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Is Evolution Better Evidence for Atheism or Theism?

If God wanted to bring life about gradually, that is God’s prerogative

Pat Flynn

“[The entire biological] evolutionary process depends upon the unusual chemistry of carbon, which allows it to bond to itself, as well as other elements, creating highly complex molecules that are stable over prevailing terrestrial temperatures, and are capable of conveying genetic information (especially DNA).” —Alistair McGrath

Atheists like to claim that atheism better predicts or explains certain information about the world and our lives than theism. Here we will consider the big one, which is evolution.

First, why do some believe that evolution favors atheism? There are several reasons. One is because evolution seems to include many evils, like animal suffering. Another is because people (some people) believe that evolution conflicts with biblical revelation. The third is the assumption that evolution is a purely naturalistic explanation, which makes God’s existence irrelevant to explain the development and complexity of life, not to mention the problem of evil. Otherwise, what motivates the idea that evolution is more probable on atheism seems to be a fundamentalist or “literalistic” interpretation of scriptural texts.

But all this is irrelevant. We are evaluating metaphysical theories and not religious commitments. What we are asking is not whether evolution is more expected on some reading of Genesis, but whether evolution is more expected given a transcendent and intelligent God. And if evolution is contingent upon a finely tuned universe (which it is), and if a finely tuned universe is better explained by theism than atheism (which it is), then evolution is ultimately better explained by theism than atheism, in which case the naturalist is not advantaged by evolution, but disadvantaged by it. It is only looking just at evolution (with challengeable assumptions) and not the necessary preconditions for evolution that lends any possible credence to atheism. A deeper look turns that analysis around.

Joshua Rasmussen summarizes the point well:

The “evolution” explanation . . . [is] incomplete. . . . First, contrary to popular impression, natural selection in a randomized environment does not automatically select for increases in complexity. In fact, recent computer simulations of evolution suggest an opposite tendency. I tested this myself. A few years ago, I wrote a grant-funded computer program that simulated randomized evolution, and I observed that randomized natural selection in my randomized environments tended to select simpler organisms, not more complex ones. I was able to generate some moderately complex structures, but that was only after I coded a very specific environment in which the evolution would “aim” for complex structures. In my randomized environments, by contrast, any initial organized complexity dwindled over time. As far as I am aware, all the computer-based simulations of evolution support (or are at least consist with) my findings. The result is this: the very existence of an evolution in which turtles, giraffes, and humans can emerge depends on a precisely fine-tuned environment.

The point can be pressed further once we see that evolution is also inherently teleological, which is to say, it exhibits directedness and determinacy of fact or meaning. In other words, even granting Darwin’s theory as sufficient to explain the development and complexity of life, one cannot make sense of evolution, including natural selection working on random mutation, apart from there being directedness and determinate facts of the matter—namely, that certain things are selected for. For reasons argued by James Ross and Edward Feser (see here; also, Aristotle’s Revenge, chapter six), any such directedness and determinacy are not just difficult, but impossible to explain on atheistic ontologies—particularly physicalism. These are technical arguments, and space does not permit an adequate defense of them here, which means I can only reference them. The punchline, however, is this: evolution requires teleology in nature, and teleology in nature requires intentionality beyond nature (Aquinas’s fifth way, or John Haldane’s “Prime Thinker”), and all that is (quite obviously) better explained by theism than atheism.

Moving deeper into evolution, let us now consider the experience of pain. Atheists sometimes claim that this is evidence in their favor, particularly in conjunction with evolution, because it seems to include wanton suffering. I claim that it is not. Once we move away from the superficial analysis and look closely at theoretical details, it becomes clear that theism has a better metaphysical explanation for why pain occurs in the evolutionary process than atheism does. As Jim Madden explains in a recent response to Paul Draper, one of the main options (if not the only option) for naturalists in philosophy of mind is that pain is epiphenomenal—that is, the experience of pain is something that “floats atop” underlying physical events—a mere residual, if you will, that serves no useful function over and above the chain of physical events that precedes it. Why? Because what’s needed for survival just are the unconscious physical operations and not any qualitative experiences that came to be associated with them, painful or otherwise. But this means that pain, as a qualitative experience, really has no atheistic-evolutionary explanation or use at all. A theist, however, can give reasons why there might be morally relevant properties built into nature—for example, the fact that something causes a sentient being pain is relevant to decision-making: in some cases, we ought not do it (like burning a kitten to impress bandmates); in other cases, we ought to cause it (like punishment), even if they’re epiphenomenal.

Finally, a few remarks about challengeable assumptions related to evolutionary theory itself. The first is the problem of communication: evolution requires a channel to pass along adaptive traits—i.e., reproduction. However, evolution is supposed to explain the arrival of this (very complex) ability no less than anything else related to life. So evolution both requires this channel and is supposed to explain it—classic chicken-and-egg stuff—a vicious explanatory problem that is a problem in principle, not just a problem lacking any good scientific solution (also true). Here it should be noted that armchair conjectures of proto-replication are of no more explanatory value than speculations of proto-consciousness, since we are dealing with a phenomenon that is not susceptible to “fade-ability.” It is either all there—i.e., either something is, or is not conscious, regardless of how much is represented in any given conscious act—or it isn’t.

There’s also the problem not of organized complexity mentioned by Rasmussen, but of irreducible complexity as touted by Michael Behe. This is controversial, but just because something is controversial, that does not mean that it poses no problems to evolutionary theory. In this case, I believe that Behe’s work poses significant problems for evolutionary theory, especially the naturalistic mechanism purported to drive it. But again, I must refer to Behe and his critics to allow readers to assess the arguments for themselves. Space constraints, you know.

Importantly, if one is going to claim that his theory has the resources to explain as much as some other theory, we should want some evidence of this. So far, the evidence for the creative power of selection working on random mutation is counterproductive for the naturalistic hypothesis, since we overwhelmingly see destructive (even if beneficial), rather than constructive, results. Fitness, in other words, tends to be conferred by breaking or blunting already existing genes, rather than introducing functional novelty. The analogy is like knocking the car doors off to gain an advantage in speed: it’ll help in certain situations, but it would be foolish to think this process in any sense could account for the complexity of the car itself. And before anyone objects—this is not an argument from ignorance, but an argument from the best experimental evidence regarding Darwin’s theory (as cited and interpreted in Behe’s work). It is an argument not from what we don’t know, but from what we do know.

In summary, evolutionary theory, even when superficially considered, is expected no more on atheism than on theism. If God wanted to bring life about gradually, that is God’s prerogative, and no theist—no Christian, for that matter—is committed to a literalistic interpretation of Genesis. However, a more substantial analysis reveals a number of essential considerations to see which direction the evolutionary evidence leans, including 1) that evolution is contingent upon a finely tuned universe, which is better explained by theism than atheism; 2) that evolution is inherently teleological, which is better explained by theism than atheism; 3) that evolutionary pains can be given a more adequate explanation on theism than atheism; and 4) that Darwin’s theory, particularly the mechanism of natural selection and mutation, faces not insignificant theoretical and empirical difficulties, which seem salvageable only by the aid of intelligent direction (God’s providence). Again, more expected on theism than atheism.

This article is the second in a three-part series. You can read the first part here.


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