To me, one of the most frustrating debates in this country is between evolution and creationism, and it’s frustrating because it’s completely unnecessary.
Evolution is not something that factored into my deconversion. But after leaving Christianity, I became interested in learning more about it, since I had left my past ideas on how we all got here behind. And the more I learned, the more it struck me that the debate between the two sides is completely superfluous. Of course, I’m not the first to say so, but I’ll offer my thoughts on it, nonetheless.
First of all, how should we refer to those who don’t believe in evolution? I don’t want to call them creationists, because there are a number of Christians who believe in a Creator and in evolution. So I think I’ll just use the term “anti-evolutionists.”
Anti-evolutionists tend to have several problems with evolution, but I think the most important is that the theory of evolution contradicts a literal reading of the Bible’s creation account in Genesis. While this is true, there are many different ways to rationalize it. First of all, why can’t the creation account just be viewed as allegory, just as many people think of the story of the rich man and Lazarus? Perhaps the sin in the Garden was just representative of the sins all men commit? Another idea is that each day is simply representative of a long period of time, rather than a literal day in order to allow for the millions of years required for life to develop. Then there’s the view that I tended to hold to when I was a Christian — it’s sometimes known (jokingly) as “last Thursday-ism.” It’s the idea that even though the earth and universe appear old, they’re actually quite young — just as Adam and Eve (if they had been real) would have looked like full-grown adults just moments after their creation. If God could create stars and the laws of physics, why would he have to wait for the light from those stars to travel all the way to earth? Why not just create it so that it already shines here? Why not create the earth with fossils already within it?
The real beauty of this belief, and really all the ones I’ve outlined so far, is that it allows one to hold onto his or her religious beliefs, regardless of what science tells us. But for some reason, many anti-evolutionists prefer to argue the science itself. I really think this is a bad idea. It’s reminiscent of the Catholic church’s argument with Galileo on whether the earth was round and revolved around the sun. It just draws a line in the sand where one may not be needed at all. Not only does this potentially upset the faith of those Christians who are finally convinced that science was right all along, but it also jeopardizes the education of children who are told to ignore what science shows us.
But It’s Only a Theory!
Yes, yes, we’re told this often. But a scientific theory is very different from our casual use of the word when we’re talking about an idea of which we’re unsure. In science, a theory is an explanation of some phenomenon that includes many different facts that have been verified over and over. This is why we have germ theory, the atomic theory, and the theory of gravity. Frances Ashcroft in a Fresh Air interview from September 27, 2012 said:
So science is indeed a theory, but I really like what the very famous American physicist Feynman said. He said, “science is imagination in a straightjacket.” We are constrained by all the things which we already know, so you can not simply conjure a story out of the air. It has to explain all the current facts, and the new ones which have just been discovered, and it has to make predictions that can then be tested to see whether in fact that story continues to hold when we know even more information.
This is a really important point. The theory of evolution is a scientific theory built upon facts, not guesses. And every discovery we’ve made since the time of Darwin has only supported the theory of evolution . Everything we’ve discovered in physics, everything we’ve learned about genetics, and all the fossils we’ve uncovered, have all given further credence to evolution . And more importantly, if we were to discover evidence that overturned the theory of evolution, then it would be discarded in favor of a theory that could make sense of all the evidence. But so far, we’ve never had reason to do that.
In my next post, I’ll talk more about the evidence for evolution. But the main point I’ve been trying to make here is that this argument between evolution and creationism is completely unnecessary. What all Christians need to accept is the fact that even if God really created everything, he did so in a way where all the physical signs point toward evolution. Maybe he did this to trick those of us who don’t believe (2 Thess 2:11-12), or maybe Genesis isn’t supposed to be taken literally. Either way, the evidence really only points one direction. So why fight about it?
Let’s stop trying to get creationism or Intelligent Design taught in our public schools, because they make claims that we can not verify. Let’s simply encourage our schools to teach our current best understanding of science, and then you can handle your child’s religious education in your home or church. This just doesn’t have to be an issue we fight over.
