Is Evolution Atheistic?

Denis R. Alexander

This article was first published in the January, 2003, Issue of 'Evangelicals Now'

My replies to it are in red Denis Alexander has written a book called 'Rebuilding the Matrix', which uses many of the ideas in this essay, so my responses can be seen a sort of review of his book.

When Richard Dawkins wrote that his discovery of evolution had enabled him to be an 'intellectually fulfilled atheist', many Christians believed him. But Dawkins' inference is, I think, misplaced. There is a strong tradition of evangelical Christian scientists stretching in a long lineage back to many of Darwin's contemporaries, who are happy to absorb Darwinian evolutionary theory into the Biblical doctrine of creation. This was the stance taken by several writers who contributed to the Fundamentals (1910-15) , it has been the position adopted by many Christians active in the UCCF movement as well as in the scientific community and it continues to be the perspective taken today by a large number of evangelical scientists.

So how has the notion arisen that Darwinian theory is intrinsically atheistic? The answer, I would suggest, is because the ideas and scope of evolutionary theory are frequently misunderstood by Christian non-biologists, whereas atheists on their part often have little knowledge of the Biblical doctrine of creation. My purpose here is to provide a resume and critique of these misunderstandings.

Evolution as Biology and as Philosophy

The aim of evolutionary theory is to explain the origins of biological diversity. The contemporary theory contains two main steps. In Step 1, variation in genes (encoded by DNA, 'nucleotides' in a specified sequence) is generated by a very wide range of mechanisms, including radiation, errors in DNA replication and intrinsic chemical instability. These changes in DNA sequence are called mutations. Our own DNA is composed of around 3,000 million nucleotides, only 2% of which is used to encode genes. Each individual human differs at around 1 in 1300 of their DNA nucleotides - if it were not so we would all look identical!

In Step 2 of the theory, the genotype (total DNA) of each organism is tested out by the criterion of 'natural selection' regulating how many genes are passed on to succeeding generations ('reproductive success'). This 'filter' is a very conservative mechanism, with a strong tendency to preserve genes that work well in a given environment. Just how conservative has been dramatically demonstrated over the past decade by the sequencing of the genomes of dozens of organisms, including human DNA. We now know that we are all carrying around in our bodies thousands of 'molecular fossils' - genes that are found in only slightly different forms in every living organism on the planet. About 40% of our genes are shared with fruit-flies and worms - enough to keep us humble!

So at a biological level evolution involves the unfolding of diversity by these twin balancing effects of DNA mutations (tending to variation) and natural selection (acting against variation to preserve genes that 'work well'). This evolutionary scheme is the working hypothesis for all current biological research. Evangelical biologists believe that God has chosen to express His creative actions by generating all living creatures through this amazing process.

Of course, evangelical biologists believe no such thing. They believe that God has created many living beings (eg the Angels Gabriel and Michael , to name two), who were not created by this amazing process.

Unfortunately, however, many people have tried to hijack the theory of evolution to support all kinds of ideologies. Evolution has been used to support racism, communism, capitalism and other ideologies - many of them mutually incompatible. But evolution is simply a biological theory - quite incapable of such Herculean ideological tasks.

Does this mean that Alexander thinks evolution is not capable of supporting Christianity, as this is also an ideology?

Alexander's argument here is a non sequitor. Evolution might be incapable of supporting racism or capitalism, but still be capable of supporting atheism. This is because capitalists don't believe that capitalism created the process of natural selection, while theists believe an omnibenevolent God created the process of natural selection.

This theistic conception can be tested to see if it conforms to other characteristics of this supposed God.

Teilhard de Chardin and Julian Huxley thought that evolution was directing humankind to some supposedly future perfect state, but biologists today realise that the healing of the sick and the care of the weak to which God calls us has rendered any further evolution of humankind extremely unlikely.

Really? Are there no changes to the gene pool taking place as different diseases evolve to attack mankind? Surely there will always be evolution of human kind.

Jesus' command to love our neighbour as ourselves means that with regard to Step 1 of the evolutionary process we treat everyone equally, irrespective of variations in their DNA (e.g. as expressed in skin colour) and the same command completely subverts Step 2 - natural selection.

How? How do we tell influenza and cholera to treat people equally?

Of course, if there were a loving God, he could eliminate genetic diseases like haemophilia, and cystic fibrosis, spina bifida , Down's syndrome etc. Although God has supposedly commanded us to treat each other regardless of differences in DNA, he has deliberately created a world which does not do that. He has created a world which is cruel to those of us with certain genes. Why does God not create a world which obeys us his own commandments - to love mankind?

