By David MacMillan.
7. The religion of evolution.
The final set of creationist misconceptions about evolution surrounds its supposed religious, moral, and ethical implications. These objections prove difficult to address, simply because they have little or no objective basis and are almost purely philosophical or religious. This section will concentrate mostly on explaining the relationships and connections between these arguments, as systematically refuting them would delve deep into philosophy and theology and is far beyond the scope of a single post.
Many creationists assume as self-evident that evolution precludes the existence of God, not because of any qualities intrinsic to evolution, but because their concept of God is dependent on creationism. Officially, creationists usually teach that the Bible is our only infallible revelation of God’s existence, but in practice the “fact” of special creation is treated as a primary basis for belief in God. The “testimony of nature” is implicitly held up as proof of God’s existence. Every time a particular piece of purportedly creationist evidence is described, the underlying implication is that God’s existence depends on six-day special creation. Thus, to even propose that evolution could be true is automatically a “challenge to the evidence” for God’s existence.
The assumption that “evolutionism” and “secular science” denies God’s existence applies not only to the suggestions that evolution might be possible, but more generally to any challenge to creationist arguments. While some creationists take pains to discard the more outlandish arguments, others will fiercely defend obsolete and ridiculous theories simply because of their perceived apologetics value. This stubbornness is the source of animosity and division between the various creationist movements; each group points to “concessions” and “compromises” the other groups make, because any compromise is considered a tacit admission that maybe the evidence for God isn’t quite as strong as it would otherwise be. Such arguments are all God-of-the-gaps arguments, of course, but this fact goes unnoticed.
Creationists often make this argument more explicit by quoting Romans 1:20, the atheism/agnosticism clobber text:
…since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that [men] are without excuse.
To a creationist, this verse means that the testimony of nature is sufficient to establish God’s existence, God’s attributes, and God’s nature even without revelation. Thus, it is claimed, atheists and agnostics have no excuse for unbelief. Embarrassingly, I once hosted a (short-lived) Internet radio show called “Without Excuse” predicated on this idea.
Creationists believe that if common descent is even a remote possibility, then God’s existence is no longer demonstrated by nature. Even the discussion of whether evolution is possible challenges their “testimony of nature”, so it challenges their certainty about the existence of God.
Certainty is a major theme in much creationist theology. A false dichotomy is set up: either you are absolutely certain about God and the Bible and the gospel, or you are doomed to wallow in doubt and probably end up lost. This dichotomy combines personal pride with fear of the unknown. Creationists will typically admit doubt about their own salvation long before they will dream of admitting doubt about special creation. Because their narrative of absolute certainty is something science obviously doesn’t offer (science embraces and depends on doubt and questions), they must preserve it at all costs.
If a person’s primary reason for believing in God is special creation, then it is a tenuous faith at best. The majority of Christians accept that God could have used common descent to bring about life on Earth without any hazard to their faith. More importantly, Romans 1:20 is not a polemic against atheism at all; it is rather a polemic against Roman idol-worship. Reading on in the chapter:
Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. [Romans 1:22-23]
Modern atheistic humanism obviously did not exist in Rome, and this passage did not, in fact, address atheism. It was warning against something else entirely: using the natural world as a basis for religion, making gods patterned on men and birds and animals. Worshiping these sorts of gods, argued the author, effectively replaces the Creator with the creation, reversing the proper order of things. In spreading out of Judea and into Rome, fledgling Christianity sought to overcome the perception that Jesus was nothing more than another regional deity. So they preached a Creator God who was not known based on imagery taken from creation, as with the many gods worshiped in Rome, but through the revelation they had received from Jesus.
Ironically, creationists who define their God’s existence as dependent on the doctrine of special creation are tying their theology to their perceptions of nature, committing the very mistake this passage warns against. Of course, they won’t recognize this irony. They’ll insist that merely admitting the possibility of evolution goes against the Bible. In pursuit of further confirmation of this prejudice, they dream up moral problems with evolution and common descent.
One objection to the idea of God’s using evolution is that it would somehow be inconsistent with God’s nature to use any process depending on “chance”. As we’ve already seen, this objection depends on misconceptions about evolution being a “chance” process. Creationists suppose that “natural processes” are random and chaotic, and are thus somehow “beneath” the ways of a God who they argue must order everything perfectly.
