Atheism, Science, and Darwin

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.

The nefarious Wedge Document of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids) declares all-out war on materialism, e.g.:

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.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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24 responses to “Atheism, Science, and Darwin

  1. I’d also like to recommend a blog series by Steve Martin that discusses evolution from an evangelical perspective. As a non-evangelical, I found it highly enlightening and encouraging. The most germane series of posts is this one, “Evolution, Evangelicals, and Academics.” I’m going to push Steve to put the whole thing into an easily-distributed pdf.

  2. James, thanks for the link. I read only the conclusion. They have a difficult road to travel.

  3. Samuel Skinner

    Wait- Marx was evil? The man might have been a bit of a bastard, but evil is stretching it.

  4. SS says: “Marx was evil?”

    Yes. This is not a Marx-tolerant blog.

  5. mightyfrijoles

    My own passage may be interesting in light of this Blog. I had the typical Christianity when I graduated from HS – IOW some loose belief from my parents). By the time I graduated with my BS most of that was gone. Why? Because everything the Bible talked about, Science had not only a better answer for, but one that made more sense. As I progressed through the stages of becoming a scientist, I realized that every reason for the postulation of God was better explained by the non-existence of God, by natural phenomena. There are some “excepts”, like the beginning of life and the beginning of the universe. Those are still too tough for me to grasp and therefore allow the possibility of God. It also means that if I can understand it without God – he’s gone for good.

    I guess that makes me a Deist right now, and if I have enough years left, I may become a full blown Atheist.

    The main reason for this is, as you practice science, God, if he was there, keeps getting pushed further away until eventually he’s left as the Prime Mover, and even that position is unstable.

  6. A creationist in our community [said] that the 11,000 signers of the Clergy Letter Statement was insignificant, given that there are about 400,000 clergy in the US according to Census figures.

    On the other hand, there are about 3 million scientists in the US. (Source) The Discovery Institute’s Dissent from Darwinism has 761 signatures as of August 2008.

    [crunching numbers . . . ]
    11,000/400,000 clergy in the US who overtly accept evolution = 2.75%

    761/3,000,000 scientists in the US who signed the DfD = 0.025%

    So clergy in the US are >100 times more likely to accept evolution than scientists are to reject it.

    Is this meaningful?

  7. Cheryl asks: “Is this meaningful?”

    Yes, very much so. (And I don’t know why your comment got hung up in moderation.)

  8. MF says: “… God, if he was there, keeps getting pushed further away until eventually he’s left as the Prime Mover, and even that position is unstable.”

    The Prime Mover stands on the back of the cosmic turtle. Perfectly stable.

  9. The Prime Mover stands on the back of the cosmic turtle. Perfectly stable.

    …. until you consider that the Cosmic Turtle stands upon another turtle, and another, and another… until eventually you reach:

    THE TURTLE OF SPECIAL PLEADING
    ;-)

  10. retiredsciguy

    It seems to me that if we are to define people as either Deists or Athiests, we need to define exactly what it is that they either believe in or disbelieve in. In other words, we must define “God”. (Of course, I’m speaking of “God” with a capital “G”.)
    So, if anyone is so rude as to ask you if you believe in God, tell them that in order for you to answer their question they must first define “God”.
    Of course, everyone has their own definition of “God”, whether we consider ourselves Deists or Atheists. If we define “God” = “Laws of the Universe”, I guess we could all consider ourselves Deists.

  11. retiredsciguy says: “It seems to me that if we are to define people as either Deists or Athiests, we need to define exactly what it is that they either believe in or disbelieve in.”

    I try not to get into that. Such discussions never accomplish anything except agitating everyone. If a website allows that kind of talk to flourish, it quickly takes over. Good for traffic, I suppose, but it would be too distracting.

  12. Samuel Skinner

    [Deleted material]

    “There are some “excepts”, like the beginning of life and the beginning of the universe.”

    They got self-replicating RNA in the lab. They are, quite literally filling in the process step by step.

    As for the universe… stuff like this comes out every month:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126911.300-our-world-may-be-a-giant-hologram.html?full=true

    “In other words, we must define “God”. (Of course, I’m speaking of “God” with a capital “G”.)”

    There is no coherant definition of God.

    [Deleted material]

    “3. Many clergy, from many denominations, have no problem with science, including the theory of evolution.”

    You mean like animists who have evolution as part of theior religious beliefs? The idea that the two are opposed is due to the cultural blinders of the west and the incredibly poor design of Christianity.

  13. Samuel Skinner, your comment was long, rambling, at times incoherent, and not at all helpful. Please be more disciplined in the future.

