Evolution and Christianity in Latin America: Context, History and Challenge

On July 28, 2015

Exploring the context: The social and religious landscape

In the English-speaking world, the issues of science and faith—particularly surrounding evolution—are hotly debated and get frequent media coverage. However, in Latin America, the situation is much different. Debates on questions such as whether evolution is fact or fiction, whether God could use evolution to create the world, and whether Christians can believe in evolution, are not in the public eye, or even the academic agenda. What explains this vast difference between the two cultural contexts? Let us explore this with some detail.

In late 2014, the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project published an important survey report about religion in Latin America. In a complete chapter,1 the survey report establishes that many Latin Americans see a basic tension between religion and science, but overall, they embrace the idea that humans and other living things have evolved over time.2 Based on these results, we can ask two questions, in order to go further than mere numbers: What factors explain why Latin Americans see tension between religion and science? And why do Latin Americans, even if they see faith and science at odds, seem to have less of a problem with evolution than the US context?

To begin, we must recognize that Latin America is predominantly a Roman-Catholic region. As the Pew report pointed out, Catholics tend to be more accepting of evolution than are Protestants, even if we also find that there are Protestants who accept evolution. But if we consider the reality of this social context—what Latin Americans actually experience in their daily life—we can establish a paradoxical fact:  Though there is widespread acceptance of evolution, science in Latin America has relatively small impact on public life, in comparison with the US, and some European and Asian countries. In most Latin American countries, mass media, ordinary people, believers, and even unbelievers place a low value on the natural sciences. Why is this the case?

One of the main factors contributing to this is the poor training in natural sciences in Latin American educational institutions, a reality which undoubtedly is a direct consequence of the particular model of economic growth adopted in the region. The economy in Latin America is focused mainly on exploitation of natural resources and industrial activities. Scientific education is seen as a means to accomplish the aforementioned activities, rather than as an end in itself.

Considering that the Latin American social imaginary3 does not generally include science, and Christians generally do not reflect systematically on science and religion, how we can explain their acceptance of evolution? A possible answer could be uncomfortable for Christians who try to build fruitful initiatives to discuss these issues: many Roman Catholics, who belong to a centralized religion—and who are very devoted to this religious tradition in Latin America—basically follow whatever their church officially establishes at the Vatican, which accepts evolution. On the other hand, many Protestants who accept evolution do so mainly as a reaction to evangelical fundamentalism—which has generally been seen as contrary to evolution— but not as a consequence of taking science seriously in their reflections about faith and natural world.

Unfortunately, this makes sense given the uses and abuses of science among Protestants in Latin America. Many Latin American Protestants are suspicious of any attempt to generate dialogue between science and faith,4 or they are just apathetic about these issues. But what is more problematic is that among Protestants interested in science, it is often for apologetic and opportunistic purposes, rather than as a way to generate an honest discussions about big questions or to re-examine their worldview in the context of science.5

In my view, if Latin Americans see a basic tension between science and faith, it is not related to the validity of specific theories like evolution, but rather because they experience a competition of moral ideologies in politics and public life, and science often is seen to support an “emancipation” from religion. Usually, these debates boil down to religious authorities, which point to absolute doctrine to face these issues,6 and scientific secularists, who want to emancipate people from these religious authorities.7 Appealing to absolute doctrine is not a satisfactory way in our pluralistic societies, because we should present our Christian convictions in order that people freely make judgment calls. But on the other hand, if we adopt scientific secularisms to marginalize religion, we would be losing one of the most important elements of the Latin American cultural identity!

Exploring the history: Ideology, loss and recovery of cultural identity

The above landscape is actually a reminiscence of a long historical conflict. During the conquest and colonization of the Americas, there was a hegemony of Aristotelian Thomistic philosophy, which was strongly embraced in the Catholic Iberian world: Spain and Portugal. Subsequently, Latin America experienced a sharp irruption of the Enlightenment—the social, political, and intellectual movement that was characterized by a hostile attitude towards religion—which depreciated the value of the pre-Columbian, Latino and Afro-Latin cultural heritage of the region. This depreciation can also be understood as a loss of cultural identity. In this context, ideological interpretations of evolution played a crucial role, which reduced the progress of the applied sciences and technology only for the benefit of the upper class. One of the significant cases is Mexico at the time of dictator Porfirio Díaz, in which “social Darwinism” legitimized inequality, racism and discrimination, leading to highly segregated and enslaved indigenous communities. We also have the case of Brazil, where social Darwinist and eugenic practices justified the reduction Afro-Brazilian population—, and that later were criticized by different thinkers such as Gilberto Freyre.

