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.