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Darwin Versus Jesus

How would U.S. society benefit from more true Christianity and less Darwinian thinking?

Order "Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam" here.


  • Notions of universal compassion or kindness did not enter into early American theological thinking.
  • As a direct consequence of the dominance of Darwinian thinking, Americans remain in a state of anxious competitiveness that creates fear and anger.
  • The Abrahamic faiths advocate austerity and humility in a greater cause.
  • A debilitating tension between Darwin and Jesus lies at the heart of American identity.

A debilitating tension between Darwin and Jesus lies at the heart of American identity. It is not so much about how society originated and evolved, but what defines and motivates it. The core principles of the Darwinian thesis and Christianity are diametrically opposed and cannot coexist simultaneously in one society without causing severe friction.

Darwin represents adaptability and survival, Jesus compassion and universal love. Darwin acknowledges that those who cannot adapt will not — indeed must not — survive.

For Jesus, it is precisely the least privileged members in society who are deserving of support. For Darwin, the concepts of "morality," "compassion," "humility," "austerity," "poverty," "shame" or "honor" are irrelevant in the struggle for survival. For Jesus, these are what define a good Christian.

Darwinian principles rest in notions of a struggle to survive. In this struggle, the ruthless will to succeed, strength, speed, stamina and force determine success. In turn, success generates pride and arrogance, the chauvinism of being on top and a belief in the superiority of the dominant group.

The Abrahamic faiths, on the other hand, advocate austerity and humility in a greater cause. They encourage selfless love, care and concern for the dispossessed and the needy. They advocate proper moral behavior, even at the cost of suffering.

For me as a Muslim, Jesus is the embodiment of compassion, humility and love for all humanity. For Muslims, there is no figure quite like Jesus in the Quran. His birth was miraculous. He can breathe life into clay figures. He is an inspiration to the Prophet of Islam himself. To Christians, Jesus is the figure of love. Even in the face of aggression, they will emphasize Jesus' sayings about turning the other cheek.

But, in what Darwin described as a "struggle for existence," the weakest are eliminated. Only the fit survive. The survivors will pass on their characteristics to the next generations, and in time a new species will form.

It is a depressing thought that existence is reduced to a meaningless struggle for survival, that there is no larger cause to live for than self-preservation, no inspiration on earth or in the heavens except self-interest. Because it is unpalatable in its implications for human society, Darwinism is often cloaked, disguised and confused with terminology borrowed from religion.

As a direct consequence of the dominance of Darwinian thinking, Americans remain in a state of anxious competitiveness that creates insecurity and engenders fear and anger.

In the context of the number of guns available to Americans and their inclination to use them, it is well to keep in mind the frequent episodes of violence reported in the media. The anger combined with fear is a ready-made formula for tense individuals to commit acts of violence.

I have always found American fear and anger surprising. Why should the most powerful people on earth be fearful? And why should the richest people be angry? If there were more true Christianity and less Darwinian thinking, I am convinced, there would be far more calmness in American social life.

American Christianity should thus be viewed through a prism inspired by French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who argued that a society's notions of God reflect its predominant ideas and ethos.

From the 17th century on, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery: Ham, the ancestor of the black race and son of Noah, they taught, was cursed by his father and along with his descendants doomed to servility.

Blacks, as Saint Paul had admonished the slaves, therefore needed to accept their subordinate position and obey their masters, the colonists argued, conveniently ignoring the teaching of the Gospels that "ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

As good Christians, white colonists felt obliged to care for slaves, though "lesser" beings, as they would their property. Using religious scripture, the favored races ensured their own preeminent position by denying blacks any rights to education, ownership of property or even citizenship. Slaves existed only as an extension of their owner.

Miraculously, in spite of several centuries of brutal subjugation, the black population itself devised means to preserve learning and humanity. When one reads the works of African Americans like Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Du Bois, one is moved by the clarity and moral power with which they convey the nightmare of legalized slavery. These works stand as a challenge to the idea of the favored races.

Also competing for survival in colonial America were people of other faiths. Notions of universal compassion or kindness did not enter into early American theological thinking. Battles with the Native Americans were therefore fierce and conducted in a spirit of a fight to the finish, wiping out some 60-80% of the native peoples of New England within half a century of the first white arrivals.

Other Christian sects like the Catholics and Mormons were treated with prejudice, as were members of the Jewish community. From this fundamental tension emerged a white majority that considered itself superior to minority peoples, who in turn devised special monikers for those they viewed as soulless aggressors.

Mexicans, for example, called white Americans gringos because of the color of the uniforms worn by the soldiers who came to kill and capture territory, or gueros, possibly from guerra, the Spanish word for war. To Hawaiians, they were haole, or those without a breath or spirit, while to Native Americans, they were eankke (cowards) or yankwako (snakes).

The African slaves called them buckre, or someone who cannot be trusted. The Nation of Islam would hold up a mirror to white people and reverse the prejudice, calling them white devils.

Dividing societies into superior and inferior members on the basis of race is not only morally wrong but also makes little sociological sense. Morally, the Abrahamic faiths espoused by most Americans reject divisions based on color and would say that in the eyes of God, humans are to be judged by their actions and beliefs.

Biologically, the DNA of the vast majority of the world's population is nearly identical. Moreover, history shows that the rise and fall of different cultures and civilizations have nothing to do with race.

Editor's Note: This essay has been drawn from Akbar Ahmed's "Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam" published by the Brookings Institution Press on June 15, 2010. Copyright 2010 Akbar Ahmed. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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About Akbar Ahmed

Akbar S. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of International Relations at American University, in Washington, D.C.

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