The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Nature’s God:
Why Christians Should Accept the Theory of Evolution

American Christian fundamentalists reject Darwinian evolution for at least two reasons. The first is their belief that the Bible has revealed a clear teaching about the divine creation of the world that denies Darwinian evolution. The second reason is their belief that Darwinian evolution contradicts the foundational principle of the American creed that human beings have been created equal and endowed with rights by their Creator, as affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. In this article I will argue that both beliefs are mistaken, and that Christians should all accept the theory of evolution.

Why People Do Not Believe in Evolution

A 2021 study reports that 54 percent of Americans today agree with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”1 This is a remarkable increase from 2005, when only 40 percent of Americans agreed with that statement.2 In 2005, as compared with 34 countries, the United States had the second lowest public acceptance of human evolution (only Turkey was lower). Today, despite the increase in American acceptance of evolution, it is still lower than in European countries, along with many others around the world.

Why does the United States still lag behind so many other countries in the public acceptance of evolution? Is there some feature of American religious, political, or moral culture that creates a resistance to Darwinian evolution? The lead author of the 2021 study, Jon Miller, and his colleagues identified six factors that predict the acceptance or rejection of evolution. The most influential factor by far is American religious fundamentalism: many Americans are Christian fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists reject evolution. Miller and his colleagues measured “religious fundamentalism” by how people answered five questions: (1) They agree that “there is a personal God that hears the prayers of individuals”; (2) They agree that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally”; (3) They report that they usually attend at least one religious service in a typical week; (4) They report that they pray at least once in a typical week; (5) They agree that “we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.”

In short, religious fundamentalists reject the Darwinian idea of human evolution from earlier species of animals because they believe this contradicts what the Bible says about God creating everything, including human beings, and about God as a personal deity who hears prayers and demands faithful obedience. They think the Bible as God’s Revelation contradicts Darwin’s naturalistic science of evolution.

There is another influential feature of American fundamentalist religion that is crucial here: American fundamentalists see biblical creationism in the Declaration of Independence, which holds “that all men are created equal,” they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that this Creator is the source of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and also “the Supreme Judge of the World” who exercises “divine Providence.” If Darwinian evolution denies biblical creationism, they believe that it denies a fundamental principle of the American creed: that human beings have a unique moral dignity as created in the image of God, and as subject to His laws, His judgment, and His providence. In the history of the American fundamentalist attacks on evolution, William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s was the first one to charge that Darwinian evolution denied the imago Dei teaching of the Declaration of Independence.3

I will challenge these reasons for the fundamentalist rejection of Darwinian evolution. First, I will argue that there has been no biblical revelation that clearly resolves the debate over creation and evolution. Second, I will argue that there is no good reason to believe that the Declaration of Independence requires a biblical creationism that denies Darwinian evolution.

Revelation Has Not Resolved the Creation/Evolution Debate

The theistic religiosity of evangelical Christians is grounded in their faith in the supreme authority of God’s revelation through the “two books” in which God’s revelation can be read by human beings: the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of nature. Remarkably, however, neither biblical revelation nor natural revelation provides a clear teaching to resolve the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution. In his 2017 edited book, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design,4 J. B. Stump identified the four as: Young Earth Creationism (Ken Ham), Old Earth Creationism (Hugh Ross), Evolutionary Creation (Deborah Haarsma), and Intelligent Design (Stephen Meyer). This is the first time that these four people have engaged one another directly.

In the New Testament, in John 17, Jesus prayed to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Christians give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation. In Stump’s introduction to Four Views, he says that a primary purpose of this book was to pursue unity in what revelation teaches about origins.5 But then, in his conclusion to the book, he laments that this has not been achieved: “I doubt that readers will come away from this book with the feeling that we are any closer to the goal of Christian unity on the topic of origins.”6

There are three possible explanations for this. Either there has been no revelation of God’s teaching about origins (through the Bible or through nature). Or there has been such a revelation, but it’s so obscure that it conveys no clear message. Or the revelation does convey a clear message, but human beings have a stubborn bias that blinds them to that clear message. Hugh Ross says that “since most humans will choose autonomy over submission to God,” most humans will refuse to see the clear evidence of God’s creative activity in nature.7 But this atheistic bias cannot explain why faithful Christians (like the four authors in this book) would refuse to recognize the clear teaching of revelation.

