The news sounded like an important breakthrough. "Scientists at the University of Oxford have found a solution to the puzzle known as 'Darwin's dilemma,'" the London Geological Society recently reported. Charles Darwin, who would have been 200 years old this year, published his epochal work "The Origin of Species" 150 years ago. In his book he admitted, with refreshing frankness, that he could not explain why no fossils could be found from the time before the Cambrian period, which began about 542 million years ago.
Something astonishing seemed to happen in the Cambrian. For more than 3 billion years, or so it seemed, life on earth had developed at an almost imperceptible pace. Then, in a relatively short period of time -- according to the fossil record -- there was an explosive multiplication of species. Where tiny, non-skeletal beings had populated the oceans, predators armed with teeth suddenly faced off against armor-clad prey.
The so-called Cambrian explosion was long a mystery to scientists. The religious community points to it as evidence of the existence of God. How, they ask, if not by the hand of the Almighty, could such a complex diversity have arisen within such a short time?
Scientists now know there was not necessarily an explosion of the diversity of species, but rather a rapid increase in species with rigid shells and body parts. Unlike their flabby ancestors, they made sturdy fossils that could survive for millions of years. Biologists have not known this only since the beginning of the Darwin 200th anniversary year, as the Geological Society's somewhat effusive press release might suggest. In fact, trace fossils from the Precambrian era have been known for some time.
Despite this initial riddle, Darwin's revolutionary theory that modern life forms were the result of millions of years of natural selection was accepted quickly by scientists. The prevailing conviction that animal and plant species were forever unchangeable had been shattered. Of course, for Darwin's contemporaries, the conclusion that humans and apes had common ancestors was even more outrageous. His theory of evolution was branded a threat to the political, religious and social order from the start.
In the meantime it has become the strongest model to explain animated nature that has ever existed, but its success in the scientific world stands in stark contrast to its continued lack of acceptance among large parts of the general public. The majority of humans, even now, stubbornly refuse to accept the obvious.
"God is dead," Nietzsche wrote in 1882. He was describing the loss of appreciation for the sacred. But the philosopher's conclusion was apparently somewhat premature. Faith is blossoming, not just in Third World countries with poor levels of education and in Islamic theocracies, but also in industrialized nations. The US magazine American Spectator, writing about the "myth of the secular West," calls it a "complete mystery" that so many scholars and journalists believe the people of the West are, for the most part, adherents to Darwin's theory. Opinion polls have painted an unchanging picture for years -- that religions have managed to fend off all assaults by natural science. Even now.
The Rise of Religion and the New Atheists
According to a survey completed by the European Commission in early 2005, 52 percent of the citizens in the European Union believe in God. About one in four Europeans stated that while not believing in a personal God, they did believe in "a sort of spirit or life force," and only 18 percent outed themselves as non-believers. Germany ranked in the middle of countries surveyed, with 47 percent of respondents declaring a belief in God. According to the 2005 study, 25 percent of Germans said they believed in a higher power other than God, while another 25 percent believed in neither.
In an international comparison, these numbers still place Germany and the EU among the world's most secular regions. In the United States, the Gallup Organization regularly polls people on questions of God and science. According to the most recent result only 14 percent believe Homo sapiens arrived in the world as a sole result of evolution. Thirty-six percent believe evolution did take place, but under the guidance of God. The largest group, comprising 44 percent, believes the Almighty himself created man in his current form -- and that this occurred no more than 10,000 years ago.
Even in Darwin's native Britain, a majority of citizens no longer adheres to the theory of evolution, as a 2006 survey showed. Only 48 percent of Britons claimed to believe in it. More than 40 percent would like to see the Biblical story of creation taught in government-run schools -- and not just in religious studies, but also in biology class. One in four teachers on the government's payroll agree.
But nowhere is the battle between supporters and opponents of Darwin's theory as heated as in the United States. On the one side are creationists, who for some years have promoted a worldview they call "intelligent design," in which God created man and all life. They are opposed by the overwhelming majority of scientists and an increasingly vocal atheist movement, which views organized religion as little more than a childish belief that rises to the level of a public danger. A large number of books that discuss religion, in terms ranging from the levelheaded to the irate, have made it onto US bestseller lists in recent years.
