Have there always been ‘no theists allowed’ in Darwin’s evolutionary clubhouse?

Charles Darwin, circa 1874. (public domain)

Editor’s note: This is the first part of an essay submitted by the author to godofevolution.com titled “Darwin’s doves, bulldogs and deniers.” Also see part 2, part 3 and part 4.

When describing the viewpoint of many Christians toward Darwin’s theory of evolution, a scene from “The Wizard Of Oz” comes to mind, where Glinda informs Dorothy that the Munchkins want to know if she is a good witch or a bad witch. Dorothy replies, “But I’m not a witch at all! Witches are old and ugly!” unaware that the beautiful Glinda was a good witch.

Many believers would find themselves puzzled if a fellow brother or sister asked them, “Are you a creationist or an evolutionist?” and would very likely respond, “I am not an evolutionist at all! Evolutionists are atheists!” This is due to the tragic reality that many Christians have only see the theory of evolution as presented through a largely atheistic perspective. From Thomas Huxley (though he coined and preferred the term “agnostic” over “atheist”) to Richard Dawkins, they think a notice has been hammered to the front door of the evo-intellectual clubhouse reading, “No Theists Allowed.”

Sadly, instead of believers challenging the atheist takeover of evolution, the majority accept the atheists at their word and believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is their theory. Thus, evolution, a solid scientific concept, has been almost completely hijacked by a small group with an agenda.

But was this always the case? How did Christians initially react to Darwin’s idea? Many believers today might be surprised by the fact that before Darwin published “On the Origin Of Species,” an old earth was already widely accepted by a large majority of Christians, beginning from the earliest days of Christianity up until the 19th century.

Throughout the ages, giants of Christian theology like Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and John Wesley supported scriptural interpretations that allowed for an old earth and did not believe the creation account to be entirely literal. The result was that by the time the 19th century did arrive, most Christians believed in an old earth even though evolutionary explanation had yet to be popularized. Ideas like the “gap theory” and “day-age theory” were not uncommon among believers.

This may come as a surprise to Christians who have the impression that before Darwin, young-earth creationism went unchallenged, and that the “Origin Of Species” that was “the origin of trouble.” Historically, this just isn’t so.

While some Christians do cede the fact that earlier believers accepted an old earth before Darwin published his most famous work, they still insist that evolution is directly opposed to belief in God. Surely, there weren’t any prominent Christians who believed in, and promoted, evolution when Darwin proposed it…right? On the contrary.

B.B. Warfield, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary, remarked, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.” Before him, Charles Kingsley, minister of the Church of England, professor and historian, had opined that he had “long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species.”

And Christians Kingsley and Warfield were not alone in their praise of Darwin’s theory, nor even the most prominent of his advocates. A man of faith who stands out the most in history for defending “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (credit to Daniel Dennett) as not being anti-God, was Asa Gray — a devout Christian who is today believed to have been one of the most acclaimed biologists of the 19th century. A profound botanist who walked the hallways and filled the classrooms of Harvard for 30 years, Gray was a quiet man and shy in temperament.

A testament to Gray’s discretionary nature, Darwin confided in him his idea regarding “the transmutation of species” before the publication of “Origin Of Species,” to which Gray (again, a devout Christian), voiced full support, having seen evidence of evolution during his study of American and Japanese plants. It would be Gray’s review of “Origin Of Species” in July 1860 that would help put Darwin on the map and would ultimately see the naturalist to such fame that he would be buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Isaac Newton.

Seeing now that Darwin’s “Origin Of Species” was not a book that 19th-century atheists caroused around while God-believers sat on the other side of the ballroom with their arms crossed — but in fact was much the opposite — it becomes hard to see why, today, evolution is viewed by Christians and atheists alike as a theory for nonbelievers. How did this happen? I recall an article written by Sarah Joan Miles, titled “Asa Gray and Charles Darwin Discuss Evolution and Design,” in which Miles dubs Gray to be “Darwin’s Dove.”

As it turns out, Darwin had quite a few doves: Warfield, Gray, Kingsley — all of whom pointed toward the compatibility of faith and reason. But, unfortunately, doves were not all that Darwin had. A few bulldogs voiced their support for him too (which we’ll discuss in part 2 of this series), and deniers did much of their own damage within the ranks of the faithful (part 3). Such bulldogs and deniers from Darwin’s day to the present, I believe, are responsible for the misconception.

As I said earlier, from Huxley to Dawkins, the message has been shouted that evolution belongs to the godless. But what about Darwin’s doves? What about Asa Gray? What about those who have come after him and expressed comfort with God and science: C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, Peter Enns, John Walton and Karl Giberson? What about myself, Tyler Francke and God Of Evolution?

Will the world continue to ignore? More importantly, will Christianity?

Race Hochdorf

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  • Sadly, instead of believers challenging the atheist takeover of evolution, the majority accept the atheists at their word and believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is their theory. Thus, evolution, a solid scientific concept, has been almost completely hijacked by a small group with an agenda.

    I don’t think that’s correct. A few outspoken atheists may suggest that. However, from my perspective, I see the idea that evolution is contrary to Christianity as coming mostly from fundamentalist Christians. If I debate a creationist, I find the creationist labeling me as “atheist, materialist, reductionist, Darwinist” without my having said anything that would suggest any of those positions.

    • Good observation 🙂

    • Hey Neil, thanks for reading. I think you make a good point. I would argue that the charge of evolutionary theory being inherently anti-theistic has come from both atheists and young-earth creationists. Maybe a “vicious cycle” type of thing. But, rather than laying blame on any particular side, I think what the author was trying to say was more that there haven’t been enough voices really trying to refute that claim (that evolution is inherently crippling to most any religious belief system).

  • Most Christians accept the theory of evolution. “Fundamentalism””Christianity.”

  • Caleb Robbins

    We often see a lot of surveys having to do with personal beliefs, are there many data on attitudes within different sects of Christianity toward evolutionary theory? For example, what percentage of, say, ‘evangelical fundamentalists’ (whatever that really means) really feel that evolution and Christianity are truly at odds or a ‘theory for nonbelievers’?

    By the way, I loved this essay and can’t wait for the next parts. Also, I’ve been loving this blog so far!