How Belief In “Theistic Evolution” Is Nearly As Much A Denial Of Science As Creationism

One often hears the refrain that it’s possible to believe in both God and evolution.  And it is in fact true, both psychologically and, more importantly, logically, that one may both believe in God and in evolution. Psychologically we have ample evidence that plenty of people believe in both and logically it is clear that the mere fact of evolution does not of itself preclude the existence of various sorts of gods.

Of course being logically compatible, on the one hand, and being scientifically or philosophically probable, on the other, are two entirely different things.  Just because one realizes that it is possible to believe in both God and evolution does not mean one has reason to believe in both of them.  And even though the existence of evolution does not immediately preclude the existence of a God, the existence of evolution removes a major reason that people historically had in inferring  the existence of a God.

Of course, there may be other ways to infer the existence of a God besides with teleological arguments.  But believing in evolution by natural selection means, for example, no longer being able to argue that there had to be an intelligence supernatural creator behind the universe to account for the apparent designs that structure plants and animals.

We now understand that given malleable and variable genes, enough time, and a big enough universe, by natural selection enough fortuitous and improbable evolutions of complexity and apparent designs can occur to explain the existence and marvelous functioning of the dizzying number of species of plants and animals which we know.

An intelligent designer was once as good an explanation as any offered for this variety and complexity of life.  But given the discovery of evolution by natural selection, the intelligent designer hypothesis is an inferior and unnecessary one.

Might God nonetheless exist?  Yes, God might exist, but it is no longer necessary or helpful to posit His existence for purposes of explaining how life emerges and becomes complicated.  Maybe one can posit a divine explanation for something else but God no longer explains either how life arises or how it takes its present forms.

And, so, since random variations and natural selection among the variations in principle and in practice can account completely for life, it is both superfluous and highly improbable to posit that God in any way “guides” evolution.  In fact, it is downright misleading and anti-scientific to say that God “guides” evolution.

Why do I say this?

The reason is that natural selection specifically explains how unguided evolution occurs.  Before the realization of the existence of natural selection, humans already knew about artificial selection.  Selectively breeding members of species for desirable traits is a concept we understood long before we figured out the primary mechanism for transmission of traits (the gene) even.  Darwin’s innovative discovery was that selection could happen by the pressures of environment without any deliberate guidance.

This means that to accept the brilliance and explanatory power of Darwin’s discovery is not only to accept the fact that evolution occurs but to accept the mechanism according to which evolution occurs.  More specifically, to look at the biological world with informed, scientifically consistent eyes is to look at evolution and recognize it specifically as an unguided process.

This means that to look at evolution scientifically is to recognize that even if there is a God, God does not intelligently guide evolution.  An enormous amount of available evidence attests that change in species occurs in a way which (a) requires no intelligent guidance and (b) makes far more sense if there is no explicit, intentional guidance from a designer.

So, on other grounds one might think one can adduce that God exists and has a nature of a certain kind.  Elsewhere I have amply explored the relative merits and demerits of such inferences.   But whatever one thinks about the existence of God, a scientifically consistent person should not posit that God is either (a) necessary to explain the complex, highly functional structures of organic beings or (b) their ability to evolve or (c) the kinds of evolution which have occurred in fact (which actually give ample evidence of lack of intelligent design).

While it is possible in theory that God created all living organisms through an evolutionary process and only made it look like a process of natural selection, (a) that’s as unlikely as God making it look like bodies fall because of gravitational relationships while in fact he is always just pushing bodies when they fall and (b) the clear evidence of non-optimal designs for organisms clearly counter-indicates and refutes the supposed claim that a perfectly intelligent designer guides evolution.

The designs which have naturally emerged through natural selection are not evidence of a perfect designer but rather evidence of an imperfect, merely naturally selective process and so to posit an infinite intelligence guiding the process is strictly speaking illogical.

One might still logically posit that God has a perfect intelligence but instead of using it to design living things decided just to use natural selection instead.  But the imperfect designs themselves are overwhelming counter-evidence against the rationality of holding the position that God used perfect intelligence to create them.  It is possible that a perfect intelligence would decide for some inexplicable reason to not employ its full intelligence, but why believe such a thing without any evidence for it?  It’s simpler and more intuitive to infer from the inefficient process of natural selection a non-intelligent, and especially a non-perfectly-intelligent, process than the existence or meddling of a perfect intelligence.

