Natural faith

How Darwinian evolution has transformed liberal religion.


Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this February, thought seriously about becoming a clergyman when he was a young man. When he went aboard HMS Beagle in 1831 he thought of himself as a Christian, he wrote in his autobiography, but over the years “disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” The theory of evolution by natural selection, which he introduced in The Origin of Species in 1859, refuted the traditional argument from design, which holds that plant and animal life are so complex that they must have been designed by a superior intelligence. Natural selection shows, however, that what we think of as intelligent design is the result of living forms adapting to their environment through “descent with modification.” Darwin also believed that the degree of evil and suffering in the world throws doubt on the idea of an omnipotent and loving deity, and since he could find no reason to believe in a divine creator, he remained “Agnostic” on the matter.

Whether we agree with Darwin’s theological conclusions or not, there is no question that the theory of evolution by natural selection has important implications for theology and religious belief. At the most obvious level it undermines a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. At the next level it throws doubt on the notion of divine purpose in creation, since natural selection maintains that the only purposes of organisms are to survive and reproduce. And finally, it questions whether a divine creator is necessary at all.

I believe that evolution by natural selection is one of the most important insights not only in the history of science but in the history of the world because it has radically changed our traditional Western understanding of how we came to be, what we are, and of our place in the world. However, just as it took several hundred years for the full implications of Copernicus’s discovery to be felt, so also all the implications of Darwin’s idea have not yet become fully apparent.

Human beings become natural

Before Darwin, people in the Western world thought species were fixed entities, created by God in the exact form in which we find them today. After Darwin, however, we know that all living things have evolved over hundreds of millions of years from single cell organisms that emerged in a kind of primal soup and learned to replicate themselves. After Darwin we know that we humans are connected as part of a great family tree stretching back across billions of years to the dawn of life and, most importantly, that human beings are as much a part of nature as tigers and beetles, with a family tree that includes countless diverse ancestors. Darwinian evolution destroyed the idea that human beings are a special creation made in the image of the deity. We may be unique—with consciousness and our ability to reason—but it is because this uniqueness evolved, not because it was bestowed on us by a divine creator.

That awareness represents a sea change in our self-understanding. Before Darwin we humans thought of ourselves as, in the words of the Psalmist, “a little lower than the angels” and infused with an immortal soul. But if we are, as evolution tells us, wholly natural rather than part natural and part supernatural, then the ideas of immortality and divine creation in the image of God become problematic.

We are not as special as we once thought. We are simply the most highly evolved animal that natural selection has produced (so far as we know). However, this does not mean we are not beings of “inherent worth and dignity.” We are of great worth precisely because we are highly evolved and because of what we have created—great art, beautiful music, inspiring literature, magnificent architecture—and because of our ability to love, to do justice, and to live ethically. In 1894, the Rev. John White Chadwick, a Unitarian minister, wrote that Darwin’s theory of human origins “seemed the wreck of our high faith in human nature: it has proved its grandest confirmation.”

Thus the theory of evolution by natural selection has resulted in a radical naturalization both in our self-understanding and in our understanding of the world, and we now seek to understand ourselves in relationship to our evolutionary biological origins rather than in relationship to a supernatural being.

Darwin’s idea has greatly expanded our understanding of who we are and why we act as we do by giving birth to two important areas of research: evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. The former has added greatly to our knowledge of how we evolved and how our brains work, and the latter has increased our understanding of human behavior. The more we learn about ourselves through these disciplines, the more significant the implications of Darwin’s idea of evolution become.

God becomes natural

Before Darwin the belief in an omni­potent divine being seemed self-evident in the Western world. Many scientists and philosophers viewed God as the First Cause, the creator of the laws of nature, and the being who designed the world and its many complex inhabitants. By showing how the complexity of living things could arise from the process of natural selection, however, Darwin removed the need for a Designer.

Does this mean that we can no longer believe in God? Not necessarily, but it does mean that our conception of deity changes. It means that it is now more difficult to think of God as a personal supernatural being who is both all-powerful and all-knowing, as Western theology has long maintained, or as the being who brought all things into existence. Instead, many liberal theologians now conceive of God as a power within the natural universe rather than a source outside it. Such a “naturalistic theism” has different expressions but usually affirms that God is not omnipotent. The divine has a power of persuasion rather than coercion, like a magnet that draws us toward love and goodness.

