MacArthur, The Battle for the Beginning (W Publishing Group, 2001), p. 44
 http://calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=50, referenced on July 2, 2009