Perspective: Crossing the divide between science and religion: a view on evolution
Published on One Country, Volume 19, Issue 3 / April-June 2008
Many people today question the place of religion in an age of science. This is understandable: the extraordinary success of the scientific method at providing a nearly seamless explanatory framework for the physical world has acutely challenged traditional religious beliefs.
Perhaps nowhere is this challenge more apparent than in the theory of evolution. For some, evolution is the ultimate scientific theory: simple, powerful, and elegant, it offers an explanation of the great mystery of how life, order, and complexity can arise from lifelessness and chaos. For others, evolution threatens to undermine deeply held beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life: it pushes the Creator from the cosmic stage, replacing a universe suffused with meaning with one that is cold, pitiless, and utterly indifferent to human suffering.
For many thoughtful people, believers or not, neither extreme seems adequate. They intuitively understand that there ought to be no contradiction in both embracing the theory of evolution and holding the conviction that human life has a higher origin and a larger purpose than the mere struggle for survival.
Yet coming to a satisfactory resolution of the tension between those two ideas cannot rationally take place without a seismic shift in perspective.
And it is in the Bahá’í writings that one finds just such a perspective, one that both embraces the scientific truth behind evolution and yet also upholds the Divine nature behind ultimate reality.
The starting point for Bahá’ís is the rejection of the excessive emphasis on received wisdom, accompanied by the striving to see the truth with one’s own eyes and the willingness to acknowledge the limitations of one’s deepest assumptions. “Nor shall the seeker reach his goal unless he sacrifice all things,” Bahá’u’lláh stated. “That is, whatever he hath seen, and heard, and understood, all must he set at naught…”
Closely allied to such a commitment to the unfettered investigation of reality is the conviction that, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “religion and reason are the same; they cannot be separated from each other.” Since reality is one, and the truth cannot contradict itself, it follows not only that religious belief must be in harmony with scientific fact, but that “if religion does not agree with science, it is superstition and ignorance.”
These ideas prepare the ground for addressing a central issue that lies behind the debate about evolution, and that indeed extends to every front in the conflict between science and religion: how can the idea of an active Creator, who continually cares for and occasionally intervenes in His creation, be reconciled with the idea of a world whose workings can be traced in every detail to the operation of fixed mathematical laws?
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