Are faith and belief in evolution necessarily at odds? According to Pope Francis, the answer is no. Indeed, the pope recently reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s view that “evolution in nature is not inconsistent” with church teaching on creation, pushing the debate on human origins back into the news.
Although most U.S. Catholics accept the idea of evolution in some form, a substantial percentage of American adults reject the scientific explanation for the origins of human life, and a number of religious groups in the U.S. maintain that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is not correct because it conflicts with their views of creation.
Here are five facts about evolution and faith:
1 The Roman Catholic Church has long accepted – or at least not objected to – evolutionary theory. Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to publicly affirm that evolution is compatible with church teachings. In 1950, in the encyclical “Humani Generis,” Pope Pius XII said that Catholic teachings on creation could coexist with evolutionary theory. Pope John Paul II went a bit further in 1996, calling evolution “more than a hypothesis.”
2A minority of Americans fully accept the scientific explanation for the origins of human life. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 60% of Americans say humans have evolved over time, but only about half of that group (32% of U.S. adults overall) believes that humans and other living things evolved solely due to natural processes, the explanation accepted by the vast majority of scientists. About a quarter of U.S. adults (24%) say that humans and other life evolved, but that this evolution was guided by a supreme being. The same survey found that a third of Americans (33%) reject evolution entirely, saying humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
3Of all the major religious groups in the U.S., white evangelical Protestants are the most likely to reject evolution. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelicals say that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form, while roughly one-in-ten white evangelicals (8%) say that humans evolved through natural processes. On the other end of the spectrum are the unaffiliated, a majority of whom (57%) said they believe that life evolved through natural processes.
The rejection of evolution by most evangelicals is largely mirrored by their churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which explicitly reject evolutionary theory as being in conflict with what they see as biblical truth.
4 About a quarter of white American Catholics (26%) say that they do not believe in evolution of any kind, despite the church’s acceptance of it. The share of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. who reject evolution and say that humans have always existed in their present form is even higher (31%).
5 A series of court decisions prohibit the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools. In spite of efforts in many American states and localities to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools or to teach alternatives to evolution, courts in recent decades have consistently rejected public school curricula that veer away from evolutionary theory. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring public school students to learn both evolution and creation science violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion.
Category: 5 Facts
Topics: Religion and Society, Catholics and Catholicism, Evolution
David Masci is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.
Imagine if we were able to see evolution as a sign of the unlimited potential of God’s creation, rather than a threat to our limited point of view.
For the biblical literalist, the theory of evolution is problematic because it appears to contradict the stories found in the earliest chapters of Genesis. But is literalism the best approach to understanding scripture? The Catechism of the Catholic Church discourages literalism when it encourages believers to recognize the various literary genres found in the Bible.
Another issue is that science and religion are each a distinct tool for the discovery and explanation of truth. The realm of science is concerned with data that can be empirically demonstrated or proven. The realm of religion has to do with the meaning of life and existence in a way that surpasses the physical world. The religious believer and scientist both make the same mistake when they wrongly attempt to use their own tools to judge the other. Theology and science each have their own methodologies, their own instruments, for the discovery of their particular areas of truth.
For the most part, the church has resolved any tensions between religion and science. In 1950, in his encyclical Humani Generis (On the Human Person), Pope Pius XII expressed concern that the theory of evolution not be embraced uncritically. He called for more research, but did not condemn the theory. In 1996 Pope John Paul II addressed the issue before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He sanctioned the acceptance of evolution, but reminded his listeners that spiritual questions like the nature of the soul and its relationship to God are beyond the realm of science.
Two years later John Paul issued his encyclical Fides et Ratio (On Faith and Reason), reminding the church that while faith is superior to reason, “there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason.” This is reminiscent of St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote that “truth, wherever it is to be found, belongs to our God.”
As befits the dignity of our species, we humans are forever in a search for truth to help us understand not only the world in which we exist but the meaning of that existence as well. We should use all the tools at our disposal, all the while recognizing the goodness of this distinctively human inquiry.
This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 8, page 46).
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