Evolution is Not the Problem

It frustrates me that any religious believer thinks that evolution is somehow at odds with the goodness of God in a way that a theism which rejects evolution is not. If one thinks about the birth defects, illnesses, and other things highlighted in this video which Hemant Mehta and PZ Myers both recently shared…

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…it is in no way depicting God as more benevolent to say that, rather than those things being an inevitable part of the process which was the best way to create, those are things individually willed and deliberately inflicted on the creation by the Creator.

It may not make things better to embrace evolution, but it certainly doesn’t make the situation worse.

And singing ignorant songs which show no comprehension of the science that is being rejected does not do you any favors, either (HT Stuff Fundies Like):

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  • spinkham

    I somewhat agree: It seems to me that the timescales and mass extinctions in evolution makes the problem of evil quantitatively but not qualitatively more difficult to answer. Proposed answers that are highly anthropocentric (which they almost all are) are affected more then answers that are less anthropocentric.

  • Irina

    “any religious believer”? I suppose you mean “some religious believers”, not “all religious believers”?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Right. That is exactly what I said. It bothers me that any think this way. Obviously not everyone thinks this way.

  • tolkein

    Andrew Brown at the Guardian had an interesting article about a tech writer who said that given the choice, she’s a creationist and Andrew Brown commented that, given some of the stuff Jerry Coyne writes, it’s understandable.

    I’d like to explore the obsession that atheists and some Christians have with having the right belief about evolution, but not, say, about the Standard Model, or about Big Bang cosmology, or about Continental drift. As it happens, I see no theological difficulty with the principle of macro-evolution, and I do not think Intelligent Design makes any sense, but what do I know? I’m an historian who works in finance.

    The point of the question is that most people can’t possibly have the knowledge to actually comment sensibly on evolution. And which theory, anyway? The neo-Darwinian synthesis? I understand that there are disputes between evolutionary theorists around altruism, and anyone who has read Stove’s Darwinian Fairy Tales will know that Darwinians believe stuff that, on the face of it, just makes no sense or is plain wrong. So why make belief in evolution some kind of test?

    I won’t be better at history for having the ‘correct’ view on evolution. So why the obsession?

    And I dislike the idea that Christians (or Jews or Muslims) can’t be creationists. Of course we are. We believe that God did create the universe, just not 6,000 or 10,000 years ago or whatever Young Earth creationists believe. At least we’ve got a coherent hypothesis for the creation and existence of the universe. We don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the Bible – at least the story of Jesus saying I am the True Vine in John should put paid to that. I’ve never heard any one maintain that Jesus had green tendrils when he said that.

    So, again, why the obsession with evolution as opposed to other scientific theories?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You make some good points, although many young-earth creationists do dispute the Big Bang and continental drift. the focus on being right about biology is largely a response to others making opposition to mainstream biology a hallmark of their faith.

    • arcseconds

      Some people believe the Earth is hollow. No-one really cares too much about them.

      However, if belief in a hollow earth was widespread, and people were collecting and spending millions of dollars to promote hollow earthism, if there was a constant threat of sympathetic politicians revising the school curriculum to make space for hollow earthism, and every time an earthquake happened hollow earthers turned up on every website disputing this notion of ‘fault lines’ and ‘plates’ (preferring instead to explain these things as evidence that the inhabitants of the interior were preparing to attack the surface) and calling all geologists idiots or conspiring fraudsters, then there would be a much greater concern amongst followers of science to educate people about mainstream geology.

      You might be right and we all need to take a chill pill, I guess. It’s a fine line to walk between respecting other people’s beliefs and decision-making processes (which entails allowing them to believe differently from you) and promoting one’s own views and methods. And the appropriate place for tolerance varies on the issue: holocaust denial is a lot more problematic than believing in fairies, for example.

      Perhaps it shouldn’t trouble me too much that someone doesn’t believe in evolution, but it would be a lot easier to be tolerant if they said something like “well, I don’t understand the science, I just believe what I read in the Bible” rather than “the entire scientific community has failed to actually do a successful job of science on this issue to the point where sunday school pupils can see through it, so they’re all stupid, blinkered ideologues, or completely corrupt, and you’re a fool for believing them”, while simultaneously revealing that they don’t actually understand what the scientific view on evolution is.

