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Does evolution justify unbelief?

commons.wikimedia.org, Anna Frodesiakcorrosive-idea
Evolution is a corrosive idea that often causes people to deny or distort God and the Gospel.

David from the United States writes:

Hello CMI, I always try to make the point to theistic evolutionists that evolution justifies unbelief, and unbelief in turn provides the incentive to do evil. The theistic evolutionists that I deal with always deny that there is any real connection here. What is the best way to argue the above point with theistic evolutionists? Thanks. Any help would be useful.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear David,

Thanks for writing in.

For them, to accept your chain of reasoning they would have to abandon theistic evolution. After all, they’re convinced that both theism and evolution are true. So, from their standpoint there must be something wrong with your reasoning, whether they think they can identify it or not. But also, as you’ve summarized it here, it wouldn’t be hard for the theistic evolutionist to make a cogent objection: you haven’t shown that evolution justifies unbelief.

So, you need to provide some justification for that claim. How to do that? There are a couple of ways. The simplest is to aim to show that the Bible conflicts with evolution (see Perils of Theistic Evolution and our resource Evolution and the Christian Faith). Typically, theistic evolutionists profess to be Bible-believing Christians. If you can show that the Bible conflicts with evolution, then they have to drop one or the other. But you should also remind them that since a good historical case be made for Jesus’ deity and resurrection (Jesus Christ Questions and Answers), and that Christ assumed and taught that the Bible has the authority to bind us to believe what it teaches (Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture), evolution is fatally undercut. After considering this, they may still have a lot of work to do in terms of reinterpreting the science relevant to evolution. But that is a small price to pay for maintaining faith in Christ.

Second, I think it can be shown that evolution undermines faith in God more broadly. Consider this question: do God and evolution conflict with each other? People regularly ask that question. It seems intuitive to ask it. Now, I don’t think there’s any strictly logical conflict between theism and evolution (i.e. I don’t think evolution conflicts with any essential attribute of God; this is different from saying evolution conflicts with the Bible). But it’s broadly recognized as an intuitive question to ask.1 Why? There’s no clear purpose in evolutionary history. If people think it’s there, it’s generally not because evolution generates that view. Rather, the standard understanding of evolution is that all organisms are just the product of natural processes doing their thing—like how wind and water erode a cliff face. There’s no apparent transcendent purpose to such things. So, we’re naturally left asking: how do we reconcile an apparently purposeless process to the existence of a God of purpose?

However, how many people ask: do standard Western non-theisms (e.g. atheism and agnosticism) conflict with evolution? Few people ask that.2 Why? If some sort of modern Western non-theism is true, life arose through naturalistic abiogenesis and evolution (or a series of designers, the first of which arose through natural processes). At least, that’s the only story that comports with most forms of atheism and unbelief in the modern West. Here, the apparent purposelessness of evolutionary history gels well with atheism and the prevailing forms of modern Western unbelief. It seems to be a corollary of such perspectives.

Why? The broad acceptance of evolution produced a major change in the way the West organized its knowledge.3 Before Darwin’s ideas took over the Western academy, God was the centralizing notion by which we organized our knowledge. And the one clear justification for this from nature was biology, which was understood as a miracle in general revelation. We typically associate miracles with special revelation, but it’s not that clear cut. The temple system in the Old Testament was a case of special revelation mediated through ordinary providential means. So, special revelation consists of both miracles (e.g. the Exodus and Jesus’ resurrection) and ordinary providence. Therefore, it makes sense that general revelation would have a balance of the two as well. But what role might miracles play in general revelation? I’ve suggested this before (Different understandings of origins?):

… it would provide concrete evidence that nature is not self-sufficient. If certain types of things within nature can’t spontaneously arise from within nature just from the right circumstances and enough time, then clearly we can’t explain everything within nature simply by appealing to nature. It shows that nature is not self-sufficient.

However, when evolution was accepted as a naturalistic explanation for the origin and history of life and its diversity, life was no longer seen as a miracle. The clearest sign in creation that nature is not self-sufficient was undermined. As such, two things happened. We began organizing our knowledge around a different principle: natural causes (more specifically, methodological naturalism). After all, with biology explained naturalistically, it seems like anything in nature can be explained naturalistically. But, secondly, that led many to question whether nature itself needs a supernatural explanation. If everything within nature can be explained naturalistically, why must there be an explanation for nature itself outside of nature? Various cosmological arguments can be advanced against such thinking. But with the change evolution brought about in how the West organized its knowledge, the culture became much more suspicious of explanatory appeals to anything outside nature. As such, even cosmological arguments have a much harder time convincing people than they otherwise would.

Evolution was the game-changer in all this. And that doesn’t seem like a mere historical accident. Like I said, the clearest sign of God ‘stepping into history’ in general revelation is biology. As such, biology is always the clearest sign that nature is not self-sufficient. So, wherever evolution convinces a culture, belief in God is almost bound to wane to some extent.