Chance and Evolution

One misunderstanding concerns the role of chance in evolution . 'Chance' is a slippery word and is always worth defining carefully in any discussion. 'Chance' is not a causal agency which makes things happen, but rather a description of the way in which we as observers understand the workings of certain events within the world around us. It is an expression of our inability to predict complicated events. Chance itself does nothing. Variation in DNA comes about by 'chance' events in the sense that we cannot predict them. But remember that in any case the genotype is tested by the rigorous sieve of natural selection. Overall, evolution in its totality is a tightly regulated process, restricted by the constraints of food, temperature and reproduction and of living in a world of gravity which oscillates between light and darkness. There is therefore not the slightest justification for trying to extract 'metaphysical chance' out of the evolutionary process - the idea that in some ultimate sense the universe has no purpose or meaning, that chance ultimately rules over all.

What does this mean? That God is directing chance events? What would this mean? It would mean that the chance event which changes the DNA in a cell, producing a cancer which kills somebody, is not a chance event at all, but something God did?

It would mean that when a doctor tells parents that their children have a 25% of inheriting a deadly genetic diseases, he is really telling them that God will choose whether their baby will live or die. As it looks like chance to use, and we cannot predict which children God will choose to die and which to live, there is no use their praying or being good people, as none of that will make any difference to the chance of their baby dying.

If prayer altered the chances, then we could predict that praying would alter the numbers,and Alexander discounts that possibility, as it would no longer look like chance to us.

At least chance is purposeless. Alexander's alternative is that no children would inherit genetic diseases, if it were not that God is choosing children, simply at random, just to keep up the 25% quota (in my example) of children who inherit diseases.

Alexander faces an interesting question. Why is God forced to choose such a high chance for some diseases? Is he not free to choose a lower chance? After all, isn't he the one calling the shots, in Alexander's view? Isn't he the croupier? Isn't he the one who chooses how many chambers of the gun are loaded , before he plays Russian Roulette with people's chances of getting genetic diseases? If chance is not inherent in the world, but something God chooses, then why does God chooses some diseases to have a 25% of being inherited, when God could choose a chance of 1 in 1 million for that disease.

Recently my eldest brother died. Amazingly my other brother died on the way to his funeral. I would imagine that there is a very small chance of such a tragic event - the occurrence of brothers dying on the way to their brother's funeral must be pretty small. Do I thereby believe that in any sense this occurrence was outside God's sovereign plan? Of course not. Scripture constantly assures us that our Father God is sovereign over all events - even those that we ascribe to 'chance'.

God is sovereign over all events? Then why did God not stop this death? I don't know how Alexander's brother died. But to quote 'Fiddler on the Roof', would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if it had not happened?

Our very beings are defined by which particular sperm out of millions fertilised a particular egg, yet all Christians can echo the Psalmist's words "You knit me together in my mother's womb" (Ps. 139: 13).

Is it really God's choice which sperms fertilise which eggs? Can a woman not say 'No' to sexual intercourse, without crossing God's plans for her eggs? Why are there so many spontaneous miscarriages in the first days of pregnancy, if God was at work from the very moment of fertilisation , if not before?

We can trust God's sovereignty over His creative actions in the past, just as we need to trust Him now in life's daily events.

99% of all species have become extinct. This even includes branches of humanity, such as Neanderthal man. Can we trust God? What track record can God point to, and say 'Trust me.'? Most of the creatures he created by this amazing process of natural selection have died, never to be seen again.

We can't even trust God to keep us alive long enough to go to the funeral of our brother......

Morality, Perfection and Evolution

A further misunderstanding comes from the idea that evolution is 'immoral' because it involves food chains. But the natural world is not there to teach us morality.

We know God's moral laws by Biblical revelation not by studying nature.

There speaks somebody who knows that it is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and does not want us to draw conclusions about the morality of somebody who sets dogs on each other to breed from the survivors.

And in any case animals, unlike us, are unable to make moral choices.

I have seen dogs look shame-faced. Many people will say of their pets. 'He knows he is not supposed to do that.' Some animals do have an elementary notion of right and wrong.

But it is elementary. This raises a problem for Alexander. If making moral choices is a good thing, why does Alexander argue that God does not want animals to have this good thing?

In any case, the claim is not that lions are immoral when they rip gazelles apart when it is their only way of getting a hot meal. The claim is that God is immoral , for creating a dog-eat-dog world, where lions must kill gazelles to eat. Some of God's creatures can get food by photosynthesisng. Why then did God create predators who tear and rip apart others of God's creatures?

