Evolution and Faith – What is at Stake?

Evolution and Faith – What is at Stake?

On Thursday evening, April 12, 2007, Professor John Haught from Georgetown University gave a talk at Siena College near Albany, NY entitled “Evolution and Faith – What is at Stake?” The talk was sponsored by the Franciscan Center for Catholic Studies at Siena College – and graciously hosted by Professor Tom Dickens from Siena College. The talk was approximately an hour in length followed by a question and answer period. Professor Haught used impressive Microsoft PowerPoint slides that were displayed on a large screen behind him. He spoke in the Sarazen Student Union, a large rectangular hall where a good size crowd on the order of one hundred people showed up. The audience included a large number of students, several priests and professors from the College as well as interested people from the community.

Professor Haught’s presentation started with a quotation from evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky which reads, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” He ended his talk with a modified form of this same quotation – replacing the word “Biology” with “Theology“. As you might have guessed, Haught is a strong believer in evolution. He strongly opposes the intelligent design movement and any form of theistic evolution that proposes God’s supernatural intervention in the creation process. He accepts the general mechanisms proposed by evolutionists – of time, chance and mutations to explain the formation and development of life. While Haught does cling to a materialist explanation of life’s development – he views himself as a theist presumably because he has left a role for God at the beginning of creation.

Haught does recognize that atheism and theism are opposing worldviews that can never be reconciled. He is very familiar with the atheistic promoters of evolution such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven J. Gould – and spent a considerable time discussing their conclusions on the subject of suffering and the lack of meaning in evolution.  He is also familiar with the intelligent design movement and books by Michael J. Behe (Darwin’s Black Box, Simon and Schuster, 1998) and Philip E. Johnson (Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Intervarsity Press, 1997). Haught views his own theology as a legitimate compromise position between the extreme and opposite views held by atheistic promoters of evolution and the intelligent design community. Haught believes that people generally have too narrow a view of evolution which leads them to conclude that evolution can not be reconciled with the faith.

In the question and answer period, Haught suggested there are different layers of explanation that need to be recognized in order to reconcile evolution and religion. Each layer is true but each one proposes an answer to a different question. He used an example of a boiling kettle of water and then asked the following question.

Why is the water boiling?

Level 1 (a scientific explanation) The water is boiling because the water molecules have been excited by the influx of energy on the kettle which causes the water to transition from the liquid state to the vapor state.

Level 2 (a simple explanation) The water is boiling because the gas has been turned on.

Level 3 (a purposeful explanation) The water is boiling because I wanted tea.

All these levels of explanation are true and should be accepted – but they need to be distinguished from one another. If people would distinguish between these layers of understanding then the perceived differences between science and religion would disappear. This is the view of Professor Haught – in a nutshell – further details can also be found in his book, “God After Darwin – A Theology of Evolution” published by Westview Press, © 2000.

On the surface, the professor’s explanation sounds reasonable and even a bit sophisticated. His multi-layered view suggests that no conflict really exists because the layers are unrelated to one another and so can never really intersect. The questions that concern purpose and meaning are one layer while the scientific mechanisms and their description are another layer. In this way apparent conflicts between religion and science can be resolved when it is recognized that they are addressing different questions. This idea is actually not new and has been refuted in Catholic theology – in the encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis – on the doctrine of the modernist. Pope Pius X describes these false views in paragraph 16 as follows:

We have proceeded sufficiently far, Venerable Brethren, to have before us enough, and more than enough, to enable us to see what are the relations which Modernists establish between faith and science — including, as they are wont to do under that name, history. And in the first place it is to be held that the object-matter of the one is quite extraneous to and separate from the object-matter of the other. For faith occupies itself solely with something which science declares to be for it, unknowable. Hence each has a separate scope assigned to it: science is entirely concerned with phenomena, into which faith does not at all enter; faith, on the contrary, concerns itself with the divine, which is entirely unknown to science. Thus it is contended that there can never be any dissension between faith and science, for if each keeps on its own ground they can never meet and therefore never can be in contradiction.