Consequently, we are left with the first two explanations for why these Christians cannot come to agreement about origins: either there has been no revelation about origins, or the revelation is not clear enough to be understood. All four of the authors believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit “to guide us persistently to truth.”8 If so, why do they fail to come to agreement?

Like the other three authors, the young earth creationist Ken Ham sees God’s revelation both in Scripture and in nature. But he thinks the biblical revelation is clearer and more truthful than natural revelation, because after Adam’s Fall, God cursed creation, and so “the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator.” The creation reveals the Creator to all people, but it does not teach us how and when God created. For that, we must go to the Bible.9

Ham insists that the “clear teaching” of the Bible, particularly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is that God created everything over six literal days about 6,000 years ago; and therefore, the claim of evolutionary science that life and the universe evolved naturally over billions of years is false. But Ham is silent about the fact that the dating of Creation at 6,000 years ago is not in the Bible. This date was inferred by Bishop James Ussher, who relied not just on the Bible but also on non-biblical documents. This is not a “clear teaching” of the Bible. Moreover, Ham admits that “most Christians” or “many Christians” do not agree with his interpretation.10

Ham also claims that the Bible is clear in declaring that God created all the forms of plant and animal life by creating distinct “kinds” (Hebrew min), and that these created kinds correspond to what in modern taxonomic classification would be called the family (not species or genus).11 Thus, new species can arise by natural evolution, but this evolutionary change is within the boundary of a “kind” or “family.” Ham is silent, however, about how, prior to Darwin, “kinds” were interpreted as species. Once Darwin had shown how species can emerge by natural evolution, some creationists, beginning with Frank Marsh in 1941, began to argue that the Hebrew min was an “imprecise term,” and that it should be interpreted not as species but as family.12 Ham has adopted this interpretation without acknowledging that is not a “clear teaching” of the Bible.

Ham is silent about there being a fifth form of biblical creationism — the creationist theory of God’s special creation of fixed species that Darwin refuted in The Origin of Species. This form of creationism is not represented in Stump’s book, although it was the most common form of biblical creationism before the publication of Darwin’s Origin in 1859.

Against Ham, the old earth creationist Hugh Ross insists that the Bible clearly teaches that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour days but “ages”, or long expanses of time that correspond to the billions of years for the creation of the universe, the earth, and life that has been confirmed by modern science. Yet, while disagreeing with Ham about dating, Ross agrees with Ham in reading the Genesis story literally. So, for example, he agrees with Ham that the human species was originally created with God’s creation of Adam and Eve; and he predicts that genetic models will eventually show an initial human ancestral population of two. The creation narrative in Genesis is “in perfect accord — both descriptively and chronologically — with the established scientific record.”13 Thus, for Ross, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in concord.

Further, Ross believes that the evolutionary history of the universe and life shows gaps that cannot be explained by purely natural evolutionary processes, because these gaps arise from God’s miraculous intervention. For example, there is an unbridgeable gap between human beings and all other animals, because the creation of Adam and Eve was a miraculous work of the Creator. Similarly, mass extinction and mass speciation events show God’s interventions into natural history.

Unlike both Ham and Ross, the evolutionary creationist Deborah Haarsma does not see the creation story in Genesis as a literal history of nature’s origins, and she does not see gaps in evolutionary history that require miraculous interventions by God to create what cannot arise by natural evolution. She writes (italics in original): “Evolutionary creation is the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth. Thus, evolution is not a worldview in opposition to God but a natural mechanism by which God providentially achieves his purposes.”14

Compared with the other three positions, Haarsma’s evolutionary creation is closest to Darwin’s idea of “dual causality”: Darwin speaks of the laws of nature as manifested in evolution as “secondary causes,” which leaves open the possibility of God’s creative power acting through “primary causes” to create the original order of nature itself.15

Haarsma has carefully chosen the term “evolutionary creation” as an alternative to the term “theistic evolution,” because the later term can suggest a deistic worldview in which the divine First Cause lacks the personal and providential traits of the Biblical God. Haarsma’s Creator chooses to act through the evolutionary laws of nature rather than miraculous interventions, which distinguishes her position from that of Ham and Ross. But her Creator does engage in those miraculous acts that are necessary for human salvation, most notably the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Her Creator hears and answers prayers. Her Creator really is the Biblical God and not just Meyer’s Intelligent Designer.

