On Evolutionary Atheism

On Evolutionary Atheism July 25, 2011

by Eric Steinhart

Here’s a nice way to deny theism by offering a positive alternative:

Every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered by appealing to some form of evolution.

I doubt that any theists would agree with that statement. And it’s worth stressing that biological evolution by natural selection is only one form of evolution. Obviously, some theists believe more or less in biological evolution by natural selection. But so what. As theists, they aren’t going to believe that every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered by appealing to some form of evolution. That’s exactly the point that distinguishes evolutionary atheists from evolutionary theists.

An evolutionary atheist needs to posit all sorts of forms of evolution that are deeper than mere biological evolution. Biological evolution doesn’t answer any deeper questions about the structure or existence of the universe. It doesn’t tell you why the universe has the form that it has (why it has the laws it has, why its parameters are finely tuned in ways that allow life to emerge, etc.). And it doesn’t tell you why there is any universe at all. To answer questions about the universe, you’ll need to appeal to deeper forms of evolution. And cosmologists have discussed many deeper forms of evolution.

Evolutionary atheism is positive. It has content. It addresses the common complaint that the term atheism is highly negative. Of course, atheists do have beliefs (obviously, the belief that there is no God). But the content of that belief is negative. If you learn that somebody is an atheist, you don’t learn anything about their positive commitments. Atheism is always a derivative position. Perhaps it is derived from some positive doctrine (like materialism or Buddhism or religious naturalism or whatever). Or perhaps it is derived from mere reaction.

Some atheists may revel in being reactive and in arousing reactions – they may enjoy being provocative. I once went to an atheist meeting where everybody was mainly there just to be hostile towards religion (by which they pretty much all seemed to mean the conservative Christianity of the American religious right). I don’t see how hostility is ever helpful. I dislike hostility from atheists as much as I dislike it from religious fundamentalists. I have no interest in participating in a group whose primary purpose is the hatred of some other group. I’d prefer to build positive bridges and to expand the rational community of hope.

I suggested that atheists might better refer to themselves as “evolvers”. It’s a more positive word with genuine content. Some atheists might think this is trivial: why add another name? Who cares about mere labels? After all, look at what happened when some atheists tried to refer to themselves as “brights”. Nothing happened. Well, I’d say that’s because the term “brights” has no content whatsoever. But the term “evolvers” does. That said, I have little interest in pushing for some name. I’m advocating a proposition: every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered by appealing to some form of evolution.

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