Just in time for the service, I passed under a church’s arched stone doorway and slid into one of the wooden pews. A chorus of voices began singing in German around me, accompanied by a pipe organ which filled the upper rear wall. I’ll never get tired of hearing the body of Christ worship in other languages, I thought. But I hadn’t just come to Germany for the music.
Over the past few months, I’d been backpacking 360° around the world in 180 days to document how Christian students keep their faith at secular universities—especially in countries which teach evolutionary human origins as fact. And no country, perhaps, has a more complex history of evolutionary thinking than Germany.
Germany’s History of Evolutionary Thought
For nearly two centuries, the story of life’s supposed evolution over millions of years has led countless people—including church-raised students—to distrust the absolute reliability of God’s Word.
For nearly two centuries, the story of life’s supposed evolution over millions of years has led countless people—including church-raised students—to distrust the absolute reliability of God’s Word. Within months after the November 1859 release of Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, which popularized evolution, a paleontologist named Heinrich Georg Bronn had already translated Origin into German.1 Its publication left no small impression on many thinkers of the day, including Germany’s own influential zoologist Ernst Haeckel.
You might recognize Haeckel as the scientist who proposed that animals re-enact different stages of evolution during their embryological development—and who (in)famously fabricated illustrations to make his point. Haeckel himself later admitted the forgery,2 with various embryos drawn to look more alike than they really are. Even so, Haeckel’s drawings continued circulating in textbooks at least until the 1990s,3 with comparative embryology still being presented as evidence for evolution today—even in my own recent university classes.
Despite his questionable methods, Haeckel so successfully popularized evolution in Germany that he became nicknamed “the German Darwin.”4 Yet his beliefs didn’t stop where Origin of the Species ended. From the foundation of evolutionary thinking, Haeckel constructed a mystical worldview of his own, a type of monism.
Unlike Christianity and other dualistic worldviews, which Haeckel defined to consider “God and the world, creator and creature, spirit and matter, as two completely separated substances,”5 monism revolves around the claim that “all is one.” This is the same basic claim as Hinduism. As Haeckel explained his views, “there lives ‘one spirit in all things’ . . . we refuse to accept the distinction usually drawn between the natural and the spiritual.”5
Both Haeckel’s monism and religions like Hinduism embrace pantheism, the belief that “everything is ‘God.’” Haeckel clearly outlined his pantheistic stance by stating, “The monistic idea of God, which alone is compatible with our present knowledge of nature, recognises the divine spirit in all things.”5
Wait a minute—why did Haeckel think only an impersonal, monistic God could be compatible with natural science? In this quote’s context, Haeckel had just been referencing Darwin’s suggestion that life is fundamentally a gladiatorial game of death and suffering in the evolutionary struggle for survival. Haeckel recognized that such an evolutionary system is inconsistent with the idea of a loving, personal Creator.6 Yet rather than trust God’s Word, that death and suffering were not God’s original design for creation but rather resulted from human sin,7 Haeckel believed Darwin—and so was intellectually forced to reject consistent belief in the biblical God.
Ultimately, Haeckel’s spirituality shows the strong link between evolutionism and mysticism. As I’ve mentioned in articles about Buddhist and Hindu cultures, mystic spirituality based on evolutionary beliefs allows people to feel “spiritual” without admitting their accountability to the biblical Creator. Haeckel’s version of this evolutionary mysticism was just another effort in humanity’s long history of trying to create its own truth, founded on man’s word instead of God’s. In fact, Haeckel’s views diverged so far from anything resembling Christianity that at a 1904 convention for “freethinkers” in Rome, he was officially proclaimed the “Antipope.”4
From Haeckel to Hitler
Yet rather than trust God’s Word, that death and suffering were not God’s original design for creation but rather resulted from human sin, Haeckel believed Darwin
While some modern pantheists still applaud Haeckel’s spirituality, they also condemn the social injustices which logically flowed from his evolutionary views. As the World Pantheism website states,
[Haeckel] was a courageous critic of Christianity, who formulated one of the most complete versions of pantheism, fostered a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature, and made the first attempt at founding an organized pantheist religion. Yet his misguided interpretation8 of Darwinism led him to a brutal social ethic which influenced and gave spurious scientific legitimacy to the Nazi programme.9
This link between Darwin, Haeckel, and Hitler has been thoroughly documented elsewhere,10 showing how Nazism rested intellectually on the view that life is a struggle for evolutionary success. This struggle supposedly allows the “fittest” populations to attain higher planes of evolution, while purging individuals with “undesirable” genetics from the gene pool.
In our fallen world, natural selection can work to remove genetic variation from within kinds of living things God created, allowing populations of creatures to become more suited to specific environments. (However, our modern understanding of genetics, which Darwin didn’t have access to,11 does not support the idea that natural selection can work with mutation to create the new genetic information for forms, functions, and features required to “evolve” novel kinds of living things.12) For example, natural selection may weed out genes for light fur among mice which can’t camouflage in a dark-sands desert, but weed out genes for dark fur among mice which can’t camouflage in a light-sands desert.13 The pre-existing genetic variation God designed in living things therefore acts as a survival mechanism, allowing creatures to adapt to constantly changing environments in a sin-cursed world.
