Are religion and evolution necessarily incompatible?


In my post on the short BBC true-false quiz on popular misconceptions about evolution, I mentioned that I had got just the last question wrong and knew I would get it marked wrong as I answered it. Reader deepak shetty asked me to explain why I had answered the way I did and here is a belated response.

The question was: “Evolution and religion are not necessarily incompatible. True or false?”

I had answered ‘false’ but the ‘right’ answer according to the quiz compilers was ‘true’ and they gave the following elaboration of their answer.

Evolution is not about the origins of life, but how animals and plants change over time. People of some – but not all – different faiths and levels of scientific training see no contradiction between science and religion.

One problem with this answer is that the fact that people of “different faiths and levels of scientific training see no contradiction between science and religion” is not really an argument at all since it is not at all unusual for people to be able to hold two incompatible beliefs at the same time. People do it all the time and that is not a sign that the two beliefs are compatible.

The larger problem is that this was not really a question about misconceptions about evolution but about how evolution fits into larger belief structures.

One key issue is that the word ‘necessarily’ suggests that there are things that are intrinsic to both religion and evolution that preclude any possibility of compatibility. Many readers argued that because both ‘evolution’ and ‘religion’ are ill-defined umbrella terms that can cover a range of views, with the range of ‘religion’ being especially huge, that one can justify either answer by picking the appropriate definitions.

I answered ‘false’ because I felt that a fundamental distinction between the two is that evolution is not teleological (i.e. guided or goal-directed in any way) while all religions are teleological to some extent.

As I understand evolution, the process is perfectly natural and is contingency-driven in that how organisms evolved depended on random factors and that if we could run the clock again from the beginning of the Earth, we would end up with a different spectrum of organisms, though there might be some similarities in features with what we now have. There is nothing special about any organism, including humans, that would guarantee their appearance every time.

Religions on the other hand see some kind of purpose in the universe to various degrees. Some want human beings to occupy a special place in life and thus were always destined to appear, which requires a heavy guiding hand in the evolutionary process. Others are not as demanding and might allow for the possibility of humans not appearing but still do not want the universe to be entirely without any objective meaning and thus require at least some level of externally imposed direction, however minimal.

It is possible to postulate that an unknown prime mover created the universe with all its constituents and laws as some kind of experiment, had no idea how things would turn out, and had no involvement whatsoever afterwards. That model would be consistent with non-teleological evolution. The question is whether such a belief really falls under the ‘religion’ umbrella. My feeling is no. It seems to me to be a view that is carefully constructed just to support the claim that evolution and religion are not irreconcilable. It is a philosophical exercise and I doubt that any person who calls themselves religious actually subscribes to it.

Hence my answer.

Comments

  1. Dauphni says

    To me it’s pretty simple. Evolution is science.
    Religion can accommodate science. Science cannot accommodate religion.
    If you only look at it from one side evolution and religion seem compatible enough, but from the other side they really aren’t.
    And if one side says they’re incompatible with the other side, that’s just how it is, no matter how much the other side might think otherwise.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    I felt that a fundamental distinction between the two is that evolution is not teleological

    Well, if you include this as part of your definition of evolution, then of course you’re right. But I don’t remember seeing any such definition. There’s a huge difference between seeing no evidence (or need) for teleology, and insisting that its absence be part of your definition. The latter is simply dogmatic.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … if we could run the clock again from the beginning of the Earth, we would end up with a different spectrum of organisms…

    I strongly suspect (w/o the technical chops to defend this) that we’d get amoebas every time.

  4. DonDueed says

    I interpreted that question somewhat differently, though I suppose I may have been reading in a meaning that wasn’t necessarily there.

    My take was more like, “Are there religious people who accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life?” The answer to that was obvious to me, since I have known many such people, some of whom were very close to me. I did not detect either insincerity (in their beliefs) or any cognitive dissonance; nor did they seem to have any fundamental misunderstanding of science.

    I admit, however, that I don’t recall any specific discussions on the topic.

  5. mnb0 says

    “One key issue is that the word ‘necessarily’ suggests that …..”
    Not to me.
    To me it’s simple. Pastafarianism shows that religion and evolution can be compatible indeed.

