Are Evolution and Christianity Truly Compatible?

Are Evolution and Christianity Truly Compatible? May 18, 2016

Thomas Cole, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a thread on the front page of the /r/Christianity subreddit on Reddit asking for opinions on the compatibility of evolution and religion. This is one of the main topics I’ve been working on for the past couple of years; so I thought I’d use it as an opportunity for a brief sketch of some of the ideas I’ve been toying with. (Since it was the Christianity subreddit, I obviously honed in on Christianity in particular here.)

My view here is that an honest, creative consideration of the insights and implications of evolution should strongly encourage the belief that this undermines fundamental truth-claims—perhaps even the whole epistemological superstructure—of Christianity as we know it.

This is because, above all, evolution gives us a framework¹ for understanding the fundamental processes that shaped the emergence of human consciousness and behavior—and most importantly, via these, the emergence of religion itself (and in a true sense, all religion); and it does so in a much more satisfactory way than the accounts offered about these things in traditional Christianity, and their underlying philosophy.

The things for which I think Christianity offers dubious accounts here include

  • traditional ideas about its own emergence—or the emergence of the Judaism out of which Christianity itself grew—as the product of supernatural revelation; accounts of which are at least implicitly opposed to modern historical/secular knowledge of its emergence,² which might indeed offer an alternative and decisive non-supernatural account here (which itself has recourse to evolution at several points; see bullet point #4 below, beginning “traditional Christianity doesn’t sit well…”)
  • the special creation of humans. Needless to say, included within the gamut of Christian claims of special creation is the Young Earth Creationist account in which the world and/or humanity didn’t exist before 7,000 years or so—this, of course, being manifestly false. More substantially though, there are other considerations which problematize the more universally held account of the original supernatural investment of humans with an immaterial soul (itself of obscure or dubious function)
  • the notion of a Fall from paradisaical reality shortly after this special creation

These latter two notions were obviously originally formulated with a fundamental lack of awareness of evolutionary and anthropological history; and in fact, until the first glimmers of geological and true anthropological knowledge around the 17th century, it was unanimously held by all Christians (and Jews!) on record that the world and humanity was less than 7,000 years old, and that all descended from an individual Adam corresponding to the Biblical one.³

Finally, and most importantly,

  • traditional Christianity doesn’t sit well with an advanced understanding of human cognitive processes as having emerged from the brain architecture that evolution produced⁴: including, among other things, the cognitive biases and processes of agency detection and personalization/anthropomorphization which have influenced (and continue to influence) a number of things that are foundational in a number of religions. Most obviously here we can point to religious/spiritual experience itself, but perhaps even extending here as far as to notions of religious sacrifice (cf. Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans) and afterlife, etc., too.
  • Expanding on this: most obviously, this suggests that the particular Christian account (or other religious accounts) of the divine revelation of things like this—say, the command for animal sacrifice, found in the Torah and elsewhere, ascribed to God himself—can in fact be understood as a “folk” one: what’s tantamount to a post hoc account that obscures the true origins of the impetus for sacrifice. Further, the universality of practices like animal sacrifice and other doctrines in the end suggests that no particular tradition is truly privileged in this regard—which itself obviously conflicts with traditional accounts here. 

To be sure, there’s no lack of special pleading offered for how some Christian denomination or interpretation or another this can accommodate these insights.

One of the more sophisticated strategies of accommodation with evolution might be best characterized as a teleological one. Here, it doesn’t really matter how some religion or religious doctrine emerged—even one for which there’s no obvious supernatural explanation for its emergence in history⁵—but only that it eventually did.

But this itself has intractable problems: not least of which that, if we can simply look toward whatever religious doctrines eventually (naturally) emerged as a guide to “religious truth” itself, then it’s hard to see how any religious doctrine on the planet might not have a good claim to actual truth. (For insightful criticism from another angle, see Peter van Inwagen’s essay “Explaining Belief in the Supernatural: Some Thoughts on Paul Bloom’s ‘Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident'”⁶; and see obviously the original essay to which it’s a response, too.)

Above all, though, what special pleading has trouble dealing with—what explanations that seem to transparently veer toward special pleading have trouble dealing with—is criticism. In fact, there’s a sense in which special pleading here can be characterized as the denial of the very possibility that your position can be criticized. Instead, it only asks that one be creative enough to conjure up some possible explanation, no matter how implausible, so that your position can be made viable and thus avoid having to truly confront criticism.

In a sense, explanations that tend toward special pleading are always only reactive (to criticism), and never really offer their own account.

In this particular instance, if we consider each potential version of an evolutionarily accommodationist Christianity to indeed be its own “type of Christianity,” then there could in fact be an infinite number of Christianities to be criticized here. But it’s obviously not the case that we’re unable to say that we can legitimately criticize (or even truly “debunk”) Christianity on this issue just because we haven’t debunked every ad hoc imagined Christianity.

Really, this is pretty much the same principle by which Christians still feel comfortable remaining Christians despite that Muslims are also just as capable of devising ad hoc Islams that deflect all criticisms; or Mormons capable of devising ad hoc Mormonisms, etc.

In the end, if we indeed lean toward the non-accommodation route for evolution and Christianity, enough traditional doctrines of enough major varieties of Christian belief can be legitimately criticized (or, again, overturned) to where we might fairly say “evolution and Christian belief are incompatible,” if only as convenient shorthand.

To wrap up here: when Christians say, in such an unqualified and unnuanced way, that “evolution and Christianity are totally compatible”—or more specifically evolution and Catholicism, or whatever it might be—it’s hard not to see that they don’t really say this having really worked through all the evolutionary implications I’ve hinted at here, conscious of the potential pitfalls. [Edit: clarification on this point now here.] Rather, above all, it seems that they say this as something like apologists (if only unwitting ones).

Although they might understand the idea of the theoretical possibility of evolution being a potential barrier to belief,⁷ nonetheless it remains the case that, since their primary sympathies begin with Christianity here—and, as such, they believe that their belief is warranted—then evolution necessarily is understood to be a test that Christianity must (and indeed does) pass.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] In this case a historical one; or perhaps, more accurately, an etiological one.

[2] Any number of studies have focused on the emergence of early YHWHism and monotheistic Judaism. Those of Mark S. Smith in particular are notable. Among other things, many lines of research here dispute fundamental Jewish/Biblical claims about an ideological or ontological distinction to other (geographically) proximate religions and mythologies. As for “can most easily be characterized as non-supernatural,” see my paragraph beginning “To be sure, there’s no lack of special pleading…”; and see in particular Peter van Inwagen’s and Bloom’s essays that I mention.

[3] I mention this mainly to emphasize that this was indeed the traditional account. As for the issue of the relationship between traditional interpretations and some of the more “revised” or newer ones, see my paragraph beginning “In this particular instance, if we consider each proposed version of an (evolutionarily) accommodationist Christianity…”

[4] I obviously only use this sort of personifying language for the sake of brevity. 

[5] Thus for the most part (or completely), one can accept the standard evolutionary explanations.

[6] See especially the section beginning

Any naturalistic explanation of any phenomenon can be incorporated without logical contradiction into a ‘larger’, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation of that phenomenon. (134)

[7] That its insights yield legitimate criticism of Christianity.

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