THIS IS a big topic, and we can’t discuss it all here. We’ve mentioned bits and pieces of this subject in several earlier posts, but we want the convenience of having it all in one place so it can be easily referenced in the future.
We won’t be talking about the pros and cons of religion or atheism, because what someone believes — or doesn’t believe — is his own business. Instead, we’ll try to limit this post to the evolution versus creationism arena, with minimal digressions. If you want a wide-ranging, general overview of the history of this topic, you might start with this: Religion vs Science: The Big Picture.
Our purpose here is far more limited. We want to deal with the argument that fuels much of the opposition to evolution, and it goes like this: (1) atheism is evil; (2) evolution and maybe all of science is atheistic; therefore, (3) evolution and possibly all of science is evil. We won’t even touch point one, which many hold as an axiom. It’s arguable, but believe it if you like. The rest of the argument fails anyway, and that’s what this post is all about.
A standard ploy of today’s creationists, including the the Intelligent Design variety, is claiming that Darwin’s theory of evolution, and “materialist” science generally, is based on — or at least leads to — atheism, which opens a Pandora’s Box of horrors that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
We won’t debate whether atheism inevitably leads to evil. We will mention, however, that besides the infamous atheists like Marx and Stalin, there are known examples of atheists leading apparently happy and productive lives. There is also the phenomenon of the virtuous pagan. On the other side of the coin, while most clergymen seem to lead exemplary lives, there are well-known examples of disgraced clergy. One can easily find endless internet debates on this issue; it’s something we can’t resolve and won’t deal with here. Instead, we’ll be discussing whether science in general, and evolution in particular, is causally related to atheism. And we’ll begin with the topic of materialism.
Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.
For an especially gruesome example of the Discoveroids’ thinking see: Discovery Institute: Feasting on Death, wherein we report about a ghoulish Discoveroid attempt to assert a causal link between a biology class, a book about atheism, and the unfortunate suicide of a young man.
There are numerous errors in the Discoveroid hatred of “materialist science,” the first of which is philosophical. The creationists emphasize the evils of materialism, the philosophical view that nothing exists except scientifically detectable phenomena such as matter, energy, etc. By definition, this philosophy holds that spiritual phenomena don’t exist. The creationists — through ignorance or artifice — equate philosophical materialism with methodological materialism. The latter is a procedure (not a philosophy) which is inherent in the scientific method.
The scientific method is one of the most essential pillars upon which our civilization rests, and it’s one of the greatest intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment. If we lose that we’re back in the Dark Ages. Thus, the misguided assault on “materialism” is of incalculable importance.
To be a competent scientist, no philosophical materialism is necessary. A scientist may believe that all manner of spirits inhabit his lab, but being imperceptible, they have no effect on his work. For the same reason, no scientist can embark on a scientific exploration of the anatomy of angels’ wings, because there are no observable or detectable data to be examined, measured, tested, etc. This is a consequence of methodological materialism, and it says nothing at all about the existence of spiritual matters, only their inability to be scientifically studied. This is a limitation on the scope of science, not an attack on theism.
Now that we’re clear on philosophy, let’s focus on the narrow issue of a causal linkage between evolution and atheism, starting with Charles Darwin himself.
Was Darwin an atheist? Answer — No, not in the sense of denying God’s existence. As a young man, Darwin was schooled at Cambridge in preparation for the Anglican clergy — a career he chose not to pursue. His remains are interred in Westminster Abbey, as that church’s own website informs us.
In this delightful article from Science News: Darwin’s natural selection redefined the idea of design, the author synthesizes an interview with Darwin, using Darwin’s actual words from his writings. We can see that Darwin’s spiritual journey took him from the certainty of youth to the uncertainty of maturity — but never to denial. One excerpt should be enough to encourage you to click over and read it all:
But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide….
That quote from Darwin can also be found, in context, at the excellent website: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, where it appears here, and is said to have been written on April 2, 1873, in answer to a Dutch student: The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (but when you get there you’ll have to search to find it).
For more information on Darwin’s views, quite consistent with the foregoing, see: Charles Darwin on Evolution and Religion.
Don’t all clergymen reject evolution? Answer — No, certainly not. See: The Clergy Letter Project, a strong, pro-evolution statement signed by over 11,000 Christian clergymen.
But surely, the major denominations reject evolution, don’t they? Answer — It depends on one’s definition of “major denomination.” Among those with no institutional objections to evolution are Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. See: Statements from Religious Organizations.
But all the leading evolutionists are atheists, aren’t they? Answer — No, they’re not. You’re probably thinking of Richard Dawkins. But many leading biologists are conventionally religious. For example: Kenneth R. Miller, biology professor and textbook author; Francisco Ayala, a former Dominican priest who is now a biology professor; and Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project.
Outside of biology, many leading philosophers and theologians are happily reconciled with evolution. For example: George Coyne, a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and former director of the Vatican Observatory; and John Haught, a theologian with a special interest in issues of science, cosmology, ecology, and reconciling evolution and religion.
So where does this leave us? We’ll give you a few conclusions, while making no claims for or against atheism:
1. The scientific method requires methodological materialism as part of its tradecraft. This is not the same as, nor does it imply philosophical materialism, which is indeed atheism. Therefore, science isn’t inherently incompatible with religion.
2. Many scientists, including evolutionary biologists, aren’t atheists, and Charles Darwin himself wasn’t an atheist.
3. Many clergy, from many denominations, have no problem with science, including the theory of evolution.
4. Because science isn’t atheism, creationists who oppose science are not opposing atheism. Some are confused about this, but others have darker motives, which we’ve discussed here: Discovery Institute: Enemies of the Enlightenment.
There’s more to this topic, but we’ve already gone on long enough. For related issues, see: Debating Creationists: The Big Lie.
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