    • David_Evans

      Evolution has implications for religion in a way that no other theory does:

      1 It explains the apparent design in the living world without reference to God. Before Darwin an atheist was faced with the unanswerable question “Why are so many things perfectly designed, if there is no designer?”

      2 It shows that the human race is not descended from a literal Adam and Eve. Therefore: no temptation and fall in the garden of Eden, no original sin, no need for redemption, no need for the crucifixion.

      3 By showing our close kinship with the animals, it calls into question the idea that the world was created solely for our use (Genesis 1:26)

      It is Christians who have chosen to attack evolution in the classroom, but I think #1 explains why atheists are so committed to defending it.

      • tolkein

        But this is the problem with making belief in evolution such a totem. Atheists argue that evolution proves that religion is wrong, that there was no Fall (like there was no Holocaust, or Gulags, or Great Leap Forward or Red Terror, or too many other examples of mankind’s desire to create a hell on earth); in short that atheism is right.

        And too often they are successful in conflating the truth about evolution with the truth of the atheist proposition. And I have to say that if believing that evolution (let’s stick to some generalised form of macro-evolution) is true means believing that Christianity must be false, then it’s hardly surprising that many Christians will say that therefore evolution is wrong. And branding Christians as default creationists (insinuating that belief that God created the universe and continues to sustain it, is the same as believing in the literal truth of Genesis, including creation in 7 days some 6,000 years ago) further attempts to make practising Christians seem anti-science ignoramuses.

        Of course, the reality is that belief in the reality of evolution is quite consistent with being a Christian, but that’s not what atheists like Coyne would have you believe. I was brought up Catholic and the Church never seemed to have a problem with evolution in the 1960s when I was growing up, and I’ve been a practising Christian since my late teens and don’t understand the fuss. I’ve always assumed that evolution was (is) true. Perhaps it’s more a US thing.

        In answer to 3, I really don’t see that Gen 1:26 says that the world was created solely for our use, rather that mankind has stewardship responsibility for the earth, which is palpably true. At least, I can’t see dolphins or orcas or apes doing the job. I rather think it’s a heavy responsibility that, with our fallen nature, we do a bad job at fulfilling.

        There’s a more dangerous belief hidden in this “evolution is true, and believing wrong things marks you out as defective” trope. What happens if the Standard Model is wrong, and that dark matter or dark energy turns out to be a modern version of belief in phlogiston, or vitalism, or eugenics, or the ether? (Just to be clear – I assume that the Standard Model is the best we’ve got and dark energy and dark matter are realistic descriptions of reality, as far as I’m aware). Does that mean that people who believe in things that turn out to be wrong are also defective?

        And if not, and I agree this would be barmy, why is a wrong belief in evolution such a bad thing? For most practical purposes, evolution or the Big Bang is completely irrelevant to daily life, unless you are an evolutionary biologist or cosmologist.

        • David_Evans

          I don’t say believing wrong things marks you out as defective. I say it’s wrong to disbelieve something when the evidence for it is overwhelming. And disbelief can have practical consequences – disbelief in man-made climate change, in the link between smoking and cancer, in CFCs’ effect on the ozone layer, even in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which took far too long to be accepted.

          We are all fallible and subject to failures of reasoning. The question is what we do about it. Science handles it by peer review and an emphasis on getting others to criticise one’s methods and ideas. Religion handles it by…?

          “But this is the problem with making belief in evolution such a totem.”

          And your alternative is? Let school boards teach intelligent design as an alternative? How long before evolution is squeezed out, and any child who knows anything about it will just have to keep quiet?

          I note that in Turkey a conference on population genetics, game theory, and evolutionary modeling has been refused funding because “Since evolution is still a debated issue, the degree to which the organizers represent the community/country is very questionable.”

          ref: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2013/07/turkish-funding.html

          You see? Science is not about finding truth but about “representing the community”. Do we want to go there?

          • tolkein

            You’ve posited a case I didn’t make. I don’t see why evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools – as is the case in the UK – nor why ID should be taught.

            What I do question is why belief that evolution is true is made a totemic belief outside of the classroom, and I’ve suggested the reason why it is problematic is because such a statement is coupled with a consequent statement that therefore Christianity must be untrue because evolution confutes Christianity. Without this next step, the truth of evolution is (and would be) a non controversial statement, accepted by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the vast majority of Christians. If you’d like this to be true in the US then persuade evangelical atheists like Coyne or Dawkins not to elide belief in evolution with “therefore Christianity is false”.

