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Philosophy of Religion

Can An Evolutionist Believe in God?

Steve Stewart-Williams says not.

Love it or hate it, few would deny that evolutionary theory is one of the most important ideas in intellectual history. Its influence within the field of biology is undeniable. Indeed, the evolutionary theorist Theodosius Dobzhansky went as far as to suggest that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. But the implications of the theory do not end there. The philosopher Daniel Dennett once described evolutionary theory as a ‘universal acid,’ the influence of which seeps out to infect every area of human thought. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the domain of religious belief. From the moment Charles Darwin unveiled the first draft of his theory, it was apparent that it encroached on territory that was traditionally the province of religion. However, although some view evolutionary theory and religious belief as incompatible, others deny that there is necessarily any contradiction. The purpose of this article is to address this question. More specifically, the article considers the compatibility of evolutionary theory with belief in God.

The Initial Impact of Evolutionary Theory

When Darwin first presented his theory of evolution for public consumption, it aroused a storm of controversy. Historians of science typically construe this as a battle between science and religion, alongside Galileo’s famous conflict with the Church. Many people viewed evolutionary theory as a fundamental challenge to Christian belief. This challenge took place on many levels. First, the theory clearly challenges a literal interpretation of the story of creation in Genesis. The dominant belief among Christians at the time was that God had created the earth and all species around 6,000 years ago and that each species was a separate and unchanging creation. In contrast, evolutionary theory required that the earth was much older than 6,000 years; according to Darwin, species had slowly evolved over many millions of years. Furthermore, the theory held that current species had evolved from earlier ones and that any two species had a common ancestor if you went back far enough. These ideas directly contradicted the theory of separate creations.

On top of this, evolutionary theory weakened one of the most intuitively compelling arguments for the existence of God: the argument from design. Theists going back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas had argued that the intricate design found in organisms was evidence of a designer, namely God. Admittedly, more than a century before Darwin, the philosopher David Hume had exposed some of the weaknesses in this argument. Even assuming that design implies a designer, noted Hume, why should we assume there was one designer and not a team, or that the designer was perfect, omnipotent, good, or even still alive? But neither Hume nor anyone else had been unable to think of a better explanation, and the design argument retained much of its force.

Darwin changed all of this. His theory of natural selection provided a naturalistic account of the origin of species – an explanation for design without a designer. The theory is surprisingly simple, at least in broad outline. It starts from the simple premise that individuals within any given population differ and some of this variation is inherited. If, relative to available variants, an inherited trait increases the likelihood that the genes helping to shape it will be passed on, those genes will tend to increase in frequency in the population. And that, in a nutshell, is it. The real power of the idea comes when it is recognised how much it can explain. According to the theory, the gradual accumulation of small but favourable changes over incomprehensibly vast stretches of time accounts both for adaptations (such as eyes and wings) and for the genesis of new species. Nowhere in the theory is there any mention of God. This raised an uncomfortable possibility: If God is not needed to explain the design in nature – which was generally considered the best evidence for a designer – maybe God does not exist at all.

Religion and Science: Non-Overlapping Domains?

All things considered, it is not surprising that many people viewed evolutionary theory as incompatible with religious belief. Nonetheless, although some Christians still reject the theory of evolution, many more have accommodated their religious beliefs to it. The core of the theory – the idea that species have changed over time and diverged from common ancestors – is only incompatible with a literal interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis. Anyone willing to accept that the Biblical stories are metaphorical could maintain that God created life through the process of evolution. Furthermore, as we shall see, there are still many mysteries that believers claim demonstrate the existence of God. In light of these considerations, it would appear that evolutionary theory does not necessarily clash with belief in God. This fits with the more general idea that science and religion are separate and non-overlapping domains, and therefore that they are not inconsistent with one another.

