Evolution and atheism

It is commonly charged by some religious people that acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection implies acceptance of atheism. Co-discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and brought to widespread public attention with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, this theory immediately gained opposition in Europe, primarily from clergy, with the conflict showcased by the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley in 1860.

Edward J. Larson in his book The Summer of the Gods says that opposition to Darwin’s ideas arose much more slowly in the US, not reaching high levels until 1920 or so. But, as we are all aware, the controversy has proved much more durable here, evolution remaining a controversial topic long after the rest of the world has accepted it. As James Watson (co-discover of DNA) says “Today, the theory of evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.) The radical clerics of US Christianity and the Intelligent Design Creationist (IDC) forces have been trying to discredit the theory of evolution by arguing that accepting it leaves no room for belief in a creator.

Underlying this opposition seems to be distaste for the idea that humans are not special creations, distinct from other animal forms. I occasionally get comments on my postings that ask me with incredulity how I could possibly believe that I am “descended from monkeys.” I have written before about this popular misconception of evolution. The theory does not assert that we are descended from monkeys, only that we share the same ancestors. In other words, we are cousins of monkeys. I think that the people who oppose evolution find the idea of any kind of biological relationship with other animals so repulsive that they cannot get past that and see what evolution actually asserts.

Of course, this feeling of incompatibility between Christianity and evolution is not empirically confirmed because many Christians have no personal difficulties reconciling belief in god with acceptance of natural selection.

But recently I have been reading more about evolution and I am beginning to think that the radical clerics are right in a sense. A deep understanding of evolution may lead people away from god and religion, but not for the reasons that are commonly stated. The reasons I postulate have nothing to do with our relationship with monkeys or any other animals or whether god intervenes in the process of evolution, but with the underlying worldview and philosophy of natural selection.

All this may be quite familiar to others who are better educated in biology than me. But it is all new to me because my own education in Sri Lanka was quite narrowly focused so that my last biology class was in eighth grade. And even there I can’t remember doing anything interesting or even learning about evolution in any great detail. I remember breaking apart and studying the parts of flowers (I recall words like ‘stamen’ and ‘pistil’ coming onto the discussion). I remember learning about the various ways by which pollination occurred and the various kinds of root systems plants had. I also remember the obscure fact that there were two kinds of cells called ‘xylem’ and ‘phloem’ though I cannot for the life of me remember why they were important or what they did.

The final straw that made me ditch biology was when we did a dissection of a rat to see its insides. The combination of the smell of formaldehyde and seeing an animal cut open and pinned made me gag, and realized that I did not want to learn any more biology. And I didn’t, until very recently

But now I have been reading a lot about evolution (currently Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)) and am deeply impressed with the beauty and grandeur of the theory. I regret that I did not learn about it earlier but, looking on the bright side, perhaps it is only now that I am ready to appreciate the deep, and even surprising, truths that it reveals about our relationships to all the other living things.

And the truths that the theory of evolution reveal (to me at least) are that the divisions we use (religion, language, race) to separate ourselves into tribes are even less justifiable than I had earlier thought. There is a lot of surprising knowledge that flows from the idea of evolution that I think is not known to many even otherwise well-educated people.

The reason that this knowledge is dangerous for religion is that all religions depend for their justification on making the assertion, at some point, that they are somehow superior to other religions. Some people are subtle about it and keep this belief quiet, while others aggressively proclaim it to the world, causing friction. But it is always there. Once someone accepts that the differences between religions are negligible, it becomes easier to accept that all religions are false, and that therefore god does not exist too.

When we plumb the depths of evolutionary theory, it quickly becomes clear that the the last two thousand or so years of history (which is the time when the current major religions came into being) are so insignificant that it is preposterous to think that god hung around for so long before putting his stamp on events.

It is this feature of evolution, rather than a frontal assault on the role of god, that I believe subtly undermines belief in god. The next series of posts will expand on these less discussed aspects of evolution.

POST SCRIPT: Darwin the man

Robert Krulwich is an NPR reporter who does excellent stories on science. On Morning Edition on Wednesday, September 20, 2006 he had a delightful piece (you can read about it and listen to the nine-minute audio clip here) about how Darwin went about doing experiments to test various problematic aspects of his theory, such as how plants could have traveled across oceans to populate distant continents.

The substance of the report was an interview with David Quammen, the author of what seems like a fascinating new book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. They talk about “what happens when a meticulous, shy, socially conservative man comes up with a revolutionary, new, dangerous idea. Darwin gets so nervous thinking what he’s thinking, yet he is so sure that it’s a promising idea. He can’t let it out but he can’t let it go. Instead, he spends years, decades even, checking and double checking his evidence.”

They describe how “Charles Darwin and his butler dropped asparagus into a tub and how Darwin and his oldest son studied dead pigeons floating upside down in a bowl to test ideas about evolution.”

The anecdotes about Darwin the man seem to indicate that he was a great father and an all round decent human being, who treated even the insects he studied with care and concern.

One fascinating anecdote was that one of Darwin’s correspondents, who sent him a specimen of a beetle with a tiny clam attached to its leg that shed light on how clams may have ‘flown’ large distances, was the grandfather of Francis Crick, co-discover with James Watson of DNA, the mechanism that finally explained how Darwin’s theory worked.

It seems like a fascinating book and the NPR interview was excellent.


  1. says

    (Warning: wandering tangents ahead)

    I recall watching a monkey sitting serenely on a temple wall and wondering how anyone could not believe we are related. Or closer to home, one need only to look into a dog’s eyes (before he licks you on the nose) to see the connections between the species. And while this may be partially attributed to my need to anthropomorphize, the geneticists have shown this to be the case.

    Tribalism, which I know you’ve discussed before, does seem to play a foundational role in this issue. It seems to me that whenever we group ourselves into tribes based on broad (and often irrelevant) constructs such as skin color, ethnic background and/or religion we walk a moral tightrope while also creating groups that are actually chock full of internal differences.

    If for example I were able to place myself in the tribe of euro-americans that were once protestant, I’d probably find the group populated by democrats, republicans, racists, empaths, nascar fans, artists, accountants, lawyers, bus drivers, power-boaters, sailors, people with big hair, hippies, etc. Overall the commonalities are fewer than the range of differences.

    Yet people cling to such groups to solidify power. If Darwin, or the scientists of today, refute such connections, if group A isn’t imbued with divine right, then the people need not only find other ways to create a power base but also new justifications for why their power base should control someone elses.

    Perhaps that is the crux of it. If my group can gain strength and security for its members by taking advantage of another group then it will. If this can be morally justified because the other group is somehow less worthy in the eyes of god, then everyone in my group can sleep at night.

    But if my group (whether on the species level or a smaller subset) isn’t special, then all bets are off.

  2. says


    This is why evolution by natural selection is anathema to such people. It denies “specialness” not only too ethnic or religious groups bbut even t species.

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