Evolution and faith: compatible and complementary

Dr. Kate Bulinski

This series of teaching editorials focuses on the relationship between faith and science.

As a Catholic and a paleontologist, understanding the science of evolution and how it relates to human origins reveals an incredible picture of our own history on this planet. Despite the fact that the teachings of the Catholic Church are compatible with evolution, I have encountered many Catholics who are unsure how to reconcile evolutionary science and their faith.

Much of this confusion is a product of literalist readings of Scripture from the fundamentalist movement that have permeated American culture as well as the way that evolution has been portrayed (often incorrectly) in mass media. This perceived conflict between faith and science is unfortunate as it may introduce obstacles towards the pursuit of scientific and religious truths. Persons of faith may avoid pursuing careers in the sciences, or science-minded people may see the pursuit of a faith life as incompatible with scientific observations and experimentation.

As a Catholic scientist, I recognize that science and faith are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary. Science and faith present ways of exploring our world that enhance each other. We can use science to ask testable questions about evolutionary origins and processes and grow in our faith by exploring existential theological questions about our purpose and the nature of the human soul. Learning about our relationship to the natural world is another way to know God. The questions posed and explored through the lenses of science and faith can complement each other by probing mysteries and generating a deeper understanding than what either methodology might be able to reveal alone.

The theory of evolution provides an elegant explanation for the progression of life on our planet. Nearly 160 years of biological research has unfolded since the genetic experimentation of Father Gregor Mendel and the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Over roughly the same time frame, paleontologists uncovered patterns and processes of evolution within the fossil record that add to our understanding of biological relationships over hundreds of millions of years. Taken together, humanity has gained a rich understanding of the beautiful complexity of life on the earth. So why is it that many are so uncomfortable with the notion that human beings are also a product of evolution? How does evolutionary biology interface with the Catholic teaching that humans are created in the image of God?

Knowing that the structures and functions of our own biology are product of a tree of life that extends back millions of years is a humbling and sometimes jarring realization. Some may balk at the idea that we are a part of the animal kingdom, connected much more intimately to our evolutionary ancestors than we would like to admit. For me, I find that learning about the processes of evolution that gave rise to our species is an awe-inspiring way to know and love God.

In a spiritual sense, Catholics understand that we are created in the image of God, and in that creative act we are given the responsibility to be stewards of the Earth. This is the core message of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’.”

For too long, humanity interpreted the idea of this special creation as license to have dominion over the earth and exploit it for our own needs without considering our place as a part of the biological world. When we lose sight of our humble roots as a part of the tree of life, we begin to forget this important, life-giving responsibility. When we recognize that we are created in the image of God, it also means that we should be protecting and caring for His creation as God protects and cares for us.

Science and faith, when taken together are powerful ways to learn about the natural world. For me, one without the other only provides part of the story of our place and purpose on the earth. These complementary ways knowing give us a glimpse of where humanity fits into God’s plan for us and for all of creation. My hope is that more people find ways to incorporate both into their search for truth in this world.

Dr. Kate Bulinski is an associate professor of geosciences in the School of Environmental Studies at Bellarmine University.

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