Darwin and Religious Thought

By Timothy S. Stevens,
University Chaplain, Northwestern University

The work of Charles Darwin has implications far beyond science. His revolutionary insights have changed the way we think about society, ethics, and religion. This essay will focus on the impact of evolutionary science on religion, especially its impact on Christian thinking (though much of what is here would apply to the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam). By providing an account of the origin and diversity of organisms, Darwin was seen by some as mounting a serious challenge to traditional religious understandings of the creation of the world and humankind. Some adherents of religion have argued that Darwinian Evolution is utterly incompatible with religious belief. Therefore, they say, Evolution must be rejected. Similarly, some opponents of religion have argued that Darwin’s great achievement is to disprove the claims of religion. From this perspective, religion must be rejected. Both sides share a view that Evolution and religion are incompatible; both hold that Evolution entails atheism. But that is not the only way to conceive the relationship between Evolution and religion.

It is widely accepted that Darwin offers a brilliant account of how the variety of species came to be through a process of natural selection. Darwin’s account is purely naturalistic and materialistic. It is based on the observation of natural phenomena. All of which is to say that Darwin operates within the scientific method, collecting facts and then providing a theoretical framework to account for those facts. Darwin and his scientific successors have given an explanation of the origin and diversity of living organisms that relies entirely on natural processes. The picture that emerges is rich and complex. Human understanding of these natural processes continues to grow. This is the legitimate application of the scientific method.

The Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believe that God created the world, including all forms of life. Other religious traditions also share a belief in creation by the deity.  Such beliefs are in the realm of religious affirmation, not scientific explanation. By asserting that the world was created by God, they do not necessarily specify how that creation took place. The accounts of creation in sacred texts make theological claims about the source and purposes of life. For centuries, religious thinkers have had serious reservations about taking those accounts as literal, scientific explanations.

What Darwin directly challenged was the view that God had originally created all species of plant and animal life, just as they exist today. One version of this view held that the species were unchanging, that the creation of the world took place only a few thousand years ago, and that the natural order we see today sprang directly from the mind of God. Another version of this view acknowledges the overwhelming evidence that the earth is much older and even acknowledges the evidence for evolution within species, but still denies the possibility of one species developing into another. According to both these views, the order of the world is unchanging because it is given directly by God. Everything about the world is as it is because God made it that way.

Darwin describes a world that is less tidy and orderly. Indeed, he presents a world that is much more complex and dynamic. He observed an abundance of forms of life, all struggling for existence and adapting—from generation to generation—to an ever-changing environment. 

Although some religious communities rejected Darwin’s theory as inherently atheistic, many religious traditions have embraced it and have explored the ways Darwin has had a positive impact on religious thinking. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example, writes:  “The theory of evolution has given theology an opportunity to see God’s ongoing activity not merely in the preservation of a fixed order but in the constant bringing forth of things that are new.” That is to say, Evolution can help religious people affirm that God’s creative work is a matter of continuing engagement over time. As a result, it is possible to acknowledge the openness and flexibility of divine creative activity.

Darwin’s theory of Evolution has also prompted a renewal of theological reflection on the manner of God’s creative activity and on the way God interacts with the world. Traditional religious teachings have held that contingent natural processes (such as the emergence and evolution of living organisms) are by no means incompatible with divine providence. Christian theologians, for example, speak of God’s creation of the world as a form of persuasion, as distinct from an intrusive or coercive intervention. Thus, creation is seen as a form of kenosis (self-emptying), in which God’s power is seen primarily through self-sacrificial love. God, in a sense steps back from the created world, in order to allow something new to come into existence. The created world is given autonomy so that it may develop into what it is most fully meant to be. Theologian John Haught maintains that the kenotic understanding of God allows us to make the following statements:

1) that God is the sole ground of the world’s being; 2) that God’s eternal self-restraint, by grounding the world’s (relative) autonomy and allowing for its self-creation, shows God to be more intimately involved with and powerfully effective in the world than a more immediately directive divine agency would be; 3) that God acts effectively in the world by offering to it a wide range of autonomously realizable possibilities within which it can “become itself”; 4) that God simultaneously gives the divine self away completely to the world which has by God’s will been encouraged to develop as something radically “other” than God; 5) that the phenomena of life’s evolution, including the randomness, the wandering prodigality, and the enormous amount of time required for the emergence of complexity and consciousness, become theologically intelligible when seen in the light of God’s self-limiting and persuasive love; and finally, 6) that the sufferings, struggles and achievements of the evolving world nonetheless take place within God’s own experience, not outside of it:  God’s compassionate feeling and remembering of the sufferings, struggles, and achievements of the entire story of cosmic and biological evolution redeem and give meaning to everything, though in an always partially hidden way.

It is important to note that a theological account of creation that is compatible with evolutionary theory offers no scientific proof of religious claims. Nor can the evolutionary science disprove religious claims. At most, one may argue that the findings of evolutionary biology and the assertions of religious faith are not by necessity incompatible. There is a certain ambiguity about the world as we find it. Whether the world came about by random chance or was created by a loving God, the world would look just the same. The claims of religion must be tested and affirmed on other than scientific grounds. 

A growing number of theologians and scientists maintain that religion and science are not in conflict. They see in the findings of science even more reason for religious wonder and awe. Cell biologist Kenneth Miller, for example, argues for their compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory. In Only A Theory, he writes:

The evolutionary cosmology that emerges from physics and biology tells us that we are indeed made, just as Scripture claimed, from the dust of the earth itself.  But the details of that story are grander than any of the authors of Scripture might have dreamed. For human life to have developed on our planet, we need a universe even vaster than the nighttime sky. We require a cosmos of inconceivable age, finely tuned fundamental constants to stoke the fires of trillions of suns, and a balance of light and heavy elements forged in the embers of dying stars. And we do indeed have all of them.

This sense of wonder is famously conveyed on the final page of Origin of Species, where Charles Darwin wrote:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.


Ayala, Francisco. Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion.

Haught, John F. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 2000.

Haught, John F. Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution. NY: Paulist Press, 2001.

Miller, Kenneth. Finding Darwin’s God. NY: Harper & Row, 1999.

Miller, Kenneth. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. NY: Viking, 2008.

Russell, Robert John, William R. Stoeger, S.J. and Francisco J. Ayala, editors. 1998. Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. Jointly published by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.


Speaking of Faith:  A conversation with James Moore, co-author of the biography Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist and The Post Darwin Controversies. He's been researching and teaching Darwin for more than 30 years in Cambridge, England.

Kenneth Miller’s Evolution website.  Contains a number of links to articles and video clips.

The Counterbalance Foundation's website, Perspectives on Evolution, offers counterbalanced perspectives on complex issues.

The Clergy Letter Project is an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue.

For a sample of the diverse opinions of evolution held by Religious communities visit the links provided in the section “Evolution and Religion” at the One Book One Northwestern website.

For questions about this essay, please contact onebook@northwestern.edu.