Following yesterday’s article regarding the importance of religious studies in schools, I felt it important to address one of the potential issues regarding society’s growing attitude towards religion as a whole. It may be seen that the growth and expansion of scientific knowledge has led to religion being placed on the back burner when it comes to knowing about the world. The essay below attempts to counter this assumption by discussing the links between the theory of natural selection, and religious philosophy and theology.
The quote provided by William B Provine is the catalyst for the discussion: “the theory of evolution by natural selection is the most efficient engine of atheism discovered by humans”.
[The theory of] evolution [by natural selection] is… the most efficient engine of atheism ever discovered by humans. (Provine 2006: 667)
The above quote from William B. Provine, at first glance, would appear to be a generally accepted maxim in the modern world. However, as the discourse between science and religion continues, claims such as these lose their transparency and inspire a wealth of philosophical conversation. In a world where the divide between science and religion appears to be ever growing, paving the way for secularisation to take a firm hold on society, the dialogue that takes place in order to bring a halt to this gradual process must be taken note of.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges posed to religion in the modern era, and since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, numerous questions have been asked as to how this understanding of the world allows for the existence of God. Provine’s claim that Natural Selection is the most efficient engine of atheism will be discussed in this essay, by assessing some of the differing theories that may allow for the theory of evolution to coexist with the concept of God, and their critiques, in an attempt to either justify or falsify its effectiveness as a form of atheism.
1.1 The theory of evolution by natural selection
The concept of evolving life was not an idea unique to Charles Darwin. French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck had suggested that organisms change in accordance to their environment, depending on features that had been inherited from previous generations; Darwin’s own grandfather had suggested the idea of naturally caused beings during the 18th century (Ruse 2001: 12). Charles Darwin however, with the publication of On the Origin of Species, offered the most comprehensive and compelling hypothesis concerning the origin of life that had thus far, been seen.
Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos Islands and his study of the varying species of finches present in varying geographical locations, led to the formulating of his scientific theory. There are two key ideas present in Darwin’s theory of evolution, a) the idea of a struggle for existence and b) the idea of natural selection (Darwin 1998). Darwin writes, “…all organic beings are exposed to severe competition” (Darwin 1998: 49) and it is this supposition that feeds directly into the theory of natural selection. Darwin acknowledges that the planet upon which all life resides, is a hostile environment and that all organisms face difficulty in their lifetime, whether it be disease, competition from other organisms or the struggle for food and habitation. Due to the occurrence of random genetic mutation, Darwin expands:
…a change in the conditions of life…causes or increases variability…this would manifestly be favourable to natural selection, by giving a better chance of profitable variations occurring… (Darwin 1998: 64)
When a genetic mutation occurs that provides an organism with a feature that better equips it to survive in the habitat in which it lives, because of the higher likelihood of its survival above other organisms without this mutation, the gene containing this mutation is passed on to its offspring and over a period of thousands of years, the characteristic present in the mutated gene is widely spread throughout the population. The individuals that do not possess this mutation will die out, as they are not as well adapted to survival as those that do. The process of more or less successful genes entering the gene pool is what we now know as evolution (Dawkins 1976: 48). This process, it is believed, can be traced back to a particular point in history that began with a single organism; over millennia, multiple genetic mutations have caused the vast array of differing species that have been seen not only in humanity’s lifetime, but also in prehistoric eras.
1.2 Natural selection and the challenges it poses to religion
One of the fundamental elements of Provine’s statement concerns the notion of atheism, which may be defined as “the disbelief in the existence of God” (Bowker 2004: 104). If Provine’s claim is to be considered to have any credence, then challenges that natural selection poses to the belief in God must be discussed.
The first challenge, deals with the notion that God created the world and everything that resides within it; the Genesis account of creation is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam along with similar narratives being found in other religions and spiritualities (McGrath 2010: 84). The scientific theory of natural selection does not account for, nor appear to require the existence of a divine entity responsible for creation and may be seen as the biggest challenge presented by evolution.