There may be another reason to posit a perfect intelligence in the source of existence and so posit a God with perfect intelligence even though evolution through natural selection gives no evidence of such a thing.  This alternative reason one might posit a perfectly intelligent God might be the fact that the universe acts according to rationally observable regularities.  Perhaps one might argue we can infer that the rationally understandable laws of nature indicate a rational mind as their origin.  But even if such an argument were persuasive, we still wouldn’t know that there was a perfect intelligence and, again, the imperfections of natural selection would give positive reason to think the intelligence behind the universe was itself imperfect.

There is a further problem for biblical religious beliefs about God, as traditionally understood, if one accepts the reality of evolution by natural selection.  If God indeed does not guide evolution but lets it occur through a process of natural selection, then God does not intentionally create human beings but we rather occur as a result of a process which involved a number of random elements which may have led to our never evolving (and which we can very well expect will lead to our untimely extinction).   In other words, we are not special, we are the result of an algorithm without a pre-ordained conclusion.  Or, despite all the appearances of this according to every scientific measure we have for understanding the process that resulted in us, one could say that the “formula” that looks like an inefficient process of billions of years of physical interactions that led to the first life and then the hundreds of millions of years that led to our lives was all just an elaborate way to create us.  But to say this, that the laws of nature, including the apparent law of natural selection, were all fine-tuned ultimately to create us and, presumably, all of the other inorganic and organic beings on the way to us is essentially to say that there is actually no natural selection but one elaborately constructed design plan from a non-natural selector.

In other words, to posit that God rigs the process of natural selection in advance to create certain outcomes God desires is to really to say that there is no natural selection, which puts even the theistic evolutionist, and not just the evolution-denying creationist, at odds with our best theory about the mechanism that has led to the complexities of life forms we see around us.

Therefore, one can only remain a theistic evolutionist and accept contemporary scientific discoveries about the mechanisms of evolution as accurate only if one posits that God does not control what beings do or do not evolve and, thus, human existence is only a contingent result of the laws of nature God wrote and not specially designed or loved beings with special purposes from God.  In other words, to accept natural selection is to accept that beings with functional complexities that serve purposes are not actually made on purpose or for a divine purpose. To deny this and to posit instead that God does in fact create us on purpose and/or with a special purpose, as nearly all biblically influenced religious people seem to want to do, is to deny the existence of natural selection.

So, in sum, the intellectually sophisticated religious believer who wants to disassociate herself from the patently ignorant and unscientific creationist finds herself nonetheless in the same quandary as the creationist.  Evolution by natural selection makes a purpose-giving God who makes humans on purpose and for a purpose an extremely unlikely proposition.  To assert that God guides evolution is to deny the clear science and posit that even though it looks like creatures evolve through a haphazard process of natural selection, God is really artificially selecting according to God’s purposes.  And, again, that’s as absurd as saying that even though a body of a certain mass falls at a certain rate because of a precisely mathematically predictable law of gravity that, nonetheless, the body falls only because God is pushing it downward.

God cannot guide evolution if natural selection is true.  If one denies natural selection, one might as well be a creationist.  If God does not guide evolution, God did not personally intend us and centuries of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking about our relationship to God needs to be drastically reimagined in light of all this new evidence, or abandoned outright as irredeemably obsolete.

The disturbing inspiration for this long post was my discovery last week of a Gallup poll in which not only did 40% claim not to not believe in evolution at all, but 38% implicitly denied the existence of natural selection by choosing the answer which read “Humans beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, with God guiding this process”.  This is 38% of people who are not simply believing both in what science teaches and in their religion but 38% denying the science behind the theory of natural selection and only accepting the fact of evolution by adding a religious, and essentially creationist, explanation for it.  This is not a compromise with science, it’s not a way of making science and religion compatible.  It’s a way of taking a rationally indisputable fact and giving a religious rather than a scientific account of it.  It’s tantamount to seeing a fact like “there is thunder” and going with the religious explanation that there is a god named Thor who causes it instead of a scientific explanation in terms of natural causes.

And it’s not like the poll’s alternative to creationism and God-guided evolution third was one that asked readers to deny the existence of God.  The alternative offered was to say that “”Humans beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process”.  This option was not an “atheist” option.  It neither affirms nor denies God’s existence.  It is simply the scientific opinion according to which natural selection which involves no intelligent guidance guides our development.

