Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

II. Areas of purported conflict between science and religion

D. The evolutionary conflict

Finally, let's consider evolutionary claims of conflict.
"Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." - Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker
"The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism." - Richard Dawkins, The New Humanist, 107(2)
"Charles Darwin was born in 1809, on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, and there is no doubt as to which of them has proved to be the greater `emancipator'." - Christopher Hitchens, god is not great

Dawkins and Hitchens claim here that evolution unavoidably leads to atheism. So is that the case?

Here we need to be careful to define evolution before we return to the question of whether and how evolution is incompatible with the existence of God. Modern evolutionary theory is based on three foundational premises: first, that species of life on Earth have changed over the course of Earth's history. Second, that all species are descended from a single life form, an idea known as universal common descent. Third, that random mutation and natural selection are the primary drivers of modern biodiversity. So which of these premises conflicts with the existence of God?

Surprisingly, the first premise is almost universally accepted, even among young-earth creationists. No one denies that the fossil record shows that the species on earth have changed over earth's history.

The second premise is a bit more controversial, but there is more agreement than you might think. For instance, creationists accept a limited form of common descent, just not universal common descent. In other words, they would place limits on the amount of change that can occur within a given population; but they would affirm that many distinct modern species shared the same common ancestor. And at least some, though not all, of those in the much-maligned intelligent design community are willing to accept universal common descent wholesale. So they're in full agreement on this point with what modern evolutionary theory proposes.

So the real source of conflict is the third premise: that random mutation and natural selection are the primary drivers of all modern biodiversity. So has science demonstrated unequivocally that this third pillar of Neodarwinian synthesis is true? No. Let me give you two reasons why: one philosophical, the other scientific.

Philosophically, the crux of the debate is in what we mean by the word random when we talk about random mutations. Scientifically, this word has a very specific meaning; it contrasts Darwinian evolution to Lamarckian inheritance. A random mutation is one that occurs independent of its environment as opposed to a non-random mutation which is an adaptive response to a change in the environment.

This kind of randomness says nothing at all about God's existence or his interaction with the world. It merely says that mutations appear to occur at a rate and in locations that are independent of their environment. Unfortunately, people sometimes confuse this limited sense of randomness meaning "independent of the environment" with a very different sense of randomness in which randomness means "absolutely uncaused, undirected, and unguided." It is this second kind of randomness which is problematic for theism, but only because it excludes God by definition - even God cannot cause, direct and guide an "absolutely uncaused, undirected, unguided process." However, this second kind of randomness is not a scientific description about an event, but a metaphysical interpretation of the event. Once again, we do not have a conflict between science and God but between naturalism and God.

But second -even apart from philosophical considerations- this third pillar of evolutionary theory is the most difficult to prove experimentally. Since creationists are willing to concede at least some degree of biological change within populations, certainly the types of changes we see today in the emergence of antibiotic resistance, proponents of evolution would have to show evidence that large evolutionary changes can be driven purely by random mutation and natural selection. Unfortunately, because macroevolution occurs on geologic timescales of millions of years and usually proceeds in small increments, this type of evidence is extremely sparse. I think both sides of the debate would agree that evidentiary support for this third pillar, the crucial one, the main point of contention between critics and proponents of evolution, is based upon a substantial extrapolation from the current evidence at our disposal.

I don't have time to delve into a discussion of related evolutionary objections to theism, claims such as "evolution explains morality" or "evolution explains religion." But I believe that these two objections alone are sufficient to defuse the claim that the current scientific evidence for biological evolution is incompatible with belief in God. For both philosophical and scientific reasons, it is plausible to reject the claim that evolution demonstrates that God does not exist or that he is not the Creator of life on earth, whether through an evolutionary mechanism or not.

So I've hopefully shown that some of the main claims of conflict between science and religion are invalid. But is that all that we can say? Even if there is no inherent conflict between science and religion, can science contribute to a positive case for God's existence? I believe it can and I want to examine that evidence in the next section.

Top: Science and religion

Back: Epistemological

Next: Evidence for God from science

If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

Back to home Back to Essays