The second challenge posed to theistic belief in God comes when one takes the notion set out by Darwin, that all life is a constant struggle for existence. As John Hick comments:
The fact of evil constitutes the most serious objection to the Christian belief in a God of love. (Hick 1966: xi)
Despite Hick’s use of the word ‘evil’, the notion of the ‘struggle for existence’ may be considered as a form of evil and suffering; as demonstrated in the above quote, the presence of evil in the world is perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by belief in God, and numerous theologians have attempted to construct a theodicy, in order to justify the existence of God in the face of the presence of evil and suffering in the world.
The challenges to belief in God posed by the theory of natural selection may be few, but are substantial. The fact of life presented by Darwin – that existence for all beings is a constant struggle – poses the problem of evil and suffering to religious believers, and the apparent non-requirement for a divine creating entity suggested by Darwin’s theory may be seen to render belief in such a deity irrelevant. This essay will now explore philosophical theories that may be seen to answer these challenges in an attempt to establish as to whether Provine was accurate in his assertion.
2.0 “The struggle for existence” – the challenge of evil and suffering
As already alluded to, the presence of evil and suffering in the world may constitute the biggest objection to theistic belief in God and is the standpoint upon which, many atheists choose to base their non-belief (Swinburn 2000: 599). Darwin suggested that all life was comprised of the intense struggle for existence; this struggle being a component part of the evolutionary cycle and thus ironically, necessary for life to continue to exist.
It is firstly important to establish the ‘kind of evil’ that is at the centre of this discussion; it may be suggested that there exists two distinct natures of suffering. The first, one may choose to name ‘moral evil’ and is comprised of the actions of humanity, in particular its committing of sin (Murphy 2009: 551. The second is known as ‘natural evil’ and is described by Nancey Murphy as “the (apparent) disorder in nature and the suffering it causes for humans and animals” (2009: 551).
Natural evil appears to be a constituent part of the world in which humanity and all other living things reside; the killing of organisms for food, disease and illness, environmental disasters and the eventual death of living things are all elements of life that living beings live through and endure and, in Darwinian though, make up factors that assist in the evolutionary cycle. These things are not caused by any human intent to invoke harm or pain, so if mankind cannot do anything to prevent these occurrences of suffering, and if one is to argue the existence of God, how can a supposedly all-loving, omnipotent entity allow for such suffering to exist?
John Hick, a British theologian and philosopher claims that evil and suffering are present in the world in order to assist in some form of “soul-making” process (McGrath 2011: 224). If we exclude Hick’s consideration of God’s role in the existence of moral evil, then his theodicy becomes simpler to understand in terms of the presence of natural evil. Hick comments that suffering is a “mental state” that is as complex in nature as the human itself (Hick 1966: 354); despite this, if one takes the idea of soul-making expressed throughout Evil and the God of Love (1966 London: Macmillan) and applies it to the suffering that is endured in our struggle for existence, the gap between science and religion may be seen to be bridged somewhat.
Hick makes it clear that this process of ‘soul-making’ is a positive journey that one must undertake in order to become more wholly developed and perfect (McGrath 2011: 224). When one considers this point in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is evident that the original assumption made by Provine becomes increasingly less assertive. The evolutionary cycle is driven, as Darwin makes clear, by a constant struggle for existence in the gradual progression of life from the lower to the higher; taking Hick’s theodicy into account, one can see that the existence of evil and suffering is in place to help ensure the progression of (in theological terms) humanity from a lower state of being, to a higher form; evil and suffering in this case is used “in the creation of good” (Hick 1966: 400).
If atheism bases its disbelief on the supposition that natural selection cannot allow for the existence of God due to the existence of evil, then at this stage Provine’s claim may be open to strong criticism. The above paragraph has demonstrated how the scientific theory and the theology concerning suffering and evil may complement each other. If natural selection is to be considered the most efficient form of atheism ever discovered, then such links, it could be argued, should be able to be established. However, the rejection of belief in God based on the existence of evil and suffering is but only one aspect of the debate. The notion of God as creator is an important part of the discussion concerning natural selection and its relationship to religion, and is to where this essay now turns.