This is a comfortable compromise, but is it accurate? First, it should be remembered that although the domains of religion and science may overlap less today, this is partly because evolutionary theory has forced religion out of its territory. For those who accept evolution, it has necessitated a non-literal interpretation of the Biblical stories. (At any rate, it has necessitated a non-literal interpretation of those stories that clash with the theory. This is not generally extended to the entire Bible; after all, many Christians still believe that the story of Christ is literally true.) This is not to say that no one interpreted the Biblical stories metaphorically before Darwin, but just that evolutionary theory made this interpretation more urgent and more widespread. Furthermore, it is not clear that simply giving up a literal interpretation of the Bible is sufficient to reconcile the domains of religion and science.

Consider first the idea that God created life by personally guiding the process of evolution. Although this is consistent with the bare fact of evolution, it conflicts with a central tenet of the modern theory of evolution: that the design in organisms is a product of the mindless accumulation of random accidents. And not only is it inconsistent with evolutionary theory; it is problematic. Adaptations appear to be designed to enhance inclusive fitness. (This means that adaptations are designed to increase the likelihood that the genes giving rise to them will be passed on, whether these genes are housed in the individual possessing the adaptation or in close relatives.) It is curious that God has used inclusive fitness as His guiding principle, for this means that He chose to design life by a criterion that would make it perfectly explicable as the product of a mindless process of gene selection. Furthermore, all species have design flaws and imperfections, which is poor evidence for creation by a perfect Being, whether through evolution or by any other method.

The Evolutionary Problem of Evil

These difficulties can be avoided if it is assumed that God set life in motion and then just let natural selection run its course (a form of Deism). However, whether God’s involvement was direct or indirect, evolutionary theory raises another difficulty, a new variant of the age-old problem of evil. Natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process. George Williams, a prominent evolutionary biologist, has gone so far as to describe it as evil. For every successful variant, millions of organisms perish miserably. And not only is the process of selection ruthless, so too are many of its products. Selection based on inclusive fitness accounts for many unpleasant facts about nature. For example, most animals that give parental care let weak or deformed offspring die. Likewise, when a lion takes over a pride, it will often kill any cubs fathered by other males.

The apparent ‘cruelty’ of natural selection does not logically entail the non-existence of God. However, as Darwin himself noted, it is difficult to reconcile the suffering caused by natural selection with belief in an infinitely good and omnipotent Deity. If God were good, He would presumably wish to eliminate this evil, and if He were omnipotent it would be within his power to do so. Therefore, to maintain belief in God, it seems one would need to concede either that God is powerless to prevent this evil or that God is evil Himself (or at best amoral). The only other option would be to resort to a plea from ignorance, such as the claim that God moves in mysterious ways, and that what appears to us to be unnecessary suffering is in fact part of an overall plan and that plan is good. But given that such a plea could be used to explain away any possible inconsistency or awkward fact, it is far from a compelling move.

Do Other Versions of the Design Argument Escape the Reach of Evolution?

On the other hand, if clear proof for the existence of God could be provided, we might have to accept such a plea. Some have argued that such proof is available. Even if evolutionary theory relieves God of his former role of the designer of life, there are still many other facts of nature that theists argue can form the basis of a modified version of the design argument. I will name three. First, natural selection can only occur when there is something to select, and Darwin’s theory said nothing about how life began in the first place. Here, then, is one role for God. Second, although evolution may explain the existence of bodies, some argue that the human mind or consciousness is not amenable to a naturalistic explanation and must thus be attributed to God. And third, even if evolutionary theory explains some details within the universe, we have yet to explain the fact that the universe exists in the first place; and not only that, if the values of certain fundamental physical constants were varied even slightly, life (or at least life as we know it) could not have evolved. In each of these areas, the theist would argue we have a role for God that evolutionary theory cannot usurp.

If the above arguments were sound, then we may have to accept God’s existence despite any reservations raised by the evolutionary problem of evil. However, proponents of these arguments may be underestimating the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. On closer inspection, the theory challenges the need for religious explanations in each of the new territories that theists have staked out for God. First, although the exact details of the evolution of life from non-life may always remain a mystery, research in this area shows at least that there is no need to assume it was anything but a natural process. As for mind, from a materialistic Darwinian perspective, the mind is the activity of the brain and the brain is the product of selection; thus, the mind is a product of selection. Finally, some physicists are toying with the idea that Darwinian principles can account for the existence and nature of the universe. The mere fact that it is possible to concoct Darwinian explanations plausible enough to attract serious consideration undermines the idea that the existence of the universe, life, or mind implies that we must assume the existence of God. The theist must thus face the evolutionary problem of evil. This problem tips the balance toward the conclusion that evolutionary theory is inconsistent with the existence of God, and thus inconsistent with any theistic religion.

