This page in brief
Does the science of evolution conflict with belief in God?
On this page we consider some of the ways evolution appears to threaten belief in God – e.g. whether it is unguided, whether the design of life seems random rather than intelligent, and the theological difficulties raised by evolution to teachings about Adam & Eve, original sin and the Fall.
I also consider christian responses, including creationism, intelligent design (ID) and theistic evolution (sometimes called evolutionary creation), and conclude that christians may indeed have to re-think some of their previous beliefs, but that a close study of evolution, the origins of life and DNA present challenges to atheistic belief also.
The science of biological evolution
The consensus of scientists is that the earth is old (about 4.5 billion years), life on earth is old (more than 2.5 billion years), and life has evolved via mutation and natural selection. A discussion of the facts of evolution and the objections sometimes made against it is at Evolution and its critics. In this page I look at some of the ways in which evolution is seen as making difficulties for christian belief.
Where evolution appears to threaten faith
It is commonly said that evolution and natural selection are “unguided”. For example, Richard Dawkins, in ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, describes natural selection as a
blind, unconscious automatic process …. without design. Biologist Jerry Coyne writes:
evolution is, as far as we can tell, purposeless and unguided. Of course, if it was indeed totally unguided, it would seem to leave no room for God.
Christians such as philosopher Alvin Plantinga criticise these statements, asking how this claim could be supported from the evidence; how can we know from science that God didn’t set the whole process up? Coyne’s reply is that we don’t consider that other natural processes (say plate tectonics or atomic decay) might possibly be guided, so why make an exception for evolution?
As usual in these cases, the truth seems to be somewhere between the two arguing sides. Christians would indeed think that God could intervene anywhere he chose (even plate tectonics or atomic decay), so Coyne’s argument starts from a wrong premise. But Coyne is nevertheless correct that we don’t normally invoke God to explain most natural processes.
What do they all mean?
I think it all depends on exactly what the anti-theistic scientist says and means. If she says that, as far as we can tell from the science, evolution is as much a natural and unguided process as any other natural process, I cannot see how anyone sensible can object. This is methodological naturalism, the assumption that regardless of whether scientists believe God exists or not, they wish to measure natural processes, and will assume God is not interfering with the processes they are measuring. This assumption is implicit in all science.
But if a scientist says that evolution leaves no room for God, this is ontological naturalism, a claim about what actually exists rather than just a convenient assumption. In this case we can reasonably ask for evidence for that claim, which of course cannot be given.
Thus, rightly understood, the claim that evolution is unguided does not present a threat to christian belief. It remains quite possible that God has set things up to produce the outcome he was wanting, and science cannot really decide on that claim.
Darwin’s theory of evolution and explanation of design does not include or exclude considerations of divine action in the world any more than astronomy, geology, physics, or chemistry do.
Francisco Ayala, Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Philosophy, University of Calfornia.
Critics of christian belief argue that there are aspects of evolution and the make-up of the human body that do not look like the creation of God:
- Some aspects of life look like inefficient design, which does not suggest it was designed by God. Examples include the existence of vestigal organs, and the human eye, which some say is badly designed because its blood vessels run across the surface of the retina, which causes a number of problems.
- The centrality of “survival of the fittest” in nature does not look like the design of a good God.
- The idiosyncrasies of evolution look more like an undesigned process.
It does look as if evolution is unnecessarily bloody. This becomes a part of the ‘problem of evil’, which is probably the strongest argument against the existence of a good God – see How can God allow evil?
But the impression of poor design of a few aspects of the human body does not seem to me to be a stumbling block to belief. If we were going to decide things by impressions, I think most people would say they feel that the complexity of the human body, including the amazing amount of information in DNA, the process of conception and formation of the body, and the complexity of the human brain, all give an impression of design that couldn’t occur by chance.
So if we based our conclusions on impressions, belief in God would be strengthened, not weakened.
If evolution is true as presently formulated, and human history followed the pattern described by anthropologists and confirmed by DNA studies (see DNA, genes and human history), christian theology faces some challenges.
Adam and Eve
It is hard to fit in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve in any literal way. Some christians attempt to do so, but it is difficult to find a suitable time in human history to place them. But the real clincher is that DNA studies, which have been shown to be accurate in predicting human relationships, show that the genetics of the entire human race could not have come from just two ancestors (unless God created heaps of new DNA along the way!). I accept that the Adam and Eve story is myth of a special kind, not least because (to me at least) it reads more like a myth than history.
In conventional christian theology, the ‘Fall of Man’ (excuse the sexist language, but that is how it is usually described), is the cause of the pain and suffering we see around us. But in evolution, animal pain presumably existed long before there were any humans, which creates some difficulties for christian thinking.
But we have always known the suffering in the world was caused partly by human sin, and partly by the world itself (e.g. earthquakes, floods, etc), so now we must include animal pain among those less pleasant features of the world that God created.
