Is Evolution Compatible With Religion?

10/06/2012 03:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 06, 2012

Every major scientific society has affirmed that all our knowledge of biological science convincingly supports evolution by natural selection and cannot be understood without it. At the same time, these societies have carefully avoided offending religious groups by assuring that evolution does not conflict with religious beliefs. (See, for example, National Academy of Sciences. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998, p. 58).

In fact, this attempt by scientists to convince the American public that evolution poses no threat to faith has largely fallen on deaf ears, perhaps because it is simply untrue, and believers can see this clearly enough.

A 2010 Gallup Poll found that only 16 percent of Americans believe in "Naturalist Evolution," defined as the view that "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process." This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion. It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.

Of 34 developed nations surveyed for their acceptance of evolution, defined as humans and apes sharing the same ancestor, only Turkey was lower than the U.S.

So, what is it that the Americans who do participate in organized religion believe? The Gallup Poll found that 30 percent of all Americans agree with "Theistic Evolution" defined as "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation." And, an amazing 40 percent adopt the "Creationist View" in which "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." This is despite the fact that only 26.3 percent of all Americans belong to Evangelical churches where the Bible is taken literally. This suggests that almost half of the churchgoers who reject evolution do so not because it disagrees with the Bible, but because it disagrees with their personal view of humanity's place in the scheme of things -- that humans are special.

Darwin is remembered as a great thinker because he saw that pure random variation was enough to allow natural selection to work. If he had said that supernaturally guided variation created the biological world, nobody would know his name today because that theory has no explanatory power. It just pushes the puzzle off into the never-never-land of the supernatural.

The evidence that Darwin began to marshal and that other scientists have accumulated over the nearly 150 years since he published The Descent of Man not only shows how humans descended from ape-like ancestors by a combination of random variation and natural selection. It also implies that the specific outcome of the human species, or any species for that matter, came about by chance. Humans evolved due to luck, not divine purpose. This fact is fundamentally destructive to what every religion teaches about humanity.

In his 2003 book Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, paleontologist Simon Conway Morris claimed that evolution converges on certain solutions. However, it's a huge jump from simple convergence, which is the most the data imply, to the inevitably of humans that Conway Morris claims in his title. Convergence is fully consistent with basic Darwinism (See Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True).

Several prominent biologists are devout believers as well as articulate defenders of evolution, although they are part of a small minority. In 2005, a federal court in Dover, PA, ruled that the teaching of intelligent design in the Dover public schools was unconstitutional. One of the star witnesses for the plaintiffs was biologist and Catholic Kenneth Miller. In his 1999 book, Finding Darwin's God, Miller argued that God could still be behind the randomness in evolution. As I point out in Quantum Gods, however, Miller's god is a "God who plays dice" that bears no resemblance to the Abrahamic God who plays a very active role in the universe and in human lives.

Likewise, the current director of the National Institutes of Health and previous administrator of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, also sees God as the author of evolution. In his 2006 bestseller The Language of God, in a section on "Theistic Evolution," Collins writes:

God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanics, of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him (pp. 200-201, first edition).

He doesn't tell us how he knows all this.

Most scientists and science organizations in America wish to stay on good terms with the believing majority, and so the fundamental incompatibility between random evolution -- which is what science says happened -- and divinely-guided evolution -- for which no evidence exists -- is kept under wraps. However, the time has come for scientists and their societies to face up to the fundamental incompatibility between naturalist and theistic evolution.