68 thoughts on “Why Evolution and Religion Don’t Have to Be at Odds”
Nate, it won’t surprise you to know I pretty much agree with you here. But it isn’t simple, because a christian who accepts the scientific truth of evolution has to re-adjust a few more teachings than just the date and process of creation. The most serious (IMO) is the fact that animals preying on each other must have been occurring before humanity sinned, taking away that explanation and meaning that God created a world with animal pain in it. Another issue is original sin, but that’s not a big deal for me because I always thought that “doctrine” was either wrong or poorly formulated anyway.
“the Catholic church’s argument with Galileo on whether the earth was round and revolved around the sun.”
This is only peripheral, but I should mention that most people’s understanding of the church vs Galileo is wrong. The church opposed Galileo on genuine scientific grounds and with the data available, they were right and he was wrong. The church said that it could readily change its dogma to accord with science, but Galileo was unable to demonstrate his teachings. It was only later that data became available, Galileo was shown to be right, and the church did change. The church did behave badly, but not in the way most people think. All this is based on established history, not by a Catholic apologist, but by an agnostic who is one of the recognised experts – Ronald Numbers.
I have come to suspect that, for many, the big hangup is what Dembski calls “human exceptionalism.” They want it to be all about us. They want humans to be the pinnacle of all life. They could go along with common descent, as long as that came with guided mutation and guided selection. They have a hangup with random mutation and natural selection, because those ideas deny that we are special.
“They have a hangup with random mutation and natural selection, because those ideas deny that we are special.”
Hi Neil. I wonder how you see the connection here. Why does an apparently random process mean the result isn’t special? (I guess it may depend on what you mean by “special”.)
Very true! I like how you worded this. Besides, evolution does not necessarily disqualify the existence of God. Could God have started the world through evolution? Of course.
I don’t have a problem with that. But, as best I can tell from the arguments they use, many ID proponents do have a problem with it.
Well I’m just happy Nate finally wrote another post!
OK, I didn’t know that.
“even if God really created everything, he did so in a way where all the physical signs point toward evolution.”
Just a teensy weensy point, Nate, if i may. Which god are we talking about here? (and are you sure god is a ‘he’) I am sure there may be theist readers who might appreciate clarification. 😉
“the Catholic church’s argument with Galileo on whether the earth was round and revolved around the sun.”
This is only peripheral, but I should mention that most people’s understanding of the church vs Galileo is wrong. The church opposed Galileo on genuine scientific grounds and with the data available, they were right and he was wrong. The church said that it could readily change its dogma to accord with science, but Galileo was unable to demonstrate his teachings. It was only later that data became available, Galileo was shown to be right, and the church did change. The church did behave badly, but not in the way most people think. All this is based on established history, not by a Catholic apologist, but by an agnostic who is one of the recognised experts – Ronald Numbers.:
Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse and detest” those opinions.
He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. On the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life.
His offending Dialogue was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.[6
The last eight years of his life were spent under house arrest.
“The church opposed Galileo on genuine scientific grounds and with the data available, they were right and he was wrong. ”
What was the church correct about please? You don’t specify. Clarification would be welcome.
Thanks for all the comments!
Per the Galileo thing, I should have looked into it more closely before I referenced it. While it’s true that he was condemned as a heretic and subjected to house arrest for the rest of his life, he is partly to blame for that. It turns out that Pope Urban VIII was a friend and supporter of Galileo and was okay with Galileo writing about heliocentrism. He only asked that Galileo wright about both positions and mention that the pope’s position was geocentrism. Galileo did this, but he did it in a way that seemed to suggest that geocentrism was idiotic. Many people think that he didn’t intend for his writing to come across that way, but that’s how many people took it, and the pope didn’t appreciate being called a fool. In addition to that, the pope was already dealing with some criticisms that he was too soft on certain biblical principles. All of those factors were at play in Galileo’s sentencing. So it’s definitely more complicated than the way I initially presented. Thanks to Ark and Unklee for bringing up these points.
Of course, my overall point was that religious groups sometimes stake out positions against science solely based on their readings of scripture. The recent statements on rape from politicians Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock might be better examples. And Akin served on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. How messed up is that?