            • David_Evans

              Coyne is a scientist with a Ph. D. in evolutionary biology. He thinks the subject is important.

              He is also an atheist. He therefore thinks theistic religions are false and we would be better off without them.

              Which of those things should he keep quiet about?

              I have never seen him argue that the truth of evolution in general implies the falsity of Christianity. Nor do I think he and Dawkins can be responsible for the Christian rejection of evolution which goes back as far as the Scopes trial and the 1860 debate between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley.

              What is true is that some Christians find unwelcome the conclusion of population genetics that we are not descended from a single couple a few thousand years ago. To them I can only say: find reasons why the conclusion is wrong, with evidence, or accept it as you had to accept heliocentrism.

              • tolkein

                I’m sorry but I don’t follow you. What’s so different or special about the theory of evolution, which pretty well all Christian denominations accept, that makes it such a totemic belief? i’m not asking Jerry Coyne to disavow his atheism nor Richard Dawkins, nor keep quiet about evolution. I am saying that people who argue that evolution is true AND therefore Christianity is false are the cause of the row over evolution, in a way that isn’t true for say the Standard Model, or Big Bang.

                And I’m afraid you missed the endorsement by Benjamin Warfield, or the preaching by the bishops of Bedford, Carlisle and Manchester at the British Association of the Advancement of Science 4th September 1887, or James Orr and of course evolution is accepted by the major Christian denominations as well as by very many lay Christians. I think you’re blowing up the views of a few American fundamentalists to misrepresent the views of the majority of Christians.

                But the point is, belief in evolution or any other scientific theory is irrelevant in the lives of pretty well everybody on this planet. Who cares whether Boyle’s Law is correct, in practice, and even if they get it wrong, what does it matter, to most people? Why is evolution different? And please remember, I think the theory of evolution is true, because people who should know and whom I trust, have told me so.

                • David_Evans

                  “Totem” is a religious concept. Atheists don’t have them. “Shibboleth” might be closer, though of course we don’t have those either.

                  Most atheists have no quarrel with moderate Christians. I don’t wish to liken most Christians to the Westboro Baptist Church, any more than you should wish to liken most atheists to Hitler, Stalin or Mao. But I read every week of some Christian group trying to get “the weaknesses of evolution” taught in school. If it’s such a non-issue, why do they concentrate on this one science?

                  Scientists defend when any science is attacked, for obvious reasons. Many of them are atheists. There may well be atheists who don’t care about evolution or science. How would we know?

                  PS. Hitler in his speeches often referred to Christ and to the Creator. Darwin’s books were banned in Nazi Germany’s libraries. And if you want intellectual precursors of the Holocaust, look no further than Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies”

                  Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Jews_and_Their_Lies

                  Stalin rejected orthodox evolutionary genetics in favour of the charlatan Lysenko. Many fine geneticists lost their jobs and some died in the Gulag.

                  It also seems that while Mao espoused a version of Darwinism, it amounted to little more than slogans such as “survival of the fittest” and “struggle for survival” which are a crude oversimplification of what Darwin wrote.

                  Ref: http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/from-darwin-to-mao-pusey-on-chinese.html

                • David_Evans

                  “But the point is, belief in evolution or any other scientific theory is irrelevant in the lives of pretty well everybody on this planet.”

                  Everyone votes – or ought to. Congressman Paul Broun who sits on the science committee of the House of Representatives has dismissed evolution, the Big Bang theory and embryology as “lies straight from the pit of hell”. There are other congressmen in influential positions who deny accepted science. This is dangerous for the future of the country and the world. I would hope that a scientifically-literate electorate would vote such people out, or never elect them in the first place.

                  • tolkein

                    I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you, to learn that a stupid person was elected to your Congress. Is that a first in the US? Next you’ll be telling me that some elected representatives tell lies, or are corrupt, or misrepresent their opponents. I don’t know that I’ll cope with the shock.

                    • David_Evans

                      Did you read what I wrote? He’s on the Science Committee. That’s like having a really bigoted atheist on a Religious Affairs committee.

