Is Evolution becoming a religion?

This other day I read Nick Spencer’s article “The big fat lies of evolution” (you’ll have to read it to understand the title). He talks about the way a layperson – not a scientist – casually used an evolutionary mechanism to explain obesity. He concludes:

But the use of this narrative [i.e. the evolutionary narrative], by someone who is not by profession an evolutionary biologist … does show how deeply such evolutionary Just So stories have penetrated into our culture, neatly bypassing our cognitive faculties and settling down into the comfortable positions of reserved for received wisdom.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that “everything to be true must become a religion”. Just so with evolution, as it accumulates the myths and legends that no respectable religion would be seen in public without.

I found this fascinating. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit recently – how it seems that evolution has reached the “no-one is allowed to question it” stage, at least in wider society. Just this morning on Twitter I saw another round of creationist-bashing (although I imagine pretty much every second on Twitter, someone is ridiculing creationism – it’s apparently an easy target). Now, I’d just like to put my cards on the table and say I’m not a 6-day creationist. However – I wonder if there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The attacks on creationism seem to happen with a religious fervour you don’t find in other places. People rant and rave against it with a shiny-eyed religious zeal.

And I wonder whether the presenting problem of creationism contradicting evidence is actually only the surface representation of the underlying problem – that people simply think it’s crazy for the universe to have a creator. The metanarrative of people like Richard Dawkins – i.e. that evolution explains everything (which, as I understand it, is basically the message of The God Delusion) – cannot be questioned. In other words, evolution has come to mean more than simply a scientific explanation for origins, it has become a worldview in its own right – a worldview which does not include God.

Recently, pro-evolution Bill Nye debated the creationist Ken Ham (this is an unusual occurrence – many of those in the pro-evolution camp refuse to debate creationists, because they don’t want to lend creationism credibility). Afterwards, Al Mohler blogged about what was really at stake (and it’s worth reading the rest of the post):

…the argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority? Is the universe self-contained and self-explanatory? Is there a Creator, and can we know him?

On those questions, Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see.

…  To Bill Nye, the idea of divine revelation is apparently nonsensical. He ridiculed the very idea.

If Nye is representative of the evolutionist viewpoint in general – and, from what I see on Twitter, I think that’s a fair assumption – his worldview doesn’t just stop at evolution as a biological process: it continues on to exclude God altogether. Evolution has evolved (ba-dum tsssh) from a biological process to the all-encompassing narrative which explains everything.

This narrative doesn’t just apply in wider society, it seems to affect the academy as well. James M. Tour, a chemist with peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals, has some problems with the theory of (macro)evolution. He writes in another article which is worth reading: “my recent advice to my graduate students has been direct and revealing: If you disagree with Darwinian Theory, keep it to yourselves if you value your careers.”

There are a few things that worry me about all this:

Firstly: as Nick Spencer’s article highlighted, these days evolutionary ‘just-so stories’ are pretty much accepted in society without question. The problem is, ‘just-so stories’ can be co-opted to support pretty much whatever you like. Do you want to support a master race? Hey, there’s a just-so story for you. Do you want to support altruism? Hey, there’s a just-so story for you. And so on. Denis Alexander warned of the dangers of believing just-so stories when it comes to religious belief, but I think the same applies to other areas of human life too (e.g. morality). They are speculative at best. If our society has accepted that the best answer for the question “Who are we?” as human beings is a just-so story, I don’t think that’s good news – especially when just-so stories are something of a wax nose and are basically unprovable.

Secondly: I don’t make a habit of reading creationist websites, however I saw a link on Twitter a few weeks ago and clicked on it out of interest. It was a list of questions for evolutionists. One of the questions really struck me: What aspects of science depend on an evolutionary understanding of origins? Can you name one single technology or medicine (for example) which depends on our understanding of evolution? Many scientific advances were made before evolution became generally accepted. Most modern science, as far as I am aware, does not depend on evolution.

The reason I bring this up is because it throws into sharp relief the dogmatism of many evolutionists: as I understand it you could pretty much have the entirety of modern civilisation, technology and all, without belief in evolution. Why, therefore, is it so important for us to believe in it? As I said before, this suggests to me the reason why many are so keen to push evolution in every respect is not simply because they believe it’s true (which I’m sure they do), but because they desire to displace a creator God.

Thirdly and finally: the idea of a creator God who created a rational and ordered universe was one of the foundational ideas which gave rise to modern science in the first place. Many of the earliest scientists (or ‘natural philosophers’, as they would have been called then) were believers. Much of modern science rests on the foundation of an ordered and rational universe – however there is no explanation given as to why this is the case: It just is because it is.

If evolution is becoming a religion without a God, to my mind it is undermining the very foundations which it is built on.

So in summary, let’s be clear about this: (1) I am not trying to say anything negative about evolution in this post. There are many Christians biologists who work in evolution (Denis Alexander – whote I mentioned above – for example, as well as Francis Collins – formerly director of the human genome project. To name but two examples).

