= Science and Religion

The Impact of Darwinism on Christianity

At the time that Columbus discovered America, the Christian peoples of Europe centred their perceptions of place and time on themselves. They perceived the earth as the centre of the universe, around which revolved the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets. They perceived the extent of time in terms of historical centuries, stretching back to only a few thousand years before Christ. There were no historical records before that, so there was no history, and the world was thought to have been newly created. But as science developed, it presented a very different picture: an immense universe both in terms of space and in terms of time, extending over many millions of miles and many millions of centuries, in which the Earth and the present day were no more than specks of dust and moments of time.

Each of these new perceptions - the perception of limitless space and the perception of limitless time - proved hard to assimilate and perhaps it was fortunate that the two revolutionary adjustments did not occur simultaneously. First, astronomy, physics and mathematics disclosed the scientific perception of space; only three centuries later did geology and biology reveal the scientific perception of time. But on both occasions, scientists encountered resistance from established religion.

Galileo taught us the physical nature of the universe. Others before him, most notably Copernicus, had suggested that the earth was one among a number of planets orbiting the sun. But Galileo made the telescope observations which established the solar system as near certainty; and his application of mathematics to the basic concepts of physics laid the foundation for the more comprehensive explanations of Newton. Nevertheless his Dialogue, in which he presented the arguments for and against the heliocentric solar system, was placed on the Catholic index of banned books, where it remained for two hundred years. By this action and other similar actions, the Catholic Church condemned itself to intellectual sterility. Italy (where the Church was all-powerful) ceased to be the intellectual centre of Europe.

In northern Europe and particularly in England, the Catholic Church lost its power but a new and less dogmatic version of Christianity took its place. This version accepted the new scientific perception of space as part of a divine plan - a divine plan that was believed to include also the perfect design of living creatures. It was believed that God had created (once and for all and not very long ago) a complete universe, following scientific laws, filled with animals and plants wonderfully designed to live the lives for which they were intended. God had designed the solar system, the wider universe, and the tiny microcosms of life with equal skill and equal finality. It was all believed to be a perfectly functioning machine of very great complexity but complete predictability once science had discovered its laws.

Virtually all architects of the Scientific Revolution remained devout Christians, however; and not surprisingly, the kind of science they created was very much a branch of the Christian faith. In this view, the world was created by God and could not be chaotic. It was governed by His laws, which because they were God's laws, were universal. A explanation of a phenomenon or process was considered to be sound if it was consistent with one of these laws. With the workings of the cosmos so absolutely clear-cut and absolute, it should be possible eventually to prove and predict everything. The task of God's science, then, was to find these universal laws, to find the ultimate truth of everything as embodied in these laws, and to test their truth by way of predictions and experiments.

Ernst Mayr: This is Biology p26

Natural Religion

John Ray was one of the founders of modern biology. Ray was among the first to define the concept of a biological species. He produced a large number of detailed descriptions of the natural world, particularly of plants. His book The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of his Creation, first published in 1691, was still being reprinted and read in the first half of the nineteenth century. Giving innumerable very specific examples from life, Ray taught that the best possible proof of the existence, wisdom and goodness of God is to be found in the structures and functions of living things. Nothing in animals and plants, he showed us, appears to be useless: everything has been arranged for a good reason. If in a few cases we ourselves cannot see the purpose of some detail, there is likely still to be a purpose known to God, and useful to the creature concerned.

In an age and a country which was fascinated by intricate machinery, and was soon to produce the Industrial Revolution, Ray showed that animals and plants are living mechanisms whose many parts are designed with a far greater subtlety and complexity than could conceivably be achieved by man. Only a supremely wise and omnipotent craftsman - God himself - could have done it. And thus we should deduce that God exists, and is infinitely wise.

Ray studied fossils and was among the first to insist that fossils must be the remains of living creatures. He found it hard to reconcile this conclusion with his belief that the world had been created in essentially its present form at a comparatively recent period. The dilemma remained: there was no place is the seventeenth century scheme of things for any conception of growth and organic development over time.

Ray's book was one of the earliest of a series of works on the same theme. The idea that the works of God can be seen in nature strengthened religious faith and explained the world in which we live. But it also encouraged a delight and fascination with the beauty of the natural world - particularly perhaps landscape, flowers, birds and butterflies - which inspired and refreshed those who found it hard to reconcile thenselves to increasing levels of ugliness and pollution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century towns.

Inspired by Ray and others, people went out into the countryside, discovered the beauties of the Lake District, Wales and Scotland and walked, climbed and sketched and collected specimins of all kinds, including of course fossils. It was a period of the Romantic poets: nature was not only the subject of scientific study; it was also felt to be a source of spiritual refreshment.