                      By the way I live in the UK. We have, so far, not many people trying to infiltrate Intelligent Design into science classes – though there are a few. And, whether as a consequence or not, I don’t know of anyone on a House of Commons science committee who is as flat-out stupid as Broun appears to be.

                      There are consequences to all this. We had a chance to avoid the worst impacts of global warming in the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The US tried to prevent the protocol being adopted, and failed to ratify it. That’s 16 years wasted, thanks to a few climate deniers like James Inhofe. Have you noticed any extreme weather events lately?

                    • tolkein

                      Oh no. We’ve got science deniers, then climate deniers, preceded by Hitler talked about Christ and a Creator. This is a conversation that’s going nowhere.

                    • David_Evans

                      It was your linking atheists to the Holocaust, the Gulag etc that set me off on the Hitler tack.

                      It was your “belief in evolution or any other scientific theory is irrelevant in the lives of pretty well everybody on this planet.” that got me thinking about climate deniers and science deniers.

                      However I agree, I don’t think this conversation is going anywhere.

                    • tolkein

                      I think you’re seeing anti-atheist barbs where they don’t exist. I was contrasting the Holocaust, Gulag, Red Terror etc with the idea that there was no Fall, and showing that actual experience shows that the Fall is existentially true.

                      One of my Directors of Studies wrote a pathbreaking book on the Eastern Front in the First World War, a short biography of Hitler and a book covering Europe since 1871, and I try to keep abreast of developments under the two monsters – Hitler and Stalin. I can’t be bothered to enter into a dialogue on Hitler and his relation with the Churches and Christianity except to say that Hitler was no atheist, but he was also deeply hostile to Christianity.

                      Talk about science deniers and climate deniers and what else deniers seems to me like modern heresy hunts.

  • GakuseiDon

    My (atheist) 19 year-old nephew recently said to me, “You can’t be a Christian and also believe in evolution”. Apparently he got this from watching Youtube videos, and not by talking to any Christians. Since the number of Christians in Australia believing in a literal Bible are fairly low, I found that interesting. The Internet has a strange proselytizing power.

    • arcseconds

      It’s pretty easy for uninformed people to default to “Christians must believe in every word in the Bible”.

      It’s made easier by vocal and visible Christians who insist the same thing, of course.

      In both cases the thinking appears to be the same. If a Christian doesn’t believe every word in the Bible, then they can believe in anything they like, which means saying one is a Christian is meaningless.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        If only such people read the Bible, where we find the earliest Christians not believing every word in the Bible. Or looked closely enough at the Bible and at the Christians who claim that “Christians must believe every word in the Bible” so as to see that those who make the claim do not do so.

        • traveler8

          Hey James. I’m not disputing, but can you give me examples of “the earliest Christians” not believing every word of the Bible? Of course, we both know that “The Bible” as we know it now did not exist in the 1st Century.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            When Paul made the case that you could be part of Abraham’s household without being circumcised, he was disagreeing with Genesis very directly. And when he claimed that sin entered the world through one human being, he was playing fast and loose with the details of the Genesis story (which has two human beings involved) in order to make a comparison between Adam and Jesus.

            But it is even easier to illustrate the early Christians’ disagreements with things that were not then in the Bible, but are now, when we look at the disagreements and divergences among the NT texts.

            Those are the sorts of things I had in mind.

            • traveler8

              Thanks, James. I agree. The huge debate about circumcision (and other Jewish practices) among Christians during the 1st Century is quite apparent in the surviving texts.

        • arcseconds

          But that would require admitting that they don’t understand Christianity, having to read Christian texts in an intelligent manner, and possibly having to talk to non-literalists Christians as though they could learn something from them!

          (also non-Christians who take this view are likely to just say that proves that Christians are hypocrites, always have been, and any form of Christianity is untenable.)

  • detroitsteve

    I was taught by nuns & they believed that evolution was the tool God’s used to create us. The Catechism explains that “Scripture presents the work of the
    Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’
    concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337), but “nothing
    exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator.

    It was Fr. Georges Lemaître (17 July 1894 – 20 June 1966) a Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain who proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe.

    Also, Gregor Johann Mendel (July 20, 1822[1] – January 6, 1884) was a German-speaking Silesian scientist and Augustinian friar who gained posthumous fame as the founder of the new science of genetics.


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