A more common, strident objection is that God would not use death or suffering as part of his creative process, therefore excluding evolution. To propose evolution as a possibility is to associate death and suffering with God’s intent for the world, something young-earth creationists argue should be immediately rejected. This view may seem incongruous; after all, creationists have no difficulty believing that God sent a global flood to wipe out nearly every living thing on the planet. But the objection to the process of evolution should be understood as coming from a particular theological doctrine, not a generalized opposition to struggle and suffering. These creationists believe (based on Genesis 1:31 and Romans 5, along with other passages) that physical death could not have existed during the six days during which God completed the creation of the world. Obviously, this objection begs the question whether the six days are literal days: theistic evolutionists already see the six-day creation week as metaphorical.
Moreover, even in periods of church history where a six-day creation week was universally considered historical, the theological significance of Genesis was still primarily spiritual. The assignment of physical theological significance to creation, the fall, the flood, and so forth – the idea that death itself is a physical abnormality resulting directly from a single physical human action in history – is only a very recent and very sectarian doctrine. The Church has historically interpreted the Curse and Original Sin in many different ways, only a handful of which bear any resemblance at all to the YEC dogma.
Insistence on specific physical events as necessary for spiritual or theological models is rampant throughout evangelicalism. Some denominations insist on various spiritual signs like healings or speaking in tongues. Others attach vital significance to the event of baptism or to the verbalization of a particular prayer. Virtually all evangelical denominations insist that the Crucifixion achieved its purpose by meeting some predetermined set of physical conditions for sacrifices.
This practice of assigning essential spiritual significance to particular physical events has been around for a long time. It is the basic pattern of religion: making certain rituals and events and beliefs necessary components of salvation offers a more tangible object of faith, strengthening religious fervor. In the case of creationism, faith in the “scientific evidence” of a young planet and a global flood bolsters faith in the doctrines supposedly defined by those events. Of course, this practice inevitably backfires; when the faithful realize that the “science” is a con, they lose their sole basis for belief in the doctrines and jump ship. Rather than recognizing that they are responsible for creating this problem, creationists and other evangelicals take offense at the doubt and start insisting all the more strongly on the very arguments that are disillusioning their followers.
Additional objections remain. Creationists may argue that without God, we have no reason to trust logic or science. Of course, this claim begs the question as well, as it presupposes that God is the source of logic. And since evolution is not intrinsically atheistic, it’s not really relevant; the antagonism comes from the creationist theology. Finally, we don’t use logic because we have faith that it’s true; we use logic because it provides useful results.
Often, scientists suggest evolutionary explanations for the genesis of certain behaviors or traits. Some creationists erroneously assume that, in consequence, evolution can be used to justify any sort of behavior. This, too, comes from their theology; they believe that all sin and death and suffering arise from a series of physical events in history - the Fall - so they naturally assume that an evolutionary history would give rise to an evolutionary morality. On the contrary, derivations of morality from evolutionary history are idiosyncratic; evolution is a description of what happens, not what ought to happen. Supposed “evolutionary morality” comes from the application of an essentialist philosophy, not from the study of natural history itself.
The final area of philosophical objection to evolution deals with the supposed implications of natural selection: that it supposedly demands “survival of the fittest” and thus leads people to commit selfish or immoral acts. Similarly, other creationists allege that the idea of higher or lower animals will prompt racism or lead us to treat other people “like animals”. Yet this accusation only goes back to the creationist mindset that historical events dictate present moral imperatives - a view which is specific to that particular Christian group. Likewise, there are no higher or lower animals in properly understood evolutionary theory; all extant species are equally modern because they have all adapted to their present modern environments. The notion of treating people differently because they are related to animals comes not from evolutionary ideas, but from the creationist belief that animals and humans are separated by essential physical differences, humans being in the “image of God”. Creationist moral frameworks are so ingrained that they end up being applied illegitimately to the evolutionary model. Such essentialist philosophies are the reason things like eugenics were taught and believed: eugenics originated with the idea that, because survival of the fittest got us here, we ought to continue the process and cull out the weak. Creationists suppose that such ideas are somehow intrinsic to evolutionary theory, when in fact they require broad philosophical leaps that in no way derive from evolution itself.
All of these religious and ethical objections are, of course, problematic at the outset. Even if they were accurate (and they aren’t), they wouldn’t change the truth value of evolutionary theory. They are examples of argumentum ad consequentiam, a logical fallacy in which a proposition is deemed true or false because of its purported implications. Creationists suppose that evolution is accepted because of its philosophical implications and argue against it on the basis that it has immoral implications, but neither of those things are true. Evolution is accepted because it accurately describes reality. No more, no less.