It was not as though people chose the “God guides” anti-natural-selection option because it was the only one consistent with their belief in God.  They chose it over another option which would have been compatible with their religion but offered an actual scientific and non-religious account of evolution.

Perhaps Gallop worded the no-God-intervention option too strongly by saying God had no part in the process whatsoever.  Perhaps some of the 38% of Americans who opted to say God “guided” evolution only meant to say that God wrote the laws of nature according to which evolution happened but that he did not intervene and void natural selection.  Maybe they felt the option of God having no part whatsoever in the process was too unrepresentative of their position compared to the option that overstated his guidance of the actual process.

But to the extent that a badly worded question is not to blame and that they really think evolutionary developments are in any way explicable according to God’s “guidance”, they are believing in a scientifically observable fact but explaining it via a religious, unscientific theory which is totally undermined by our knowledge of the actual, scientifically understood process of natural selection.

1982-2010 Trend: Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form)

Finally, as a post-script to all of these thoughts, I recommend to you Christopher Hitchens who with his inimitable rhetorical skill decimates the hypothesis that evolutionary and human history are compatible with the biblical view of a loving God who chose to specially intervene in human affairs a couple millenia ago:

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ken Pidcock

    … to look at the biological world with informed, scientifically consistent eyes is to look at evolution and recognize it specifically as an unguided process.

    You’ve described the foundation of the Intelligent Design movement. Phillip Johnson and his colleagues understood this very well, and saw that there was good money to be made constructing arguments against it. And, of course, accommodation is all about trying to keep more people from understanding it.

  • ennui

    From another angle, how would the theistic evolutionist, with their belief in God-guided artificial selection, still maintain a belief in libertarian free will and a system of “deserved” rewards and punishments? To my eye, the two seem to be at logical odds with one another.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Agreed, ennui, though I’m not certain the theistic evolutionists have to accept determinism, likely they do.

  • George W.

    Although I respect Ken Miller immensely and think his voice to be among the more important ones in the evolution vs. creation conversation, I often get a similar feeling to the one you outline here. Miller is a Catholic who endorses evolution without caveat, yet I question to what degree you can reasonably call yourself Christian while accepting evolution.

    A deistic philosophy is, to my mind, the only tenable junction of faith and science still available. This too, might eventually disappear. To argue as they do that science is separate from faith by some mysterious wall that lies between fact and fancy seems to be the very definition of cognitive dissonance.

    I do not think that Ken Miller would agree with the middling proposition of this poll though. Nor do I think that every person who chose that response meant to imply what you are reading into it. It seems to be, as you allude to, a case of a poorly formulated list of options that cannot properly reflect the varying degrees of belief.

    What you fail to mention in this post is that the poll seems to indicate a very recent and statistically significant trend away from one pole and toward the other, with the annoying middle remaining statistically static. This is encouraging news, even if we are annoyed with the pace at which it is happening. I am quite happy to see that the trend is in the direction of science and away from religion and not a merely a narrowing of the middle ground out in both directions.

    Can’t we be glad for the little victories?

  • Daniel Fincke

    Well, I guess we can be glad for little victories, but my point is it’s an even smaller victory than people think. Again, as I see it accepting evolution as a fact is not much of a move in the direction of science. Accepting evolution by natural selection is.

    Picture it this way, there could be entire religions filled with fantastic stories and god-people and just one of their assumptions is that species evolved and the god-people were at every stage responsible for each evolution.

    Would the fact that these people believed in evolution make them any more scientific than a creationist? It’s like I put it above, believing in the scientifically observable fact of thunder does not make you scientific if your explanation for thunder is “Thor does it” and the same goes for evolution.

    I will take consolation in three caveats though: (1) the question was badly worded (or at least did not force people explicitly to choose between believing in natural selection and believing in God’s guidance, which is the choice people would need to explicitly make for my thesis about what they’re thinking to be correct; (2) even the religious are at a higher percentage trying to concede to scientific fact as much as they think they have to; and (3) if nearly all the creationists were one day theistic evolutionists, then theoretically the ground would be paved to move from the nearly indisputed fact of evolution to a stronger focus on how important it is to fully accept natural selection to truly say one accepts this fully accepted fact, and there would probably be at that point some more persuasion of the truth.

