Religion in the Age of Evolution: Shaking the Pillars?


The traditional pillars of religion that support a view of God as transcendent Creator remain unshaken by the discoveries of modern science.

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In a culture that sees science as the pinnacle of human knowledge, there continues to be lively discussion about the place of religious belief. Some believers think that their faith is threatened by science. Evolutionary biology, for example, appears to offer all-encompassing explanations of the origin and nature of living things. Thus, some believers who feel their world under assault argue that evolution is only a theory and at least equal time ought to be given, especially in education, to alternative accounts of life, including those based on biblical texts. On the other side, there are many who see religion, historically and essentially, as a barrier to an enlightened view of nature and human nature. Such people enter public discourse to show the incompatibility between evolution and religion.

In this vein, a recent New York Times article argues that the “pillars of religion” are challenged by evolutionary biology. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and psychologist at the University of Washington, describes a disclaimer he gives at the beginning of his animal behavior class. The fundamental point he seeks to make, since many in his class harbor some form of religious belief, is that his students “need to know why science and religion cannot be reconciled.”

It is often easy to conclude that there are only two possible positions in this debate. We hear two extremes: either diminish or reject the conclusions of evolution in the defense of religion, or diminish or reject religion in defense of science. Religious participants in this type of debate often appeal to a sacred text (the Bible or the Qu’ran) as a kind of counterweight to the authority of science. Those who take the opposite extreme frame their analysis in terms of a historical narrative that sees modern science as having emerged by fighting against the forces of biblical literalism and ecclesiastical obstructionism. Historians, philosophers, and theologians know better than to describe the relationship between science and religion in the stark terms of warfare. Nevertheless, the image of fundamental conflict persists.

Are Facts and Values at War?

There are, of course, several other ways to examine the relationship between evolution and religion. Barash mentions, only to reject, a famous attempt to offer a “third way,” found in the work of the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould coined the abbreviation “NOMA,” or “non-overlapping magisteria,” to describe his view that science and religion are two completely separate realms of discourse that, when properly followed, do not lead to any conflict. In Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould wrote:

NOMA is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of life (the magisterium of science), and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).

In other words, science is concerned with the domain of facts; religion with the domain of meaning and value. This is a distinction still embraced in many circles. It has a seductive appeal in that it seems to honor different realms of wisdom by keeping them isolated from one another.

But Gould offers too simplistic a distinction between a world of fact and a world of value. Barash notes that the two magisteria are more overlapping than Gould thought. According to Barash, “as evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed.” Perhaps more to the point, religion does make factual claims about nature, and science is not a value-free enterprise. Biology, philosophy, and theology do share some common objects (e.g., human nature), but each proceeds using different premises and methods.

Does evolutionary biology, for example, really tell us that there is no human soul? Or does it only tell us that there is no empirical warrant for affirming the soul’s existence? It would be a further judgment, and a philosophical judgment at that, to limit the real to what is empirically observable.

The Argument from Complex Design

Barash argues that evolutionary science “has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith.” These are: (1) an argument from the complexity of nature to the need for a supernatural creator and (2) what he calls the “illusion of centrality,” that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. He does not seem to recognize that, however potent these pillars have been for some believers, the first is not a feature of the traditional understanding of God as Creator, and the second involves a suspect philosophical judgment that science must reject any special status for human beings.

As Barash points out, William Paley’s nineteenth-century argument from complex design to a supernatural designer fails under the weight of Darwinian evolution. Barash writes:

Since Darwin . . . we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

Leaving aside the philosophical problems concerning what we mean by randomness and complexity, and whatever a statistically powerful mechanical phenomenon might be, the key word in this paragraph is “all.” Does evolutionary biology, or do the natural sciences taken together, provide an exhaustive account of the changing world of complex organisms? It may well be that the natural sciences only concern themselves with those features of reality subject to empirical observation. Yet to conclude that there is nothing more that needs to be explained, nothing more that needs to enter into a full picture of the world, is to make a philosophical claim, not a claim itself based on empirical observation.

Furthermore, Paley’s argument from design is a poor representative of traditional Christian approaches from nature to the Creator, even if that argument was and is accepted in some religious circles. Paley’s view, just like Barash’s criticism, suffers from the mistake of thinking of God as a kind of master craftsman. Both locate God’s causality and causes in nature on the same level, with God’s simply being more powerful. For Barash, God’s causal power is diminished, and ultimately eliminated, as the natural sciences explain more and more about the world.