    “Religions on the other hand see some kind of purpose in the universe to various degrees.”
    It doesn’t follow that science and religion are incompatible. In principle the latter can be superimposed on the first without resulting in any contradiction. This means of course that religion has to abandon all claims that it has predictive power. That doesn’t have to be a problem, because exactly the lack of predictive power made science throwing teleology out of the window 200+ years ago. Each its own, both science and religion; as long as the latter doesn’t contradict the first (again, compare pastafarianism) everything is fine.
    Incompatibility is not the problem. Credibility of religion (or rather lack of) is. That already begins with religion being superfluous for our knowledge and understanding of our natural reality. Indeed science can do perfectly fine without religion. There is more to it. For this I recommend to read Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science. That book turned me into a 7 on the scale of Dawkins. But incompatibility is not one of his arguments.
    And on the philosophical issue called god I rather side an expert philosopher than a physicist. To this I happily add that according to some surveys about as many philosophers (excluding apologists of course, who imo with one or two exceptions don’t deserve to be called philosophers) are unbelievers as atheists (88 % iIrc). Worse: Chris Hallquist, when he still maintained the blog Uncredible Hallq, once wrote that philosophers look down upon “philosophers” of religion.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @5:

    the lack of predictive power made science throwing teleology out of the window 200+ years ago.

    If you’re referring to the work of Laplace and Lagrange on the stability of the solar system, they certainly didn’t “throw teleology out of the window”. They proved stability to first order in perturbation theory only, and Le Verrier showed, a couple of decades later, that higher order terms could prove problematical.

    That said, Laplace was right when (if?) he said he had no need of that hypothesis (i.e. God). We don’t need it.

  7. jrkrideau says

    I simply went back to the Catholic Church.

    In the 1950 encyclical Humani generis, Pope Pius XII confirmed that there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution, provided that Christians believe that God created all things and that the individual soul is a direct creation by God and not the product of purely material forces.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_evolution

    Pas de probleme as long as you are willing to believe a few other things.

    Also, if you read about the reception of Darwin’s theory in the 1800’s in Britain, in general the Church of England’s prelates had no problem with it. There were dissenters but there probably were dissenters who were not even slightly religious.

    The crazed anti-evolution stance of US Christian fundamentalists is an outlier, presumably because of their insistence on a “literal”[1] interpretation of the Bible though it seems some of the nuttier Muslim fundamentalists are joining them.

    1. For some value of “literal” and for whatever bits and pieces of the Bible they have actually read. Bob Altemeyer in his book The Authoritarians points out that North American fundamentalists usually have a spotty to poor knowledge of the overall Bible.

  8. says

    It is possible to postulate that an unknown prime mover created the universe with all its constituents and laws as some kind of experiment, had no idea how things would turn out, and had no involvement whatsoever afterwards.

    This is part of what is called “cold deism” and it is considered religion.

    I also don’t see why, even in a slightly warmer Deist worldview, that the prime mover couldn’t set things up knowing how it would turn out and still have religion compatible with evolution. (Compatibility of religion and evolution being the original statement.)

    The following is getting really on the edge, but what if a (n even warmer) hidden deity delicately nudged evolution toward an end in a deliberately unobservable fashion? I have trouble seeing how science would be able to falsify that, thus making it in some sense “compatible” with science.

    I’m not saying this happened, just that there are possibilities that affect your original comment.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    ahcuah @9: Right.

    The irony is that those saying “We have no need of X, therefore X is ruled out” are making a statement which is incompatible with science.

  10. says

    Rob @10: Kind of reminds me of a conversation I had back in netnews days regarding Sagan’s “Contact”. I was saying it seemed to me that finding things encoded into “pi”, a natural constant, pretty much pointed to some sort of Godly Design.

    At which point it was pointed out to me by somebody (the wharf rat? rturpin?) that it could just be a sufficiently advanced technology messing with our computers to make us think those were the digits of “pi”.

  11. deepak shetty says

    First of all thank you for your time :).

    because I felt that a fundamental distinction between the two is that evolution is not teleological (i.e. guided or goal-directed in any way) while all religions are teleological to some extent.

    I dont think this view demonstrates incompatibility atleast in the sense we normally use incompatible. In whatever variant version of Hinduism I grew up with , I don’t once remember being told to read a holy book or that the Gods had anything to do with how humans evolved. And whether everything is pre-destined or chosen by ones own choices was something that was always up for debate(so I dont know about the all religion is teleological bit). People who pray generally do believe that things can be changed from their destiny!

