The corrosive effect of Darwin

In his 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel C. Dennett invoked a metaphor that I have found quite helpful. He said that the idea of evolution by natural selection is like a ‘universal acid’, something that cannot be contained in any vessel because it eats through everything. It is so potent and corrosive that once created it cannot be contained or restricted in any way but breaks through all barriers until it reaches into every space. Once you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection as applying in any area of life, there is no way to prevent it being used to explain every aspect of life.

People have attempted to limit the spread of this completely naturalistic explanation’s applications, suggesting for example that it might apply to all systems except human beings who were created by their god. But it turns out to be tough to draw the line between humans and other living things and the acid broke through. They then attempted to hold the line at morality but the acid broke through again. The last frontier is that of consciousness in general, that there is something about our sense of self-awareness and free will that transcends the workings of the material brain. But that too is a hard sell. Once you accept that humans are the product of evolution, why should the brain and all its activities not be part of that process?

It turns out that religious people also find Darwinian evolution a big stumbling block. I found a report on the results of a survey conducted by the Discovery Institute, the headquarters of the intelligent design movement, that pretty much confirmed the idea of evolution being a universal acid. It is titled Darwin’s Corrosive Idea by John West and you can download a pdf of the full report here.

The report explains why the survey was done.

In order to gain insights into the impact of specific scientific ideas on popular beliefs about God and ethics, Discovery Institute conducted a nationwide survey of a representative sample of 3,664 American adults. The survey asked questions about various scientific ideas and their impact on a person’s personal beliefs about God, human uniqueness, and ethics. Because one of the main survey goals was to ascertain the impact of evolutionary ideas on those who have lost their religious faith, the survey sample included 1,146 self-identified atheists and agnostics. Key findings of the survey include:

  • 67% of atheists and 35% of agnostics believe “the findings of science make the existence of God less probable.”

  • Nearly 7 in 10 atheists and more than 4 in 10 agnostics say that for them personally, unguided chemical evolution and Darwin’s mutation/natural selection mechanism have made the existence of God “less likely.”
  • More than 7 in 10 atheists and nearly 4 in 10 agnostics agree with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
  • By contrast, 6 in 10 theists and more than 2 in 10 agnostics say the existence in nature of “many things that are exquisitely designed and highly complex” has made the existence of God “more likely” for them personally.
  • 45% of Americans as a whole, 69% of atheists, and 60% of agnostics agree that “evolution shows that human beings are not fundamentally different from other animals.”
  • 55% of Americans as a whole, 71% of atheists, and 68% of agnostics agree that “evolution shows that moral beliefs evolve over time based on their survival value in various times and places.”

Here are graphs of their main findings.

The survey also finds that evolution undermines belief in the uniqueness of human beings among all species.

According to this survey, 43% of Americans agree that “evolution shows that no living thing is more important than any other,” and 45% of Americans believe that “evolution shows that human beings are not fundamentally different from other animals.”

A majority of Americans (55%) now believe that “evolution shows that moral beliefs evolve over time based on their survival value in various times and places.” About 7 in 10 (71%) of self-described atheists embrace this idea, as do 68% of self-described agnostics, 58% of 18-29 year-olds and those over 60, 58% of those who live in the Mid-Atlantic region, and 57% of those who live in the Pacific region.

As the report concludes:

Overall, this survey provides evidence that unguided chemical evolution and the Darwinian
mutation/selection mechanism are the most significant drivers of science-related erosion in faith in God, whereas complex design in nature is the most significant driver of science-related support for God’s existence.

On the other side, the survey finds that theists and agnostics say that the things that make them more likely to believe in a god is the complexity of life and the fine-tuning of the universe, the ideas that the ID movement pushes.

Many people who have not been closely following the nuances within creationism may think that the intelligent design believers, since they are not Young Earth Creationists, are just one branch of those who call themselves ‘theistic evolutionists’, that tries to preserve a role for god while accepting evolution. But actually they are antagonistic factions, with the ID people seeing theistic evolutionists as wimpy appeasers of evolution. David Klinghoffer, one of the chief advocates still pushing intelligent design at the Discovery Institute, wrote an article about one biologist Stephen Matheson as an example of the danger posed by those who called themselves ‘theistic evolutionists’.

Formerly a professor at an Evangelical Christian school, Calvin College, Matheson is still listed as a Blog Author at the theistic evolutionary website BioLogos, where it notes that he enjoys “explor[ing] issues of science and Christian faith.”

Well, his theistic evolutionary explorations have now terminated. As he reports on his personal blog page, where he took a hiatus of more than five years along with a break from his teaching, he is “happily” no longer a Christian.

We know other cases of theistic evolutionists whose journeys veered from their own faiths.

[T]heistic evolutionists with any sensitivity must be aware of the corrosive nature of the idea they champion. Some will say that the strange posture of theistic evolution has to do with the recognition that, for many individuals, it serves as a resting place on the way from faith to loss of faith. It appears to have been that, in any event, for Steve Matheson.

Williams Jennings Bryan, the famous protagonist in the Scopes Monkey Trial, warned that this would happen. He said back then, “If Darwinism could make an agnostic of Darwin, what is its effect likely to be upon students to whom Darwinism is taught at the very age when they are throwing off parental authority and becoming independent? Darwin’s guess gives the student an excuse for rejecting the authority of God, an excuse that appeals to him more strongly at this age than at any other stage in life.” He also saw evolution as a slippery slope, saying “Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism.”

