27th January 2021

Book in Focus

Redundant God? Christian Faith in the Light of Evolution

By David de Pomerai

The question of whether evolution makes faith superfluous has plagued theologists and religious leaders ever since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species first appeared in 1859.

As both an academic biologist and an ordained priest, David de Pomerai is uniquely well-placed to provide an answer. In Redundant God? Christian Faith in the Light of Evolution, de Pomerai explains why science and faith, so often considered diametrically opposed, need not be incompatible, and puts forward his ideas of how the two can come together and synthesise to tackle many of the crises facing the world today.

This is a book I knew I had to write. As a busy academic teaching and researching in biology for nearly 40 years, I had no time to undertake this task until after retirement. Fifteen years into my university career, I was ordained as a deacon and then priest in the Anglican Church—a role in which I still contribute towards the life and ministry of my local Episcopalian congregation. As a Janus figure, wearing the masks of both priest and biologist, I have often been challenged to defend the plausibility of my Christian faith in the face of evolution—which is the linking thread that runs through every aspect of biology (and indeed palaeontology). Received wisdom avers that evolution—together with cosmology and geology—has rendered God redundant as the Creator of life, the universe, and everything, and thus irrelevant to 21st century life with its plethora of besieging problems (largely of our own making). I beg to differ.

Christians are wary of evolution, and with good reason, since it seems to undermine the goodness and sanctity of creation, providing instead a bleak vision of relentless savagery and competition. However, that vision is confirmed in the subtext of any wildlife or nature documentary: out of the multitudes of offspring produced by many species, only a handful will actually survive to maturity and pass on their genes to future generations. If this is how God has seen fit to create and organise the natural world, then ‘loving’ and ‘caring’ are not adjectives that spring immediately to mind. Invoking Satan and the fallen-ness of creation does not help us much here, because the Biblical Fall narrative (Genesis 3) is far too anthropocentric, as if only human beings have significance for God. In fact, evolution places Homo sapiens as a very recent newcomer in the history of life on earth, even though our impact on the planet and its homeostatic processes has been unprecedented, especially during the so-called Anthropocene epoch that humanity itself has inaugurated.

Evolution happens much more readily than we suppose. Indeed, we can now witness evolution in action as new mutant variants of the RNA coronavirus arise and spread more rapidly than the original version. Needless to say, countless millions of new viral genomes are produced every day in infected individuals, so mutations that confer an advantage in terms of the efficacy or rapidity of infection are bound to win out and spread. Much the same happens in pest-infested fields sprayed with pesticides; rare pesticide-resistant mutations are intensively selected (because all other variants are killed off) and soon become the dominant pest variety. Surely, argue evolution sceptics, these simplistic models cannot account for the generation of such astonishing variety across the natural world? This might be true if innovations could arise only by reconfiguring whole sets of genes and the proteins which they encode. However, that often seems to be unnecessary. Genes (especially in higher organisms) are controlled hierarchically in a modular fashion, through gene-regulatory proteins (transcription factors) that bind to short recognition sequences of DNA. Simply through mutating one of these recognition sequences, the pattern of target-gene expression can be altered—perhaps changing where or when or to what extent that particular gene is expressed. This, in turn, can have large knock-on effects on the size or arrangement or anatomy of particular structures, from leaves in a plant to segments in an arthropod. Variations are, in fact, remarkably easy to generate!

The key to Darwin’s theory of evolution is the role of natural selection, favouring those variants that confer some advantageous characteristic, while other variants prove, on average, less successful in terms of survival and reproduction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ provides an apt summary of the process—where only favoured variants win out and no heed is paid to the losers. Once again, this is deeply uncomfortable for Christians, for whom Jesus (and indeed much of the Old Testament) embodies diametrically opposite values—of care and concern for the lowly and the outcast, the ‘losers’ whom evolution holds of no account. However, evolution by natural selection, operating over the vast spans of geological time, can account for the diversification of life into all its “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin), not to mention those that are curious, bizarre, or downright repugnant. A God who deliberately created ichneumon flies (whose eggs are laid inside a caterpillar, which is then consumed from within by the hatching grubs), or parasites, or many other creatures with (humanly speaking) repulsive lifestyles would have a lot to answer for! Furthermore, Christians really can’t blame the Fall for this: most such lifestyles are evolutionarily ancient, predating the origin of humans by millions or billions of years.