In Reinventing the Sacred, scientist Stuart Kauffman suggests we “rename God, not as the Generator of the universe, but as the creativity in the natural universe itself.” He regards nature’s creativity as “so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe.” Kauffman’s view is consistent with the thinking of many UUs today.

Within the young Unitarian movement in the United States were both proponents and opponents (notably, Louis Agassiz) of Darwin’s theory. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau accepted it. In 1874 Minot Savage, a Unitarian minister in New York City, published a book of sermons that became a best seller under the title The Religion of Evolution. Noting that religion needs to adapt to the new discoveries of science if it is to remain a vital force, Savage pointed out that Christianity originally opposed other scientific advances that it now accepts and argued that evolution is just such a scientific breakthrough.

Francis Ellingwood Abbot, one of the leaders of the Free Religious Association (FRA), the liberal wing of Unitarianism in the late nineteenth century, welcomed biological evolution in Scientific Theism (1885) and anticipated modern process theology with an understanding of the universe as an evolving organism and God as a force of “infinite intelligibility” within the universe. Abbot was “acclaimed as the first American theologian to develop a system of religious thought in complete consonance with Darwinian evolution,” according to historian Sydney Ahlstrom.

The FRA was an important predecessor of the Unitarian humanist movement, which was in turn deeply influenced by Darwin’s theory. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933, signed by fifteen Unitarian ministers and one Universalist minister, expressed the view that “man [sic] is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process,” clearly a reference to evolution. Religious humanism today remains firmly in the Darwinian camp.

Darwinian thinking is one of the major reasons most UUs are naturalists as opposed to supernaturalists. Although few of us may be aware of it in those terms, most UUs, whether theistic or non-theistic, do not believe in the existence of a supernatural realm, and that is one of the things that makes us unique among Western religions.

Natural spirituality

Despite the great variety of life forms that have evolved over the millennia, the awareness, rooted in evolutionary biology, of the kinship of all living organisms leads us to regard all human beings as members of one extended family. The spiritual implication of this realization is that we should live together in love and caring, be tolerant of our differences, and take responsibility for one another.

It also suggests that we are one with all of nature and that we have a moral responsibility to care for the natural world. It is the sense that Shug, in The Color Purple, expresses when she says, “I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.” This sense of unity arising out of Darwinian thinking provides a deep spiritual grounding for the commitment of Unitarian Universalists to a strong environmental ethic. The Seventh Principle of the UUA emphasizes this insight in affirming the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Darwin’s idea also fosters a deeper, nature-centered spirituality by shifting the focus away from the supernatural to nature itself—its amazing fecundity and diversity and the remarkable process Darwin called natural selection and descent with modification. In a post-Darwinian world, emotions such as awe and wonder and reverence evoked by the natural world are often identified as religious emotions. A natural spirituality is the result.

Reverence toward nature was not new to the Western world. After all, the Psalmist had proclaimed, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Early Christian mystics had regarded nature as a pathway to God; the Puritan Jonathan Edwards found evidence of God’s loving heart in the beauty of the natural world. Emerson, whose first published work was the great essay Nature, had found spiritual depth in communion with the natural world.

Although it was not new to find spiritual nurture in nature, Darwin’s discovery increased both interest in the natural world and the sense of wonder it evoked. Many religious liberals feel nature’s beauty to be a source of moral vigor and spiritual refreshment. Just to look at a bird or a tree and to try to imagine how it came to be and how it acquired its marvelous abilities is enough to fill one’s mind with astonishment. Our connection to nature is a profound spiritual experience that evokes awe, reverence, and respect for all living things. The late Carl Sagan recognized the spiritual value of nature when he wrote: “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Every religion needs a story, and Darwin’s idea has given us a place in a new story with multiple layers of meaning. That story, the great epic of cosmic and biological evolution, is a religious story because it calls us out of our little self-centered worlds to see ourselves as part of a great living system. It gives a larger meaning and a broader ethic to our lives. As Darwin wrote at the end of The Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

Darwin’s idea did not create a nature spirituality, but it increased its importance and added deeper meaning to it.

It is not too much to say, as British biologist Olivia Judson writes, that “the Origin changed everything.” Certainly without Darwin our religious movement would be different from what it is today. Darwin’s theory revolutionized our understanding of ourselves, our sense of God and spirituality, and our relationship to the natural world. As a religious movement committed to “truth wherever it may be found,” we Unitarian Universalists cannot help but embrace the tremendous increase in knowledge and understanding made possible by Darwin’s revolutionary idea.

This article appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of UU World (pages 26-29).

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