Noah Millman concedes that the science of evolution is not incompatible with the truth of Christianity. But, he argues, the myth of evolution is incompatible with the myth of Christianity.
I think science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence â€“ and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it â€“ is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, Iâ€™d like to see the explanation.
Let me start by defining some terms. When I refer to the myth of evolution and the myth of the fall, I’m not denying either one. I’m not using “myth” to mean “false.” I’m using myth to mean the resonance and emotional impact of the basic truth claims of christianity and of the theory of evolution. The myth of evolution is not the facts of evolution but the symbolism and cultural meaning and attraction and revulsion of evolution. They myth of evolution is evolution as a story. Same with christianity. The facts of Christianity are that a man with a certain relation to the divine lived a certain kind of life and died a certain kind of death that had certain kinds of unusual effects. The myth of Christianity is wanting to shout the redemption news from the rooftops when you think what Christ has done for you. Its because evolution can be a mythic story, not just a scientific theory, and its because Christianity *must* be a mythic story, not just a set of dogmas, that evolution can psychologically make Christianity less probable even if their bare bones are technically compatible.
Is Millman right that the myths are in conflict? When it comes to Christianity in general, I don’t know. If Christian theodicies are not just as kludge answers to logic problems but real truths about God and his purposes, well then, in that case I think the myth of Christianity isn’t nearly as detergent-ad pretty and therefore as incompatible as Millman makes out. But I do know that Millman isn’t right when it comes to Mormon Christianity.
In general Christianity the myth of the Fall is one where God set up everything to be nice and pleasant until Adam and Eve made a stupid, perverse decision and ruined it for all of us. But in Mormon Christianity the fall was *necessary* for mankind to progress and the myth of the fall is a tragedy of awful but inevitable choices and of having to suffer and be miserable to grow. In fact Mormonism makes these features of the myth of the Fall a universal story that each one of us lives. So I’d say the Mormon myth of the fall fits very well with Millman’s myth of evolution. So do other ideas that Mormons emphasize, like the need for opposition in all things.
I also ought to mention the Mormon idea of “being saviors on Mt. Zion.” Mormon Christianity has a strong theme of living in roles, especially in the role of Christ. This is just one aspect of the general Christian idea, which Mormonism embraces and elevates, that we are meant to take up the cross and be like Christ. So if evolution’s myth is that creation suffered and bled not for its own benefit but for ours, then evolution’s myth is only saying that creation is impressed with the image of Christ.
P.S. I’m struck about how much this post is really about theodicy. Maybe that’s because I read Nate O.’s theodicy post so recently. But I think its mostly because Millman’s post is about theodicy though little he knows it. Millman is really arguing that evolution is incompatible with a certain kind of Christian theodicy, one that absolves God of all evil by blaming it on the choice made by Adam and Eve. I am really arguing that better, truer Christian theodicies, and especially Mormon Christian theodicies, are not incompatible with evolution.
P.P.S. For more on Millman’s post, see Ross Douthat.
P.P.P.S. For an interesting C.S. Lewis essay on the myth of evolution, see here. His take on the myth of evolution is a little different from Millman’s. While I’ve argued here that the myth of Mormon Christianity is compatible with Millman’s myth of evolution, it may not be so compatible with other myths of evolution. I’ve noticed that popularizers often try to steal a base by saying the myth of evolution is existence is accidental and meaningless. That myth is not compatible with the myth of Mormon Christianity.
P.P.P.P.S. You might be interested in Jim Manzi’s National Review article about the compatibility of the theory of evolution with doctrines of Christianity. That’s not really what this post is about, so follow the link if you’re interested.