Ralph David Westfall, PhD
"Forget evolution? Are you crazy?" That's what an atheist relative said to me, in all sincerity, when I mentioned this topic. The doctrine of evolution is a major support for the atheist's faith in the non-existence of God. He reacts to this suggestion much as many religious believers respond to the ideas of Richard Dawkins.
There admittedly are weaknesses in the theory of evolution. Many of the current cultural battles revolve around them. Despite the vulnerabilities, I believe that focusing on evolution is a very bad strategy. The topic is quite complex. Most people on either side of the debate don't know enough to discuss it intelligently. This article provides a rationale and methods for focusing on the origin of life instead, with the goal of neutralizing claims that "science proves there is no God."
Evolutionary theory indicates that we and all the other life on this planet came into existence through natural processes rather than by supernatural creation. Evolution is recognized as a very well-established scientific theory, and is thus the primary basis for the idea that "science proves there is no God." Since science has led to all kinds of advances all over the world, many people are strongly influenced by this association. When told that science indicates there is no God, they are inclined to believe it. Or they may feel that the conclusion must somehow wrong, but not be able to effectively explain their reasons for rejecting it.
One reason why the association between science and evolution is so effective is that relatively few understand the limitations of science. Not being aware of these limitations, they really don't understand that science can't "prove" anything. (People who do understand science don't use the word "prove," but the connotation is still very much there in discussions of the theological implications of evolutionary theory. Note how the title of the book—God: The Failed Hypothesis, How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, by Victor Stenger—uses the word "shows" instead). Unfortunately, neither the educational system nor the media provide adequate coverage of these limitations. This article suggests a strategy for countering the idea that, based on the theory of evolution, science proves that there is no God.
The problem is that for people who believe in a theistic origin of our existence, arguments against evolution are attacking a strength of explanations based on natural processes rather than a vulnerability. Evolution sounds logical. Everyone knows that things—airplanes for example—develop over time. Evolution unquestionably works within the higher branches of the "family tree" of life, for example different breeds of dogs. It seems reasonable that it might also explain larger differences between species that are much farther apart, for example dogs and dinosaurs.
There is honestly a tremendous amount of data that supports the theory of evolution. None of it is totally conclusive, but the huge quantities distract attention from the qualitative weaknesses. Most people—religious or not—do not have the educational background to discuss the weaknesses. Therefore most dialogues about evolution are either arguments among fools, or foolish arguments by people of religious faith against more knowledgeable people who believe in evolution. The charts below show possible outcomes of such discussions.
The left two bars represent the most common situation: a discussion between two comparably ignorant people. It is an argument between fools, with no winner. For a Judeo-Christian perspective, see Proverbs 26:4, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself."
The middle pair of bars shows a discussion between a person who is skeptical about evolution and a knowledgeable proponent. The result is a humiliating loss for the person who disagrees with the concept that science proves there is no God. St. Augustine's warning in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, applies both to this and the preceding situation:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world … about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The third pair of bars shows a debate between two people who are both knowledgeable about these issues. This kind of debate most often occurs on university campuses. Typically the proponent of evolution emphasizes the large quantity of supporting evidence. The opponent usually focuses on the weaknesses in the quality of the evidence for evolution, and on the mathematical improbabilities associated with evolution. Both of these rebuttals are more sophisticated forms of argumentation and thus are difficult to communicate effectively even by very knowledgeable people. The results vary depending on the relative debating skills of the competitors and the relative commitment to honest argumentation, but the result is generally a stand-off.
The chart on the left shows another possibility: an informed skeptic of evolution immersed in a crowd of less informed people who strongly believe in evolution. Based on my experience with posting theistic arguments on atheist and pro-evolution forums, I think this is a typical situation on the Internet. It can be a useful exercise in terms of developing and testing arguments, and honing skills in analyzing and responding to others' arguments, if you have a very "thick skin."
However the numeric advantage and the tactics of the opposition make it very difficult to get points across. It is difficult to find places to discuss these issues where a significant portion of the participants are unbiased enough to recognize that some of the arguments against evolution create problems for the theory. The typical online forum has a lot of personal (ad hominem) attacks, and the majority of the participants don't have any hesitation about ignoring ("changing the subject") or misrepresenting ("straw man arguments") things that go against their belief systems. Most of the participants are anonymous, so there is virtually no risk in making false or totally outrageous statements.
Putting it all together, the overall standings in the above scenarios are one tie and three losses. A record of 0-1-3 does not get a sports team into the playoffs.
The historical echoes of the Scopes trial are another reason to shift the attack to the origin of life. That trial has been ingrained into the general consciousness as a battle between dogmatic, irrational and ignorant people versus others of greater intelligence and more common sense. Although Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward Larson (a historian and legal scholar who won a Pulitzer Prize for the book) shows that the situation differed in many ways from common perceptions, arguments focused on evolution still face public opinion biases related to the trial that may be impossible to overcome.