(2) I am also not trying to defend creationism.

(3) My point is this: I think there are two definitions of the word ‘evolution’ now: evolution as the scientific theory, and evolution as the worldview built on the scientific theory – a worldview which goes way beyond the remit of the theory. This ‘evolution worldview’ seems to be godless and our society is coming to accept it more and more. This is what worries me.

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24 thoughts on “Is Evolution becoming a religion?

  1. [Nye’s] worldview doesn’t just stop at evolution as a biological process: it continues on to exclude God altogether.

    I think you have this backwards. Nye’s religion, and Dawkins’, is not evolutionism, but atheism. They started by excluding God, accepted the observed biological process of evolution (as the great majority of Christians as well as atheists do), and applied it to support their atheistic religious position. Look at the work of people like Biologos, and no doubt Denis Alexander, to see how good evangelical Christians apply the same observations of evolution in action to support their Christian faith. Yes, the facts are neutral, which means that they can be used, as “just-so stories” if you like, to support almost anything. Let’s stop blaming the facts for how people use them for evil, but instead use them for good.

    Can you name one single technology or medicine (for example) which depends on our understanding of evolution?

    How about the entire oil and gas industry, and probably also the coal industry? They depend on a long term understanding of geological processes, many of which were originally biological processes as bodies of animals and plants, many now extinct, were deposited and slowly converted into rock formations and fuel resources. New resources are found where evolutionary biology and geology predict. There is no way young earth creationism can explain the deposits found, let alone predict where new ones will be. And of course without oil and gas we would have no cars and no planes, as well as freezing houses!

    • Thank you for your comment Peter.

      “Let’s stop blaming the facts for how people use them for evil, but instead use them for good.”

      Indeed, that was what I was trying not to do! I’m not blaming the theory of evolution, I think it has been appropriated. Theologically I agree with you in that atheism comes first (Romans 1 and suppressing the truth), however I feel like evolution has been taken hostage and has now become an atheistic narrative – in some circles anyway.

      I feel that ‘evolutionism’ has become a rival worldview, building on atheism.

      “There is no way young earth creationism can explain the deposits found, let alone predict where new ones will be. ”

      Indeed I would be very interested to hear a creationist explain that one.

      I would also be interested to hear how much of geology depends on evolution for its understanding; I’d have thought we don’t need evolution to use oil / gas / coal – of course, if we can’t find those resources that would make them unavailable to us 🙂

      • Thank you. I don’t think we are really disagreeing here.

        No, we don’t need evolution to use oil or coal – though we might use evolution to predict what that will do to our environment and ecosystems. But, as we agree, evolutionary theory helps us to find resources for us to burn.

        There is of course also a huge biotech industry, increasingly interested in genetically modified organisms, whose methods are closely tied to evolutionary biology. Yes, you can breed animals and plants without evolution, but you need evolution to explain the results and the limits of how you can change organisms.

    • It’s also worth mentioning that the creationism/id movement makes evolution the poster child for atheism, not atheists. Dawkins is an atheist who happens to have biological expertise, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say anything like darwin proved god doesn’t exist etc. I’ve heard him talk about evolution and I’ve heard him talk about atheism, and he generally treats them as separate subjects as far as I can tell.

      • I remember watching an interview with Richard Dawkins, I wish I could remember which one, where he does explicitly make the claim that evolution led to his atheism. He was talking about why he would not be a good witness for teaching evolution in American Bible Belt schools, because if he was asked whether evolution was the reason he was an atheist he would have to answer ‘yes’.

        • I have only met one or two people for whom evolution played any part at all in their deconversion. By and large it’s the claims and doctrines of the religion itself that makes them question it. Not to mention neither darwin nor wallace were atheists, and nothing about atheism necessitates there not being a creator. I could see evolution shaking up someone’s view in a literal theology and starting them questioning, but I think questioning is a good thing.

          • I agree with you, however I do think there is a popular perception that evolution / science necessitates atheism (we can’t believe in God anymore because of science) – and that isn’t helped by atheism and science’s popular spokesperson, Dawkins, coming across that way. As I understand it The God Delusion is basically a story of how we can’t believe in God any more because science explains *everything*.

            “Nothing about atheism necessitates there not being a creator” – did you mean to say this, or do some atheists seriously believe there is actually a creator i.e. some kind of God?

          • I think these misconceptions are more on the creationist/theist side. I see them popularly promoted by creationist ministries and the ID movement, but I never hear them from atheists or evolution proponents (many of whom are theists). As for nothing about atheism necessitates there not being a creator, sorry that’s a dumb sentence I meant to say nothing about evolution necessitates there not being a creator. As for not believing in god because science explains everything, it doesn’t. But when science does explain things it busts the argument that “we can’t explain this therefore god must be responsible”. But that is an argument from ignorance which is a logical fallacy. Us not understanding life or the big bang no more means jehovah must exist than us not understanding lightning 2,000 years ago meant that zeus must exist. No one ever established that lightning comes from zeus and no one ever established that universes come from jehovah. This is the famously bad logic of “I don’t know the answer to x therefore I know the answer to x”. It is the basis for most pseudoscience.