  • George W.

    I disagree with your analogy. Thunder could not reasonably be denied by anyone as it is not only scientifically explainable but is witnessed by our senses.

    I think that analogy only serves to highlight the middle of the debate and not the fringes. Evolution is far more subtle and indirectly detectable. A reasonable defense of evolution requires a plethora of interrelated facts and observations, not merely an observation of your senses.

    There is more subtlety to this debate then your analogy implies. I would argue that the middling of the debate is a good thing so far as it does not rob supporters of the truly scientific position.

    Is it more desirable to have someone accept guided evolution as opposed to creationism? I certainly believe it is, if only because it serves the end goal of accepting irrefutable facts in the face of dogma. To make an imperfect analogy, I would rather have people morally agree that homosexuals deserve equal rights but deny them those rights based on social convention then have them deny the moral rightness of the position. In this scenario, at least we have some logical common ground from which to work together.

    In science, I do not agree with guided evolution but I would much prefer it to Young Earth Creationism. I believe that the former shows an acceptance of geology, physics, chemistry, biology, radiology, etc. yet falls short of pure naturalism. The latter refuses to accept any of the facts that forward the theory in support of a literal biblical view of creation. If someone accepts some or all of the postulates of the theory, they are far closer to a full acceptance of evolution than the creationist. Is that not better, assuming that the amelioration of faith and science is an evolutionary process?

    I admit to similar frustrations with the theistic evolutionary thinking, especially when it appears that someone accepts every single premise but not the conclusion. I cannot, though, advocate a conflation of accepting some logic (but not all) with a completely illogical worldview.

    While we both agree that the statistics are a sad editorial of our ability to differentiate between fact and fiction, my question to you is: Is cognitive dissonance not preferable to outright insanity?

  • Daniel Fincke

    Sure, cognitive dissonance is better than insanity and sure it’s better that people keep their immoral discrimination against gays merely social and not encode it in laws and that people acknowledge at least the fact of evolution than deny all of geology, astronomy, biology, etc.

    But I would not call someone who denies natural selection someone scientifically literate and when they choose to deny natural selection for the sake of a dogmatic religious commitment to the idea that science and faith simply must be compatible and no scientific discovery will ever overturn a central article of faith (even if it might reveal certain stories to only be “metaphorical”), they are choosing faith over science in a way that is not as dissimilar to creationism as is often assumed.

    Rejecting scientific explanations for religious ones is no better when you believe in evolution than when you don’t.

    And since, as you say, the evidence of evolution is irrefutable, I don’t think believers get as much more credit for accepting it as you think. I get that it’s not nearly as obvious as thunder. But to scientifically literate people, it really should be as obvious as the existence of thunder.

    This is a case where extremists have pulled the debate so far to the right that what people think of as the center is actually still a far right wing, in this case anti-scientific, position. It’s just not as reactionary as the most mind bogglingly stupid alternative. But it shouldn’t be confused for moderate as it is.

  • jjj

    “God cannot guide evolution if natural selection is true.”

    I don’t understand how you would know this information.Hah. If natural selection is true, (which it WAS but is now over because we are aware of it) then why is it natural? why is it natural for the survival of the fittest to progress? We think that because something seems natural, it has nothing to do with a higher power. Big mistake. Oh the naivety.

    • San Ban

      “I don’t understand how you would know this information.”

      All the evidence points to evolution by natural selection and none of it points to any other explanation yet suggested.

      “If natural selection is true, (which it WAS but is now over because we are aware of it)”
      Sorry, you completely lost me there! Do you mean to say natural selection was at one time “true” – i.e. it was the mechanism by which all life evolved – but now it is not? What evidence do you have that this might be so?

      “…then why is it natural?”
      Daniel just gave a brief explanation of why no non-natural intervention is necessary, nor likely.

      “why is it natural for the survival of the fittest to progress?”
      Maybe you misunderstand the “survival of the fittest” concept: it is that those individuals in any given environment that are best able to survive to breed will be able to pass on their genes to more offspring, which will in turn be better able to survive to pass on their genes.

      “We think that because something seems natural, it has nothing to do with a higher power.”
      If something is “natural” there are natural explanations for it. Period.