I suggest that we "forget evolution." First, we should move away from that turf to one that is more favorable. How can we do this? We need to provide solid arguments that life could not have originated through natural causes. Without life, there is nothing for evolution to work with.
What If Science Does Succeed in Creating Life?
Abiogenesis--the concept that living organisms could have developed from nonliving matter--is a possibility. However based on everything that science has learned about life to date, creating life in a laboratory will be very complex and involve a lot of very specialized technical apparatus. Under that scenario, it should be quite obvious that something like that could never have happened through random natural processes.(See Can life arise from basic molecules?)
Current scientific efforts to demonstrate that life could not have originated by natural causes rely heavily on probabilistic calculations. For example, see Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stephen Meyer. At this time, such probabilistic arguments need to make a number of assumptions because they are based on hypothetical scenarios. However if and when science creates life in the laboratory, there will be much more solid data to work with. Thus conclusions about the improbability of the natural origin of life would become much better grounded. This could lead to an interesting reversal of positions. People of faith who understand this scenario might even pray that scientists will be successful in creating life in the laboratory. On the other hand, atheists could only hope that such efforts would fail.
Taking this one step further, what will atheists say if science successfully creates life in the laboratory in ways that could never have occurred naturally? Their track record to date suggests they will say something like: Life really did originate by natural causes, just not in the way that it's being created in the lab. And then they'll say what's already been said many times in the last 100 years: Science just needs more time to demonstrate how it could have happened without God.
Second, to avoid the "arguments among fools problem," such an approach needs to be relatively simple. It will not be widely effective if it requires people to have a lot of specialized knowledge to use it. The following set of arguments meets both criteria.
These arguments attack weaknesses in the scientific perspective rather than passively accepting them. Science is based on the absolutely unprovable assumption that everything is the result of natural causes. This is a fatal flaw that demolishes claims to the effect that science proves there is no God. It requires that science reject all evidence, no matter how compelling, that supernatural events have ever occurred. For example, because of that assumption, science cannot consider the quite extensive evidence for the absolutely literal resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In addition to censoring all evidence of supernatural events, the natural-causes assumption leads to ridiculous conclusions in other areas. People often talk about a conflict between science and religion, but most do not realize that there is also a great disconnect between science and the legal system.
God and Free Will?
A skeptic might say that God's omniscience forecloses the concept of free will just as much as the assumption of natural causes. However it is easy to overcome this objection. St. Augustine recognized 15 centuries ago that time was an integral aspect of the universe. Noted cosmologist Stephen Hawking also sees time as originating with the universe in the Big Bang (see The Beginning of Time). However from a theistic perspective, God is outside of the universe and time.
Following this line of reasoning, our past actions are "set in concrete" after the fact—they can never change—even though they resulted from our free choices. All the details—every aspect—of what I ate for breakfast on March 3, 2009 will never change, even though many aspects were based on my free choices. Similarly God is outside of time and can see all the things that I will do for the rest of my life, even though many of them will result from my free choices.
Taking the theistic argument one step farther, I argue that the only way human beings can have free will is because they are created in the image of God.
One of the fundamental principles of justice in democracies is that people can freely choose their actions in many situations. Therefore they can be judged for doing what is wrong. Legal systems make exceptions for circumstances where free will is absent, such as insanity or being forced ("under duress") to do something wrong. Therefore if a person's actions result from the forces of nature rather than free choice, the person cannot be guilty of wrongdoing.
Even though the assumption that everything results from natural causes conflicts with the legal system as much as it does with religious beliefs, there does not seem to be any comparable movement to overthrow it. In contrast to the topic of atheism, I don't recall seeing any books on the New York Times best-seller lists about abolishing the legal system. Although there are web sites devoted to disputing the concept of free will, they are much less common than those that promote atheism.
But let's take this one step further. In addition to making a mockery of the justice system, if there is no free will, then everyone is a robot (of the industrial kind, rather than the ones Isaac Asimov wrote about). The best that can be said is that some of the processes are random, possibly due to quantum level effects, so behavior is not totally predictable. But the end result is the same: The individual has no control at all over his or her behavior. (The adjacent sidebar responds to a possible objection to the "robot argument.")
The idea that science is absolutely dependent on the natural causes assumption is also absurd. Many of the great scientists in the past--Isaac Newton, Max Planck, Blaise Pascal, Galileo Galilei, Louis Pasteur, Johannes Kepler, etc.--were also Christians and some mentioned a supreme being in their scientific writings. (Dinesh D'Souza lists a number of others in What's So Great about Christianity.) Isaac Newton (and others before him) said, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." The scientists of today are still working with concepts developed by these religious believers.
