Christianity, Darwinism and The Fall

Noah Millman makes a good point:

I continue to believe that both sides of the Darwin vs. Christianity battle are missing the most telling point. We should all agree that religious dogma has no bearing on the truth or falsity of a scientific theory. Heliocentrism is true; geocentrism is false. There is an enormous weight of evidence behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. There is going to be more and more evidence behind new theories about the workings of the human mind, and the interactions of the human genome and human personality. All religion can do is react to these discoveries and, as part of that reaction, caution us about drawing unwarranted conclusions (political, moral, what-have-you) from the evidence. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story, because I think science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence – and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it – is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, I’d like to see the explanation. I think that natural selection poses similar but less-acute problems for Judaism and Islam; it poses the fewest problems, I suspect, for Hinduism. Again: I’m not speaking of science refuting religion. I’m speaking of scientific results making certain core religious claims less persuasive.

Of course, one reason I think it's a good point is that I just made it myself, in a review of Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity for the the just-released, not-yet-online spring issue of Claremont Review of Books. The idea that evolution-by-natural-selection somehow disproves religion in general, or theism more specifically, is basically preposterous. The idea that the mechanism of natural selection, in which the development of man requires millions of years of strife and suffering and death in the animal kingdom, poses a specific challenge to Christian beliefs about the nature of God is more plausible, and warrants a more serious response than the "hey, evolution is too compatible with a belief in designer God" rejoinder that some Christian apologists, D'Souza included, often employ.

I didn't attempt to address that challenge in the review, in part because I wouldn't say that I have a settled opinion on the matter. It seems to me, though, that the possible rejoinders to the Millman argument fall into three broad categories. One view would hold that strife and pain and death are only evils when they are experienced by creatures who are made in the image of God; since animals are not so created, they have more or less the same moral status as machines, and the Almighty is indifferent to their suffering. In this view, evolution by natural selection poses no difficulty at all for Christian theodicy: Pain and death are natural to our animal ancestors but an evil when experienced by self-conscious beings with free will, and for that reason homo sapiens were granted immortality initially, only to subsequently lose it through disobedience to God. (This seems to be the view that Stephen Barr takes in this post, though I may be misinterpreting him.)

The second perspective the one that C.S. Lewis inclined toward; as you might expect from the man who created Narnia, he was particularly concerned by the problem that animal suffering poses for theodicy, and he argued that Satan's influence on the world must necessarily have predated the Fall of Man. Sin entered human history with the disobedience of our first parents, in other words, but it entered the history of the universe at the beginning of time, with Lucifer's disobedience. The emergence of Man through evolution-by-natural-selection, in this view, is a case of God making use of a fallen creation for His own good ends.

The final perspective - which I associate, perhaps incorrectly, with Teilhard de Chardin - suggests that the Fall is both a temporal and an extra- or supra-temporal event, one whose impact on creation runs both forward and backward in time, retroactively poisoning the pre-historic development of man as well as his history. This sounds like the strangest and most implausible of the possible explanations, obviously. But given the mysterious relationship between space and time that modern physics has uncovered, and the still more mysterious relationship between space, time and eternity that obtains if Christianity's account of things is true, it may not be quite so implausible as it sounds.