In my intro religious studies course last semester, I taught a unit on theism and evolution. This was the first time it really hit me that God had once been considered a verifiable – and confirmed – scientific hypothesis. Until he made his famous voyage, Charles Darwin, just like so many medieval philosophers, had looked at organisms’ suitability for their environments and concluded it must have been the work of an intelligent designer. The particular theory that had best fit the available empirical evidence, Darwin and most of his contemporaries thought, was Charles Lyell‘s view that there were “centres of creation,” different places on earth where divine creative activity had been focused. In an era of rapid-discovery science like our own, that had been the best available hypothesis.
Then, the HMS Beagle made its famous voyage to the Galàpagos Islands, where Darwin observed his famous finches. A huge variety of birds, each on different islands and looking dramatically different, each well suited to the conditions of its own island – but they all turned out biologically to be finches, closely related to each other and to the finches of distant South America. It seemed needlessly complex to suggest that God would create so many different birds in so many different places and yet make them all part of the same family. A more straightforward hypothesis was that the different finches had evolved from a common ancestor, by natural selection. God was no longer needed as a scientific hypothesis – and hasn’t been needed since.
In retrospect, the point that God was once a legitimate hypothesis seems obvious to me now. But when I encountered it, it came to me as something of a surprise, because I’m so used to living in a world where any attempt to find empirical evidence for God’s existence looks like a desperate grasping at straws. Continue reading