So what kind of God might be more consistent with such an evolutionary perspective? I think what is needed first and foremost is a reappraisal of what we mean by ‘God as Creator’. Evolution by natural selection renders a ‘hands-on’ Creator unnecessary. It may be more helpful to think of creation in terms of God’s loving, gracious and non-coercive invitation—which nevertheless does not go unfulfilled—calling all possibility into being (Ruth Page). If Christians are serious in their claim that Jesus shows us as much of God as human minds are capable of understanding, then it is surely time to abandon our traditional picture of God as a stern monarch exercising absolute authority throughout the universe. The life and ministry of Jesus, as recounted in the gospels, tell a very different story. Indeed, his kingdom teaching challenges all of our worldly assumptions about power, authority, glory and value. Recall that Jesus—the second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead in Christian tradition—washed his disciples’ feet, including even the traitor Judas (who left after the foot-washing in the Gospel of John). This is the very antithesis of earthly imperial power, just as the loving Father who welcomes home the Prodigal Son stands in stark contrast to the strict and judgemental father-figure that his son was expecting. Our model of God is Jesus, not some Roman emperor!

The topsy-turvy values of the kingdom, as proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, afford one possible route for making eschatological sense of evolution. If it were the case that only (some) humans are to be offered salvation and eternal life, as in traditional Christian belief, what then becomes of all the life-forms that preceded and (in one lineage) led up to humanity? Are they all consigned to oblivion, as though this immensely long prelude counted for nothing in the brief light of its supposed culmination (ourselves)? This is not only anthropocentric (again) but immensely hubristic—claiming ourselves to be the pinnacle of creation, as if we were evolution’s final word. The only alternative seems to be a vastly expanded universal salvation (as envisaged by Jürgen Moltmann), whereby all living things will find new life and fulfilment in God’s kingdom, including the unnumbered victims and ‘losers’ that are tossed aside so casually by evolution. Although human beings may choose to commit evil, non-human organisms do not (so far as we know) have the kind of conscious intentionality that would allow distinctions to be drawn between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ acts, so meriting judgement. There is, in fact, a venerable, if minority, Christian tradition that asserts the reality, or at least the possibility, of universal salvation; early exponents of this view included Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Cappadocian Father. Maybe, as Moltmann suggests, evolution itself will be redeemed from its callousness and all its creativity celebrated.

Human culpability and non-human suffering both come into sharp focus in our times of accelerating climate change—which is largely anthropogenic in origin—a topic examined from an evolutionary perspective in the final chapter of the book. Such catastrophes are not without precedent, although the last one occurred 66 million years ago (long before humans appeared!), when an asteroid impact wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era. That was the 5th and most recent in a series of mass extinctions that punctuate the history of life on earth. Current rates of species extinction are already vastly higher than background rates over the past 60 million years, portending a 6th mass extinction unless urgent action is taken to curb emissions of greenhouse gases and so limit the extent of global warming. Christians should be in the vanguard of conservation efforts and action to combat climate change, living lives of conspicuous restraint, rather than pandering to secular consumerism. Sadly, the most vocal Christian voices on this issue are often those of right-wing evangelicals who deny either the reality of, or human responsibility for, global warming. These views need to be challenged both scientifically and theologically. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that humanity can change its profligate ways when confronted by an urgent need to do so; whether we will now do likewise for climate change remains to be seen, but the time window available for reversing current trends is shrinking rapidly.

Taken as a whole, this book seeks for synthesis and common ground within and across a wide range of disciplines, despite the strident arguments which beset each of them. As chapter 6 illustrates, received wisdom is almost always over-simplified, and there is much to be gained from also considering alternative viewpoints. Evolution is not wholly contingent on happenstance (Gould), but neither is it entirely predictable through the prevalence of convergence (Conway Morris). Rather, as Jonathan Losos and others have argued, there is a mixture of both, and neither on its own can explain everything. In an analogous way, I have cherry-picked insights from many different theological traditions (Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox and Liberal) in part 2 of the book, but I am well aware that these do not cohere into a consistent theology of evolution. My hope is that they might at least offer pointers worth pursuing. The Christian calling is to dedicate our lives to serving others—especially the poor and disadvantaged, which should now include the natural environment as a top priority. Unless the spiritual resources of all major religions can be pressed into service to urge restraint in place of acquisitive greed, there is little hope for averting climate disaster.

David de Pomerai received a BSc (Genetics) from Edinburgh University, and a PhD (Biochemistry) from University College London. After postdoctoral research in Edinburgh, he was appointed Lecturer in Zoology at Nottingham University—where he remained throughout his academic career, retiring to Edinburgh in 2015. His research and teaching interests covered developmental biology, toxicology and bioethics. After training part-time on the East Midlands Ministry Training course, he was ordained deacon in 1993 and priest in 1994. Since then, he has served as Associate Priest in several Anglican parishes, and as diocesan science adviser. He is currently serving in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and is Honorary Fellow at New College, Edinburgh. He has written a textbook, From Gene to Animal (1985, 1990), as well as a number of book chapters and over 80 research articles.

Redundant God? Christian Faith in the Light of Evolution is available now. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount. The first 30 pages can be accessed free of charge by clicking here