  2. This is the common misunderstanding between secular and atheistic. The game checkers doesn’t involve yahweh either, but that hardly makes it anti-christian. Why does a god of a particular religion have to be jammed into every damn thing on the planet or else it’s perceived as a threat? The theory of evolution doesn’t mention gawd for the simple reason that if one or more deity does exist it is not a phenomenon that can currently be observed or used to make experimental predictions, so any mention of it in a scientific study or theory would by definition be vacuous bullshit. Scientists aren’t allowed to make claims they can’t substantiate. Claims about invisible men in the sky can’t be substantiated. So no, scientific theories don’t mention them. Nor should they, unless you want to open the door to countless other forms of vacuous bullshit being called “science”.

    • I’m not sure you’ve read or understood my post. I wasn’t arguing that evolution is inherently anti-God – quite the opposite. However, I think ‘evolution’ in some circles is now wider than a scientific theory and encompasses a godless worldview.

      • You are saying that evolution is a worldview that doesn’t include god, and that this is apparently the same thing as excluding or rejecting the idea of a god. As if e=mc2 has to be made into e=mc(divided by jesus)2 or it’s somehow dangerous and atheistic.

        • Actually I think not including God is the same thing as rejecting the idea of God when I look at how I think people use the evolutionary worldview. Especially when it comes to explaining who we are and why we are here. What I see is a reductionist approach, evolutionary explanations are all that is needed (so people think).

          • Phill, I disagree here. Don’t forget about deism, the teaching, in effect, that God created the world, setting things in motion, then sat back and watched what happened. In other words, God exists but doesn’t intervene in the world today. Deism is now out of fashion, but it was very influential among early scientists. And a form of it is very much alive and well among conservative Christians today, most likely including at your college. I have described this, following Jack Deere, as Bible deism. According to this, God intervened in the world at the time of Jesus, and gave us the Bible, but since then he has stopped intervening, at least in any physically measurable way, and has let us get on with life until he returns. Well, that is something of a digression. But it does show that a view of science excluding God from currently observed physical and biological processes by no means implies a belief that there is no God – and in fact doesn’t even imply a rejection of conservative evangelical Christianity.

          • Thank you Peter. I did say “how I think people use the evolutionary worldview”.

            I appreciate that a ‘godless’ scientific theory isn’t necessarily atheistic; I just think the evolutionary worldview in vogue at the moment is.

          • Evolution is an observable fact of nature, using evolution to explain something in nature is like using gravity to explain a splattered melon on the sidewalk next to a tall building.

          • The problem is, pressing evolution to explaining things which evolution can’t really explain – i.e. human behaviour and human identity. In your analogy gravity can explain why the melon fell from a scientific perspective – it cannot explain why it was thrown out of the window in the first place.

            Similarly with evolution – evolution is a mechanism which explains biologically how we arrived where we did. It doesn’t explain why we think certain things are right and wrong, for example. And I find it strange when ‘just-so stories’ about how we got here are used to explain things when an explanation should be sought elsewhere.

          • We know that dogs vary in terms of their behavior and that those variations are often genetic. We know that picking the most aggressive or docile dogs to breed into future generations at a higher rate will result in a more or less aggressive and violent breed, and we’ve done this with attack dogs for centuries. I see no reason why natural variation and artificial selection can alter dog behavior through altering their DNA but natural variation and natural selection, artificial selection and sexual selection can’t alter human behavior through human DNA.

          • I’m not saying that genetics has no link with human behaviour – it does, e.g. some people seem to have a genetic predisposition to violence, addiction etc. But human beings have a consciousness whereas dogs do not. Human beings have this funny idea that some actions are right and others wrong. This is what I’m talking about – an area of human behaviour and experience I don’t think evolution can or should speak into. I think it is sometimes press-ganged beyond science into speculation, as Nick Spencer pointed out talking about ‘just-so stories’.

          • While it’s true that we often can’t verify that a particular thing evolved a particular way I don’t think we should disregard a line of inquiry just because religious people prefer another one. And while we often speculate about the particulars of evolution it’s like speculating that an illness is viral because someone has a fever – it’s an educated guess based on an understanding of the mechanics of viral infections.

          • The problem is when the speculation becomes dogma.

            Ultimately I feel that evolution cannot account for all human experience as we perceive it. but we’re probably going to have to agree to disagree on that.

          • I agree with you in every respect other than that we should not seek evolutionary explanations for things. As for dogma though bear in mind scientists themselves are often annoyed at how their findings are presented by the non-scientific general media. I’ve heard neurologists talk about how their studies about the mind and consciousness are constantly sensationalized for instance. So the beef you have might be more with pop culture than with the scientific community.

          • “So the beef you have might be more with pop culture than with the scientific community.”

            YES! Exactly – obviously I wasn’t clear enough in my post and comments. We were probably talking past each other a bit.

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