Darwin would have disagreed with Haarsma on this point. In a letter he wrote: “I do not believe in the Bible as a Divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.”16

According to Haarsma, Genesis does not answer how and when questions of science, but it does answer the who and why questions. Much of the Genesis story repeats the creation stories of the ancient Near East that the Israelites would have known. God accommodated his teaching to these beliefs. He could have corrected this cosmology, Haarsma observes, but he chose not to do that. God’s only concern was to teach that there is only one God who is the sovereign creator of all, which departed from the ancient origin stories. In this interpretation, Haarsma argues that the Bible was written first to the peoples living in the ancient Near East, and so it uses the mythic imagery of the traditional origin stories of those people. For that reason, we should not expect that the cosmological teachings in Genesis should correspond with a modern scientific understanding.17

But as Ham points out, this “accuses God of using error to teach truth.”18 If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn’t this have confirmed God’s revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science? If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?

Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new. But if we’re going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods. For example, when Israel was under attack from the Ammonites, Jephthah, Israel’s military leader, negotiated with the king of the Ammonites. Jephthah promised them that they could keep any territory that their god Chemosh had given them, so long as Israel could keep whatever their god Yahweh had given them (Judges 11:23–24). This suggests that Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel.19 So why isn’t God a cultural invention? To deny this, it would have helped to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.

To all of this, the intelligent design theorist Stephen Meyer responds by arguing that although he personally believes in biblical revelation, he sees that the case for an Intelligent Designer as an alternative to materialist natural science is best made on purely scientific grounds without any appeal to biblical authority. He claims that the evidence of science based on our natural observations of the world point to the existence of an Intelligent Designer to explain the appearance of design in the natural world that cannot be explained plausibly by Darwinian evolutionary science.

Meyer’s argument suffers, however, from a fundamental sophistry. Intelligent design reasoning depends completely on the fallacy of negative argumentation from ignorance, in which intelligent design proponents argue that if evolutionary scientists cannot fully explain the step-by-step evolutionary process by which complex living forms arise, then this proves that these complex forms of life must be caused by the Intelligent Designer. This is purely negative reasoning because the proponents of intelligent design are offering no positive explanation of their own as to exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer miraculously caused these forms of life. Meyer insists that the proponents of evolutionary science satisfy standards of proof that he and his fellow proponents of intelligent design cannot satisfy, because his sophistical strategy is to put the highest burden of proof on his opponents, while refusing to accept that burden of proof for himself.

Here, I only want to make the point that the disagreement over origins among these four faithful Christians who have carefully studied both the Bible and science suggests that there has been no divine revelation that clearly resolves the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution. So what? What difference does this make for orthodox believing Christians? At least three of these four authors say the debate over origins is only a “secondary issue” for Christians, because one can be a believing Christian without resolving this debate. Ham contends, however, that the literal truth of Genesis 1–11 is the “foundation” of all the other doctrines of Christianity; it is “the foundation of the whole rest of the Bible.”20 If this is so, then those who disagree with Ham’s interpretation of Genesis are destroying Christianity.

Ham refers to the famous case of Anthony Flew, the British philosopher who argued for philosophic atheism until he was persuaded to accept the argument for intelligent design, and he became a deist.21 Ham observes that since Flew never accepted the clear revelation in the Bible of God as Creator and Jesus as Savior, he died “as a Christ-rejecting sinner who sadly will spend eternity in Hell.”22 So, in Ham’s interpretation, those who fail to receive the correct revelation of Biblical creationism will go to Hell!