Thanks, Ark! I’m mostly talking to Christians here, so I figured I’d use their lingo. Of course, like you, I don’t believe in any gods, but I just figured it was easier to go with the standard capitalized “G” masculine form. 🙂
Fair enough…..THOR! ZEUS! No fellers, Nate isn’t talking about you, so go and smite someone else, all right?
It’s Christmas for gods’ sake. No,no, NOT your sake. Sheesh, get over yourselves for g…for Heaven’s sake. Oh crap, it’s tough being an atheist among these lot.”
I have never spoken with a serious, graduate-level or professional scientist who disagrees with the Darwinian view of evolution, but I have spoken with several who disagree about the factors involved in evolution. Some believe nonadaptive mechanisms like genetic drift, mutation, and recombination deserve a larger role in evolution because they dictate the paths down which natural selection can and cannot proceed in different lineages. Their work is about expanding the role of the phenotype, and trying to understand it more clearly. They all agree natural selection is operating, though.
While there may be disagreement within the scientific community, and that is healthy, the disagreement is about how to fully understand the evolutionary process and not about questioning the validity of evolution, or even the Darwinian view of it.
Of course, I am sure there are a few people who disagree with the Darwinian view of evolution, but I doubt you can find a biologist who dismisses evolution altogether on scientific grounds.
As a christian who accepts the science, I think some “militant” evolutionists defend not just evolution but natural selection as the main or only mechanism with “religious” fervour, and vociferously oppose anyone who thinks other mechanisms might operate. They particularly oppose any thought that God could use evolution to achieve his purposes as impinging on the “freedom” of natural selection. I think this helps increase the suspicion of evolution by some christians, and I’m not at all sure this isn’t deliberate. I don’t think most scientists operate this way, but I think some of those who write on metaphysics in the guide of science (think people like PZ Myers) tend to operate this way, and I think it is unfortunate.
I agree with the spirit of this post, including why many rebel against the theory, the techniques used in disagreement, and what a theory really is, among others. I wanted to throw out an alternative viewpoint as to why the theory rankles some feathers. There probably isn’t many that share this view, but it happens to be my own.
Full disclosure. I haven’t plumbed the theory of evolution to its depths yet. The extent of my knowledge includes a partial reading of Origins of Man, some commentary on various topics by the scientific community, and a few incredulous laughs at the responses.
Creationism, as with any theory based on a literal reading of the Bible, is crackpot (I was going to add “IMO” but, I’m sorry, it’s simply a fact…not too worried about running into any of those here…) How people can take something that is clearly written as an analogy, and turn it into hard dogma on the entire origins of the universe, is beyond me. The debate is ridiculous.
Although it doesn’t do the same for everyone, when I look at the world, and combine what I see with the theory of evolution, I see a beauty of design that simply “blows my mind, dude”. Not only does it make sense, but it follows Ockham’s Razor. Life is not static; why, then, would we expect anything less during its history? It’s truly amazing how resilient all of creation is, even in spite of our recent efforts to wreck it (and that’s another subject entirely).
I think the rub comes along two fronts. The first is easy to state. It’s not the substance of the theory that troubles some, it is the use of this theory as a supporting argument against faith that troubles some. When science demonstrates that a literal understanding of Genesis is clearly lacking (if not outright wrong), then a reasonable human being would agree. However, when someone uses the theory of evolution (or any theory) as proof that there is no God, this is wrong. Science has yet, and never will, prove or disprove God.
Religion over the centuries made many forays into areas it had no business going into (this is partly a “filling of the gaps” that I’ve heard some atheists express). Now, it’s fighting a losing retreat in the face of an avalanche of evidence to the contrary. While this is a good thing, to assume that the central tenets of religion are also wrong is to make a foray into an area that science has no business going into. If religion had stuck to what it originally proposed to answer, we wouldn’t be having this debate in the first place.
The second rub can be seen in this statement: “The theory of evolution is a scientific theory built upon facts, not guesses.” This is correct if we are looking at just the foundation, but to say that “guesses” are not a part of the overall structure would be incorrect. After all, what is a hypothesis? An educated guess, to be sure, but still a guess, one that is then tested with the evidence.