3.1 “In the beginning…” – The classic religious account of creation
The Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as other world faiths, places belief in the notion that God (or gods) is responsible for the creation of the world and everything that resides within it; the modern atheists challenge this notion and claim that advances in science and evolutionary theory have rendered the belief in God as creator, as redundant (Griffith-Dickson 2005: 116). If this atheistic claim is to be treated with any veracity, then the possible links between the Genesis account of creation and Darwin’s theory must be considered.
An interesting observation one might make is the order in which God created the world and the way it corresponds to the supposed ‘order’ of evolution. It is suggested that life began with a form of aquatic organism, and over millennia evolved into land dwelling beings and eventually, into humans. The Genesis narrative demonstrates that God first created creatures of the sea, followed by land animals and on the penultimate ‘day’, humanity ended the creation process (Genesis 1: 20-28). As similar as these two accounts may appear, it must be noted than in light of recent scientific discoveries, the Genesis narrative appears to be flawed and empirically inaccurate.
The Genesis account suggests that the Earth was created before any of the other stars present in the universe; modern astronomy and physics contradict this assumption and instead hypothesises that the majority of the observable stars in the sky are in fact older than the Earth by a considerable margin (Bothwell 2007: 10). Although this criticism is based on one’s literal interpretation of the Genesis account, there is little more evidence to suggest a link between the traditional religious accounts of creation and the theory of natural selection.
If one considers the discussion of the classic religious accounts of creation, then it is clear to see that there appears to be a lack of convincing evidence to suggest a way in which natural selection may relate to traditional creationist thought. At this stage, an atheist may choose to use this conclusion as a basis upon which to support Provine’s claim. However, this is by no means the whole debate. There still remains another aspect of religious belief concerning the existence of God to consider. The philosophical arguments for the existence of God may yet provide a more comprehensive response to William Provine’s claim.
3.2 Philosophical arguments supporting the existence of God
St Thomas Aquinas is undoubtedly one of the fundamental theologians within the Christian faith; his extensive works have covered almost all aspects of Christian theology and are still referenced within modern writing. Perhaps one of Aquinas’ key contributions to theology, and it could argued philosophical enquiry concerning God, is his Five Proofs for God’s existence which, is the basis for his version of the Cosmological Argument.
We observe that all things that move are moved by other things, the lower by the higher…this process cannot be traced back to infinity… (Aquinas 2002: 9)
The above quote taken from Aquinas’ Shorter Summa (2002 Manchester: Sophia Institute Press) outlines the basis for his Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. Aquinas argues that, as all things can be seen to have a cause for their existence, the world and universe must too have a cause for their existence. A key part of Aquinas’ argument is the notion that the causation process can be traced backwards in time to an ultimate first cause, to which he attributes the name, God. This cause is itself uncaused, remaining consistent with traditional Christian views of God’s attributes; omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence being the key characteristics. If God had to be caused, then it would devoid Him of omnipotence, and would thus render this first cause, as ‘un-Godlike’.
There appears to be a link between Aquinas’ initial argument for the existence of God and the theory of natural selection. Both appear to acknowledge a series of linked events that may be traced back to an initial point in time from which everything subsequently developed. However, this aspect of Aquinas’ argument faces heavy critique, most notably from David Hume.
Hume challenges the notion of a first cause of existence in A Treatise of Human Nature and argues two main points that may be seen to stand in contention with Aquinas’ theory. The first being the point that, if one is willing to suspend the notion that everything needs a cause of existence for God, then why is it that this principle cannot be abandoned for all other things; it is not so far outside the reach of human comprehension to be deemed impossible (Hume 1992: 80-82). The second concerns the nature of how humans come to know of causes; Hume argues that humans only have an awareness of an object’s cause of existence because we observe and/or experience it. To make the conclusion that the cause of the universe is God, for Hume, is totally illogical, as humanity has no way of experiencing or observing this causation in process (Thompson 2003: 115).