To summarize, Latin American cultural identity has been negatively impacted along history by scientific ideologies linked to evolution. So the devastating social consequences produced by these ideologies can be seen as a ethical motivation to take the cultural context of Latin America into account. Today it is not helpful to just generate interest and to promote among Latin American Christians the well known biblical, scientific and theological discussions which take place in the English-speaking world8—although these approaches are advisable as first steps to introduce Latin American Christians to the science and faith debate. We must dare to go further. The discussions must happen in a particularly Latin America sort of way, and Latin American Christians should begin to provide new ways to understand the relation science and faith to enrich the international debate.

Therefore the proposal is the following: to try to extract from Latin American cultural identity new ways to describe and understand evolution, in order to creatively illuminate contemporary theoretical and practical discussions. But I also want to help Latin American Christians fit evolution within a global framework, in keeping with their deep religious convictions—because religiousness, unlike science, is one of the main ingredients of the “social DNA” of Latin America.

I do not pretend to claim that Latin American Christians should not be informed about theoretical discussions which take place in English-speaking countries at all. But rather, I am suggesting that we must present evolution in terms of the identity of Latin Americans, in such a way that Christians of this region can assimilate better the fact and its implications for their own beliefs. Science actually is not an essential part of the Latin American social imaginary, so in this sense it is evident that merely denouncing anti-evolution movements, such as Creationism and Intelligent Design, or even disseminating positive information about science, is not enough in this context.

Exploring the challenge: Indigenous Pentecostalism as a case of study

To briefly illustrate my contextual approach, let me present an example. In Latin America, Pentecostalism is the second largest Christian movement after Roman Catholicism. From a historical perspective, it has adapted very well to the society, such that today it is a important element of the Latin American cultural identity. It is really difficult to imagine a Latin American city without Pentecostal churches in many neighborhoods, or public squares without Pentecostals vigorously preaching and singing. So for any relevant study about science and faith in the context of Latin America, Pentecostalism should be considered.

Pentecostalism has generally been thought in terms of its spectacular growth, and often as the  antithesis of intellectualism—and hence, science. But when we explore its beliefs in more detail, the situation seems to be more complex. According to many Pentecostals, our world is the place where the Holy Spirit is manifested. So can we think evolution as sustained process and a manifestation of the creative power of the Holy Spirit? The answer is yes, and Pentecostal Christians such as biologist Denis Lamoureaux and theologian Amos Yong has developed interesting proposals.

However, if we focus on Latin America, we can observe an additional sociological feature, which helps extend our understanding about Pentecostalism from what they believe, to its cultural origins themselves in Latin America. This feature is the integration of some Pentecostal movements with Indigenous traditions.9 How could this socio-religious fact be useful for dialogue purposes between evolution and faith? In my view, to help to overcome one of the significant Christian concerns about applying evolutionary concepts to the world of social relations: social Darwinism.

Many Western Christian critics of evolution fear that social Darwinism is a necessary consequence of accepting evolution and/or bringing evolutionary concepts to the field of social relations. In this essay I mentioned two historical examples of social Darwinism, in Mexico and Brazil, in which the survival mechanism to produce the “progress” of society—extending the notion of natural selection applied to human societies—was identified with oppressive, selfish and reprehensible practices such as slavery and eugenics. But when we focus on the origins of Indigenous Pentecostalism, the situation is very different, because the survival mechanism which contribute to the evolutionary emergence of these Christian movements can be identified with the Indigenous communities’ own conscious decision of blending their spirituality with Pentecostal Christianity. In this sense, this will is taken as a way to avoid the total extinction of their original Indigenous spiritual beliefs, driven in some extent by globalization. So here we can observe that the survival process is relational, creative and virtuous, because it gives believers a new meaning of life by mixing things such as religious symbols, liturgical aspects, and spiritual beliefs.

From a traditional Christian view, Indigenous Pentecostalism may seem to be a too doubtful way to experience the Christian faith, but here the important point is: if we are advocates of evolution as the way in which God continuously creates and sustains our world, Indigenous Pentecostalism provides a clear example of how this divine process is also present in culture. After all, most Christians would agree that the complex world of human relations is also an essential part of the great creation of God.

Concluding remarks

How can we see the evolution and faith debate in Latin America? From my view, in terms of a cultural contextualization. We need to recognized that along the history—and present—of Latin America, different practices, ideologically inspired by science, has favored the loss of cultural identity. So if we want to generate a truly relevant agenda for Christians in this region, we must to expand traditional theoretical discussions which take place in the English-speaking world through the cultural identity of Latin America. This is the case of my own region, but perhaps another contexts such as Africa or Asia, could also benefit from this approach.

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