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John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Broadening the Faith and Evolution Debate

Published at Washington Post: On Faith

Is evolution compatible with faith in God? It’s a question that is receiving lots of attention of late.

On the one hand, “new atheists” like biologist Richard Dawkins insist that Darwinian evolution makes “it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

On the other hand, “new theistic evolutionists” like Francis Collins assure people that Darwin and God get along just fine, thank you. Former head of the Human Genome Project, Collins recently unveiled a website that seeks to convince the faith community to accept Darwinian evolution.

Dawkins and Collins are often put forward as the two alternatives in discussions over faith and evolution, but since they both embrace Darwin’s theory, they represent only a thin slice of the overall debate. Largely shut out from current media coverage are the growing number of scientists, as well as the vast majority of Americans, who view Darwin’s theory with skepticism.

In an effort to broaden the conversation, Discovery Institute has launched www.faithandevolution.org, a website featuring scientists and scholars who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions about both the science and implications of modern Darwinian theory. The website includes a “Debates” section highlighting competing views on such topics as evolution’s impact on religion, the claims of intelligent design, and the relationship between Darwin’s theory and “Social Darwinism.”

The website also seeks to clear-up confusion about why Darwin’s theory poses such a challenge to faith in the first place. Contrary to what many people suppose, it’s not because evolution proposes that living things change over millions of years, or even because it suggests that animals are descended from a common ancestor.

The real sticking point is Darwin’s claim that all of life—human beings included—developed through a blind and undirected process of natural selection acting on random variations. In the words of late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

There are ways to try to reconcile Darwinism’s undirected process with theism, but they involve throwing overboard some long-cherished beliefs about God.

The first idea to go is the belief that God directed the development of life toward specific ends. According to biologist Kenneth Miller, one of the most prominent proponents of “theistic” evolution, God did not plan the specific outcomes of evolution—including the development of human beings. Miller describes humans as “an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.” While God knew that undirected evolution was so wonderful it would create some kind of creature capable of praising Him, that creature could have been “a big-brained dinosaur” or “a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities” rather than us.

Seeking to lessen the discomfort such arguments pose for most religious believers, Francis Collins suggests that God “could” have known the specific outcomes of evolution beforehand even though He made evolution appear “a random and undirected process.” In other words, God is a cosmic trickster who misleads people into thinking that nature is blind and purposeless, even though it isn’t.

One need not be a religious fundamentalist to find such arguments less than satisfying. Indeed, one need not be religious at all. Media coverage notwithstanding, theistic evolution has been shunned by leading evolutionary biologists, 87 percent of whom deny the existence of God and 90 percent of whom reject the idea that evolution is directed toward an “ultimate purpose” according to a 2003 survey.

While theistic evolutionists are mired in the past trying to defend Darwin’s nineteenth-century mechanistic process, other scientists and scholars are suggesting that twenty-first century science is fast making Darwin obsolete. Experiments with bacteria, where evolution can be tested in real time, are showing just how little undirected processes like natural selection can actually accomplish. Experiments with protein sequences are revealing how astonishingly fine-tuned protein sequences must be to work at all. And the DNA inside each of us is disclosing massive amounts of genetic information that points to mind, not chance and necessity, as the ultimate source of biological innovations.

Such discoveries do not “prove” God’s existence, but they do provide tantalizing evidence that life was produced by an intelligent process rather than a mindless one, a finding that certainly has positive implications for faith.

If we want a real discussion about faith and evolution, the conversation must be broadened to include the growing number of scientists and scholars who find Darwin’s theory unsatisfying. Otherwise we will be having a monologue, not a dialogue.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
Discovery Institute