Evolution, Science, and Religion 4: Darwinism and Its Discontents

Evolution, Science, and Religion 4: Darwinism and Its Discontents

“The task of humanity…is to create a global civilization which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence.”

The Universal House of Justice

Feb 26, 2012. 12 years into the 21st century and 150 years after its beginnings, Darwinism generates more interest, dissension, discussion, disagreement, enthusiasm, press, and book launches than any other science.

Darwin is celebrated and honored to the point of deification – and equally reviled. Clearly, something more than science is at play.What is it about Darwinism that that gets people so upset or so excited?

Philip Johnson, the guiding light of the intelligent design movement, answers this way in Darwin on Trial:

The literature of Darwinism is full of anti-theistic conclusions, such as that the universe was not designed and has no purpose, and that we humans are the product of blind natural processes that care nothing about us. What is more, these statements are not presented as personal opinions but as the logical implications of evolutionary science.

Stephen Jay Gould, the celebrated paleontologist agrees – excepting for the personal opinion part. Writing in 1997, he describes Darwinism and its mechanism of natural selection as radical and harsh:

The radicalism of natural selection lies in its power to dethrone some of the deepest and most traditional comforts of Western thought, particularly the notion that nature’s benevolence, order, and good design, with humans at a sensible summit of power and excellence, proves the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent creator who loves us most of all (the old-style theological version), or at least that nature has meaningful directions, and that humans fit into a sensible and predictable pattern regulating the totality (the modern and more secular version).

To these beliefs Darwinian natural selection presents the most contrary position imaginable. Only one causal force produces evolutionary change in Darwin’s world: the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success—nothing else, and nothing higher (no force, for example, works explicitly for the good of species or the harmony of ecosystems).

The very phenomena that traditional views cite as proof of benevolence and intentional order—the good design of organisms and the harmony of ecosystems—arise by Darwin’s process of natural selection only as side consequences of a singular causal principle of apparently opposite meaning: organisms struggling for themselves alone.

For others, including many secular and atheistic thinkers, Darwinism is a liberation from dogmas of the past. Richard Dawkins claims in The Blind Watchmaker that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

We will examine these issues in more detail in coming blogs, but before we do so, lets briefly catalog the varieties of views embraced under the rubric of Darwinism.

Evolution and Its Implications

Here is a short list of ideas that supporters and detractors alike see as being implied by Darwinism:

  1. Human descent
    1. Humanity is descended from the animals
    2. Humans are animals
    3. Who we are can best be understood by understanding our evolutionary and animal origins.
  2. The Origins of Life
    1. Life was created by “blind natural processes that care nothing about us”
    2. Evolution is driven by randomness and is not progressive
    3. The universe “was not designed and has no purpose”
  3. Implications for Religion
    1. There is no need for a creator or God to explain how we came into being
    2. The Biblical story of creation is wrong
    3. Religion, having gotten the story of creation wrong, has proven itself wrong
  4. Natural Selection and Its Implications
    1. Competition is the driving force behind the origins of humanity
    2. Natural selection, adaptation, and sexual competition are what drives evolution forward
    3. Those who have won the the competition game of natural selection are more evolutionarily fit – i.e., superior – to those who have not
    4. Breeding – selection for fitness – is a way to improve the lot of humanity (this is no longer a respectable belief)

Are these REALLY the implications of Darwinian evolution and modern evolutionary science?

If so, then Phillip Johnson, the creationists, and the Discovery Institute is right – evolution presents clear challenges to religion and is indeed a materialistic philosophy (by materialistic, I mean denying the existence of spiritual and divine aspects of reality).

If so, then Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the New Atheists are also right – religion is incompatible with what science teaches us about the world.

But what if, as Phillip Johnson suggests, these views are only personal opinions and not “the logical implications of evolutionary science?” This is increasingly the view of the less ideologically inclined from academic, scientific, theological, and religious sides.

Changing Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Evolution

In the first half of the 20th century, it was assumed by those with advanced university educations that religion was a hold-over from the past, soon to be discarded. The influential logical positivists said that only science could provided valid approaches to the truth.

British Cabinet minister warns of the threat of militant secularization

But in the last half of the 20th century, the intellectual climate shifted. The logical positivists – to their credit – realized that they couldn’t scientifically validate their central thesis. Rachel Carson, in the Silent Spring, started the modern environmental movement by documenting the damage that modern scientific technologies were inflicting on the world around us. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, introduced the idea of the paradigm shift AND the idea that “normal” science was done in the context of fixed paradigms. Scientists, just like ordinary human beings, thought with the values of those around them.

