Author and Professor Dr. Niamh Middleton on Science, the Problem of Evil & Faith

Niamh Middleton

In HOMO LAPSUS: Sin, Evolution, and the God Who Is Love, author and theology professor Dr. Niamh Middleton explores the link between evolutionary biology and Christianity and the origins of evil. Through her study of biology and theology, former Atheist Middleton suggests that evolutionary biology corroborates Christian teachings on the issues of human origins, the origin of evil, and the existence of a benevolent Deity.

Often, science and Christianity are at-odds with one another, refusing to find a common thread in their arguments. As a result, Christians as well as atheists and agnostics are largely unaware that the challenges posed to Christianity by theories of evolution are easily countered when confronted from a theological perspective that respects the autonomy of science and tackles the scientific arguments on their own terms. 

Homo Lapsus has a narrative theme that traces the evolution of human morality from pre-historic hominid species to the emergence of modern Homo sapiens. Homo Lapsus was written for all who are interested in the controversies between religion and science, especially in relation to human origins. Contrary to what is often discussed within scientific communities, evolutionary biology provides empirical evidence for Christian teachings on the issues of human origins, the origin of evil, and the existence of a beneficent Deity.

Q: For many years you were an atheist, what brought you to Christianity?

Well, being Irish, I was of course baptized and brought up as a Catholic. I lost faith at around age 14 because of what I now realize was a seriously flawed religious education programme. It focused on instilling fear of hell and the rote learning of dogma rather than on the Bible. My journey back began when, as a primary school teacher, it was a compulsory part of my job to teach religious education to young children. In Ireland, the vast majority of schools are faith schools. I was interested to find that a new programme had replaced the old in the wake of Vatican 2. It was a biblically focused, beautifully illustrated set of texts that told stories from the life of Jesus and portrayed him as the children's friend. During that period I had a challenging life experience, the kind of thing we tend to think can only happen to others, not to ourselves. It left me feeling very lonely and isolated. At some point during that difficult time the story of Jesus on the road to the cross, and the loneliness and isolation he suffered came to life in my psyche. I derived huge comfort from it, and no longer felt alone.

I knew that the religious programme I had been teaching was the catalyst for this, and when things returned to normal I enrolled in a part-time evening course in Catholic Religious Education to find out the rationale behind its new biblical emphasis. The course included a lot of theology, and I found myself instantly hooked. I hadn't known that such a thing as speculative theology existed, since my only experience was the rote learning of dogma. Nor did I have any idea of how doctrines evolved, or of the beauty and intellectual challenge of systematic, moral and biblical theology. When I completed the course, I wanted to continue with my theological studies. So I did a master's in theology followed by a Ph.D. This led to a change of career when I was lucky enough to get a job as a lecturer in systematic and moral theology. It also caused me to have a 'born again' Christian experience.

Q: Your husband once considered being a Roman Catholic priest. How did you two meet?

Ireland is a small country, and overwhelmingly Catholic. I was unusual back then for rejecting my religion. My future husband lived up the road from me, and we met locally. One of the first things he told me was that he was thinking of becoming a priest. As you can imagine, we had many stimulating discussions, not to mention rows! Ultimately we decided to marry, on condition that the wedding took place in church, and our children would be brought up as practicing Catholics. My husband's religious way of life was also a great influence and he was so pleased when I returned to the faith.

Q: You have a new book that deals with science, faith and the problem of evil. What's the relationship between science and faith? How do you see science and Christianity working together?

A big question! There are various approaches, which I discuss in the book. The most productive approach theologically is based on Galileo's view that God wrote two books, the book of scripture and the book of nature, and that they are complementary. As Galileo said "The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go". In the book I show how, in regard to human origins, the biblical and scientific accounts fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to give a greatly expanded picture of human reality. This will be vital in encouraging engagement between religion and science as to how progress should be defined. In this age of rapid technological development, a purely secular view of progress could lead to a dystopian future.