When the Nazis arbitrarily decided that non-Aryanian “races” were less worthy of life, they applied the “survival of the fittest” principle to exterminate these people groups altogether—not just from one environment, but from the entire planet. The Bible is clear that death and extermination is a symptom of the world’s brokenness,14 not a model of struggle upon which to build societies. Yet, based on evolutionary ideology rather than Christ’s command, “Love your neighbour as yourself,”15 the Nazis committed mass murders to try creating such a society.
Evolutionary Thinking in Germany Today
After the war, the clear link between social Darwinism and Nazism led to fresh backlashes against evolutionary philosophy.4 Biblical creation movements, as a result, remain active in Germany to this day.4 And yet evolutionary beliefs, still taught as facts in schools, continue pervading Germany’s popular thinking.
German public belief in evolution has actually risen steadily over the decades, with the percentage of people who agree that “apes and humans have a common ancestor” increasing from less than 40% in 1970 to more than 60% by 2009.16 Another survey from 2007 also revealed that while one in four German adults believed God used evolution to create humans, only one in eight agreed that “man was created by God as written in the Bible.”17 In other words, over 87% of Germany’s population does not believe the Genesis account of human origins.
Evolution in German Education
I’d suspect these high levels of evolutionary belief reflect the messages being taught in Germany’s public education system, where presenting “creationist ideas as fact” is verboten.4 German science textbooks which critique evolution do exist, yet they’re not allowed in public schools.4 Homeschooling, however, is also illegal in Germany. So, except possibly for students attending private Christian schools, high school-aged youth in Germany are only exposed to evolutionary ideas during school hours.
This change may not take long.
Currently, German primary school curriculum doesn’t include evolution as a learning objective. Yet organizations like EvoKids, a group which produces German evolutionary materials for young children and advocates that evolution be taught in Germany primary education, are working hard to change that.18
This change may not take long. Already, the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities has declared, along with 60+ other national science academies, that “scientific evidence has never contradicted” human evolution over millions of years.19 Germany is also a member state of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which passed “Resolution 1580” in 2007 urging nations to “firmly oppose . . .the presentation of creationist ideas in any discipline other than religion.”20 All in all, the education system shaping today’s German youth vehemently contradicts the first chapters of Genesis, the foundation of the Christian worldview.21
But It Wasn’t Always This Way . . .
Ironically, exactly 130 years before Resolution 1580, the government of Prussia (a kingdom within the German empire of that time) took extreme measures to protect students’ understanding of creation.4 The stir began in 1877, when Prussian biology teacher Hermann Müller quoted a book in class which claimed that “modern chemists” agreed the universe began with carbon—not with God. Because Müller rejected a Creator, he necessarily believed in evolutionary origins. He also maintained occasional contact with Charles Darwin himself.4
Once news of Müller’s (then) scandalous teachings reached the media, the resulting outcry led Prussia’s Parliament to ban biology from secondary schools between 1882–1908, lest students absorb atheistic ideas in class. While human evolution is a necessary belief of atheism, the observational science of biology doesn’t point to evolutionary origins, but rather to the Genesis Creator. Instead of constructively showing students that real science supports Scripture, therefore, this ban likely did nothing but spread the false belief that “science” contradicts God’s Word.
This popular misunderstanding that the Bible is wrong about real-world studies like biology easily leads people to view the Bible as irrelevant altogether. And as I learned while talking to Christian students after the German church service, that’s exactly the belief prevailing in Germany today.
What German Christian Students Say Today
One young woman at the church, a physiotherapy student, summarized the situation in Germany (and I’d suggest, in most Western cultures) well. “Most people are not interested in Christianity anymore,” she said, “like it doesn’t have anything to do with their life. Culture influences church more than church influences culture.”
As another student elaborated,
The majority (of Germany’s student population) isn’t really Christian, but I think most people’s grandparents—and maybe parents—are Christian, for tradition. So, students can somehow connect to the Christian faith, but they don’t really live it. They think, “Those are old things that don’t have any value for my life now.”
In a culture like this, what advice would local students give other Christians at Germany’s universities? Every student I asked advised that other students plug into strong Christian communities, including biblical campus ministries and a solid local church.
Maintaining consistent Christian support this way is part of having firm interpersonal foundations, a trusted network of godly family, friends and mentors. This, remarkably, was the same advice I’d been hearing from students in every culture I’d visited so far.
The Moral of the Story
The slippery slope begins when individuals start basing their intellectuality on man’s word . . . from there, people can logically justify making man’s word the basis for their spirituality, as Haeckel did, and for their morality, like the Nazis did.
Ultimately, the grim history of evolutionary thinking in Germany highlights what happens when a culture begins founding its thinking on man’s word instead of God’s. The slippery slope begins when individuals start basing their intellectuality on man’s word, like scholars in Germany who believed Darwin’s interpretations rather than Genesis’s revealed history. From there, people can logically justify making man’s word the basis for their spirituality, as Haeckel did, and for their morality, like the Nazis did. Having untethered rational, spiritual and moral concepts of “truth” from God’s Word, the culture no longer has grounds to view the Bible as relevant to much of anything. Christianity becomes merely a matter of tradition, a pastime for the elderly. That’s exactly what the Christian students in the German church I visited see happening in their culture today.
When a culture becomes such a lonely place for the serious Christ-follower, it’s no wonder that Christian students’ desires for strong interpersonal foundations rings as clear as a church bell. I suspected that Christians in other European countries would echo the same chorus—but there was only one way to find out.
Stay tuned for Part 24!