The theory of evolution is not one theory, but several; a cohesive construction of theories and hypotheses woven together. The rub for some lies not in the foundational principles of evolution, natural selection, etc., but with the seeming reductio ad absurdum that accompanies the theory, in which all of creation’s roots can be traced down to primordial sludge. The evidence seems to point in this direction. However, one has to wonder if there is evidence and facts that have yet to be discovered, evidence and facts that would call this portion of the theory into question. It’s akin to a symphony where some of the instruments are out of tune. Something doesn’t sound quite right, even if one cannot put their finger on what that something is.
Is this nothing more than what Neil cites as “human exceptionalism”? Perhaps. Maybe not necessarily a desire that we are the “pinnacle of life”, but more of a strain on the imagination to accept that the numerous distinctive differences are outweighed by the similarities we have with primates. These differences are not easily answered, even if we stretch the introductions of those differences over the span of millennia.
Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, which brings me to my ultimate problem with this debate. It’s not the facts or the evidence that bothers me the most. What bothers me the most is that one can’t seem to have a healthy conversation and/or debate without being quickly labeled as a devout believer of either one camp or the other. It’s also why I tend to avoid any conversations revolving around abortion, global warming, or whatever issue the fundies are hot and bothered about.
Or, for a shorter comment with the same spirit but different slant, read Unklee or Persto above. 😀
It’s simple’ as religion is primarily belief in the supernatural it can get by on faith – evidence as an optional extra – “We’ve got the bible, see? And this is the word of god, so we’re okay and you are going to hell you rotten non-believer….so there!”
Science requires evidence and when the religious folk can provide evidence of hell I feel sure all the atheists will gladly go check it out….and report back.
I always think it somewhat ironic when a Christian labels Creationism as ‘crackpot’, or something equally as damning, yet they adhere like a limpet to a rock to the certitude that the person they worship was born of a virgin (impregnated by a ghost), grew up (who cares about his childhood, right? Let’s just skip to the really cool parts, like…. walking on water, turning water into wine ( a sure fire winner at any party) raised up dead people and eventually raised himself from the dead.
To the ordinary christian these events are perfectly normal and
They will question aspects of evolution ’til the Darwinian evolved cows come home but accept (without question) that a human will utter a curse and a fruit tree will wither almost at once.
They cannot see how utterly nonsensical it is defending this position
This is like stating that homeopathy is quack medicine but crystals are effective. But if crystals don’t work then we can always pray, because prayer works, right?
Well….no, actually, it doesn’t. Maybe because we haven’t evolved enough to make it work?
I don’t begin to understand the ins and outs of the Big Bang, but it sits a whole lot easier on my conscience than, “God did it”, whether the person uttering this phrase is a Young Earth – no I really am not on LSD – Creationist or a Nouveau Jesus-esque type Christian who accepts a lot of science and then claims , “Yeah, well, God made it, and then let Darwin’s apes get on with it, okay?”
Remember the childrens’ rhyme?
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
This is religion and science. While ANY god is in the mix it is not science.
Sorry, Jesus keeps telling me that I must remind everyone that
25th of December is not really his birthday but gold is still an acceptable gift. He says don;t bother with the frankincense and myrrh, thank you very much.
I am unsure if natural selection accounts for all evolutionary change, particularly at the molecular and cellular level. In my humble opinion, natural selection is just one of several evolutionary mechanisms at work. It just seems to me there are limits to what selection can accomplish.
Having said that, natural selection is essential for evolutionary adaptation. Period. Natural selection is always operating. I think you agree with this?
“I think some “militant” evolutionists defend not just evolution but natural selection as the main or only mechanism with “religious” fervour,”
I suppose scientists can be too willing to accept natural selection as the only explanatory force for all aspects of biodiversity, but I truly believe they feel the evidence suggests this, though the evidence is a bit lacking in this regard.
“thought that God could use evolution to achieve his purposes as impinging on the “freedom” of natural selection.”
You may disagree, but god just appears to be an unnecessary evolutionary introduction. God could be involved, but….you know the Laplace quote. Lol.
As for PZ, I respect his scientific knowledge, but he lacks a great deal in the areas of philosophy, history, and religion.
Overall, I agree it is an unfortunate situation. One that, hopefully, can be remedied in the near future, but probably not.