You might ask what possible harm can this distinction between faith and science possibly cause? The answer appears a few sentences down the page where Pope St. Pius X concludes that our Catholic faith is then made subject to science.

Thus it is evident that science is to be entirely independent of faith, while on the other hand, and notwithstanding that they are supposed to be strangers to each other, faith is made subject to science.

Instead of our faith informing science which is so desperately needed in our world today – our Catholic faith is made subject to the ideas of fallen mankind – including evolution. This is a complete inversion of Catholic theology. The encyclical goes on to describe that this way of thinking paves the way for atheism and the end of all religion. This is exactly the trend that we see over the past century with the increased secularization of western culture and especially Europe where acceptance of evolution is much higher than the United States.

As mentioned earlier, Professor Haught has written a whole book on his new theology – a theology of evolution. For the sake of brevity – I will focus on only two particular aspects of his theology. These include his rejection of natural theology and his novel teaching that the creation is unfinished.

Natural theology deals with the intellectual proofs and arguments made in defense of God’s existence from the created order. If one accepts the materialist mechanisms for evolutionary theory (time and chance) and rejects any supernatural direction for the explanation of life and order in the universe – then the whole concept of natural theology falls apart. According to those who believe in evolution, the design that we see in nature is basically an illusion caused by the natural mechanisms of evolution. This is precisely why Professor Haught testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Dover, Pennsylvania intelligent design lawsuit – basically arguing that God is not needed – at this point anyway. What we have here is a Catholic theologian who testifies on the same side with atheists, agnostics and unbelievers on the subject of God role in creation. This might be hard to believe but once you understand that his faith has been made subject to evolution – it makes perfect sense.  

The Magisterium of the church has a different view point on the subject of natural theology. The first canon on revelation from first Vatican Council states:

[Against those denying natural theology] If anyone shall have said that the one true God, our Creator and our Lord, cannot be known with certitude by those things with which have been made, by the natural light of human reason; let him be anathema.

Given the choice of accepting a dogma of the Catholic faith or a conflicting idea derived from evolution, Professor Haught chooses evolution. He has thus made his faith subject to his understanding of science – in the area of natural theology.

During the question and answer period, Professor Haught reaffirmed his strong support for the court decision which prevented the Dover students from hearing alternatives to the theory of evolution. He even affirmed the decision as it applies to the education of his own children. This is in direct opposition to the teaching of Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani Generis (paragraph 36) that Catholics be exposed to a balanced treatment on origins like that proposed by the Dover school board.

…However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.

Once again, for Professor Haught, evolution trumps the Church teachings – even to the point of siding with atheists, agnostics and unbelievers.

Evolution has also influenced his ability to accept Church teachings on the metaphysical distinction between the present order of things and the order of creation. If the evolution story holds then the creation of man is a relatively recent event in the history of the cosmos – and this process must continue to the present day. The testimony of Scripture and Tradition teaches that God rested on the seventh day because He had completed his creative acts. God does continue to work today – but His work is in the order of providence – not in a never ending creation process. The consequence of this error is that our present world is improperly understood and where fallen aspects of the creation are attributed to God’s original purpose. This error can also lead to invalid extrapolations of present natural processes to explain the origin of things. Haught sees an improperly perceived world in the writings of the atheist promoters of evolution – but fails to connect them to evolution within a logically consistent world view.  Scientists today are studying a fallen world that was once a paradise. Our world has been cursed with death and suffering because of man’s rebellion against his Creator. We must view our present sufferings through this lens and the understanding from God that ultimately this is temporary. God’s plan is to restore paradise – with a new heaven and a new earth – where death and suffering will be destroyed. This is our firm hope.

The subtitle to Haught’s talk, “What is at Stake?” is truly a serious question. I think on this point we would agree – that a great deal is at stake. My view – is that a theology of evolution simply encourages our cultural slide into secularism – a road that we’re already on because of evolution’s cultural grip. We need a course direction change that can only be provided by rediscovering the traditional doctrine of creation.


A talk given by Professor John Haught at Siena College
Reviewed by Edward Razz