Why are faithful Christians unable to reach any agreement about this question of creation, evolution, and ultimate origins? If the revelation of God’s teaching in the Bible or in nature about origins is untrustworthy or unclear, why should they believe that there has been any revelation at all? Fundamentalist Christians believe that if they read the Bible carefully and faithfully, the Holy Spirit will reveal to them the Bible’s true teaching. But here it seems that the Holy Spirit has failed them.

The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God

Fundamentalist Christians often claim that a Darwinian science of human evolution denies the political theory of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence by denying the Declaration’s appeal to God as the Creator who has endowed human beings with unalienable rights.23 Darwin seemed to clearly deny this when he wrote: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals.”24 If human beings have been “created from animals,” it might seem that they have not been specially created by God in His image and thus endowed with that moral dignity that sets them apart from other animals.

For this reason, William Jennings Bryan warned that Darwinian evolution was an assault on the American political theology of the Declaration.25 This was one of his reasons for joining the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in 1925, where John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged with teaching that human beings evolved from lower animals, in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching.

The Darwinian denial of the creationist theology of the Declaration of Independence can be seen as a general denial of the whole idea of human rights. Theorists of human rights like Michael Perry have contended that international norms of human rights must be founded on the principle of the sacredness of human life as created in God’s image.26

This dispute over whether Darwinism contradicts the theology of the Declaration depends on how one identifies the God of the Declaration. If one interprets the Declaration’s deity as a transcendent creative agent working against the laws of nature in miraculously endowing human beings with a supernatural soul, that contradicts the Darwinian account of natural human evolution. But if one interprets the Declaration’s deity as an immanent creative power working through the laws of nature for the emergent evolution of human beings, that is compatible with Darwinian science. In this case, we could see the appeal in the first sentence of the Declaration to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as implying that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing. Nature’s God is the God of the deists, the God of Baruch Spinoza, a way of talking about God without invoking the supernatural God.

One of the first of America’s revolutionaries to declare his belief in “Nature’s God” was Thomas Young. In 1770, three years before he would become the instigator of the Boston Tea Party, Young responded to a sermon by the revivalist George Whitefield denouncing American Deists as Satanic atheists. In the Boston Evening Post (August 27, 1770), Young proudly professed his deistic faith in the God who could be known by reasoning about nature rather than from biblical revelation: “That the religion of Nature, more properly stiled the Religion of Nature’s God, in latin call’d Deus, hence Deism, is truth, I now boldly defy thee to contest.”

To better understand this “Religion of Nature’s God,” Young recommended “Pope’s little Essay on Man, confessedly deduced from the inspiration of Lord Bolingbroke, and perhaps every sentence adopted by me.” Indeed, the first appearance of the term “Nature’s God” in English was in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, a philosophical poem published in 1734, where in explaining how “Virtue alone is Happiness below,” he observed that he was (4.331–32)

Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks thro’ Nature, up to Nature’s God.

Echoing the monistic naturalism of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, Pope spoke of Nature and God interchangeably, in denying sectarian religion in favor of a natural religion in which “true piety,” as Lucretius declared, is not to bow before the gods, but to contemplate nature’s wondrous order.27

Pope’s book was dedicated to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), who became notorious for his posthumously published Philosophical Works that attacked Christianity and promoted an Epicurean and Spinozist atheism or natural religion. “The law of nature is the law of God,” he explained, and therefore the laws of the Bible that contradict nature cannot truly be God’s laws. As a young man, Thomas Jefferson copied this and many other passages from Bolingbroke into his Literary Commonplace Book.28

In his private correspondence, Jefferson affirmed his Epicurean materialism: “I too am an Epicurean.”29 In his correspondence with John Adams, he rejected the “spiritualism” of traditional Christianity and defended a monistic conception of human nature in which mind is an activity of the physical brain.30 He thought that Jesus was originally a great teacher of natural morality, but then his moral teaching was corrupted by a tradition of Christian miracle-working spiritualism. He edited his own personal version of the New Testament (now known as the Jefferson Bible) in which he cut out all the stories of miracles and of the divinity of Jesus.31

Although Jefferson kept all of this private during his lifetime, his published writing, particularly his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781 and published in 1787), provided enough evidence for him to be generally identified as an “infidel.” In the presidential election of 1800, ministers published sermons warning Christians not to vote for this “open infidel.” John Mitchell Mason quoted one of the most infamous passages in the Notes on Virginia: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”32 Mason identified this as a clear statement of infidelity or atheism because it affirmed that a society could be founded in atheism, and that religion was not necessary for social order.

