Evolution doesn’t preclude religion

When asked if I believe in evolution, I find the question difficult to answer. If I answer in the negative, it seems that I have painted myself ignorant, willfully stupid, antiscientific, fundamentalist or some combination of the four. I do not aspire to any of these conditions. However, if I answer in the affirmative, I could be understood to be making a religious claim contrary to one I believe.

Some would protest and assert that evolution has no religious content. Many think that evolution is founded upon facts and experimentation and religion is founded upon faith and values. Evolution and religion seem to work in different spheres. But religion and evolution are similar in at least one respect: Both deal in the realm of explanations. Both attempt to explain observed conditions, and both address the supreme observed condition — the nature of human existence.

The explanation of a current condition often involves an appeal to origins. If we can understand how something has come to be, we can better understand that thing in the present. Evolution and religion both attempt to explain the nature of human existence with an account of human origin. It is here that the two disagree.

Before I delve into the disagreement, a disclaimer: My conflict with evolution does not come out of a commitment to scriptural literalism and young earth theory. If I held this position, I could legitimately be called anti-scientific in disregarding the mass of evidence to the contrary. Further, my conflict with evolution does not constitute a rejection of survival of the fittest by natural selection; I find this principle an evident truth.

I disagree with evolution insofar as it claims a complete explanation of the nature of human existence. In other words, while I think evolution is an effective and powerful theory, it does not, and cannot, explain everything. Many claim that evolution is the only theory capable of explaining how a thing has come to be. If so, evolution is no longer a theory; it has become an ideology, and its proponents ideologues. This is “ideological evolution”: the prima facie presumption that all components of the human condition are best explained in evolutionary terms.

I can name one component of the human condition that evolution cannot explain: freedom of the will, or the power of contrary choice. This component simultaneously explains the great height and deep depravity of human action, grounds moral responsibility and distinguishes man from animals. Each individual’s experience of freedom points to a transcendent order, to something greater than a material, causally determined existence. The idea of a free will, then, is not sectarian, but it is religious; it belongs not to one culture, but to the human race.

Ideological evolution rejects free will. The argument goes something like this. Evolution, as a theory of natural science, deals only with material causes and circumstances. It is also the best explanation for all components of the human condition. The will can only be genuinely free if it is not subject to the natural necessity of material causes and circumstances. But evolution cannot explain anything outside the realm of material causes and circumstances. Thus, evolution cannot explain the freedom of the will. Therefore, the will is not free.

In this argument, the notion that the will is not free only follows because evolution is understood to be able to explain all components of the human condition. If, on the other hand, evolution is understood as a non-comprehensive theory, then it has nothing to say on the question of the will. But if evolution is a non-comprehensive theory bound to the explanation of material data, what sense does it make to ask if one “believes” in evolution? In this mode, evolution is not a religious system. Some, however, would like to use evolution to challenge religion.

Richard Dawkins, a popularizer of ideological evolution, has written, “Evolution made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” There is one sense in which Dawkins is correct. Before Darwin, many intellectuals felt uncomfortable in atheism because the atheistic system seemed incapable of explaining the whole of the human condition. Before Darwin, the otherwise unexplained human condition seemed to demand the God inference. Today, the explanatory power of evolution threatens to make the God inference obsolete. But I would like to suggest that the burden of proof is still on the atheist because evolution, properly understood, is a non-comprehensive theory. Without a complete naturalistic explanation of the human condition, atheists should still feel the demand for the God inference.

When I am asked if I believe in evolution, then, I am stuck between labels. I cannot say yes because evolution, properly understood, is not a religious system to be “believed.” What do I believe with regard to human origins? I will explore my answer in two columns in the coming weeks.

Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.