Religion and evolution have presented two conflicting perspectives on the origin of humanity and debate has raged between the church and scientists since the 19th century.
The response to the theory of evolution varies from religion to religion. While Buddhism appears to be more tolerant to the teachings of evolutionary tenets, Christianity and Islam have been more militant against these scientific ideas. The tolerance of Buddhism and Hinduism has been attributed to the lack of a consistent and rigid teaching of the origin of the world and life in these religions. Christianity and Islam are arguably stricter in their perception of evolution.
The theory of evolution by natural selection was created by English natural scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who postulated that all life forms have common ancestors. Presented in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), Darwin's theory is based on the presumption that life originally developed from non-life. According to Darwin, the evolution of species is determined by random genetic mutation, which for its part is guided by natural selection, or the survival of the fittest.
Darwin conducted the major part of his research during the Beagle expedition (1831-1836) when he studied fossils and found out common features between humans and animals. His finding that humans and apes were closely related scandalized Victorian society and provoked a strong response from the church, as the evolution tenets contradicted Genesis, the first chapter in the Bible. This states that God created the world and life in six days. The theory of evolution also challenged the view that God created humans "in his own image."
One of the most significant debates between evolutionists and the church took place in 1860 at Oxford University. Darwin's supporter Thomas Huxley had a heated argument with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. The bishop asked if Huxley was descended from an ape on his grandfather or grandmother's side of the family. Huxley replied that he "was not ashamed of his ancestry" but that he would "be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth." The suggestion by Huxley that he would have an ape as his ancestor, rather than the bishop, caused outrage.
The debate on the theory of evolution continued even after the conservative Victorian age. In the 20th century, the fervent opponents to Darwin's theory continued their attempts to remove the lessons on the theory of evolution from the school curriculum. In 1925, a state law in Tennessee banned the teaching of the evolutionary theory at public schools. In the 1960s, the United States Supreme Court restricted the power of state governments to eliminate evolution teaching from the curriculum.
Gradually, the evolution theory and religion started to reconcile their positions. Hence, the Church of England offered its apology to Darwin 200 years after his birth. The statement read: "The Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends."
Creationism, or the belief that a divine force designed life, has started to adopt a more scientific perspective on the creation of the world. Creationists still believe that God is the absolute creator. However, the development of a neo-creationist intelligent design theory aims to add scientific dimensions and opposes the literal interpretation of the Bible. Theorists in this area believe that life on earth has happened due to the actions of an intelligent designer, usually God. In some cases, creationists view evolution as a natural phenomenon designed by the creator.
According to a poll in 2007 conducted by the journal PLoS Biology, one in eight high-school teachers present creationism to students as a valid alternative to evolution. On the other hand, 32 percent of American teachers believed that creationism was ‘scientifically ungrounded.' This contradicts several legal rulings, which declared that creationism is a religion and not a scientific approach.
A number of church officials and conservative politicians have campaigned for the mandatory introduction of creationist theory in the public school curriculum. Meanwhile, the scientific community supports the evolution theory unanimously. Some scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, have been prominent in their opposition to creationist ideas being taught in schools.