Between the two fronts are those who are either uninterested in the issue or believe that science and religion could be reconciled, perhaps even complement each other. Their favorite argument is that religion does not, in fact, seek to make any scientific claims, while science is only interested in mapping the galaxies and analyzing genes, avoiding ethical and ideological questions.
So maybe it's just a big misunderstanding? Hardly. Some academics like to point out that certain questions are beyond the scope of science, such as the ultimate source of the universe and whether there is a higher purpose to its existence. But even in these metaphysical realms, there is overlap. "Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims," says Richard Dawkins, biologist, bestselling author and figurehead of the so-called New Atheists. "A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without."
An 'Empty, Hollow, Spin-Doctored Sham'
The representatives of religions also tend to get involved in less philosophical discussions, such as when they declare condoms to be ineffective as protection against HIV infection and preach chastity instead, or when they seek to impose narrow limits on stem cell research. The Vatican consults physicians to determine whether a candidate for sainthood truly performed miracles.
So is religion capable of staying out of science, or is the missionary urge part of its essence, as journalist Christopher Hitchens writes in his furious bestseller, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"? Is Dawkins right when he warns that enlightenment, reason, science and truth itself are threatened by religion?
Some scientists don't go that far. After a survey revealed that one in two scientists is religious, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, said, "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs -- and equally compatible with atheism." But Hitchens believes "all attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule." Dawkins makes himself even clearer: "The alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham."
The suspicion that the Christian religions continue to claim a universal prerogative of interpretation was recently fueled by Pope Benedict XVI. In April 2007 he wrote in a theological textbook that the process of evolution is "not verifiable." When asked about the origins of human rationality, the Pontiff said: "Science can and may not answer this question directly."
Most scientists would say that it can. They would be especially adamant about insisting that it may. But in uttering this sentence, Benedict provided ammunition to those who argue that religion and science are incompatible, and that it is part of the core of institutionalized religion to believe, not question -- and to forbid certain questions. This makes religion not only incompatible with science, they argue, but with modernity itself -- no matter how far it contorts itself to create the opposite impression.
"Darwin is one of the great authors of modern thought," Zurich historian Philipp Sarasin said in a recent interview with the German weekly Die Zeit. "This modern age accepts nothing that is given, and no order derived from the divine." This is why churches continue to wrestle with Darwin's theory now.
Yet evolution, as an idea, has not become the dire threat to religion once feared by Darwin's contemporaries -- at least from a global perspective. The churches can look on calmly as many atheists claim to live happy lives without God and without lapsing into evil. Their argument that organized religion has led to more hatred, death and suffering than faithlessness can be hard to refute. But religious belief worldwide has hardly suffered.
The Ultimate Question: Why?
Science, ironically, is finding answers to the question of why evolution stands such a poor chance against religion. There is growing evidence that man, as a result of his brain, is wired to believe in higher powers, not just because of his fear of death.
The human weakness for gods may be rooted in the tremendous social abilities of Homo sapiens. "People are very good at maintaining relationships with individuals beyond their physical presence," the American psychologist Pascal Boyer recently wrote in the scientific journal Nature. Boyer argues that this is the only way hierarchies and alliances can function over time.
Religions also share surprisingly universal traits -- including a preference for personal gods, which look, think and feel like people. And ritual behavior could be directly related to the architecture of the brain. As Boyer writes, it is known that the human brain contains networks designed to avoid danger. Religious rites, which revolve around physical purity, predatory villains and hidden threats are presumably nothing more than an echo of the past millions of years.
American psychologist Michael McCullough, after evaluating studies from the social sciences and neurosciences, has found evidence that religious convictions and modes of behavior are helpful in strategic planning and controlling emotions. Religious rituals like prayer and meditation, McCullough writes in the current issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a professional journal, "affect the parts of the human brain that are the most important for self-regulation and self-control."
Besides, Boyer notes, religious thinking is "the path of least resistance for our cognitive system." Non-belief, writes Boyer, is usually the result of deliberate hard work against the natural disposition -- "not exactly an ideology that is easy to disseminate."
There are many indications that man's astonishing inclination toward faith is a byproduct of the evolution of the brain. But perhaps, writes Boyer, we will one day find proof that faith played an active role in the survival of Homo sapiens. In this sense, perhaps, God would indeed have played a role in the evolution of man.