Remarkably, Mason said that many Christians in 1800 were saying that “there is no prospect of obtaining a real Christian, and we had better choose an infidel than a hypocrite.”33 His reply was to argue that it was better to vote for hypocrites like George Washington and John Adams — who hide their infidelity behind their professions of religion — than to vote for an open infidel like Jefferson, because at least hypocrites show public respect for religion. The fact that the Constitution of the United States never mentions God makes it even more imperative, Mason observed, for Christians to elect either Christians or hypocrites rather than open infidels, if there is to be any chance of slowing America’s decline into atheism.

Even if Jefferson was infected with the Epicurean infidelity of Lucretius, Spinoza, Bolingbroke, and Pope, one might assume that the political theology of the Declaration of Independence echoes the Christian creationism of John Locke. But many of Locke’s Christian critics — including Bishop Stillingfleet, Leibniz, and William Carroll — accused Locke of hiding his Epicurean and Spinozist infidelity behind his pretensions of orthodox Christianity. Carroll argued that Locke had advanced a “double View, double Design, intended to fool the pious while promoting Spinozism.” After all, a careful reading of Locke shows his slippery language — sliding between “the laws of God,” “the laws of Nature,” or “the laws of God and Nature,” and moving from “God has designed” to “Nature has designed” — so that his deity looks like Spinoza’s: “God or Nature.”34

“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals.” —Darwin

How one interprets the theology of the Declaration of Independence might shape one’s interpretation of its Lockean morality of natural rights. A transcendent conception of the Declaration’s deity will support a transcendent conception of its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon the supernatural authority of God’s commands as revealed in the Bible. Consequently, infidelity or atheism will deny that morality. By contrast, an immanent conception of the Declaration’s deity will support an immanent conception if its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon human reason’s grasp of a natural moral law known by human experience without any need for supernatural revelation.

The Declaration is open to both interpretations. The openness to a transcendent deity was enhanced by the changes made to Jefferson’s first draft. In that first draft, “Nature’s God” was Jefferson’s only reference to a deity. Later, other members of the Continental Congress added three more references to deity: “they are endowed by their Creator” in the second sentence; “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intensions” in the penultimate sentence; and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” in the last sentence. God as Creator, as Supreme Judge, and as Providential Caregiver does suggest a divine agency above or beyond the natural world that might intervene miraculously in the natural world against natural law to serve His purposes, and thus enforcing a transcendent morality.35

But if one interprets “Nature’s God” as the immanent creative power of nature itself, one could affirm a natural Lockean morality rooted in human nature and reason. That was Jefferson’s position in arguing for a natural moral sense that did not necessarily depend on believing in a transcendent God of the Bible who enforced morality with supernatural rewards and punishments. Darwin agreed with this, and it has been reinforced by recent developments in the evolutionary psychology of the natural moral sentiments.36

When Jefferson and Adams resumed their correspondence in 1812, after it had broken off during their period of being political opponents, much of what they wrote over the next 15 years was about their hope that Nature’s God of the scientific Enlightenment would finally prevail over the priestly superstition enforcing tyranny over the human mind. In his letter of September 14, 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that he would be happy to hear that the British Parliament had passed a bill to repeal the provisions of the Toleration Act of 1689 that made it illegal to deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and he declared:

The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted. There can be no Scepticism, Pyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here. No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication. This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. nature’s God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might fright Us out of our Wits; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary.37

Clearly then, Nature’s God is not three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but one with Nature itself; and Nature’s God is known not by faith in miracles but by human understanding of the natural order of things.

By the Creator?

Here is the beginning of the second sentence in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” Here is that same passage as it appears in the final revised version of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Although the first version conveys the idea of human beings as created equal and deriving rights from that equal creation, the addition of “by their Creator” in the final version makes it clearer that the agent of creation is the divine Creator.

