The first major challenge to the previously harmonious relationship between religion and science in the West was Galileo's championing of heliocentric theory – that the planets go round the sun – in the 17th century. Galileo not only brought to the fore a new type of knowledge but challenged biblical creation stories by relegating planet Earth and its human inhabitants to insignificance in a mysterious, infinite universe.
The second, even more seismic challenge came with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Although evolution as a concept had become current and popular in the 18th century, it was Darwin who discovered its main mechanism – natural selection – and provided the mass of evidence that led to its acceptance by science.
It is a common misconception among Christians that the greatest challenge posed by evolution to Christianity is to the biblical teaching on direct creation. Even as far back as the 19th century there were many biologists who were able to reconcile belief in evolution with the emerging theological concept of a God who creates through natural processes. The real threat, and the one that caused Darwin himself to lose his faith, was the new challenge posed by evolution to the Christian explanation for evil.
The 'problem of evil' refers to the question of how the suffering and evil that bedevil the human species can be reconciled with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, beneficent Deity. Any attempt to answer this question is called 'theodicy'. Christianity answers it with the doctrine of a primal Fall. God gave human beings free will and they chose to disobey him, hence unleashing the forces of sin into the world.
For Darwin however, the evolution of human evil was inevitable, given the mechanism that drives evolution. Natural selection is driven by competition between individual organisms, coming into operation when there is a 'struggle for existence' that forces the individuals of a species to compete for resources.
For thousands of millions of years before the arrival of homo sapiens on earth, natural selection had been a competitive but unconscious process, in the case of animals unconscious and instinctive. However, with the emergence of the conscious and rational human species, evolutionary competition would have become conscious and rational as well as instinctive.
Darwin was well aware that as a social species we would have initially been strongly characterised by the ability to cooperate and to show kindness and empathy. Over the years however, as Darwin refined his theory, he became increasingly convinced that the need to compete for resources during times of crisis would have led, in the one species on earth that had developed rational powers, to the diminishment of affectionate instincts caused by the evolution of calculated cruelty, aggression and greed. He lost faith in the theistic God depicted in Christianity as he confronted the probability that evil might be an inevitable result of evolution by natural selection in the human species.
Darwinism therefore presents the problem of evil in a new guise, and in doing so also challenges the doctrines of incarnation and salvation. Christianity is grounded in the belief that God's Son Jesus became incarnate as a human being to make reparation for the original sin of humanity and to illuminate for us the path to salvation. If there was no primal Fall, neither is there any theological justification for these doctrines.
Interestingly however, the passage of time and the emergence of new evidence that clarifies how behavioural traits are genetically transmitted has led to the development of a perspective on human nature in contemporary Darwinism (known as Neo-Darwinism) that is almost identical to that of Christianity.
Leading contemporary evolutionary biologists such as EO Wilson are now claiming that the Darwinian explanation for evil can replace that of Christianity. They argue that traits such as greed, aggression and the lust for power, attributed by the writers of Genesis and Judaeo-Christianity generally to a primal 'Fall', are solely the result of evolutionary processes. Even more alarming are their claims that genetic engineering and other artificial means will be necessary to mitigate human aggression and otherwise upgrade the morality of our species.
What if, however, rather than offering an alternative explanation for evil, evolutionary science is actually providing empirical evidence for a doctrine of revelation? Although there has as yet been no formal change of doctrine regarding the Christian account of human origins, a broad theological acceptance of evolution has developed throughout much of Christianity along with an acknowledgment of the possibility that the first humans were a group rather than a pair.
The only serious stumbling block that remains to full harmonisation between the scientific and religious accounts of origins is the challenge of Darwinism to the theistic Christian concept of an all-good, all-powerful God. If God is the creator of natural selection and, by implication, human nature, this would imply that God is the author of evil. I would argue that when the potential for synthesis is so tantalisingly close, it would amount to theological negligence not to interrogate the scientific evidence in order to seek out a resolution to the problem.
Logically, if both Christianity and Darwinism are true, the evolution of evil cannot have been inevitable. The solution to this theological conundrum lies, I believe, in finding out whether or not the choices made by the first humans really were inevitable.
In my forthcoming book Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution, and the God Who Is Love, I pose the question: does the empirical evidence indicate that the evolution of intractable evil was inevitable? Drawing on evolutionary biology, primatology and palaeoanthropology I demonstrate that our evolution could have taken a more peaceful and cooperative path.
It was the free choice(s) of the first humans that led to the emergence of a species whose warlike and destructive tendencies have brought it to the brink of extinction through nuclear armaments and damage to the environment. The scientific and theological doctrines in fact mutually expand upon and explain one another.
For example, Darwinian insights into the effects of natural selection on human nature increase theological knowledge of the damage done by original sin, while revelation assuages the bad news from science with knowledge that science alone could never provide. The theological doctrine of original sin is good news, because it gives us hope and the certainty that the damage done to human nature is not set in genetic stone and can be healed by grace.
I conclude that the striking similarity and complementarity between the Darwinian and Christian accounts of human nature is not a coincidence, and that evolutionary biology provides empirical corroboration of Christian theodicy and its related claim that God's grace is needed to ensure humanity can achieve a peaceful, just and harmonious world.
I also believe that this emerging rapprochement between religion and science should be acceptable to those Christian sects which reject evolution, since it both removes the threat posed by evolution to foundational Christian doctrines and vindicates them.
In this age of science, Christian unity on these issues has never been more important. Definitions of what constitutes progress are in danger of being formulated by scientists, which could lead to a truly dystopian scenario. The stage is now set for fruitful collaboration between religion and science on the question of human progress.
Our new knowledge about origins certainly has the potential to be very helpful in guiding the future direction of societies. I would argue however that without the Christian perspective on origins and human nature, it is more likely to do catastrophic harm than the great good of which it is capable. I believe that all the new evidence emerging is crying out for a Christian interpretation, and this is why as Christians we must present a united front.
Dr Niamh Middleton is a lecturer in Moral and Systematic Theology at Dublin City University (DCU) and a leading authority in the study of human origins. Her new book, 'Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who Is Love', is described as a scholarly but accessible reconciliation of evolutionary thinking with Christian belief and is available on Amazon UK, price £11.44 in paperback.