Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Atheism and Evolution

As evidenced by probably half of the questions posed to atheists in various public forums, many theists seem to think that atheism and the theory of evolution (or “Darwinism” for those who want to imply that evolution is just some sort of cult of personality that atheists belong to based solely on faith) are inextricably linked. Apparently, either all atheists believe in evolution as their religion instead of believing in God, or else a belief in evolution is what caused people to become atheists in the first place.

In this post I want to try and unpack this a bit. First, to explain what atheism really means and what the real relationship between atheism and evolution is. And second, to try and understand why theists keep insisting on a relationship that isn’t there.

First, the facts:
  • Atheism is neither a belief system nor a community of like-minded individuals. There is no official atheist doctrine, there are no appointed atheist leaders, and there are no requirements to be an atheist other than simply not believing in God. Or gods.

  • Yes, many atheists accept the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, but not all do and you can certainly be an atheist and not accept it. Just like you can be an atheist and think the world is flat or that aliens are regularly abducting people or that world leaders are being replaced with lizard people. Being an atheist is not the same as being a scientist or a rationalist or a materialist — it simply means that you do not believe in God. Or gods.

  • And, while many atheists do accept the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, they do so for the same reason they accept, say, the theory of gravity. It’s a coherent, well-established theory that explains observed phenomena that has been supported by observable evidence and is backed up by numerous other fields of study. And, keep in mind, the “theory” of evolution is the current best explanation for the observed fact of evolution, just like the “theory” of gravity is the current best explanation for the the observed fact of gravity.

  • It’s important to note that many theists also accept the theory of evolution for the same reasons many atheists do. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most theists accept it (although some still want to include God as the ultimate driving force behind it). The whole denial of evolution thing is really just limited to a very small number of Christians and Muslims world-wide who take their scriptures extremely literally and feel threatened by anything that could be seen to contradict those scriptures in any way (more on this later).

  • Finally, while it’s certainly possible that some atheists lost their faith after learning the details of the theory of evolution (e.g., because their faith was based on an assumption that God was required as an explanation for why life on earth is the way it is), the vast majority of atheists were not looking for an explanation regarding the diversity of life on earth in the first place and didn’t choose to replace their religious beliefs with the “religion” of evolution. They simply lack a belief in God, whether because they were not raised to believe in God in the first place, because they were taught about God and found the notion to be rather silly, because they carefully considered the evidence for God’s existence and found it lacking, or any of a thousand other reasons.
Second, the theories:
  • As stated above, many (if not most) theists in the world have no trouble accepting the fact that all species — including man — have evolved over long periods of time to reach their current state. They do not take their scriptures to be 100% literally true and are fine with that, focusing instead on the principles and promises made in those scriptures. A small subset of theists, however, acknowledge the hypocrisy involved in only believing in part of holy scriptures and therefore take an “all or nothing” approach. And, since the holy scriptures clearly state that God created man in His own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures on earth, acknowledging the fact of evolution (and accepting the validity of the current theory of evolution by natural selection) would be to deny the validity of the scriptures and the very foundation of their faith.

  • These theists who take their scriptures literally know full well that most of what is written in those scriptures either cannot be verified by modern science or is directly contradicted by modern science, whether it be archaeology, geology, cosmology, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, or what have you. But the whole concept of evolution in particular bothers them, since it undermines the whole idea of humans being uniquely special creatures in God’s eyes. OK, so maybe the world wasn’t really created 6000 years ago and maybe Noah didn’t really have an ark full of animals and maybe Moses didn’t really part the Red Sea, but we sure as heck didn’t come from monkeys!

  • As a result, for those theists who take their scriptures literally and whose world view revolves around the notion that humans are special, it is only natural to assume that everybody else’s world view revolves around the fundamental question of how humanity got here and what is humanity’s relationship with the rest of the universe. Thus, since their worldview revolves around “God did it,” atheists must have a worldview that revolves around “God didn’t do it.” And, since a belief that “god didn’t do it” requires some alternate explanation, that explanation must be “Evolution”.

  • So, in the eyes of these theists, it is incomprehensible that somebody could simply not believe in God (especially their God) without having an alternative belief system in place. And, since these theists acknowledge (whether explicitly or implicitly) that their belief system is fundamentally based on faith (belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary) and a reliance on the testimony (anecdotal stories) of others, they assume that atheist must also base their belief system on faith and testimony.

  • This false equivalence leads to two separate phenomena. First, there is an ongoing attempt to argue that atheism is no better than theism since both “isms” are equally reliant on “faith” and “testimony” and therefore atheists have no right to feel at all superior to theists (and theists are perfectly justified for not feeling at all inferior). Second, there is an ongoing attempt to undermine the theory of evolution in the mistaken belief that doing so will somehow convince atheists that the explanation for how humanity got here must actually be “God did it” after all.

For more of my musings on the subject of evolution and religion, please see the following:

Accepting Evolution
The “Theory” of Evolution
Evolution and Why Labels Don’t Matter
Another Evolution Analogy
For more discussion of what, exactly, it means to be an atheist, please see the following:

What is an Atheist?
No, Atheism Is Not a Belief System
Why “I Don’t Believe God Exists” Really Is the Same as “I Believe God Doesn’t Exist”

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