I am a bit tired and my ruminating skills are beginning to deteriorate, so I am heedfully optimistic that my response was pertinent to your comment.
“Natural selection is always operating. I think you agree with this?”
Yes, as long as that is what the scientists have found.
“I suppose scientists can be too willing to accept natural selection as the only explanatory force for all aspects of biodiversity, but I truly believe they feel the evidence suggests this”
I’m not doubting the evidence. It’s just that I’ve seen scientists defend it with what seems like the fervour of faith, suggesting that their minds aren’t open to alternatives on this matter.
“god just appears to be an unnecessary evolutionary introduction”
For me, it depends where you start. If you start with earth 5 bn years ago, then you are probably right, but if you start at the beginning with nothing, zip, blank, then God seems quite necessary to me.
Have a good sleep, and a good Xmas!
Lot of vitriol lurking beneath those words, even though some of it is couched in splendid humor. These kinds of conversations have proven to be unproductive in the past and “upset my zen, man”. However, I’m feeling magnanimous this morning, so I’ll throw a bone.
Oh no, I see how “utterly nonsensical” my beliefs are. I am, after all, the fool:
(bows) Pleased to meet you. 🙂
As for evidence, it’s there, but all subjective; not admissible as objective evidence, and surely not the proof you seek. You can get it, but only if you first sell-out. Completely. You gotta be a fool first. Like me. I know this sets your teeth on edge, but I’m just telling it how it is. Over time, the evidence will also demonstrate why it is that way in the first place.
As for those that point to the Bible as proof (especially in a conversation with you), they are not fools, just idiots. (“Um, hello? He doesn’t accept your authority…”). Most of those, though, don’t worship God (excuse me – the Flying Spaghetti Monster). They worship their book. I know there is no difference to you, but there is. Huge, in fact.
The coldly judging religious folk you refer to in your first paragraph are an ugly lot, to be sure. I tend to avoid them whenever possible. If this is your only experience of Christians, then the vitriol is understandable. However (and this is just an observation), we tend to receive what we project out into the world.
Just a thought…
Just to test your powers of reason,and as I have faith that you are a reasonably intelligent bloke I shall throw the bone back with a handful of dog biscuits and a tin of Pedigree Chum – you’ll have to open thetin yourself, though ,okay?
Right, here goes nothing….
For your god’s sake, let’s, imagine He created the Earth and at the moment he is parking off having a beer with his missus, Asherah.
Now, he can see that humans are a naughty, ungrateful bunch of bastards but he wants to give them another chance. So,after waiting until all but 2000 years of man’s existence he decides to send a a Wholly Ghost to fool around with a hot Jewess and eventually his ‘kid’ gets crucified and humans still learn bugger all.
Meanwhile, across the globe there are a fair few million other humans that are eagerly waiting for the Church to get its arse into gear, man up the Men-o’Wars and sail to the four corners of the globe (it was still considered flat in those days; or flattish) and convert them. I mean is it really fun running around without clothes on bonking each other with nary a care and other healthy pursuits?
Of course not, dammit , they NEEDED religion.
Now step back just for one darn second….
We are talking about an Omnipotent being right? The Creator of Everything, yes?
One who wouldn’t DREAM of being a Manchester United supporter, right?
So, it stands to reason: someone pretty damn clever.
Surely it would have been a teeny bit easier, and FAR more intelligent to just say “Bing’ and have the knowledge of this deity implanted into the mind of Every Single Human at once?
Humans still have free will – reject or accept: press cancel to cease installation
But this way your god doesn’t have to be complicit in the murder of his own kid, and more important, they are not required to cut a bit off their willies.
So,I bequeath upon you, Don,the title, God For A Day. and you have to SAVE MANKIND and all that other stuff. (No cutting bits off willies either)
Do you choose Option A or Option B.
Well? Are you going to give me the “Y’see Ark, it’s not that simple …” answer, or are you going to show me just how intelligent a Christian can be?
Warning: long post ahead.
““The church opposed Galileo on genuine scientific grounds and with the data available, they were right and he was wrong. ”
What was the church correct about please? You don’t specify. Clarification would be welcome.”
