Many people are deeply troubled by evolution. They see it through the lens that it is usually portrayed in, the lens of atheism. Evolution in the eyes of an atheist paints the human as a product of fortuitous physical interactions assembling matter into living creatures through the unforgiving forces of natural selection. All of our physical and psychological traits, we are told, are hard-wired into us purely to increase our likelihood to survive and mate. Even altruism is merely a survival mechanism, either to overcome situations that require teamwork, or to show-off our capabilities to potential mates, as in “Look at me, I’m wealthy enough to donate to this museum and drive here in a Porsche, so let me take you for a ride!”
Just following instinct, we are no more than animals, which are no more than complex arrangements of particles–through the dark lens of atheism. This view undermines human dignity and any sense of purpose. It has led many with this view to live out their animalistic self-image as hedonists until the feeling of emptiness leads them into deep depression. Why restrain oneself or strive for nobility when there is no one watching and no higher purpose?
To those with a spiritual and communal sense of dignity, this emptiness is unacceptable. Facing an existential crisis, they sometimes choose to reject evolution all-together as antithetical to any sense of purpose. The problem is that in the process of rejecting evolution, they must reject mounting evidence and put themselves into the corner of blind-faith. This way of putting our heads in the sand replaces the lack of dignity with the lack of reason. But do we have to choose between these two poisons?
This dilemma finds a parallel in its opposite: it is the crisis of faith experienced by those who are seeking a connection with God, and a religion to provide guidance and sense of belonging, but fail to reconcile dogma with reason. This is common among Christians who are taught that Jesus died for their sins, including the original sin they inherit from Adam. Many wonder how it is fair for them to inherit others’ sins, and why God needs to slaughter His son to forgive them. This is especially puzzling when realizing that there are cases in the Old Testament where God forgives without the need to punish a proxy. Did God lose this capability when his son was born? And why is it that his son was born in this very specific moment of the universe’s 15 billion year history, in this very specific planet orbiting one of billions of stars, in one of billions of galaxies as one of us, an earthly, limited creature? How is that the Bible speaks of a six thousand year age of the earth when we have evidence of so much that came before that?
Rational minds often lose faith when faced with such unsettling questions. Sadly, they often don’t stop at rejecting the specific dogma they were taught, but end up rejecting God and all religions in the process. They claim that religion and in fact any ‘mystical’ beliefs are inherently irrational and serve as ‘opiates of the masses’, as Karl Marx infamously decried. In this condemnation of all faith by association with the Church’s dogma, they throw out the baby with the bath water, just as those who throw out evolution with atheism. In both cases, one of the atheist who must sacrifice human dignity, and the other of the religious devotee who must sacrifice reason, something critical to wholeness and self-actualization is missing. Both dignity and reason are critical to the human spirit, yet we often feel that we must choose one or the other.
Fortunately, we do not have to. There is a lens through which we can perceive a complete, rational and dignified world view. This perspective, prescribed by Islam, exposes the natural forces of the world, including evolution, as God’s mechanisms of Creation. It teaches us that though humans and other creatures gradually evolved, it was God that laid the foundations and guided the process with a very particular purpose: to create a beautiful, spiritual creature and an environment in which he and she can thrive. Islam also teaches us about another dimension to the human reality that is not physical: the soul. This soul provides human traits like consciousness, emotions, morality and spirituality that physical sciences by definition cannot explain, because they are metaphysical. The human being, we come to realize, is a carefully crafted union of earthly substance and heavenly grace.
Islam teaches us that we are born pure and no one is held accountable for another’s sins. God is transcendent above any physical limitation or need, such as reproduction. He can forgive anyone without redirecting his wrath to someone else. The Creator is alive and real, distinct from creation, unlike the pantheistic or abstract notions of many eastern philosophies. Islam pushes the human to be highly scientific, oriented around exploration and objective analysis of the evidence, both for discovering spiritual and worldly truths through reality.
One of God’s names, we are taught in Islam, is ‘Al-Bariu’, the Evolver. This means that Islam does not only allow us to see God as one who gradually develops his creation from one stage to another, but requires us to. Everything we’ve discovered, from the billions of years it took to develop planets to the billions of years it took to develop life as we know it, confirms this view. Through this lens, a person is capable of discovering God through evolution, by marveling at the exquisite planning required to evolve creatures as complex as us, and marvel at how the human soul gives us superpowers that enable our ascendance over other creatures on earth.
However, this conception of evolution is not remotely as empty and harsh as the one we are often taught. The whole creation is not without purpose as a ‘Hunger Games’ style survival of the fittest competition. Evolution was driven with a purpose, to ultimately mold the human body into the temple of the human soul. This union of body and soul is exquisitely crafted with many counter-balancing forces like hope and fear, awareness of right and wrong, desire and restraint, discipline and mercy, calmness and ambition. This perfect fitra, or nature, is our foundation and combined with our well-tuned environment, gives us the God-given conditions to self-actualize into intellectual, moral and spiritual beings. Islam calls such people Muhsineen, those who can see God through the creation, or are at least aware of Him seeing them, at all times. They live to express love to the Creator and the creation with word and deed, far nobler than the altruism of atheism that is meant to impress mates and kill mammoths. Muhsineen are also highly intellectual, always open to discover new truths through observation and critical thinking, rather than blind adherence to dogma. With both dignity to uplift the heart, and reason to enlighten the mind, the human being can find tranquility and wholeness through Islam.