Although he was portrayed as a bit of a buffoon in the film Inherit the Wind, Bryan was no fool.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    67% of atheists and 35% of agnostics believe “the findings of science make the existence of God less probable.”

    Eh. The probability of God’s existence has not changed any due to the findings of science. Rather, the probability appears lower the more one knows about he true nature of the universe, and science has made us more fully aware of that nature.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    … has made the existence of God “more likely” for them personally.

    Here it is again; either God exists or not, for everyone. The probability that He exists for one person is no different than the probability that he exists for everyone. It is only awareness of the available evidence that makes people estimate the probability differently.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Reginald Selkirk in #1
    Some people use the word “probability” to describe “epistemic probability (ala Bayesian epistemology)”. In that sense, “probability” is a description of one’s own personal internal estimate of the likelihood of the truth of some proposition, e.g. the gambling odds that one would take w.r.t. the truth of the proposition.

  4. Jenora Feuer says

    And as others have pointed out in the past, much of that corrosion is the fault of the people on the anti-evolution side who claim that one can’t ‘believe in’ evolution and still be a True Christian, and who raise their children in that extremely brittle faith, and who then seem surprised that significant numbers of their children leave the faith after discovering that their parents and pastors lied to them.

  5. mnb0 says

    Meh. The USA is not the entire world, so it’s a rather poor confirmation. Take this:

    Abraham Kuyper, an important Dutch calvinist leader, wrote this more than 100 years ago. It took the Dutch many decades to secularize and Darwin had little or nothing to do with it. Anyone who wants to learn more about how Dutch believers dealt with Darwin could read this:

    The corrosive effect of Darwin is not a global thing.

  6. Chiroptera says

    Jenora Feuer, #4: And as others have pointed out in the past, much of that corrosion is the fault of the people on the anti-evolution side who claim that one can’t ‘believe in’ evolution and still be a True Christian….

    That was my personal experience. Accepting the theory of evolution was the “last straw” that broke my faith and caused me to become an atheist. Not the “mindless molecules” argument, but the idea that it wasn’t possible to be a Christian without also believing that the Bible is inerrant. Then when I finally realized that Genesis simply wasn’t literal, the “bedrock” of my faith crumbled.

  7. Chiroptera says

    Survey quoted in the OP: 67% of atheists and 35% of agnostics believe “the findings of science make the existence of God less probable.”

    Ironically, though, I don’t find evolution all that troubling theologically. The main scientific discovery that I find compelling against the existence of the Christian god is the fact that the size of the universe is so vast and…so empty, with so much empty space between the stars and planets (and even more between the galaxies), with the earth a not even all that noticeable tiny nothing in that vastness. Kind of makes it hard to believe that humans could be the center of God’s attention.

    I may have taunted a creationist once: if you really want to bring me back to Jesus, then you’re wasting your time trying to convince me that biology and geology are wrong and the earth is less than 1000 years old. Even if you could do that, it wouldn’t really affect my lack of belief in God that much.

    What you really need to do is convince me that geography and astronomy are all wrong: convince me that the earth is a flat disk covered by a solid dome. That would cause me to do some thinkin’!

  8. Mano Singham says


    Your reason resonates with me too. I gave up on god when the sheer vastness of the universe and the fact that we have looked so far into it seemed to rule out any kind of existence of any deity. This was before I started looking more closely into evolution.

  9. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Chiroptera and Mano.
    Odd. I’m pretty sure I’m different. Different is ok.

    I’m not sure when I started recognizing my atheism / becoming an atheist -- I was never a strong religious believer -- but I think that what definitely convinced me was disproofs of common human religions, and evolution to remove that last line of intelligent design creationism argument, and especially arguments concerning mind and compatibilism.

    Modern advances in neuroscience show quite convincingly that the mind is a result of the material processes of the brain, and also that the mind will end when the brain functioning ends, and therefore there are no immaterial souls. Also, logical and philosophical arguments for compatibilism and against libertarian free will were hugely influential on me. It was a huge blow to supernaturalism and dualism for me when I realized that libertarian free will was a logically incoherent concept, and any free will that we do have must be according to compatibilism, and this must be true even if we had immaterial immortal souls. Then, throw on the fact that in the entire history of science, not a single supernatural hypothesis was ever confirmed, and many were shown to be false, and then dualism and supernaturalism were defeated (in my perspective), and therefore I became a materialist, which is the basis of my positive belief and affirmation that I know that there are no gods.

  10. lanir says

    Odd. My road to atheism started in a third grade religion class when they insisted that the christian deity had no beginning and had always existed. I suppose I was meant to just nod and accept that but I tried to visualize it. A deity existing for some interminable time before anything else did, then changing their mind and making things. None of that made sense to me. Why did it change it’s mind? Where was it when there was nowhere to be?

    I made up my own creation story then: a bearded man in a bathrobe pops into existence and is disturbed to notice he is falling so he makes a world to land on (then cue the making of things). It made more sense than Genesis but of course introduced a new problem: What changed to make him pop into existence?

    Being educated about faith and having it’s awkward impossibilities formally presented to me is what killed my belief. I tried wicca after christianity seemed a lost cause but even though that’s a much less unwieldy system (it was created in more modern times: for example, compare spellcasting to prayer as a psychological device), I didn’t have any uncritical belief left to invest in it.

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