The elephant in the room for Galileo and heliocentrism in general at the time was the lack of an observed stellar parallax. Since classical times, natural philosophers knew that an Earth rotating around the Sun would result in a shift in the relative position of stars over the course of the year. They used it to refute Aristarchus’ heliocentrism. Copernicanism, however, suffered from the same problem. A stellar parallax was observed for the first time in the nineteenth century, but by then a different type of heliocentrism was long-accepted. This was because Newton’s laws of motion made Kepler’s model extremely likely. These theoretic advances were unavailable in Galileo’s day, though.
On a slightly different note, a different problem for Galileo was that one of his arguments for axial rotation was in direct contradiction with an earlier medieval argument that allowed for an axially rotating Earth. This argument by Nicholas Oresme argued that the fact a projectile launched upwards and falling shows no relative motion to its surroundings was no evidence against the Earth rotating around its axis. However, Galileo’s tidal argument posed that the tides were caused by the Earth’s rotation around its axis. Since the two cases are either axial rotation not affecting the motion of matter or axial rotation affecting the motion of matter, respectively, they are inconsistent. Galileo was happy to use both, though. This inconsistency was pointed out by several Jesuit astronomers – and their observation is correct.
Another problem was that Galileo resorted to Biblical interpretation to refute some of the Biblical arguments against Copernicanism. However, since the advent of the Counter-Reformation, such lay interpretation was suspiciously Protestant.
Then there was the issue that Galileo could easily make influential enemies. The most notable example was when he put an argument favoured by the Pope into the mouth of a character called Simplicio in his work Il Dialogo. Word spread that Galileo had caricatured the Pope, who had prevously been favourable to him, as a simpleton, which infuriated the Pope. A careful, diplomatic approach to politics was not Galileo’s forte.
Finally, it is necessary to view the Earth-Sun debate in the context of the time. It was not a binary choice between Ptolemaic geocentrism on the one hand and Copernican heliocentrism on the other. The Ptolemaic worldview was pretty much dead among experts at the time, but Copernicus’ alternative was not popular either. Popular contenders were the geo-heliocentric models, like the Tychonic, that suggested that a fixed Earth stood in the centre and the Sun revolved around the Earth, with all other Planet revolving around the Sun, and the semi-Tychonic (basically the Tychonic model with axial rotation) or variation upon them. Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric model also became increasingly popular and eventually the one that won, though Galileo never seemed to have cared much for it. Unlike Copernicanism, these models did ditch the endless epicycles.
Okay, but I don’t see how I’m going to open this tin with my paws…
Let’s see…I would choose Option B, except (assuming that I’ve been around since humans appeared on this planet) it’s already done. The overwhelming majority of people with a religious preference historically, and the overwhelming majority of people with a religious preference today (over 80%, according to Wikipedia), even in spite of the continual efforts by those whom know better, seems to attest to that. Or, to put it another way…
“Nature herself has imprinted upon the minds of all, the idea of God.” – Cicero
Seems that bunch of dog biscuits is stale. So that leaves me with Option A…except there’s a whole lot of extra gunk on those biscuits that is not palatable. For example, the assumption that if one does not taste this particular flavor of Christianity you chidingly present here (along with all the doctrine, dogma, theology, and whatever tasteless and moldy morsels you wish to include), that one is doomed forever and ever, even if they never had a chance to actually reject those moldy morsels. In other words, your presentation presupposes a misunderstanding of the Christ.
Blech! This false dichotomy of biscuits is all bad! Here…you can have it back… 😀
“First of all, how should we refer to those who don’t believe in evolution? I don’t want to call them creationists, because there are a number of Christians who believe in a Creator and in evolution. So I think I’ll just use the term “anti-evolutionists.””
I couldn’t agree more!
As for the various interpretations you list, I would add Day-Age Creationism (interpreting Hebrew yōm as “age”) and the Gap Theory (that believes there is a billions of years long gap between a “first” creation in Genesis 1:1 and a “second” in Genesis 1:2). Not that I believe in either of them, as I don’t read Genesis as literal/historical. An important point is that many early anti-evolutionists only opposed evolution when it included humanity in its scope, they insisted on a “special creation” of man (women weren’t fully emancipated at the time).