Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Education, Faith, God, Religion, Science, Truth

Why Evolution and Religion Don’t Have to Be at Odds

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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”

  1. @ Don.
    A clever answer…and I really hoped for an intelligent one. Oh, well, I should have known better, I guess. You are a reborn Christian after all and any deviation from this path requires you to face reality.
    Never mind, you stick with virgin births and zombies rising from the ground and other dead guys etc.
    If you have kids, please let them grow up a bit before you poison them with religion?

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  2. @ ignorantianescia
    Warning: Short post ahead.
    This is all very well, and I cannot see any area of dispute. Galileo was barking up the wrong tree over several issues his theory over comets for one – but the tone of Unklee’s comment –
    ““The church opposed Galileo on genuine scientific grounds and with the data available, they were right and he was wrong” – . suggests that the subject matter over which the Church declared Galileo a heretic was wrong – and it wasn’t.
    There are always those who like to defend the Church over such matters, or try to ‘correct’ popular misconceptions as if this was some sort of Get Out Of Jail Free card for the church.

    The bottom line: Religion and science can never reach true harmony because sooner or later that little niggly problem of God, in whichever guise his starry-eyed believers choose to present him, enters the fray.
    And then it just is not science any more.

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  3. I don’t think it suggests that. “The church opposed Galileo on genuine scientific grounds and with the data available, they were right and he was wrong” means that the Roman Catholic Church was justified on empirical and theoretical grounds to conclude Galileo was wrong, not that there were no other factors involved. Heliocentrism thus had to be discussed explicitly as an unproven hypothesis, but could be discussed by mathematicians. Other factors, like Galileo making influential enemies and his homemade Bible interpretation may also not be overlooked; the latter was actually the clearly heretical part of his writings.

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  4. But this was not the reason he was summoned by the inquisition: which testimony from his trial clearly demonstrates. The tone of the comment suggests that the charge he was summoned for was because the Church was right and he was wrong, and this is fallacious.

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  5. As someone who has grown up in evangelical churches and graduated from an evangelical seminary, I can say that in almost all circles evolution is still a taboo subject. Those who believe it usually stay pretty quiet about it. As Nate said, this is unfortunate least of all because of the damage it does to science education in the South.

    My sister in law teaches Chemistry at a Christian school. She told me there are times when she mentions something approaching evolution and the kids plug their ears and scream. One can hardly call this an education. The fact is the vast majority of Christians simply do not know the overwhelming evidence for evolution. We don’t want to know it. We mock it as a “theory” with flimsy proof without realizing it is only a theory like gravity is a theory. Additionally, apologists love to destroy fossil evidence, yet they seem to have no clue that we don’t even need fossils to prove evolution. And we wonder why so many shipwreck their faith in college biology classes.

    Theologically, the biggest problem with evolution from my experiences and conversations is Adam. Many seem ok with the creation account being allegorical. However as others pointed out, the doctrine of original sin seems tied to the historical person of Adam. I deal with this largely following Peter Enns’ reasoning in his book “The Evolution of Adam.” C. S. Lewis and the geneticist Francis Collins also offer a lot of insight.

    Anyway, I follow Jesus passionately and it is disheartening to see so many in the church stick their head in the sand on this issue. God is not honored by ignorance, no matter how well intentioned.

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  6. @ bburlson.
    “God is not honored by ignorance, no matter how well intentioned.”

    Most atheists are already aware of the Evangelical (Young Earth?) perspective, and as you point out it is damning to teach this stuff to children.
    However, I would ask, if may, when you say,” god is not honored etc…” , to which god do you refer?

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  7. Unklee,

    Thank you!

    “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.”

    Among some scientists, there is an uncritical acceptance of natural selection as the only mechanism operating, I will agree.

    “but if you start at the beginning with nothing, zip, blank, then God seems quite necessary to me.”

    Not necessarily, but I have no problem granting you the Prime Mover of Aristotle and Aquinas. Although, you should know the law of conservation of energy was not violated by the big bang. The big bang has a purely scientific explanation. Would you like to hear it?

    Have a very happy Christmas!

    Regards

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  8. “I have no problem granting you the Prime Mover of Aristotle and Aquinas”
    I’m interested that you don’t object too much to this. I also think that the creation & design of the universe suggests more (to me) than just a “prime mover”.

    “The big bang has a purely scientific explanation. Would you like to hear it?”
    I have read a fair bit on cosmology, but I am always happy to learn. I don’t doubt the big bang has a “scientific” explanation (I use inverted commas because I think “real science” may may go back only to the Planck horizon), but the big bang isn’t necessarily the ultimate beginning – earlier may be the multiverse (if such is the truth of the matter), even earlier may be the laws of Physics and the existence of a quantum vacuum and field with enormous potential. But please tell me what you understand.

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  9. @arkenaten I just have one important comment to add to this discussion. Let’s leave Manchester United out of this!!

    Glory, glory!!

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  10. @ Graham.
    I am more than happy to leave Man U . out of ANYTHING.
    From now on they shall be regarded as Teamus non Gratis.