Confusions about Causality

The failure to understand that God’s causality is radically other than any causality that the sciences discover is the source of considerable confusion in discussions about God and science, including discussions far more sophisticated than those advanced by Barash. It is not exactly that God “creates through evolution,” as that God creates a world with its own proper autonomy, a world with natural processes discoverable by science.

Behind this view is the old distinction, set forth clearly by Thomas Aquinas, between what is sometimes called primary and secondary causality. A danger in using these terms, however, is to think that “causality” is used in the same way when predicated of God and of creatures. God is primary cause in that He is the source of the whole reality of all that is. Creatures exercise a variety of causal operations; they differ from one another in ways radically different from the way in which they differ from God’s causality. God is primary cause in the sense of being the origin of all causality, not in the sense of being first in a series.

The point in this brief metaphysical comment about causality—other than identifying the need for a metaphysical analysis—is that there is a sophisticated way to think of God as Creator that is unaffected by modern science. Surely, there are scientific challenges to various “creationist accounts,” especially those based on literalistic readings of Scripture. But such accounts do not represent the profound theology of creation beginning with Augustine in the fourth century and reaching a high point in the thought of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. In his course on animal behavior, Barash would certainly want to use the best science available. When he speaks about religious beliefs he should examine the best theology and philosophy available.

The Distinctiveness of Human Beings

The second pillar of religious belief challenged by evolution, according to Barash, is that human beings are qualitatively separate from the rest of nature. He tells us:

no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens . . .; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

Christians affirm that human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. There is a biblical warrant for this, but claims for human distinctiveness are also made in philosophy. Biological continuity, the key to evolution, does not tell us whether or not an exclusively materialistic explanation of human nature is true.

Perhaps by a “supernatural trait” Barash means a human soul. The broader question is whether or not a materialist philosophy of nature is true; is it adequate to explain what it means for an animal or plant to be alive? Materialists have to deny a fundamental difference between the animate and the inanimate. There surely is a biological and chemical continuity in the world of living things, a linkage that can be discovered in a historical connectedness described by evolutionary science. There is no need, however, to deny this material continuity while also affirming a discontinuity on the level of consciousness and mind. No need, that is, unless one begins (as Barash does) with a commitment to the view that there is nothing more to living things than their material components.

Since human genes look much like those of fruit flies, worms, and even plants, biologists see a confirmation of common descent from the same humble beginnings. There is a challenge here to a particular religious explanation of human distinctiveness that views the historical origins of different species, including human beings, as the result of special, direct divine intervention. But human distinctiveness can be defended philosophically and theologically without appealing to this reading of Genesis.

God's action need not, and really ought not, to be seen as a more powerful extra cause. God need not be the direct cause of each species in order to be the cause of each. To speak of direct or indirect, proximate or remote, with respect to God's causality is mistakenly to locate divine causality in the same metaphysical category as the causality of creatures.

The Problem of Evil

There is, Barash thinks, a third consequence of evolution for religion. The pain, suffering, and waste in nature that evolution discloses is incompatible with the idea of an all-good and all-powerful God. The world “is filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age, and death—and that suffering is built into the nature of things.” Thus, Barash concludes, living things are produced by a “natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” One wonders, of course, how a “totally amoral process” can result in “ethical horrors.”

The so-called “problem of evil” is not a new question, even though we know of some new evils in nature. Augustine provided a convincing way of understanding evil as privation, thus avoiding seeing God as its cause. Augustine’s position is complex, but if one wishes to examine how there can be evil in a world created by God, Augustine offers the best analysis.

Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noted that all arguments that challenge the existence of God are reducible to two: (1) nature is fully self-sufficient and hence any appeal to divine causality is an unnecessary hypothesis, and (2) the reality of evil is incompatible with an all-good and all-powerful God. As I have suggested, Thomas and those who follow in his tradition offer compelling responses to both sets of arguments.

Barash finds conclusive the objections to God's existence that he cites, but he ignores philosophical and theological analyses that remain unchallenged by modern science. Certainly some believers accept design arguments such as those of William Paley, or embrace a biblical literalism, and the insights of evolutionary biology present real problems for them. But the traditional pillars of religion that support a view of God as transcendent cause of all that is, a Creator who causes nature to have an autonomy of its own, and that recognize the errors in materialist readings of nature, remain unshaken by the discoveries of modern science.

William E. Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford.

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