But evolution doesn’t merely justify unbelief. It also justifies radical theological revision. God as Creator and God as Designer are very closely linked concepts, since both concern the notion of personal causal responsibility for a purpose. Indeed, design arguments for biology were the rational/empirical justifications for believing in special creation—the miraculous de novo creation of different types of things within the cosmos. However, evolution says that life and its diversity were produced by natural causes and not design. Evolution is a theory designed to rule out design.4 And theistic evolutionists implicitly acknowledge this by arguing against any notion of direct intelligent agency playing a part in the history of life. Indeed, many even appeal to methodological naturalism to rule out intelligent design apart from any consideration of the empirical evidence (Methodological naturalism—final arbiter of science?). As a result, special creation must be rejected. But also, the very notion of ‘creation’ has to be modified substantively away from everyday notions of ‘creation’. For instance, theistic evolutionist Robert Bishop likens ‘creation’ in a theistic evolutionary context to a slow process like sanctification.5 However, that is not how God’s creative activity is described in Scripture. It is described as a miraculous demonstration of power. It happens fast and creates massive change beyond the regularities of the world we observe every day. The primary analogy for it in the New Testament is not sanctification—it is Jesus’ resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:38–44). Bishop is forced to map ‘creation’ to a slow process because evolution is a slow, naturalistic process. But, more radical than Bishop, some theistic evolutionists feel pushed to affirm ideas like open theism, process theism, and panentheism because they refuse to modify their understanding of evolution to accommodate their theology. That tells you what their true epistemic authority is; and it isn’t anything Scriptural, religious, or non-scientific.

I imagine some would push back on this, since I admitted that evolution doesn’t logically contradict the essential attributes of God (in the ‘perfect being theology’ tradition). And of course many theistic evolutionists remain committed to traditional perfect being theology. But that doesn’t show that perfect being theology gels well with evolution. The point is that evolution undercuts belief in the traditional God sufficiently to make such radical theological revisions seem more plausible and appealing, regardless of how well they fit to prior religious commitments.

Evolution inspires heresy and apostasy in a way few ideas do because of how it so powerfully centralizes naturalistic thinking. When naturalistic thinking has a place of prominence in what we judge to be rational, good theology is much easier to distort or discard because theological thought as a whole just seems fuzzier and easier to doubt than evolution does. We tend to shape our less secure truth commitments to fit with our more secure truth commitments. If evolution is more secure than theism in one’s mind, theism is shaped to evolution, and not the other way round. But evolution conflicts with Scripture and even causes tension with the very notion of God, relative to skeptical perspectives on offer in our culture. Since this is how evolution has often framed the theological discussion, it’s no surprise that so much heresy and apostasy has happened in its wake.

So, the key here is that your friend needs to stop looking for ways to make God and the Bible compatible with evolution. Instead, he should start assessing the real effects evolution has had on the Western church right up to the present (Why evolution hurts the church). It has been nothing short of catastrophic. Generation after generation since Darwin has seen a progressive side-lining of the church in the West, and an inability for us to regain any significant ground. Is this an idea worth incorporating into our theology?

Perhaps we should frame the discussion differently, in light of the Scriptural foundation that God created a functional world. Arguments can be launched for cosmic fine-tuning as well as biological fine-tuning to defend the rationality, and even superiority, of such a perspective. Moreover, the notion of the world as functionally fine-tuned provides a rubric in which to expect constancy in nature in a way that still allows for empirical evidence of ‘singularities’ to point to special divine action, e.g. the origin of life and Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a more generous assumption, one that forces evolution to defend itself against the Scriptural and empirical considerations that seem to count against it, rather than letting evolution frame the discussion of how we do theology. It may even lead to ways to incorporate the evidence typically adduced for evolution into a biblical framework.6

Kind regards,
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

Published: 8 June 2023

References and notes

  1. Barnes, M.E., Dunlop, H.M., Sinatra, G.M., Hendrix, T.M., Zheng, Y., and Brownell, S.E., “Accepting Evolution Means You Can’t Believe in God”: Atheistic Perceptions of Evolution among College Biology Students, CBE—Life Sciences Education 19(2) | doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-05-0106, June 2020. Return to text.
  2. Some have asked whether naturalism and evolution can together be rationally accepted as true. And a decent case can be made for this idea. However, there are plenty of skeptical options that remain methodologically naturalistic and committed to evolution without embracing metaphysical naturalism. Plus, even if naturalism and evolution cannot together be rationally accepted, that doesn’t tell us that they are false. It just tells us that we can’t know them to be true. Return to text.
  3. Gordon, B., Constrained integration view; in: Copan, P. and Reese, C.L. (Eds.), Three Views on Christianity and Science, Zondervan Academic, Kindle Edition, p. 144, 2021. Return to text.
  4. Hunter, C., Does Darwinism make theological assumptions? in: Dembski, W.A.; Luskin, C., and Holden, J.M. (Eds.), The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos, Harvest House Publishers, Kindle Edition, pp. 379–388, 2021. Return to text.
  5. Bishop, R.C., Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science, biologos.org/articles/recovering-the-doctrine-of-creation-a-theological-view-of-science#gods-slow-patient-creation, 31 January 2011. Return to text.
  6. For a ‘functional fine-tuning’ alternative to evolutionary interpretations of patterns of similarity, see Ewert, W. The dependency graph of life, BIO-Complexity 3:1–27, 2018 | doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2018.3. Return to text.