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  11. Unklee,

    I will try and be brief.

    Where did the Universe’s matter come from? God? Einstein showed us that matter can be created out of energy and can fade away into energy. That is to say, mass and rest energy are homologous. Considering this, one may wonder where the energy comes from? And the law of conservation of energy requires that energy come from somewhere. So, where did the big bang’s energy come from? God? No, the first law of thermodynamics allows energy to convert from one type to another if the total for a closed system remains fixed. The total energy of the universe is zero. Fixed. Even though there are elements of quantum uncertainty–the shortcomings of general relativity–the universe appears just as it should if it began from an initial state of zero energy.

    Additionally, the inflationary big bang predicts a close balance between positive and negative energy by revealing that the universe underwent rapid and exponential inflation during a tiny fraction of its first second, which observational tests have verified.

    Perhaps, I might should add that the universe began in a state of chaos, because a sphere of Planck dimensions is equivalent to a black hole. The entropy of the initial universe was as high as it possibly could have been for an object that small. I am saying that the entropy of the universe was maximal when it first began and has been increasing ever since. So, at the beginning of the big bang, the entropy was maximal and no order or structure was present, but there is order today because the entropy is no longer maximal, even if it is larger.

    Continuing, it is not even surprising that the universe came into existence because we understand that nothing is more unstable than something. In empty space, there are virtual particles popping in and out existence in a time so short that they are nearly undetectable. What I am suggesting is that not only can something come from nothing, but the laws of physics require that to occur.

    Of course, all of this does not mean god does not exist, but that it is not necessary to employ the ‘God Explanation’ for any natural phenomena, especially the big bang.

    Regards

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  12. Unklee,

    “I’m interested that you don’t object too much to this.”

    Hitchens said it best, that even if I grant you a prime mover all of your work is still ahead of you as theist. How do you get from Aristotle’s prime mover to a god who is mindful about His creation and who, continually, intervenes—either by request or divine knowledge–to ensure the natural processes progress according to His nonpareil blueprint?

    I don’t object because I can’t disprove or prove a deistic god or gods and, as my point above emphasizes, I don’t need to.

    Going off topic, I am curious how you feel about Carrier’s new essay on the historical Jesus? Jerry Coyne did a post on it earlier today, and I found his post lacking a great deal. Perhaps, you could offer an alternative perspective?

    Regards

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  13. Hi Persto, thanks for the cosmology explanations. I think you have slightly overstated the case. What you have presented appears to be based on cosmologists like Krauss, who, as far as I can tell, assume a zero sum energy because that’s what they need to be able to find a way to get a universe without a creator. It’s not yet known to be the case (as far as I can tell, so it’s not science but anti-faith (like anti-matter, this is the equal but opposite).

    Like I asked you before, but you didn’t answer, where do the quantum field and the laws of nature (which are decidedly more than nothing!) come from to get the quantum fluctuation? Krauss is conning us, and doing his credibility as a scientist no good in the process – check out these comments by physicist (and atheist) Luke Barnes here and here.

    So I don’t feel your explanation has answered any of the questions, I’m sorry, though it was interesting. And there is still something for God to explain that science does not appear able to, and probably never can because its in a different category. Over to you. : )

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  14. “How do you get from Aristotle’s prime mover to a god who is mindful about His creation and who, continually, intervenes—either by request or divine knowledge–to ensure the natural processes progress according to His nonpareil blueprint?”

    Persto, thanks for the question. Answers have been given many times before by better people than me, but here are a few brief signposts:

    1. It is a cumulative argument taking into account all of the facts, not just this fact.
    2. The prime mover must be eternal and immaterial by definition, otherwise it is part of the physical universe and not the cause of it. We only know two types of causes, scientific and personal, and this can’t be scientific because there was nothing physical before the beginning of the universe. And the only eternal immaterial entities we know are numbers and minds, and numbers can’t cause anything. So the appearance of the universe suggests the cause was an eternal, immaterial, personal mind – not a bad start!
    3. The design argument suggests a purposive agent.
    4. The arguments from morality and reason suggest a moral and rational agent.
    5. The abundant evidence from personal experience suggests an agent which cares about human beings.
    6. The history of the New Testament suggests Jesus was a representative of a God who fulfils all the above.

    So I find, cumulatively, no other explanation, and certainly no non-explanation, comes anywhere nearly as close to being satisfying.

    “I am curious how you feel about Carrier’s new essay on the historical Jesus?”

    I haven’t seen it, have you got a reference?

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  15. 4. The arguments from morality and reason suggest a moral and rational agent.

    Human beings most certainly have such a capacity, god clearly demonstrates that he does not.
    Unless we are reading different bibles?

    “The abundant evidence from personal experience suggests an agent which cares about human beings.”
    Any non-believer should acknowledge that you most definitely believe this. However , this is faith which does not require any evidence. The biblical accounts most definitely contradicts this belief in an agent of morality at almost every turn of the page.
    “6. The history of the New Testament suggests Jesus was a representative of a God who fulfills all the above.”
    This is where christian s get to play their favorite game –
    “Colouring outside the lines”
    If the biblical character of Jesus is, as you claim, an accurate representative of Yahweh then it merely illustrates the degree of inculcation Christians have been subject to. Or, that most of them have never actually read and understood the bible – including yourself.