Rev. William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) which Darwin studied at Cambridge, is a classic statement of its subject. If (he writes) one finds a complex mechanism like a watch, one knows someone must have contrived it. The same is not true of a stone. But a living creature is not like a stone - it is complex, and like a watch (only more so) shows evidence of design:

.. when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose . . . This mechanism being observed . . . the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place of other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use...

Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of Nature; with the difference, on the side of Nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

By Darwin's time, Protestant Christianity (and especially British Protestant Christianity) had argued itself into a position where religious belief depended heavily upon this interpretation of biology for intellectual support. Asked for proof of the existence, wisdom and goodness of God, the believer pointed to Nature. The works of Ray and Paley and others were read and valued by both biologists and theologians; indeed the distinction between the two was not absolute. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, nearly all the leading English figures who developed our understanding of "natural history" were ordained clergymen. Many of the churchmen who later joined in the controversy aroused by The Origin of Species had a good knowledge of the issues it discussed.

Paley had added another dimension to Ray's "Natural Religion." The weakness of natural religion was that it did little but establish in the mind of the believer the omnipotence and wisdom of God. It added no new moral force of its own, and relied on the Bible and the established traditions of the Church and of society to fill out the details of doctrine and morality. There was (it seemed) nothing in biology to controvert the religion of the Bible, but equally there was nothing to support it. There was a danger that belief in natural religion might become separated from Christian doctrine and Christian morality and become no more than an unprincipled and irresponsible deism - a belief in God, but in nothing else.

This danger started to appear much greater at the end of the century under the traumatic stress of the French Revolution, and particularly when Thomas Paine caused a sensation, in 1794, with his brilliantly written and very widely circulated Age of Reason. Paine was a revolutionary: he had played an important propaganda role in the establishment of American independence and he welcomed the French Revolution. He accepted natural religion but did not accept Christianity: in the name of deism, Paine ridiculed the Church, reviled the Old Testament, and reduced Jesus to the status of a minor teacher. He regarded the Church as a system of organized self-serving hypocrisy:

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?

The Church was in urgent need of moral support. Paley responded later in 1794 with his Evidences of Christianity . His book was intended to forge an unbreakable bond between natural religion and explicit New Testament Christianity. It had an immediate impact - the first edition was sold out in a day. Darwin studied it at Cambridge (where it was a set book) and was completely convinced. The comments in his Autobiography are significant:

I am convinced I could have written out the whole of the Evidences, with perfect correctness, though not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of the book, and I may add of his Natural Theology, gave as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt, as I still believe was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.

He continues:

I did not at this time trouble myself about Paley's premises; and taking these on trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.

For the young beetle-collector Charles Darwin, Paley offered a convincing interpretation of the natural world, inspiring (until his own later discoveries) a religious faith that was not shared by his very dominating free-thinking father.

Paley's first "premises" are stated in his book - they are based upon natural religion:

Suppose, then, the world we live in to have had a Creator; suppose it to appear, from the predominant aim and tendency of the provisions and contrivances observable in the universe, that the Deity, when he formed it, consulted for the happiness of his sensitive creation..

His argument develops logically in a way which Darwin compares with geometry (Euclid). Paley teaches that because God is good, he will not allow evil to triumph on earth, as it so often does, without a compensating afterlife for humanity. Mankind has to be adequately informed of this arrangement, and of the incentives for correct behaviour on earth: how could this have been achieved, but by the Christian revelation and the Christian miracles? -

suppose a part of the creation to have received faculties from their Maker, by which they are capable of rendering a moral obedience to his will, and of voluntarily pursuing any end for which he has designed them; suppose the Creator to intend for these, his rational and accountable agents, a second state of existence, in which their situation will be by their behaviour in the first state, by which suppose (and by no other) the objection to the divine government in not putting a difference between the good and the bad, and the inconsistency of this confusion with the care and benevolence discoverable in the works of the Deity is done away; suppose it to be of the utmost importance to the subjects of this dispensation to know what is intended for them, that is, suppose the knowledge of it to be highly conducive to the happiness of the species, a purpose which so many provisions of nature are calculated to promote: Suppose, nevertheless, almost the whole race, either by the imperfection of their faculties, the misfortune of their situation, or by the loss of some prior revelation, to want this knowledge, and not to be likely, without the aid of a new revelation, to attain it; under these circumstances, is it improbable that a revelation should be made? Is it incredible that God should interpose for such a purpose? Suppose him to design for mankind a future state; is it unlikely that he should acquaint him with it?

Now in what way can a revelation be made, but by miracles?

