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SRT: Faith and Evolution

SRT: Faith and Evolution

Tuesday July 21 2020

In the continuing series marking the 50th anniversary of Church of Scotland SRT (society, religion and technology), Eric Priest considers whether faith and evolution are in harmony.


This is a question that scientists like myself who are also Christians naturally ask, but it is equally important for all Christians to come to a balanced view about it, since science is such an important part of modern life.

At one extreme, some will argue that we should not trust the theory of evolution, since it is only a theory and doesn’t seem to agree with Genesis.

At the other extreme, others will say that we should trust the methods of science but be sceptical about faith since it is irrational and not verifiable scientifically.

In a classic, brilliantly written book (2007 Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief), Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project from 1993 to 2008, gives clear arguments against both views and instead makes the case for a harmony between science and faith, which I very much share.

He suggests thoughtful and helpful reactions to four common objections to belief that he once held himself when he was an atheist:

• Isn’t the idea of God just wish fulfilment?

• What about all the harm done in the name of religion?

• Would a loving God allow so much suffering?

• How can a rational person believe in miracles?

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, when the three billion letters of our DNA code were revealed. For Francis Collins this gave an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder at the marvellously intricate nature of life and the deeply satisfying elegance of DNA, by which God spoke life into being and in

which God’s creative and guiding hand is at work. It provides powerful support for Darwin’s theory of evolution, of descent from a common ancestor with natural selection. Darwin had no idea what the mechanism of natural selection was, but we now know it is naturally occurring mutations (or changes) in DNA.

Virtually all working biologists are convinced Darwin’s framework is unquestionably correct. The theory of evolution is not using the word “theory” in the common meaning of a speculative or conjectural view of something (for which they would use the word hypothesis), but rather in the scientific meaning of a set of fundamental principles that underlie a science.

Some people don’t accept evolution. Creationists take Genesis literally and suggest the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. However, Genesis is best understood, in my view, not as a literal description of origins but rather as poetry and allegory that reveals the relationship between God and humanity and the entrance of our spiritual nature and the Moral Law into humanity. Scientific advances such as Darwinism don’t threaten God, who is the author of the laws of nature, and so they should be welcomed rather than opposed.

Also, followers of Intelligent Design suggest evolution is flawed since it cannot account for irreducibly complex structures such as human blood clotting cascade, the eye or a bacterial flagellum. However, the gaps in this “God-of-the-gaps” idea have now been closed, since each of these complex structures has been shown to be consistent with evolution.

For me, a compelling and intellectually satisfying solution to the search for harmony between science and faith, called Theistic Evolution, rests on the following premises:

• The universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago out of nothing

• The properties of the Universe are precisely tuned for life

• Once life arose, evolution and natural selection led to the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time

• Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with apes

• Humans are also unique in ways that point to our spiritual nature.

Thus, in my view, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create creatures with free will, a knowledge of right and wrong, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. The scientific believer can therefore worship God and also use the tools of science to uncover some of the mysteries of His majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful creation.

Eric Priest is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews