Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Background Image

Evangelizing Through Evolution

Fear is behind the evolution-vs-creation debates, and until that mental block is addressed, argumentation is futile

An ongoing Gallup poll begun in the early 1980s follows beliefs in the United States about human origins. The poll asks people to pick the view that is closest to what they believe: Do you believe human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process? Or do you believe human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process? Or that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

For more than three decades, the most people (40-47 percent) said they believe the latter—that God created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years. This view is known as Young Earth creationism. Interestingly, it lost the majority position in the most recent 2017 poll, dropping to 38 percent. Simultaneously, the number of people who believe in godless evolution increased. The other view, that humans evolved with God’s guidance, held steady at 38 percent from 1982 to 2017, so it appears that the creationist view of human origins lost ground to atheism.

If so, the loss is not surprising. Children learn that God made everything— the sun, moon, trees, flowers, animals, and us—and that is fundamentally how they see their entire world. They learn that God made us to know and serve him and to be happy with him in heaven. They learn that God is great and can do all things.

They then imagine Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in a perfect state of happiness. They learn that our first parents committed the first sin on Earth and that this original sin is passed on to us through generation. They are taught that humans are born with original sin on our souls, and the pursuit of virtue is a continual struggle to overcome the vice caused by sin. The story of salvation and the institution of the sacraments are taught so that children learn to orient their lives around faith in Jesus Christ. None of it hangs together without original sin.

Then they open a biology book in high school. Genetic drift and natural selection explain a myriad of questions about plants and animals that religion does not. They learn the genetic information in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the foundation for the unity of all life forms, that living things reproduce, that reproduction is the reason species change over time, that evolutionary change is a common feature of all life, which arose over four billion years ago.

This all makes sense, until they get to the part about humans evolving from apelike creatures and before that from atoms. Like the tooth fairy who fades into glittery imagination, just saying “God made everything” begins to seem childish and inadequate, just at a time when the moral demands God makes begin to seem overbearing and restrictive. These kids are left vulnerable. Although healthy discourse about evolution and creation takes place among scholars, there are very little resources to help the public. And teenagers are pressured at all turns to abandon faith.

Paulinus Forsthoefel, a Catholic priest and geneticist who was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in his 1994 book, Religious Faith Meets Modern Science, that he often encountered young men and women at Ohio State University who could not justify their religious beliefs when challenged by scientific theories. What did they do? Just as the Gallup poll suggests, they stopped practicing religion.

Higher-level secular institutions encourage this divide. In 2014, professor David Barash published an opinion column in the New York Times titled “God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class” explaining how he gives undergraduates “the Talk” to undo their religious indoctrination. He tells them that evolutionary science has narrowed the “space” for faith, that we are all animals “produced by a totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” He claims it is not the duty of science to do the mental gymnastics to explain religion.

What do we do as Catholic evangelists? Let me assure you that the choice between faith or science is a false dichotomy, as the 38 percent who believe God guides evolution shows. Our youth can be spared from confusion as well. For 100 percent of us, it is time to end the faith and science conflict myth in our culture. I’ll name three steps: 1) Confront the fear. 2) Affirm the Creed. 3) And last, a radical suggestion: evangelize through evolution.

Confronting the fear

The literature about evolution and creation fills volumes of scientific arguments. I am not going to debate those details for now. I have concluded that fear is behind the evolution versus creation debates and until that mental block is addressed, refuting elaborate argumentation is futile.

Victor Warkulwiz’s 2007 book The Doctrines of Genesis 1–11: A Compendium and Defense of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins is 512 pages. The cover claims that the book is “Everything a Catholic Needs to Know to Uphold the Literal Truth of Genesis 1–11.” Warkulwiz is a priest with a doctorate in physics from Temple University.

He begins the book (page 8) by saying that “Catholic scientists and scholars must reject the theory of evolution because a genuine Catholic theology of creation cannot accommodate it.” He states that evolution is false, dangerous, and will lead you away from faith. He says those who accept evolution have “succumbed to scientism, putting more faith in the reigning paradigms of science than in the words of Sacred Scripture.” He leads with fear.

He cites Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus (18) to warn that modern science sows confusion in the minds of young people who are not sophisticated enough, in his opinion, to rationalize their way through it. He says that if youth “lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, they will give up religion altogether.”

This is, however, not what Pope Leo XIII said. He was addressing those who make “evil use of physical science” and scrutinize Genesis with the intent of vilifying its contents. The Catholics who explore evolution as a scientific theory are not evil. In fact, Pope Leo XIII reminded the faithful (in the same section) that the sacred writers of Genesis “did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language.”

Another example of fear is found at the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation. The group identifies as a “Catholic apostolate dedicated to proclaiming the truth about the origins of man and the universe.” The founder and director, Hugh Owen, lists the reasons for adhering to the “traditional doctrine of creation.” By this he means that “God created all of the different kinds of creatures during a very brief creation period at the beginning of time by an act of his Divine Will.”

Owen says that evolution fosters contempt for Scripture and undermines confidence in God; contributes to the emasculation and degradation of Catholic men because evolution does not teach that women are created from Adam’s side; confuses sexual roles, since evolution teaches that human sexuality “came up from apes”; and, among other things, robs mankind of hope, because evolution cannot conceive of an original harmonious state of the universe.

Owen pleads with Catholics to heed the advice of Pope St. John Paul II to devote our energies to evangelization. However, he leaves out the fact that the pope never endorsed “the traditional doctrine of creation” as Owen interprets it. Rather, John Paul II emphasized what his predecessor Pope Pius XII affirmed in Humani Generis (1950): “There is no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points” (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 22, 1996).

Those indisputable points are that humans are created in the image and likeness of God; that the whole person is spiritual soul and material body; and that, if the human body evolves, God immediately creates the soul. It is also true that we cannot deny original sin, which I will address shortly.

Intelligent Design (ID) theory, although more sophisticated than Young Earth creationism, also has its root in fear. In its 2010 publication God and Evolution, Jay Richards, a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, explains that ID proponents categorize observations in two ways: 1) the natural, repetitive forces and laws of nature and 2) “specified complexity” when phenomena go beyond the ordinary capacities of natural forces. This they call evidence for an intelligent agent.

Richards gives an example (p. 205): Mount Rushmore fits the first category, a structure fully explained by gravity, wind, and erosion. The sculpted faces of the four presidents, however, belong to “specified complexity,” because the sculptures required foresight and intelligence. Likewise, ID theory puts nucleic acids in the natural category, while labeling the coding regions of DNA as design.

This all sounds pretty good—until you consider the ramifications. What ID proponents are really saying is that God does not create a consistently interacting totality. Just like Young Earth creationists, ID theorists cannot fathom how God could have created matter and energy to produce the diversity of life we see today, so they conjure up miracles as needed to complete their stories. Rather than embracing an absolute confidence in God, as Hugh Owen rightly wants Christians to do, both groups demur, using miracles where they think nature fails. But who are we to tell God when he had to work miracles?

A final example comes from William Dembski, one of ID’s leading proponents. Like Richards, he defines intelligent design as the view that “there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence.” Dembski defends intelligent design as a valid scientific hypothesis in his 2004 book, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design.

For intelligent design to be credible as a scientific theory, the ID theorists thought they should show how a designer interacts with the physical realm. Dembski posits that an unembodied designer moves particles at the subatomic level by imparting energy (p. 152-153). In this way, he says, an “indeterministic universe comes to the rescue.”

He explains that “nature moves its own particles,” but the designer can input data at the quantum level in a “zero-energy” event. Since there is no theoretical upper limit to the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation (light), there is consequently no lower limit to the frequency (c=lf). Thus, there is no lower limit to the energy (E=hf). In this zero-energy ideal, Dembski says, the designer could impart information without changing physical laws.

This reasoning is not only speculative and untestable, it is theologically flawed. We do not need to sneak God in the back door of nature.

Confidence in the Creed

We can dispense with these tendentious views by professing the Christian Creed in confidence. When we say we believe in “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” we mean absolutely everything. It does not take a Thomistic scholar to know that nature is creation. Kindergarteners can grasp that God made the trees, the flowers, the dirt, the sun, the bugs, the animals, and us people.

If we can profess that Jesus Christ, our Lord, was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, was buried, descended to the dead, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead, then we have nothing to fear in any scientific theory about how matter and energy evolve over time. If God can resurrect the body and grant life everlasting, then surely he can design the material of the universe to become all it is meant to be. To believe anything less of God is heresy.

Evolution does not need to be proven untrue to prove that God created nature. As I said, a false dichotomy. The Christian God is not a pagan deity who was just wandering around one day, tripped over a big mountain in nature, and decided to chisel presidents’ heads into it. He is God almighty, creator of heaven and earth down to every particle, holding everything that exists in existence. He is existence itself. This assumption that we must choose between nature (unguided, random, chance) and creation (designed) is the result of myopia when people anthropomorphize God and limit him to human understanding.

What about original sin? In 1950, Pope Pius XII said in Humani Generis it is “in no way apparent” how to reconcile evolution with original sin (37). Someday it may be apparent. Meanwhile, reason does not compel us to deny the existence of Adam and Eve. We can hold that God created our first parents, as he does all creatures, and that they were highly complex organisms, whether they began as zygotes with human souls growing in maternal bodies or miraculously as naked adults in a garden.

Biological evolution will never fully account for humanity, because we are corporeal body and rational soul, made in the image and likeness of God. Evolution is not a tool that can find two individuals who were progenitors of an entire species, because no species has ever been discovered to begin that way. Unlike Young Earth creationism and Intelligent Design theory, we are not asserting miracles to prop up a belief. We are saying only that it is always possible humanity began with a miracle, and therefore evolution can never contradict the doctrine of original sin.

Evangelize through science

In 2016, at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars 39th Convention on Science and Faith in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to ask Michael Behe a question in person. Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. We were both speakers at the convention. After his talk about irreducible complexity, I asked him why he stopped with bacteria flagellum as evidence of design.

“Why don’t intelligent design theorists see everything as designed?” I asked. “I am a chemist, and I see the entire periodic table as designed. Why not go bigger? Why not teach people that all of nature is evidence of a designer?

He threw his hands up and replied, “I do!”

But ID theorists do not. They teach that we humans can make up an intelligence test and decide what is the work of nature and what is the work of an unembodied designer who intervenes where nature fails. Their theories miss the bigger picture.

For the believer, science is the study of the handiwork of God. All of it. Evolution must be seen in its entire context. We are familiar with the behavior of matter on the macroscopic level of plants and animals, but we should not forget the atomic world, a landscape of unimaginable order and beauty. Indulge my fondness for atoms a bit.

Protons have a +1 charge and a mass of 1.673 × 10–24 grams. The human mind cannot imagine a mass this small. Nevertheless, the atoms of each element have a unique number of protons, their atomic number. The elements line up in whole-number succession by the atomic number with repeating patterns. Neutrons have no charge but are nearly the mass of a proton, 1.675 × 10–24 grams. Electrons have the same magnitude of charge as protons, but opposite, –1, yet mysteriously they are 1/1836th the mass of a proton at 9.109 × 10–28 grams.

The protons and neutrons make up the nucleus. The electrons orbit the nucleus. Their mass seems finely tuned. If electrons were just 2.5 times bigger, they would not orbit, atoms would not exist, and the universe would be empty. The orbital paths of electrons determined by quantum mechanics orders the periodic table of all the elements in the universe. I call them God’s Legos.

Lift up your eyes on high and see who hath created these things: who bringeth out their host by number, and calleth them all by their names: by the greatness of his might, and strength, and power, not one of them was missing” (Isaiah 40:26).

There’s more. The atomic number dictates the spacing of electrons, which determines how atoms bond, which governs how molecules form, which explains how life arose from inanimate molecules and how the DNA sequences in genes can vary, which in turn affects which organisms reproduce more successfully and pass on their genes. To a chemist, evolution is fundamentally all about the electrons.

That is why I say that by focusing on disproving evolution, Christians stir up a crisis of their own making. We pit creation against the Creator. We should be evangelizing through science, showing others how the ubiquitous order and beauty in creation, from electron orbitals to human life to cosmic galaxies, enriches faith and points beyond the physical realm.

Atheists have their own fears. If you are not a person of faith but you love science, and if you consider accepting that a personal God holds all your electrons in their orbitals, then it is scary to face up to how well God knows you. I was a chemist before I was Catholic, and I speak from experience. Christians who fear nature are not going to evangelize to anyone, especially people who understand science.

I am not asking Christians to accept evolution uncritically, but I am asking Christians to stop fearing it, to obtain a bigger vision of reality (maybe take my chemistry course), and thereby to become better evangelists.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!

Copyright © 1996-2024 Catholic Answers