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To many people the relationship between science and religion is epitomized by the clash over evolution. Over the past two decades America has seen a significant rise in the number of Christian "creationists" who believe the biblical story of creation must be taken literally, and that the universe was therefore created in six days just over six thousand years ago. But although there are some Christians who insist on taking the Genesis account literally, the majority of Christian believers understand this story metaphorically. Recently, the Vatican Observatory in conjunction with the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences held a conference on the issue of evolution to which they invited theologians, philosophers, and scientists from around the world. Here, Christian participants overwhelming agreed that evolution was not in conflict with Christian faith, and that on the contrary it could be seen as the way in which God goes about being creative within the world. For these believers, an understanding of the processes of evolution could indeed enhance their faith.

Charles DarwinThe controversy over biological evolution began in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his monumental book "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection". Darwin's book suggested that instead of being specially created by God, humans were the product of biological evolution. As he later wrote: "Man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits." Many religious believers in the nineteenth century felt that Darwinian evolution had robbed humanity of its dignity, for how could humans be created in the image of God if we were the descendants of apes? Faced with this dilemma, they rebelled against Darwin's theory. Yet even in the nineteenth century there were many theologians and ministers - both Catholic and Protestant - who did not see a conflict between their faith and Darwin's science. These more liberal thinkers often went to great lengths to convince the public that evolution could be harmonized with traditional religious views and values.

Today a new generation of Christian thinkers is again stressing that an evolutionary perspective is compatible with their faith. A leading voice in this debate is the Oxford University biochemist Arthur Peacocke. Peacocke, who is now also an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, believes that evolution can even enhance understanding of the Judeo-Christian God. Whereas biblical literalists insist that creation was a once only event that happened at the beginning of time, Peacocke notes that evolution is compatible with the Christian idea of creatio continua, the notion that God is continuously creating. As he explains: "Whatever we meant by God being creator, it wasn't something that God did once in the past, and then walked off ... It's something that's going on all the time."

The point here is not that one must see God in the process of evolution, but rather that there is nothing inherently incompatible between an evolutionary view of life and a commitment to the Christian scriptures.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Margaret Wertheim

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