One effect of all this was the opening of a door to a recognition that science and religion weren’t in disagreement. William Hatcher, a mathematician, a Baha’i, and an accomplished writer, may have been the first to announce the modern formulation of this, but Ian Barbour’s work is better known and generally gets the credit. By the end of the 20th century, it was widely acknowledged that God was scientifically respectable again.

The New Atheists were the predictable backlash, and the British government now warns of the threat of militant secularization.

The Modern Perspective

The modern perspective on evolution and religion is perhaps best exemplified in the thinking of two prominent philosophers, Michael Ruse and Alvin Plantinga. Ruse, perhaps the best known current philosopher of science and a historian of science, specializes in the philosophy of biology and evolution and does not believe in religion. But he believes in talking to people who believe in religion and is aware and knowledgeable about their concerns. He frequently addresses the relationship between evolution and religion. His Can a Darwinian be a Christian (2001) is representative of his thinking. Here is how Jerry Coyne describes Ruse’s conclusions in the London Review of Books:

[Ruse] maintains that at least one form of science (Darwinism) and one form of religion (Christianity) are mutually reinforcing. They are reconcilable, he asserts, because virtually every tenet of conservative Christianity, including original sin, the immortality of the soul and moral choice, is immanent within Darwinism and an inevitable result of the evolutionary process. Religion and science are, to Ruse, merely two sides of the same coin.

For the views of four other influential thinkers on the topic, see PBS’s Roundtable on Science and Faith and comments by Francisco Ayala, Mark Noll, Arthur Peacocke, and Robert Pollack.

We save the last word for Alvin Plantinga, whose Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011) appears to be well on its way to be being the definitive modern argument for the agreement of science and religion. He holds that science and religion are in agreement, but that science and materialism (which he calls naturalism) are not:

My overall thesis: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and religion, and superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism.

With regards to evolution, he holds that:

The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends.

On the one hand, therefore, we have the scientific theory, and on the other, there is the claim that the course of evolution is not directed or guided or orchestrated by anyone; it displays no teleology; it is blind and unforeseeing …

This claim, however, despite its strident proclamation, is no part of the scientific theory as such; it is instead a metaphysical or theological add-on. On the one hand there is the scientific theory; on the other, the metaphysical add-on, according to which the process is unguided. The first is part of current science, and deserves the respect properly accorded to a pillar of science; but the first is entirely compatible with theism. The second supports naturalism, all right, but is not part of science, and does not deserve the respect properly accorded science. And the confusion of the two – confusing the scientific theory with the result of annexing that add-on to it, confusing evolution as such with unguided evolution – deserves not respect, but disdain.

Next week,we look at Darwinian theories of human descent in light of the Baha’i teachings about the station of the intellect.


This is the 4th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he authored Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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4 thoughts on “Evolution, Science, and Religion 4: Darwinism and Its Discontents

  1. Plantinga’s book is primarily directed to atheists (especially naturalists), but has lessons for apologetics as well. Most religious people respect science and all use its findings. Many scientists are religious, some very much so. Both science and religion, however, have limitations which should be mutually respected.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. Stephen,

    Plantinga’s presentation is stimulating. One problem with it, however, is his argument that evolution provides a mechansim for God to interact with the creation. One of the values of evolutionary theory is that it provides a mechanism that does not require intervention to work. That does not mean that there is not growth and the development of complexity. Since the material existence is a reflection of the spiritual world (they are one creation and work according to laws) the material world will develop creatures that reflect the spirit of the spiritual world.

    The argument for God directing evolution also seems to imply that the original creation is somehow imperfect and God must “tinker” to achieve an end. The most great tinker? Probably not.

    1. When I write a book, it evolves. Everything about it evolves. The characters, plotline and world begin life as intellectual concepts and eventually take on physical form. That physical form doesn’t leap forth fully formed. It, too, undergoes evolution. Scenes emerge, characters walk and talk and act and the story grows and changes and evolves until it reaches some level of perfection in the material world.

      But please note: it’s not my fingers on the keyboard or the electrons on the screen of my laptop or even the words themselves that shape the final product—it’s what’s happening in a completely immaterial realm.

      The original creation is no more imperfect than my story is imperfect when I first conceive of it or first clothe it in words. It’s no more imperfect than a newborn child. But all these things must all evolve and grow and mature. Is a child imperfect because it’s not yet an adult?

      I think you can make a case for a yes or no answer, depending on what you mean by imperfect. I believe the creation is perfect in that it is exactly what God meant it to be when He brought it into being. And it is imperfect only in the sense that it has not yet reached the potential that God intends it to reach.

      A human being who wallows in the animal state is, I would argue, imperfect and that, as he strives toward spiritual reality, he comes closer to the spiritual perfection God has intended for him.

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