Evolution, Atheism and Perspective

Phillip Johnson, the chief architect of the intelligent design movement, famously said that the primary strategy of that movement is "to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God." In a nation where upwards of 90% of the population believes in God, this is good public relations strategy; it is also, however, a rather dishonest way to frame the dispute. Ken Miller described the reason why quite well in an interview with Christianity Today last year:

It is always the case, in any political debate, that the two extremes tend to justify and validate each other. I think the Intelligent Design movement has seized upon the most extreme views of the meaning of evolution to argue that this is an inherent aspect of evolutionary theory.

They recognize what is going on when Dawkins and others in that vein make the statements they do about the meaning and the purpose of life and the irrelevance of religion. What they are doing is essentially abandoning science and pushing a philosophical point of view. Now it is a philosophical viewpoint that these people have every right to hold. But what is important is that the philosophical viewpoint should not be confused with the science that is behind it.

What the Intelligent Design movement has done all too often is to conflate the science and philosophy, to argue that within evolutionary biology there is a philosophy of anti-theism and a pro-materialist or an absolute materialist philosophy. That is simply not true. The fact is that the philosophy and the science are separable. Evolutionary biology is very, very good science. The philosophy that one draws from that, however, depends upon one's own philosophical point of view, and not so much on the science itself.

His last point is so obviously true as to be almost self-evident. One of the primary distinctions between the ID and evolution sides in this dispute is that, while the ID movement is almost exclusively Christian, evolutionary biologists run the gamut from Dawkins' outspoken atheism to Ken MIller's Roman Catholicism to the full range of Protestant Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and any number of other faiths.

ID advocates like to play a little sleight of hand with the term "naturalism", glossing over the distinction between methodological naturalism (MN), a practical restriction to which almost all working scientists conform because science simply lacks the tools to evaluate any other type of causation, and philosophical naturalism (PN), or materialism, the belief that the natural world is all there is and nothing supernatural can exist. But evolution is "naturalistic" in the exact same sense in which the germ theory of disease, the kinetic theory of gasses, or plumbing are naturalistic. It does not rule out the possible existence of anything supernatural, including the existence of God, it merely proceeds on the working assumption that the world behaves consistently within the parameters of natural law without disruption.

It is a mistake to conflate a scientific theory with the philosophical inferences one can draw from it. For William Lane Craig, big bang cosmology supports his Christian theistic position; for Quentin Smith, big bang cosmology supports his atheistic position. But those arguments are non-scientific inferences from scientific conclusions, they are not a part of the theory itself. Likewise, Richard Dawkins infers support for his atheism from evolutionary theory, while Ken Miller infers support for his Christianity from evolutionary theory, but those are both non-scientific inferences and are not a part of evolutionary theory itself.

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Well articulated points all around.

By Micholasia (not verified) on 16 Nov 2005 #permalink

"or plumbing are naturalistic. It does not rule out the possible existence of anything supernatural, including the existence of God, it merely proceeds on the working assumption that the world behaves consistently within the parameters of natural law without disruption."

This explains why prayers simply never bring the miracles of working toilets with the same frequency and consistency as a call to the plumbers.

Well said. I wish people like Phillip Johnson could understand that science doesn't presume to answer all possible questions about life, the universe and everything, and thus there will always be room for religion. (Of course, some of these folks are pushing a form of religion that does presume to answer all questions about life, the universe and everything, and they refuse to recognize that any other answers are possible.)

You're right that evolution doesn't rule out the possibility of God, however I am pretty much persuaded that it rules out the necessity of God. As Daniel Dennett argues in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," the realization that evolution happens algorithmically means that there is no need for a designer to step at any point in the process. It does not, in fact, take a mind to create a mind...a fact which contradicts the central reasoning behind opposition to evolution. It is the basis of all appeals to complexity, to the many variations of ID.

Now, this might not determine a person's entire philosophy, but they would have to avoid thinking about it very deeply in order for their philosophy to remain unaffected by it. It is a "dangerous idea" indeed, even for people who profess to support it wholeheartedly but then go about undermining it by seeking "skyhooks," as did S.J. Gould. Evolution does not disprove God (what could?) but I do think it proves him/her/it unnecessary. And if there is anything a god should be....shouldn't it be at least necessary first?

Gretchen wrote:

You're right that evolution doesn't rule out the possibility of God, however I am pretty much persuaded that it rules out the necessity of God. As Daniel Dennett argues in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," the realization that evolution happens algorithmically means that there is no need for a designer to step at any point in the process.

But at the most, this means God is not necessary to explain this particular thing, just as meteorology shows that God is not necessary as an explanation for bad weather. It could still be argued that God is necessary to explain the existence of the universe itself, for instance, or any number of other things. And I'm not arguing for that conclusion, I'm just arguing that if one is going to dispute that, the dispute has nothing to do with evolution, which deals solely with the biodiversity of life on this planet. Scientific theories are discrete explanations for specific sets of data and specific phenomena and it is a mistake to conflate evolution with, for example, cosmological explanations like the big bang (as creationists so often do).

Gretchen: God is necessary to give my life and actions meaning, and to inspire me to do more than merely keep the meat satisfied. No amount of science will change that. Evolution does not make God "unnecessary" any more than any prediction I make or act on that does not assume a divine intervention. If I assume that God won't stop the Sun from rising on schedule tomorrow, and plan my day based on that assumption, does this make God "unnecessary?"

God is necessary to give my life and actions meaning

So if there is no God, there would be no meaning? I am not going to ask why that is, because that discussion would be endless. But I will note that there are millions of people all over the world who do not believe in God, and yet somehow manage to avoid suicidal depression. So apparently God's existence is not objectively necessary for meaning.

Question: what does

God is necessary to give my life and actions meaning

I have seen this issue of meaning from a number of religious people, but what does it mean? I have asked this on a number of web sites but have never received a response that was coherent to me.