Here is the last sentence in the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species published in 1859:

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.38

In the second edition of this book, Darwin added the phrase “by the Creator” after the word “breathed.”39 Darwin’s language here about creation through “breathing” echoes the language of the King James translation of Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” As in the revision of the Declaration, Darwin’s addition of “the Creator” makes the implication clear that there’s a divine agent at work in the origin of life.

In the Biblical story of Creation, there is something special about God’s creation of human beings, and that human specialness is emphasized by the Bible’s declaration that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). There is also a suggestion of human specialness in the Declaration’s claim that human beings are endowed by their Creator with rights.

In Darwin’s text, however, the powers of life were originally breathed by the Creator “into a few forms or into one,” implying that human beings were not specially created but rather evolved from lower forms of life. And, in fact, Darwin explicitly rejects the “theory of creation” — the theory that the Creator had to miraculously create each species of life separately — in affirming “the theory of natural selection,” Darwin’s theory that all living species of life have naturally evolved over millions of years from one or a few primordial forms of life.40

Is the Darwinian science of human evolution compatible with what the Declaration says about the creation of human beings by the Creator? It depends on what one means by “creation” and “the Creator.” As I have already indicated, there are different kinds of creationism, and while some kinds clearly contradict Darwin’s science, some do not — as indicated by Darwin himself in his reference to “the Creator.” A Creator whose creative activity is always against the laws of nature denies Darwin’s science. But a Creator whose creative activity works through the laws of nature — who acts as Nature’s God — is compatible with Darwin’s science.

As discussed earlier, Darwin introduces the idea of dual causality into The Origin of Species: God’s establishment of general laws constitutes the primary causes of the universe, while the natural scientist studies the secondary causes that govern the observable world. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were familiar with a similar conception of dual causality in Isaac Newton’s version of deistic religion. The universe is a “machine” governed by the mathematical laws of nature. But God is the “Maker” of the machine.

This Newtonian conception of the “clockmaker God” creates a dilemma, however, for anyone who wants to see God as a transcendent being beyond the immanent order of nature. As Gottfried Leibniz pointed out in his debate with Samuel Clark, either God must intervene regularly to rewind or repair the clock, which shows that God is an incompetent clockmaker; or the clock works fine all by itself, and God the clockmaker is indistinguishable from God the clock. If it’s the latter, then Newton’s God is Spinoza’s God, who is the same as Nature.

In one of the most influential statements of Lockean political philosophy in the eighteenth century — Cato’s Letters — John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon resolved this debate in favor of Spinoza. In their essay on how to dispel “superstitious fears” by recognizing that what appear to be miraculous events are probably works of natural causes, they argue:

The works of Almighty God are as infinite as is his power to do them. And ’tis paying greater deference to him, and having higher conceptions of his omnipotence, to suppose that he saw all things which have been, are, or ever shall be, at one view, and formed the whole system of nature with such exquisite contrivance and infinite wisdom, as by its own energy and intrinsick power, to promote all the effects and operations which we daily see, feel, and admire; than to believe him to be often interposing to alter and amend his own work, which was undoubtedly perfect at first.41

This same Spinozistic idea of identifying God and Nature was adopted by Darwin. After reading one of the first copies of The Origin of Species, Charles Kingsley — a prominent clergyman of the Church of England and a friend of Darwin — wrote a letter to Darwin, which included this remark:

I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore & pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made.

Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, that Kingsley’s “capital sentence” should be inserted into the second edition of Origin, “in answer to anyone who may, as many will, say that my Book is irreligious.” This sentence was introduced into the concluding section of Origin as showing that there is “no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.”42

But can the creation of human beings “in the image of God” arise by purely natural evolution without any miraculous intervention by God? Darwin suggests that even the creation of the soul might be explained by natural evolution. Here is the last sentence of The Descent of Man:

I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system — with all these exalted powers — Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.43

Darwin’s reference to the “god-like intellect” of human beings suggests that there might be some truth in the biblical idea that human beings bear the image of God. But still, Darwin argues, all the “noble qualities” of humanity can be explained as products of a natural evolution from lower animals.

