Distant spiral galaxy NGC4603 [Courtesy NASA] Sistine Chapel #1 [courtesy Wikimedia]

What are the theological advantages to an evolutionary worldview?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

It is widely believed that the scientific worldview, including aspects well known to be "red in tooth and claw," has only disadvantages from a theological point of view, and that a creationist or intelligent design worldview has only advantages, from a theological point of view. But in stark contrast to the highly negative view of science that one reads in the creationist and intelligent design literature, there are some definite advantages to the scientific view of creation.

To begin with, many scientists and theologians (the present author included) simply do not understand the resistance that is seen in the creationist and intelligent design communities (and elsewhere) to the notion that God governs the universe via elegant and comprehensible laws. Do such persons really prefer a deity of caprice and mystery, or a deity who is not pleased when humans uncover some of these laws? Would such a being even be worthy of reverence or obedience? To the contrary, surely the elegance and beauty of the natural laws uncovered by the process of scientific research is a plus, not a minus, for the existence of a divine governor.

Some object to the Darwnian view of creation because of its reliance on competition. But competition is not always bad. To the contrary, competition and opposition are necessary to bring forth good in a wide range of human affairs. Here are just a few some examples:

Even in the theological and moral realm, competition and the need for contrast -- good versus evil, happiness versus heartache -- has long been regarded as essential. Here is a beautiful and oft-quoted passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Judeo-Christian Bible (King James version) [Eccl. 3:1-8]:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

One important theological advantage to the evolutionary worldview was first noted by Aubrey Moore, a nineteenth century British theologian. He argued that evolution could be seen as a partial solution to the age-old problem of why suffering and evil exist: "Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend" [Moore1891, pg. 99]. Noted biologist and Dominican Priest Francisco Ayala similarly argues [Ayala2007, pg. 5]:

As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design. ... Evolution by natural selection is Darwin's answer to Paley. It is also the solution to the last prong of the problem of evil.

This principle is stated quite forcefully by biologist John C. Avise [Avise2010, pg. 158-159]:

Evolution by natural causes emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world's leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God's motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God's direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient, natural evolutionary causation.

But lest anyone reads Avise's comments as a blanket dismissal of God or religion, Avise tempers his comments with the following [Avise2010, pg. 161]:

The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religion to escape from the profound conundrums of Intelligent Design and thereby return religion to its rightful realm -- not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but rather as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritual-ness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.

Such ideas are reminiscent of a comment made by David O. McKay, President of the LDS Church in 1952. He argued that evolution could be seen in a positive light, as evidence that mankind is destined for eternal life [McKay1952]:

For example, evolution's beautiful theory of the creation of the world offers many perplexing problems to the inquiring mind. Inevitably, a teacher who denies divine agency in creation, who insists there is no intelligent purpose in it, will infest the student with the thought that all may be chance. I say, that no youth should be so led without a counter-balancing thought. Even the skeptic teacher should be fair enough to see that even Charles Darwin, when he faced this great question of annihilation, that the creation is dominated only by chance wrote: "It is an intolerable thought that man and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long, continued slow progress." And another good authority, Raymond West, said, "Why this vast [expenditure] of time and pain and blood?" Why should man come so far if he's destined to go no farther? A creature that travels such distances and fought such battles and won such victories deserves what we are compelled to say, "To conquer death and rob the grave of its victory."

Catholic philosopher John Haught sums up this issue in the following terms [Haught1995, pg. 62]:

If God were a magician or a dictator, then we might expect the universe to be finished all at once and remain eternally unchanged. If God insisted on being in total control of things, we might not expect the weird organisms of the Cambrian explosion, the later dinosaurs and reptiles, or the many other wild creatures that seem so exotic to us. We would want our divine magician to build the world along the lines of a narrowly human sense of clean perfection.
But what a pallid and impoverished world that would be. It would lack all the drama, diversity, adventure, and intense beauty that evolution has in fact produced. A world of human design might have a listless harmony to it, and it might be a world devoid of pain and struggle, but it would have none of the novelty, contrast, danger, upheaval and grandeur that evolution has brought about over billions of years.
Fortunately, the God of our religion is not a magician but a creator. And we think this God is much more interested in promoting freedom and the adventure of evolution than in preserving the status quo.

For additional discussion on this general topic, see Design, Determinism, Deceiver, God of the gaps, Elevating and Natural law.

References

[See Bibliography].