Natural selection kills off the weak through disease and starvation and breeds from the strong. A human breeder who did this would be reported to the RSPCA. Yet Alexander wants us to believe this is God's way of creating the creatures he wants. The characteristics bred for by natural selection are not kindness, gentility and humility. Influenza , cholera and typhus kills off the kind as well as the wicked. What natural selection breeds is people who can resist disease , compete and reproduce. This is a very indirect way for God to create loving beings.

Kindness, gentility and humility help us to cooperate. They are selected for , in a very roundabout way. If we cooperate we can frustrate nature by pooling our resources to help each other. Mankind can only survive 'Acts of God' by helping each other out when tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and famines strike.

But that would be a very cruel way for God to breed kindness and cooperation into us all. It might be possible for God to get us to cooperate by setting us the problem of surviving earthquakes, but is that really what a loving God would do?

The Bible describes lions roaring for their prey and seeking their food from God (Ps. 104: 21) and "Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God?" (Job 38: 41).

God does not feed lions from a tin of divinely created lion-food. Lions rip God's creatures to pieces. Why then does Alexander say they get their food from God, when he knows lions will sometimes kill and eat humans? When that happens, can we say that God is feeding the humans to the lions?

2 Kings 17:24-25 'The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. When they first lived there, they did not worship the LORD ; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people.

Alexander is quite correct. The Bible does describe how God provides food for lions.

The Bible portrays God as being in charge of food chains as much as any other part of His creation.

Neither are mutations in DNA in any sense outside God's creative will. It is, after all, mutations that help to generate the variation that make us all physically different. Genetic diversity is a reminder of our individual uniqueness in God's sight.

So , if you got a genetic mutation that led to cystic fibrosis, God's creative will was responsible for the mutation and it is merely a reminder of your individual uniqueness in God's sight. You are not like the many healthy people. You are a unique individual with your own particular fatal illness as the thing which marks you out from the rest of humanity.

Miracles and the God-of-the-gaps

Christians sometimes express the concern that if scientists can describe the creative handiwork of God in scientific terms, then this somehow undermines our notion of God as Creator. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the more we understand of God's wisdom in creation, the more this leads to worship. So it is not our job to look for 'gaps' in our scientific accounts as if this would provide an argument for God's existence. This idea has led to the infamous 'God-of-the-gaps' notion of God's working in the world, whereby the parts of the created order that are understood by science are deemed to be 'less special' than the parts we don't yet understand. 'God' is then used as an 'explanation' to plug the gaps in our scientific knowledge. But this expresses a dismally inadequate view of the Creator God of the Bible who is the Author of all that exists and "in whom all things hold together" (Col. 1:17).

God is the Author of all things.

God is the Author of cancer.

God is the Author of AIDS.

God is the Author of smallpox.

God is the Author of influenza.

God is the Author of anthrax.

God is the Author of botulism.

God is the Author of rabies.

God is the Author of all things.

It is Dawkins' misunderstanding of creation theology at this point that is used to justify his atheism.

Creation is a seamless cloth of God's activity. The existence of a TV drama depends upon the continual targeting of electrons on to the TV screen to generate the necessary images, and there would be no drama if the flow of electrons ceased. Similarly there would be no scientists and nothing for scientists to describe were God to cease his on-going creative and sustaining activity.

Alexander works (I believe) in oncology. There might well be nothing for Alexander to work on if God ceased his on-going creation of cancers or stopped sustaining terminal cancers

But would it not be better if Alexander could work on other projects?

Some Christians invoke miracles to explain the origin of life, the origin of each species etc. But whereas the Bible sees God's creative actions as wonderful and inspiring worship, it does not generally paint them in miraculous terms.

I though we weren't supposed to examine the natural world (God's creative actions) to see if they were good or bad.

Oh, we are allowed to do so, provided we never criticise.

Biblical miracles are those interventions of God's grace that stand out from a backcloth of His 'normal' creative actions. Were it not for that consistency and faithfulness of God in creation we would be less able to recognise His miraculous interventions in the lives of His people. The medieval Church multiplied 'miracles' (in the sacraments and by the saints) but the Reformers pointed out that it was not glorifying to God to call something miraculous that God Himself did not.

A Real Cause of Atheism

Evolution itself is not atheistic. A robust Christian theism readily encompasses evolution as an expression of God's creative actions.

Only if God creates by killing.

Evolution is probably the most cruel method of breeding characteristics into animals that it is possible to devise.

But, sadly, there are prominent scientists, like the Harvard sociobiologist E.O.Wilson, who left their earlier Christian experience to become atheists because they faced hostility to evolution. Arguably, attacks by well-meaning Christians on evolution promote rather than counteract atheism.