    Yahweh was a despotic genocidal megalomaniac,
    Not content with destroying the world and almost every living thing upon it with the flood, he then went on to rack up an impressive litany of heinous crimes that would make Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao look like choir boys in comparison, and topping off this stomach churning violence by being complicit in the murder of his only son claiming a blood sacrifice was crucial for mankind’s salvation. (Why Jesus could’t merely die of measles or malaria is beyond comprehension)
    And this is the character of a benign, loving parent?

    Of course, if such actions were true, then Yahweh would be considered the single biggest human rights abuser of all time.
    But of course it is nothing but Bronze Age/early Roman fiction.

    The worst part is after reading such a litany, Christians and other god believers will steadfastly believe that their god is one of the good guys.

    One day children will not be subject to the religious diatribe that is Christianity.

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  16. “If the biblical character of Jesus is, as you claim, an accurate representative of Yahweh then it merely illustrates the degree of inculcation Christians have been subject to. Or, that most of them have never actually read and understood the bible – including yourself.”

    That’s not what UnkleE meant; he meant that the character of God is reflected in Jesus, not that Jesus’ teachings are congruent with OT portrayals of God. UnkleE is aware of the passages you’re thinking of.

    Anyway, I guess your reaction suggests there’s some emotional component to your opposition to Christianity as well? Since you’re not a deconvert, may I ask why that’s the case?

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  17. @ ignorantianescia
    That’s not what Unklee meant; he meant that the character of God is reflected in Jesus, not that Jesus’ teachings are congruent with OT portrayals of God. UnkleE is aware of the passages you’re thinking of.

    Really? You speak for Unklee now, or are you able to read his mind?
    He is fully conversant with the Bible so I hardly think he would make a statement if he did not know what he was writing, do you?
    Besides this is the point i made, or did you misunderstand?
    Jesus is God is Jesus is God, right?

    Emotional component? Smile…
    No, sorry, nothing so deep’, I’m afraid. I just don’t like lies being passed off as truth, which is what Christianity is, pretty much.,that’s all ask Nate….

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  18. “Why do you say that the mind is eternal?”

    Hi William. I said that the prime mover was eternal, because he/she/it created the universe, which includes all matter, energy, space and time. And so the prime mover must be outside time.

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  19. Unklee, thanks for the reply, and sorry if i’m a bit behind everyone else, but why do we suppose there is an eternal prime mover that exists outside of time?

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  20. “why do we suppose there is an eternal prime mover that exists outside of time?”
    Hi William, yes it is a bit hard to keep up with these rambling comments!

    I believe there is an eternal God for a bunch of reasons I gave about 8 comments back, including the Cosmological argument which I find convincing.

    I am not suggesting that there is any consensus on that. But my comments arose from a comment by Persto: ““I have no problem granting you the Prime Mover of Aristotle and Aquinas”” and his subsequent question: ““How do you get from Aristotle’s prime mover to a god who is mindful about His creation …. ?”

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  21. “I think I missed something in the thread here, is this ‘Prime Mover’ a part of the intelligent design argument?”

    Hi Hayden. My last post to William probably helps answer the question. The Cosmological argument exists in many forms, but goes something like this (this form of the argument is known as the “Kalam argument”):

    1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause external to itself.
    2. It is impossible for a series of events in time to have no beginning.
    3. Therefore the universe began to exist at some time.
    4. Therefore the universe has a cause.

    Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas developed several different forms of the argument, and the “cause” that he “proved”, like the cause in the #4 in the Kalam argument, is sometimes called the “prime mover”. You can read more about the Cosmological argument here.

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  22. @Unklee
    “However if we are willing to choose what accords most with ‘common sense’, we are more likely to conclude that the argument is at least suggestive of God being the first cause.”

    Acceptance of this principle would be all good and well if you were prepared to consider yourself a deist. However, you are a Christian and thus, your belief is that this Prime Mover was also a man, Jesus.

    This is where it gets tricky, as there are many who might very well consider themselves deist and are able to, on the surface at least, reach a sort of amicable agreement.
    But then dogma takes over doesn’t it?. And the disputes begin over revelation and miracles and a hundred and one other issues of crappy, meaningless doctrine.

    The Torah, Bible, Koran.

    “My invisible friend is better than your invisible friend”.

    So while deism might cut it with some folk….just,Christians especially have to take it that one step further into the realms of absolute absurdity, which is perfectly evidenced by the fact they are unable to reach consensus about their own faith (the all-important word) yet would still like to convince everyone of how special their religion is and that if we don’t follow it we are all going to Hell.
    Now, you can put up all the scientific evidence you like, but it is important to remember that the core of religion is, to be blunt, Bullshit, and anyone who espouses the science but holds hands with the religious is a hypocrite.

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