Thus he irresistibly demonstrates (to the reader who is - like the young Charles Darwin - willing to be carried along) the logical link which he believes to exist between natural religion and the doctrines of the Church. But it is all based on the first "premises" of the omnipotence and goodness of God, as established by examples from nature. Without the starting point of divine design as perceived in nature, there is no longer any proof of the existence of God and therefore no proof of the truth of Christianity.

Does Christianity need a proof in materialistic terms? In fact Paley and his followers believed in Christianity because they had grown up with it, not because they had arrived at it by a process of logical argument. But under the materialistic influence of Newtonian science they had learned to reject anything that appeared irrational. Paley's argument was a somewhat tortuous attempt to fit Christianity into the rationalistic mold.

The Impact of Natural Selection

In later life, Darwin regarded Natural Selection as an explicit refutation of Natural Religion and he abandoned Christianity. Nevertheless in some respects he remained a disciple of Paley. He presents his theory in the Origin in a style of logical presentation which reminds us of his respect for Paley:

If during the long course of ages under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think that this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all living beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution and habits to be advantageous to them, I think it would be be a most extraordinary fact if no variation had occurred useful to the being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

In this passage, Darwin's "ifs" do not indicate any doubt in his mind; they are simply intended to signpost the logical premises in his argument; they correspond to the "suppose"in Paley:

suppose a part of the creation to have received faculties from their Maker….suppose the creator to intend for these…suppose it be of the utmost importance..suppose the knowledge of it to be highly conducive..suppose nevertheless..is it improbable that a revelation should be made?..Suppose him to design for mankind a future state, is it unlikely that he should acquaint him with it? Now in what way can a revelation be made, but by miracles?

Darwin has not abandoned Paley's way of thinking, which is essentially logical and materialistic; but he now believes that Paley had got his premises wrong, so inevitably arriving at an incorrect conclusion.

Nineteenth century religion in Britain was the religion of Paley. It supported an established social order (of which the Church was a vital part) which was more and more under challenge. The well-known hymn neatly encapsulates the implied link between a static, divinely created natural order and the static order of the class society:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate....

To attack Paley's conception of the divine order of nature was to attack the very basis of society.

The effects of a successful attack on natural religion were to be correspondingly catastrophic. The whole Christian structure was now based on the concept of God as the divine Engineer of the Universe. Throughout, everything depended on the 'first premise', about which Darwin ‘did not at first trouble himself' - the premise of God, derived from the perfect design of living things. Without that premise - if the perfect design of living things could be otherwise explained - the whole structure of Paleyite Christian belief must now fall to the ground. If there is no longer any proof in nature of the omnipotence and goodness of God, there can no longer (for the rational Christian) be any basis for faith. Natural religion has been made to support the whole Church, and everything depends upon it. Because of this terrible dependence, the rational 19th century Christian, confronted with the plausibility of natural selection, found the whole foundation of his faith cut from beneath him.

Darwin presented natural selection as a hypothesis, which could provide an alternative explanation for the wonderful way in which organisms are adapted to their envirobment, and suggest the means of their evolutionary development. The new theory, even as a hypothesis, was convincing enough to introduce an intolerable sense of doubt into the mind of the believer in natural religion; and little has been heard of natural religion since. Thus for a second time, a conflict seemed to have arisen between science and established religion. Richard Dawkins and the Creationists remind us that the conflict is still not resolved to this day.

In principle, there seems no good reason why this should be so. Although natural selection does satisfactorily explain why living things are so well adapted to the environments in which they live, it is nothing like so certain that it explains how they have evolved into more and more complex forms. Is it not possible for religion to adapt to the new scientific perception of time; just as it adapted to the scientific perception of space? Perhaps this is more difficult. But there is also another problem. Galileo did not attack religion. He regarded Christian faith as quite compatible with scientific knowledge and so it is. By contrast, Darwin's revolution gradually became explicitly anti-religious. Darwinism was and still is not merely a scientific theory; like Marxism, it is a faith. The new package "Evolution by natural selection" demanded acceptance in toto and in many minds, it replaced the old package of Christian belief.

On an intellectual level, much of the blame for the nineteenth century collapse of Christianity must fall on the natural theologians, notably Paley. Their argument from divine design was an essentially materialistic basis for religion. God was confined to a remote creative role at a particular time in the past. Except for a very specific one-off intervention in the life and death of Jesus, he was believed to have left the universe he had created to run itself. Replace natural religion by natural selection, and there was no need to believe that God had designed anything. What had been regarded as God's laws became simply the immutable logic of material nature. Religion no longer had any other support. Only materialism remained.

The materialistic philosophy of the living world bases itself firmly on the principle of Natural Selection. But while in many minds, the dogma remains as powerful as ever - as a dogma - the"origin of species" is now increasingly interpreted as a historical phenomenon which cannot be so simply explained.