  14. Cheryl,

    There is some interesting information about the DfD list from the NCSE:

    In the most generous grouping of signers with degrees in biology and biology-related
    fields (e.g., epidemiology, genetics), the DfD list has 172 signers, making up 24.5% of
    the total list.
    • the NSF tallied that in 1999 there were 955,300 biological scientists in the US
    • the 172 therefore represent 0.018% of practicing biological scientists in the US

  15. James says: “the 172 [on the Dissent from Darwinism list] therefore represent 0.018% of practicing biological scientists in the US”

    Ah, so there really is a controversy!

  16. Oops, forgot to add a critical point: despite its use as a propaganda tool, the DfD statement is not a rejection of evolution or even a support of ID. It reads, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

  17. Exactly, James. Their “statement” doesn’t say that they’re creationists, or that they think there’s anything to ID, or that they reject evolution. They express skepticism (a healthy scientific attitude) that mutation and natural selection, alone, account for all the complexity we see. I’ve seen some very serious evolutionary biologists say that they too could sign such a statement.

  18. The Curmudgeon “This is not a Marx-tolerant blog.”
    Even Richard Marx? How can you stand against such a fine mullet?

    Cheryl Shepherd-Adams “So clergy in the US are >100 times more likely to accept evolution than scientists are to reject it. Is this meaningful?”
    No, it’s not meaningful. You’re forgetting all the clergy votes that got tossed out for just signing with an X.

    retiredsciguy “If we define “God” = “Laws of the Universe”, I guess we could all consider ourselves Deists.”
    Wouldn’t that be more like Spinozan Pantheism? Deism, at least in the classical sense, is more along the lines of “something started everything, but doesn’t mess with it”.

    James “the 172 [on the Dissent from Darwinism list] therefore represent 0.018% of practicing biological scientists in the US”
    If that’s enough to “teach the controversy”, imagine what the DI will do when they discover that Ivory soap is only 99.44% pure!

    The Curmudgeon “I’ve seen some very serious evolutionary biologists say that they too could sign such a statement.”
    Then, later on, you can watch them slap their foreheads when the statement comes out on DI letterhead.

  19. Jacob Stuckey

    IMNSHO, fanatical atheists like Richard Dawkins may be inadvertently helping the creationist cause by turning people off and making them less receptive to evolutionist ideas.

  20. Jacob Stuckey says: “… fanatical atheists like Richard Dawkins …”

    I wouldn’t say he’s fanatical. Resolute, certainly. But he’s far from irrational, and he’s not single-minded. I agree the creationists use him to personify their grievances. If it weren’t him, they’d find someone else.

  21. Carole Heath

    Yes I think Darwin was an atheist but he did not come out and say so, his studies on evolution he keep hidden for over 20 years as he knew that it would cause such an uproar in England at the time as it was so religious in it’s thinking. And Darwin’s theories completely turned up sidedown mainstream beliefs. I think Darwin was a great man well ahead of his time, his study in this field changed the way humanity looked at it’s origins and also other animals that had evolved on this planet. I am a member of the British humanist association and I am an atheist myself, I don’t knock people who embrace religion it is a personal choice but I can’t see that a divine being (ie )God created all that we see around us, and the Bible see’ms to me to be like a fairy story, and in my opinion organized religion has caused so many wars and death’s in it’s name, religion came about because humanity wanted answer’s to the age old question why are we here and what is our purpose , but science has more anwer’s I think.

  22. Carole Heath says: “Yes I think Darwin was an atheist but he did not come out and say so …”

    Maybe, but we’ll never know. He acknowledged that over time he had ceased to be conventionally religious. Perhaps that was all he wanted to say in order not to upset his wife, or maybe that’s as far as his thoughts took him. It doesn’t matter. We have his scientific work, and as with Isaac Newton (also buried in Westminster Abbey), his theology is of no real importance.

  23. Darwin was not a pure atheist, he subscribed to the eugenics idea that man could become god through breeding, this is proven by his marriage choices … [blather deleted]

    The missing link is Eugenics, and Darwin is our fossil … [blather deleted]

    These are two entirely different animals, I dont care what these people say they find, a scientist, a real one would look closely at HOW darwin released his book, how he carefully hyped it among young impressionable youths and how he STOLE the work of others and how he nearly inbred his own family to extinction. Those people are pretty sick.

    [We won't be seeing many more comments from this source.]

  24. <>

    I’m not sure what to make of this comment, besides it’s factual content. As a Brit’ I am very proud, well delighted, that CD was one of my nation chaps. :)
    Maybe he’s in W.Abbey so the dressed up, puffed up mythologists who work their are reminded of the dubiousness and disreputable nature of their employment each an every day.