A Non-Anthropomorphic Conception of God

There is one last objection that the theist can raise at this point. So far I have assumed without comment a traditional conception of God as a personal Being – a non-physical, infinitely good, all knowing, and all-powerful Creator. Such a God is not as overtly anthropomorphic as the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece or of Hinduism – or for that matter the original God of Israel, from which this more rarefied conception has descended. Nonetheless, the traditional God possesses humanlike mental states such as knowing, can be viewed as a moral agent, and engages in activities such as creating and designing, in which humans also commonly engage (although on a much more modest scale). It is always open to the theist to object that this dated and simplistic conception does not describe the God in which they believe. Many theologians have attempted to understand God in non-anthropomorphic terms. Paul Tillich, for instance, described God as ‘being itself’ and ‘the ultimate ground of being’. Others view God as the explanation for the strange fact that there is something rather than nothing, and accept that whatever this is, it is unlikely to be anything like a person. Alternatively, it may simply be maintained that the true nature of God is beyond human ken and thus that nothing can be said about Him.

The evolutionary problem of evil is no threat to belief in a non-anthropomorphic God, for it is only if God is an omnipotent moral agent that the existence of evil is problematic. Consequently, the main implication for the religious believer here is that, just as the fact of evolution urges a non-literal interpretation of the Biblical stories, the evolutionary problem of evil urges a non-anthropomorphic conception of God. This is a very important implication, however, for there is a high price to be paid for acceptance of this conception of God. A God stripped of all humanlike traits is not a God with whom one could have a personal relationship or one that could be responsive to our prayers and wishes, and it is difficult to see that such a God could guarantee that human standards of justice will ultimately prevail in the universe. Similarly, if God is defined simply as the ground of being or the ultimate explanation for existence, we would have no reason to think that God’s existence implies that human life is privileged in the universe or ultimately meaningful, or that the universe is greater and more sacred because God exists than it would be otherwise. It seems that one could take little comfort from such a conception, and if one does take comfort from one’s conception of God, it might be asked whether one genuinely does believe in a non-anthropomorphic God as opposed to a more traditional one. Furthermore, the nonanthropomorphic conceptions of God are so far removed from the original meaning of the term that it is questionable whether it is even appropriate to use that term any longer. Bertrand Russell once pointed out that “People are more unwilling to give up the word ‘God’ than to give up the idea for which the word has hitherto stood.” Evolutionary theory may not persuade everyone to give up the word. However, to the extent that it encourages them to alter its meaning beyond recognition, it could be argued that God has nonetheless been a casualty of Darwin’s theory.


To summarise, evolutionary theory has important implications for at least two major areas of religious belief: Biblical literalism and the existence of God. In the wake of the theory, four major positions on these issues are available. On the second and the third, evolution and religion are compatible; on the first and fourth, they are not. (1) One might maintain belief in a traditional God and in Biblical literalism (the Creationist position). However, this commits one to denying even the basic fact of evolution, and such a denial is as intellectually respectable now as the view that the earth is flat. (2) If, on the other hand, one accepts a traditional God but rejects Biblical literalism, one can accept the fact of evolution. Furthermore, if one accepts that God simply set life in motion and did not personally guide the process, one can accept the modern theory of evolution. In either case, though, one must then face the evolutionary problem of evil. (3) If one rejects Biblical literalism and replaces a traditional conception of God with a non-anthropomorphic conception, one can avoid the evolutionary problem of evil. However, this reduces God to a distant and impersonal abstraction, and raises the question of whether it makes any sense to give this conception the name God. (4) A final option is to reject both Biblical literalism and belief in God in any shape or size. After Darwin, this is the least problematic option.


Steve Stewart-Williams is a Lecturer at the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand.

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