The supposed importance of the natural causes assumption to science also seems paradoxical in light of a 1997 survey that found that 40 percent of scientists "believed in a God who ... actively communicates with humankind." ("Survey of Scientists Finds A Stability of Faith in God," New York Times, April 3, 1997, section A, page 14)
The justification for this assumption is that it forces science to look for physical explanations of things rather than just assuming that "godidit" (God did it). However an alternative version would be equally effective. Just change it to say that most things result from natural causes, and that it's not possible to objectively know if or when something actually resulted from other than natural causes. This shouldn't be a big shock to anyone's thinking, because science already accepts the idea that there are things that cannot be completely known. For example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:
"The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa." quoted from Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927
An emphasis on evolution rather than the origin of life has been a major contributor to the defeat of efforts to insure that public school textbook content is not prejudicial to religious beliefs. The issue keeps coming up in different states, but in virtually every case, the proposals have used the words "evolution" or "Darwinism," or both. Either they don't mention the origin of life at all, or they put much less emphasis on it.
I suggest that people should cease and desist from attempting in any way to incorporate criticisms of evolution into textbooks. Efforts should instead focus on incorporating material in textbooks that demonstrates that evolution and the origin of life are distinct and separate issues.
Even though the origin of life is a necessary prerequisite for evolution, science can and does look at evolution (and other topics as well) in isolation. Evolution can completely ignore the question of how life originated, just as theories in other branches of science can also be isolated from what had to come before in this kind of "reductionistic" way. Darwin himself indicated that origin of life is separate and distinct issue, and even though it is a much more difficult problem, he claimed that it still didn't invalidate his theory: "It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life." (The Origin of Species , Chapter XV)
Thus there is a strong precedent for just focusing on one side of this issue. If the incredible improbability of the origin of life by natural causes can be exposed, then it becomes completely unnecessary for religious believers to be concerned about evolution as a threat to anyone's faith, because the type of evolution Darwin wrote about couldn't happen without life.
One of the arguments against teaching intelligent design (ID) in schools is that it focuses on just one area of science. That argument can be largely overcome by pushing for textbooks in all branches of science, not just biology, to explain that science is based on the assumption that everything results from natural causes. Textbooks should note that this assumption is unprovable and thus cannot be used to support any judgments about anyone's beliefs about anything supernatural. (The often deplored trend toward "political correctness"—tiptoeing around anything that might offend anyone—actually works in favor of this approach.)
If these distinctions are incorporated into textbooks, parents and students will be in a much better position to respond to explicit or implicit claims that science proves there is no God, by pointing to the failure to create life in the laboratory. (The first sidebar indicates that the "life couldn't have happened by natural causes" argument would still be useful even if or when science does succeed in creating life in a laboratory.) In addition, this approach implicitly capitalizes on the popular sentiment that holism—considering related aspects rather than focusing on just one thing—is better than fragmented approaches.
Efforts to make textbooks more accurate in regard to the nature of science will, of course, be resisted vehemently by the same people who have been opposing curriculum revision efforts that focus on ID. However their opposition will be more difficult, because they can't deny either the natural causes assumption or the acceptability of reductionism in science. The approach I suggest here does not require adding something new and different ("teaching the controversy") to textbooks. It just attempts to "level the playing field," by making sure that students understand the limitations of science and the types of conclusions that can and cannot be drawn from scientific research.
Another problem is that attempts to add ID to textbooks focus attention on the goals and agendas of people who favor it. In an ideal world, people would evaluate issues based on the facts, but in reality questions of agendas have a powerful impact. Even if the facts are very obvious to reasonable people and clearly support a recommended action, real or perceived agendas still influence many people.
Pushing for textbooks to clarify things that are already widely recognized in science would greatly increase the visibility of the agendas of the type of people who would oppose such efforts. Having Barbara Forrest, a member of the board of directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, testify against adding ID to textbooks in the Kitzmiller trial in 2005 was not a major problem. It would be a bigger issue for someone like that to oppose teaching that science has to deny the reality of anything (for example, life after death) that couldn't result from natural causes. It would show that, although they claim to be opposed to indoctrination, they want indoctrination that supports their own beliefs to continue.
Some in science are concerned that the recent outpouring of books on atheism, which include many arguments that supposedly are based on science, will cause a backlash that might reduce funding for research. They have suggested that scientists should therefore try to avoid offending people's religious sensibilities. These scientists are called "accommodationists" and have been strongly criticized by the more militant in the atheist community. On the other hand, some religious believers question the sincerity of such "middle of the road" efforts, and may even suspect that they represent "Trojan horses" designed to undermine the foundations of religious beliefs. If these scientists truly want peace between these communities, and if their stated motives are genuine, they should be in favor of presenting a clearer and more accurate picture in textbooks of the nature and limitations of science.
To be very blunt about it, people who are concerned about these issues should not keep beating a dead horse by attacking Darwinism. They should instead focus on the much greater vulnerability of the inadequate explanations for the absolutely necessary prerequisite of the origin of life. The currently dominant approach (for obvious reasons, it doesn't deserve to be called a strategy) just demonstrates to Dawkins et al that we really are as stupid as they say we are. And proves yet again that "those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."