Q: How does science explain the problem of evil?

The problem of evil relates to the fact that Christianity believes in a beneficent God, and that evil came into the world through human free will. Darwin and contemporary NeoDarwinists however maintain that the traits attributed by the writers of Genesis and Judaeo-Christianity generally to a primal 'Fall' are the inevitable result of the impact of natural selection on rational human nature during the course of our evolution. If the evolution of evil was indeed inevitable, this would cast serious doubt on the Christian concept of an all-good, all-powerful God. It would imply that God is the author of evil, and cannot therefore be defined as beneficent. It was actually this implication of evolution by natural selection that caused Darwin to lose his faith in Christianity. What if however, rather than offering an alternative explanation for evil, evolutionary science is providing empirical evidence for a doctrine of revelation?

In my book, I pose the question: does the empirical evidence indicate that the evolution of intractable evil really was inevitable? Drawing on evolutionary biology, primatology and palaeoanthropology I show that such an outcome was unlikely, and that we could have evolved into the most constructively cooperative, loving and peaceful species on the planet. So evolutionary biology is actually providing evidence for a doctrine of revelation.

Q: What are specific examples of the way evolutionary biology provides evidence for Christian teachings on the issue of human origins?

Interestingly, the archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence indicate that our species emerged in its modern, culturally complex form by an act of divine intervention in the evolutionary process. Around 70,000 years ago, our ancestors developed the ability to engage in sculpture, engraving, painting, music, elaborate burial rituals and specialized social roles. These abilities appear to have arrived all at once as a package rather than gradually as the evolutionary process would suggest. Their advanced and complex culture sharply distinguished Homo sapiens from all other contemporaneous hominin species. There is as yet no adequate scientific explanation for this event, which points towards divine intervention in the evolutionary process.

It is argued theologically that God infused souls into a pre-existing hominin species, hence creating a new species qualitatively different from all others. This would be an act of special creation and a form of direct creation. It is also known that our species is descended from one group or population that originated in Africa, so all of us share a common origin as Christianity teaches. The question of who Adam and Eve were has generated a lot of theological speculation and remains open, though a consensus is developing which is discussed in detail in the book.

Q: What are specific examples of the ways evolutionary biology provides evidence for Christian teachings on the issue of the existence of God?

By implication, the empirical evidence for a primal Fall discussed above also corroborates the other side of the revelatory coin which is the complementary and more important doctrine of the existence of a beneficent Deity.

Q: Your next book is "Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism", examining the role of women in the Church. Why do you feel that this is still an issue that denominations are struggling with around the world?

The book is actually about Jesus and feminism in general. Jesus had a revolutionary attitude towards women, and in the book I explore the question of how a first century Palestinian Jew could relate to women in a way that obliterated all forms of sexism. Jesus also allowed women to travel with him and accepted them as his disciples, which was a radical subversion of the norms of the highly patriarchal Jewish religion and culture. His treatment of women becomes all the more remarkable and unique in the context of the light shed by evolutionary biology on the evolution of patriarchy. I believe that while political feminism can tackle the symptoms of inequality between the sexes, only greater theological understanding and awareness of the behaviour and consciousness of Jesus can get to the root of the problem, taking us beyond feminism and political notions of equality to the realm of relationships and the healing power of grace.

A related question is of course why the Church's treatment of women contrasts so strongly with that of its founder. But religion in general has always been used as a force for the social control of women and institutional Christianity, once it became the religion of the Roman Empire, reflected that. It is frequently argued by theologians however that Jesus's revolutionary attitude towards women is the reason why, from the beginning, women were allowed into the Christian liturgical space on an equal basis with men, and that this laid the foundation for the significant rights and freedoms that have been gained for women in the Christian West. Some Christian denominations do now permit the ordination of women, and it is to be hoped that the other denominations will follow suit and give women roles of authority that reflect the practice of the founder. 

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