To support this conclusion, Darwin offered evidence of the anatomical, behavioral, and mental similarities between human beings and other animals. But he also saw that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, self-conscious reflection, and the moral sense.44 Now, recent research in evolutionary neuroscience allows us to explain the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain, which includes the human mind’s capacity for moral judgment, which allows us to recognize our natural rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.45

Jefferson foresaw this, because he studied some of the earliest neurological experiments showing how mental activity was correlated with the stimulation of the brain, which Jefferson took as evidence of how mind arises naturally from the material brain. This came up in his correspondence with John Adams: “Why may not the mode of action called thought, have been given to a material organ of peculiar structure? as that of magnetism is to the Needle, or of elasticity to the spring by a particular manipulation of the steel?”46

So, there are good reasons to believe that two of the major arguments against Darwinian evolution made by American Christian fundamentalists are mistaken. There is no clear biblical revelation denying Darwinian evolution. And there is no reason to believe that the Declaration of Independence requires a creationist theology that contradicts Darwinian science. END

About the Author

Larry Arnhart is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of four books and many articles on political philosophy, Darwinian evolution, and biopolitical science.

  1. Jon D. Miller, et al. “Public Acceptance of Evolution in the United States, 1985–2020.” Public Understanding of Science, 2021, 1–16.
  2. Jon D. Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Shinji Okamoto. “Public Acceptance of Evolution,” Science 313, 2006: 765–766.
  3. William Jennings Bryan. In His Image. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1922.
  4. James B. Stump (ed). Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).
  5. Ibid., 16.
  6. Ibid., 232.
  7. Ibid., 166.
  8. Ibid., 71, 76, 107.
  9. Ibid., 19, 101.
  10. Ibid., 24, 28, 31, 34, 38, 44, 46.
  11. Ibid., 41, 105.
  12. Frank Marsh. Fundamental Biology. (Lincoln, NE: Union College, Department of Biology, 1941).
  13. Stump, Four Views, 83.
  14. Ibid., 125.
  15. Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species. 6th ed. In The Origin of Species, and the Descent of Man, 367–74. (New York: Random House, The Modern Library, 1936).
  16. Darwin, Letter to Frederick McDermott, November 24, 1880.
  17. Stump, Four Views, 128–131
  18. Ibid., 156.
  19. Thomas Romer, The Invention of God (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).
  20. Stump, Four Views, 18, 44–45, 60.
  21. See Anthony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
  22. Ibid., 210.
  23. See, for example, Stephen Dilley, ed., Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013).
  24. Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844, 300. Ed. Paul H. Barrett et al. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).
  25. Bryan, op cit., 1922.
  26. Michael Perry. Toward a Theory of Human Rights. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  27. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 5. 1197–1203.
  28. Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, sec. 36. Ed. Douglas L. Wilson. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).
  29. Jefferson, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819.
  30. Lester J. Cappon (ed.). The Adams-Jefferson Letters. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
  31. Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.
  32. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII. In Thomas Jefferson: Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. (New York: Library of America, 1984).
  33. John Mitchell Mason. “The Voice of Warning to Christians.” In Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1447–1476. Ed. Ellis Sandoz. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991, orig. 1800).
  34. Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, secs. 1, 4, 60, 142, 195; Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.9.12, 2.10.3. For a meticulous account of how Epicurean naturalism was transmitted through Lucretius, Spinoza, and Locke to the American founders, see Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York: Norton, 2014).
  35. On the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, see Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Ideas (New York: Random House, 1942).
  36. See Michael Shermer. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).
  37. Cappon, Adams-Jefferson Letters, 373.
  38. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), 490.
  39. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 6th edition. In The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man (New York: Random House, Modern Library, 1936), 374.
  40. Darwin, Origin of Species, 6th edition, 360–369
  41. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Cato’s Letters, 2:565. Ed. Ronald Hamowy. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995).
  42. Darwin, Origin of Species, 6th edition, 367–368.
  43. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 689.
  44. Darwin, Descent, 120, 135–36, 151, 157, 163, 680.
  45. Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).
  46. Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, March 14, 1820.

This article was published on June 16, 2022.

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