Richard Dawkins adds to the first argument set out by David Hume, by claiming that there is no reasonable explanation as to why, if there is indeed a first cause of everything, this causing agent should be endowed with the traditional qualities usually attributed to God (Dawkins 2006: 101). This objection in conjunction with that provided by Hume appear to stand in strong contention to Aquinas’ argument concerning the existence of God; whilst both Hume and Dawkins accept the possibility of a primary causing agent, they do not deem it logical to assume that this entity is in any way God. The theist may choose to argue that in order for the evolutionary cycle to begin in the first place, God is required to have created the world, but a supporter of Provine’s claim may choose to use the discussed critiques of God’s existence to suggest otherwise.
Natural selection, at this stage, does not require the direct intervention of a divine creating entity; it has been shown that the evolutionary cycle on Earth is not dependant on a supernatural force or indeed the belief in any form of deity. It may be suggested that Provine’s claim may hold some credence; there appears no scientific justification for a possible link between natural selection and the existence of God.
However, one final challenge to Provine’s claim may be found when one considers the idea of ‘Evolutionary Theism’ (McGrath 2011: 372). This approach maintains that evolution is the means through which God chose to create the world and everything within it. Strongly linked to the teleological argument, which states that God is the (mandatory) designer of the infinitely complex universe, this theory would integrate scientific hypotheses and religious belief to allow for a balanced relationship between the two to exist.
William Provine suggests that the theory of natural selection is the most efficient form of atheism discovered by humans. This essay has considered the possible reasons as to why Provine made this claim and has offered theories from a religious perspective, which may be seen to challenge this notion. Two of the biggest challenges, as discussed, are the problem of evil and suffering encompassed within the evolutionary cycle and the necessity (or lack thereof) for the existence of God. John Hick’s theodicy offers a reasonable explanation as to the existence and, in Hick’s case need for, suffering in the world; this reasoning appears to coincide with Darwin’s explanation for the need for suffering in the world and at this stage, posed a serious challenge to Provine’s claim.
The classical religious account of creation was also discussed and it was concluded that, despite a tenuous link being suggested between the supposed order of creation and evolution, there exists no convincing argument to demonstrate a relationship between God’s creative process and the evolutionary cycle. In addition to this, philosophical theories supporting God’s existence were also considered. Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument suggests the necessity for God’s existence by stating that everything in existence (including supposed evolving organisms) requires a cause for its being. Compelling arguments from both Hume and Dawkins showed how this thought process bears no impact or relationship to Darwin’s theory and thus strengthens the credence of Provine’s claim.
Despite one’s best efforts to attempt to demonstrate ways in which natural selection and religious belief in God may be mutually beneficial with the introduction of the notion of evolutionary theism, there is still a lack of compelling evidence to suggest that this may be the case. This however, does not immediately render Provine’s claim correct; it may be suggested that for something to be considered ‘the most efficient engine of atheism’, it must be totally immune from religious challenge. The fact that this essay has suggested a number of ways in which natural selection may be considered to hold validity from a theistic perspective, may suggest that Provine is in fact overzealous in his assumption.
The fact of the matter remains, there is no definitive proof for either scientific claims concerning the origins of life nor for religious theories; both are reliant on the individual’s openness and willingness to accept either as truth, thus no comprehensive conclusion as to the accuracy of Provine’s statement is entirely possible. One must acknowledge that despite the overwhelming evidence in support of natural selection and its lack of need for God’s existence, there are those who would go “beyond science” to “fill in the gaps” with this belief, even if “we ourselves cannot follow” (Ruse 2001: 219).
Aquinas, T (2002) The Shorter Summa Manchester: Sophia Institute Press
Bothwell, L.E. “Genesis meets the Big Bang and Evolution, Absent Design.” Cross Currents Spring 2007: 10+. Academic OneFile. Web. [Available through: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA164424486&v=2.1&u=urjy&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w accessed on 11/01/13]
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