    For that matter people who dont believe in Free Will are teleological to some extent. I doubt we’d phrase that as incompatible with evolution. You might as well be saying Evolution is proven by empirical evidence and religion isn’t ,hence incompatible.
    I look at the question as “When is a particular scientific theory incompatible with religion” to which I’d reply , as I suspect most would as Only when it contradicts a central tenet of that religion. If so evolution is not necessarily incompatible with religion is easy to see.

    and that if we could run the clock again from the beginning of the Earth, we would end up with a different spectrum of organisms

    But this is not a scientific fact as far as I know – we do not know how randomness works and whether there are purely random phenomena or merely that we cant predict it – like which central tenet of Buddhism is contradicted by Evolution ?

    This discussion does remind me of simpler times when all we needed to worry about were the accomodationist wars instead of the real civil war coming up.

  12. Owlmirror says

    I felt that a fundamental distinction between the two is that evolution is not teleological (i.e. guided or goal-directed in any way) while all religions are teleological to some extent.

    It’s worth considering: Is evolution not being teleological a necessary presupposition or axiom, or is it a reasoned conclusion?

    This ties back into the larger question of naturalism vs supernaturalism in science in general. Is the universe being natural a necessary assumption of science, or is it a reasoned conclusion?

    I have in mind supernaturalism as the irreducibly mental, here. So given that concept, I would argue that naturalism is a reasoned conclusion. We have no good reason to infer that anything is actually supernatural. So supernaturalism is very very very probably false, given everything we can observe about the universe. But that means that supernaturalism isn’t logically impossible, just ruled out by every observation we have been able to make so far. And within that tiny, tiny wiggle room of logical possibility, religions crow that you can’t prove that it’s impossible, and lay the claims of their dogmas.

    The same argumentation applies to evolution. I think that the non-teleological character of evolution is a reasoned inference, not a necessary assumption. But in that tiny, tiny wiggle room of logical possibility — a Planck-sized gap, if you will — there is room for a God to hide.

  13. says

    The question was “Evolution and religion are not necessarily incompatible. True or false?”

    If one includes non-theist / humanist religions like Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism within the religion category, then this statement would be true.

    If one doesn’t consider Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism to be religions, then this statement would be false.

  14. robert79 says

    My first reaction to the statement was that it’s true, but my explanation comes from a completely different angle.

    It all depends on how you define ‘incompatible’.

    One way to define it is that the truth of one will imply the falsehood of the other, and vice versa. Now, religion does not need evolution to prove itself false, people have been atheists long before Darwin came along. Since I view religion as obviously false regardless of whether or not evolution is true, strictly speaking there is no meaningful implication from one to the other and so the two are not incompatible.

    The other way to define ‘incompatible’ is that both statements cannot be true at the same time. But since religion is so obviously false, one might as well ask whether apple pie and religion are incompatible and the question is meaningless.

    Now since I doubt an internet poll would ask a meaningless question, I’m forced to conclude they were asking about the first interpretation of incompatibility, and thus the statement is true.

    Or I might just be overthinking things a bit…

  15. KG says

    I strongly suspect (w/o the technical chops to defend this) that we’d get amoebas every time. – Pierce R. Butler@3

    Extremely unlikely. Amoebas, like oak trees, mushrooms and us, are eukaryotes. The origin of eukaryotes appears to have been an extremely chancy symbiosis between an archaean and a bacterium. This didn’t happen until somewhere between 1 and 2.5 billion years after life appeared (the range of possibilities is huge, because the dates of both the origin of life and that of eukaryotes are very uncertain). Subsequent symbioses produced plants, various forms of algae, and lichens, among others, but all these involved a eukaryotic partner; no other “first symbiosis” involving only non-eukaryotes seems to have occurred. I recommend Nick Lane’s Life Ascending, Power, Sex, Suicide and above all The Vital Question on these issues.

  16. purrs says

    The way I see things, there isn’t necessarily a contradiction. For me, religion is a subset of culture – heritage and community and societal guidelines. It’s not incompatible with understanding evolution.

    But then, I’m a religious atheist, so I doubt my perspective would be typical.

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