Evolution and Atheism

We often skip a step in our thinking about macro-evolution. If the theory is true, we feel, then there must be no God. If we think in such simple terms, then we’ve missed something important.

Overwhelming Evidence of Design

The strongest advocates of Evolution (capitalized here to signify macro-evolution) agree that the evidence of design in living things is quite strong; even overwhelming. A leading atheist evangelist, Richard Dawkins, thinks so, for example. But he and others like him go on to say that this is an impression that must be resisted.

Why? If living things appear overwhelmingly to have been designed, why must we be vigilant to suppress that explanation, and dig deeper to find support for the non-design explanation? What is insisted upon by those who advance mindless unguided Evolution is that the overwhelming appearance of things is not real, and what is real is not apparent.

Could it be that the idea of Evolution is the product of a materialist presupposition, rather than the most logical conclusion from the evidence? If one starts out with a philosophical commitment to the rejection of any supernatural reality, and then undertakes a study of the natural world, then when it comes to explaining the origin of that natural world, one is much more likely to gravitate to the explanation that fits that philosophical commitment. In other words, one may be an atheist first, and end up committed to evolutionary biology only because of that prior commitment to atheism.

Following the Evidence

It’s often said that a scientist must follow the evidence where it leads. That’s a valid principle. We should do so not just in science, but in every endeavor. Indeed, that is the essence of reasoned, rational thought. We sometimes deviate from that principle, as when theists cling to questionable Biblical interpretation.

Throwing over that principle of following the evidence is more subtle and less recognized, however, when it happens among atheists. Perhaps it’s because they’re thought of as freethinkers bravely going against the grain of conformity. Whatever the reason, it happens. You can see it in the unwavering commitment to materialism, despite evidence (like design in living things) to the contrary. The idea that evolutionary processes with no intelligent input whatsoever brought about the biology we see, and that the appearance of design is illusory, are ideas materialists take on faith, because of their presupposition that there is no supernatural reality which has a hand in the design of living things.

Mind vs. Matter

Philosophers sometimes channel their thoughts on these subjects by considering whether mind prevails over matter, or the reverse. By “mind” is meant that which is non-material, and which creates the material. The mind of God is the obvious meaning, in this context.

The opposite view; that matter precedes mind, yields conclusions like that of Francis Crick, when he wrote:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

We might well ask: If what he is saying is true, how could he know it? The assertion itself is just the result of all the unguided physical processes up to the moment he said it, so there is no reason to take it as being “true.” This exemplifies the significance of our placing matter ahead of mind.

Evolution is another instance of matter being ahead of mind. What we regard as the mind of man is, according to Evolution, the sum of all the vectors of energy and matter over time, to the present moment. The mind of man is the product of matter, not the product of some greater Mind which is responsible for the body to which man’s mind is in some as-yet undefined way attached.

This is why Daniel Dennet presents Evolution as “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” He said that Darwin “was offering a skeptical world . . . a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of mind.” He meant that Darwin’s ideas are dangerous because they up-end the prevalent notion previously that matter was a product of mind. Evolution is thought to be an illustration of the principle that the opposite is true: mind is a product of matter. Thoughts are the result of undirected, mindless, purposeless process.

If materialist Evolution is true, that is.

Evolution as Created Mechanism

To make the jump to eliminating the need for a creator, one has to overlook the distinction between the development of life (Evolution) and the creation of life. There are many reasons to doubt that Evolution is actually the mechanism for development of life, but if it is, it is a mechanism, only. The existence of a mechanism does not negate the idea of a creator of that mechanism. The existence of laws of physics do not negate the idea of a creator of those laws. The existence of a mechanism for biological variation over time as a result of mutation and environmental constraints would not negate the idea of a creator of the mechanism, or of the life for the mechanism to act upon. For natural selection to be true, there had to be something there to be naturally selected. Evolution does not, by itself, negate God.

One would hardly see this in reading the likes of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins and other atheists who reason like him ascribe creative force to the laws of physics, and personify them in the course of their explanation, thus shifting subtly over to a creator for the mechanisms they contend have no creator. The forces of physics are the “blind watchmaker” of Dawkins’ analogy, for example, but he doesn’t go behind the forces themselves, to find their cause.

Evolution and God

Evolution does not prove nor disprove the existence of God. At best, it moves the question of causation of life back a step. Evolution requires the existence of a fine-tuned universe, in which to operate. The laws of physics with which Dawkins and others are so enamored have to be in place for evolution to work as theorized, and they never get around to answering where the laws of physics came from.

If one is committed to materialism, and then seeks to explain the existence and form of living things, then it may be that Evolution is the best that one can come up with. It would also make sense that those committed to Evolution become more entrenched in their position, and less open to questioning it with the usual scientific rigor.

And one more thing. A language issue and an advocacy issue. Are those who question Evolution really “science-deniers?” It’s sloppy thinking to substitute “science” for “evolution.” Here’s what’s happening. The proposition materialism-requires-evolution is subtly modified to this: science-requires-evolution. Be careful. This is not just shrill, over-the-top advocacy. This isn’t even just a matter of twisting words to present a lie as the truth. It’s a matter of shouting down the opposition.

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