One of the biggest political and social (rather than scientific) questions surrounding evolution is what effect it has on religious belief, and what effect it should have. I’ll state my position on the matter outright: if you’re a Biblical literalist who believes that every word of the Bible is true, six-day creation and all, evolution certainly conflicts with your worldview. However, if you’re a Biblical literalist who believes that every word of the Bible is true, six-day creation and all, it shouldn’t matter. You’re already so much at odds with the facts that evolution is the least of your problems where science is concerned.
More reasonable Christians have a tougher time of it. On paper, a Christian for whom the Bible is not a history textbook written by an omnipotent being should have no reason to reject evolution on religious grounds; after all, the Bible doesn’t mention the vast majority of what we know about the Universe. (And let’s face it, the idea of the Big Bang is appropriately awe-inspiring to be the work of a god.) Yet I can understand why evolution might not gel with someone whose beliefs dictate that humanity is special, created by God in his own image. If nothing else, evolution certainly contradicts that idea.
However, I don’t think that should be a barrier to accepting the theory either. Evolution is not alone in stating that humans are ‘mere’ apes, markedly different from the others mainly because of our great intelligence. Basic biology points to the exact same conclusion; whether you believe that we are similar to the rest of our taxonomical family because of common ancestry or because God made us that way, it’s undeniable that we are similar. We share many of the same genetic material and even a rough anatomical comparison makes it cleat that nobody is closer to us than the (other) great apes.
Humans have been placed in the same category as orangutangs, gorillas and chimpanzees since before evolution became a dominant theory in biology, and what’s more, that classification was accepted by scientists at a time when Creationism was the norm. Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, had this to say to one of his criticisers:
It does not please (you) that I’ve placed Man among the Anthropomorpha, but man learns to know himself. Let’s not quibble over words. It will be the same to me whatever name we apply. But I seek from you and from the whole world a generic difference between man and simian that [follows] from the principles of Natural History. I absolutely know of none. If only someone might tell me a single one! If I would have called man a simian or vice versa, I would have brought together all the theologians against me. Perhaps I ought to have by virtue of the law of the discipline.
Keep in mind that Linnaeus died in 1778, decades before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Although evolution in some form had been proposed before and during his lifetime, nobody could accuse him of pandering to evolutionary theory, since it barely existed at the time. Needless to say, genetic comparison and all of the tools of modern science merely confirm what Linnaeus first realised. (His beliefs about the ‘races of humanity’, however, haven’t aged quite so well.)
The phrase from the above quote that intrigues me the most is ‘man learns to know himself’. Such sentiment is at the very heart of both science and religion, and while I have far more respect for the former when it comes to actual ability to produce results, the two do not need to conflict. I believe that it makes more sense for religion to yield to science rather than the other way around (and I can’t see that the two can co-exist without one yielding to the other), but that does not mean that science and evolutionary theory cannot inform or even enhance religious belief. If there is a God, and if that God has revealed itself to us, its message will surely be in its own creation rather than in books of Scripture.
We are animals. Anything even approaching mainstream biology confirms this, yet far from diminishing us somehow, science shows us that being called an ‘animal’ should not be an insult. The statement is neither pejorative or belittling to humanity. It is simply scientific fact.
Humanity learns to know itself, and a religious movement which enshrines that principle and accepts science as the most powerful tool we have to push back the boundaries of our knowledge would be a wonderful thing, for humanity and for the world.