It is difficult to find any place for the doctrine of ‘Original Sin’. But I think that doctrine, if it is defined as each of us inheriting sin and God’s judgment, lacks strong Biblical support, as well as logic and morality, so I am happy to let that version of the doctrine go. But I see no problem with believing a form of the doctrine that says we each inherit natures that are competitive, selfish and prone to sin, but this isn’t affected by accepting evolution.
New Testament references
Jesus and other New Testament characters sometimes refer to parts of Genesis 1-11, suggesting that the events may have really occurred. But the writers wrote from within the culture of their day. Perhaps they believed the stories were true (just as I suppose they may have believed the earth was flat). Perhaps they had never thought about whether the stories were true or not, and didn’t really care.
People sometimes quote myths (especially important myths like these) and fiction stories as if they were real, whether they think they are true or not, and the New Testament quotes non-Biblical mythical stories on a couple of occasions, so I see little difficulty here.
Sometimes the whole idea of God wanting to create the human race, doing it via evolution, then sending Jesus to die for them, seems just too bizarre to be real, at least for some people. But one could argue that when children first learn about human reproduction they find it bizarre. And who doesn’t find quantum physics bizarre?
I conclude that our sense of the bizarre is often a poor indicator of truth.
Christian responses to evolution
Doubts about evolutionary science
Most science proceeds by collecting repeatable evidence to test a hypothesis. But many aspects of evolution cannot be tested in this way, as noted in Evolutionary science and proof. Some christians use this to discredit the science of evolution and argue it is uncertain.
But there are many biologists (e.g. Francis Collins and Ken Miller) who are christians who respond that this is not a fair assessment. Many details of evolution are indeed uncertain, they agree, but the main principles are well supported and not contradicted by any science.
Young Earth Creationism
YEC is based on the assumption that the Bible, including the early chapters of Genesis, provides literal scientific information that is more reliable than the findings of science. But to most scholars, Genesis 1-11 reads more like myth than history and science, and as early as the fourth century Augustine warned his fellow believers against interpreting Genesis literally and thus appearing foolish to those who knew better.
The evidence for evolution appears to be too strong, and it would not be the first time that christians have changed their interpretation of the Bible because of the discoveries of science.
Intelligent Design argues that natural selection is insufficient to explain some evolutionary processes, including those discussed above, and that design by intelligence is a more reasonable explanation. Intelligent Design does not claim that the source of that intelligence can be known by scientific means, but obviously its proponents generally believe that intelligence to be God.
I do not regard ‘Intelligent Design’ as necessarily the same as ‘Creationism’, as some people do. The key for me lies in whether the factual findings of science are accepted or not. Creationists, and some proponents of Intelligent Design, do not accept the findings of mainstream science on matters of fact. However others of those advocating Intelligent Design do accept the factual findings of mainstream science (e.g. the big bang, the ages of the universe and of earth, the evolution of species by natural selection, etc), but they believe these facts are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than natural processes.
It seems to me that the Intelligent Design movement has not yet demonstrated its propositions in a scientific manner, although this does not necessarily mean they are untrue. But even if Intelligent Design is a true insight into God’s actions, science cannot observe or experiment with those actions, so Intelligent Design’s “proofs” struggle to find ways to disprove the possibility of evolutionary processes.
It is therefore difficult to see how Intelligent Design can ever be verified scientifically, and hence it is unlikely to ever be recognised as science. It is possible that science will eventually explain how many of the currently unexplained processes occurred, leaving Intelligent Design with a dwindling impact. But even if explanations are not found, naturalistic scientists will be required by their beliefs to keep believing and searching for explanations. It is hard to see a big future for the Intelligent Design movement, unless it can develop more rigorous and convincing methods.
However this does not necessarily leave God out of the picture. Many theists, while accepting that the intervention of God is not necessary to explain the steps in the evolutionary process, nevertheless believe that God set the process up, and that he is involved in many less obvious and discernible but unprovable ways in human history and life. Many believe there is good evidence for this, for example, that God’s intricate design of the universe is seen in the physical laws and the values of many constants within those laws which appear to be fine-tuned to lead to human life (as discussed in Was the universe designed for us).
I am not the first christian to conclude that evolution requires christians to re-think a number of issues, but in the end, doesn’t really change all that much of substance. Christians may have to let go of Adam & Eve and original sin, and slightly re-define the fall, but these do not seem to prove major obstacles.
On the other hand, some of the discoveries on DNA (DNA, genes and human history), and the continuing difficulty of finding a scientific explanation of the beginnings of life on earth (Evolution and its critics), may offer some significant support to christian theism.
It seems to be quite sensible and not of great consequence for a christian to accept that we learn truth from both the Bible and science, and thus to accept that together they give us the best understanding we have about the origin of our species.