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Introduction to Section Two: Evil and Evolution (2007)

Paul Draper


Do the claims of evolutionary biology conflict with theistic religion? According to one very popular view about the relationship of science to religion, they cannot or at least should not because the proper relationship of science to religion is one of isolation. On this view, science and religion never conflict so long as each is properly conducted.[1]

Arguments in support of this view are diverse, but they all involve an attempt to carve out separate domains for science and religion within which each has authority. For example, according to the well-known geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, "Science and religion deal with different aspects of existence. If one dares to overschematize for the sake of clarity, one may say that these are the aspect of fact and the aspect of meaning." Of course, this raises the question of the meaning of "meaning."[2] Mary Midgley, interpreting Dobzhansky, associates it with the way in which facts connect to form "world pictures."[3] Stephen Jay Gould, an advocate of the isolation view, narrows Dobzhansky's "aspect of fact" to facts about "the empirical constitution of the universe" and includes "ethical values" in the domain of religion (2001, 500).[4] Others who would want to explicitly allow for theological facts recognize the expertise of scientists on factual questions concerning the natural world while deferring to theologians on factual questions concerning God or the supernatural.

None of these suggestions, however, successfully drives an absolute wedge between science and theology. World pictures will inevitably influence what one takes the facts to be. Values, even if they cannot simply be "read off" nature, nevertheless depend on natural facts. And by definition a supernatural and theistic God can and does affect nature.[5]

Another position on the relationship of evolution to theistic religion is that the two are in some fairly straightforward way logically incompatible. This view, however, seems just as problematic as the isolation view. Although certain theistic creation stories, if taken literally, are logically incompatible with the claims of evolutionary biology, I know of no good religious or other reason why theists should take those stories literally, and many theists, including theists like St. Augustine who lived long before Darwin, don't take them literally. Indeed, many of Darwin's earliest and strongest supporters were clergy and many of his initial opponents were members of the scientific establishment. So the whole idea that the Victorian dispute over Darwin's theory was a battle between science and religion appears to be a sort of secular myth that should also not be taken literally.

So what, then, is the relationship between evolutionary biology and theism? In the second section of this e-book, two very different views are defended. Following a suggestion by Darwin, I argue that evolutionary biology makes the argument from evil against theism stronger by providing explanations of certain facts about good and evil that work very well on the assumption that naturalism is true but not on the assumption that theism is true. Alvin Plantinga, also following a suggestion by Darwin, claims that it is naturalism--not theism--that conflicts with evolution. He argues that naturalists have a problem, not because they believe in evolution--as suggested above, many theists also believe in evolution--but because they believe in blind evolution, in evolution that occurs without any prior supernatural planning or concurrent supernatural guidance. According to Plantinga, blind evolution is not likely to lead to reliable cognitive faculties, which means that naturalists who recognize this cannot rationally trust those faculties, and so cannot rationally believe anything at all, including naturalism itself. Plantinga's recommendation to such naturalists would be to reject, not evolution, but naturalism, replacing it with theism.

Proceed to the Debate

Table of Contents


[1] Cf. Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 13. Midgely does not defend the isolation view.

[2] The Biology of Ultimate Concern (London: Fontana, 1971), p. 96.

[3] Midgely, pp. 13-14.

[4] "Two Separate Domains," in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 2nd edition, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 500.

[5] This is not to say that no conception of religion or science effectively isolates the two activities. For example, if Paul Tillich is right that God is not a supreme being or any other kind of being (and so is not limited by the condition of existence!) but rather is being-itself, then he may also be right that science can neither confirm nor disconfirm "the truth of faith" because "scientific truth and the truth of faith do not belong to the same dimension of meaning" (Dynamics of Faith [New York: Harper & Row, 1957], p. 81). But others will insist that Tillich distorts religion or that he takes the idea of God's transcendence to an absurd extreme. Another way to isolate both science and religion is to defend an extreme anti-realist position about science. Most scientists and many others will, however, reject such a portrayal of science, and most religious believers will see a wolf in sheep's clothing if such a portrayal implies an equally extreme antirealist position about theology.

Copyright ©2007 Paul Draper. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Paul Draper. All rights reserved.