Why is Evolution Believed in More Firmly than the Evidence Warrants?

Convinced there are serious problems with evolutionary theory, but wondering why so many intellectuals respond as if there aren’t? J.P. provides a few insights.

In my last article, I defined scientific naturalism and its relationship to evolution. In this article, I want to explain why, if evolutionary theory is false and the evidence for it falls far short of what is often believed, so many smart people believe in it so firmly. I also want to give some friendly advice to Christians who advocate theistic evolution, the view that evolutionary theory is true and that, in a scientifically undetectable way, God created living things by means of evolution.

Before embarking on our journey, let’s review the core of my last article. There I said that scientific naturalism includes three claims. First, scientific knowledge is vastly superior to all other forms of knowledge. Second, the scientifically authorized story of how all things came about revolves around the atomic theory of matter and evolutionary theory. According to the atomic theory of matter, all chemical change is the result of the rearrangement of tiny little parts — protons, neutrons and electrons. According to evolutionary theory, random mutations are largely responsible for providing an organism with a change in characteristics; some of those changes provide the organism with a survival advantage over other members of its species; as a result, the organism’s new traits eventually become the norm for all members of the species. The important thing about naturalism’s second claim is that its creation story is a purely mechanical, physical story with no need or room for miraculous divine activity. Third, the picture of reality that results from this creation story (which is, in turn, the only story alleged to have the support of scientific ways of knowing) is physicalism: the belief that the physical, material cosmos is all there is, was or ever will be.

It is important to note the relationship between these three claims: Most naturalists believe that the physical cosmos is all there is, was or ever will be because their creation story allows no room for miraculous divine activity. And most naturalists believe in a creation story with no room for divine activity because (a) their theory of knowledge says that it’s irrational to believe in things that can’t be tested scientifically with the five senses, and (b) because they believe that divine activity can’t be so tested. Thus most naturalists believe Claim Three because they believe Claim Two, and they believe Claim Two because they believe Claim One.

Curiously, naturalism’s theory of knowledge (i.e., Claim One, according to which a belief is rational only if it is scientifically testable) is not itself scientifically testable. Thus the naturalist’s theory of knowledge fails to pass its own standard of acceptability and refutes itself. But this leaves many naturalists without any basis for believing Claim Two and, therefore, without any basis for believing Claim Three either.

With this background in mind, let us recall that our present question is not about the scientific evidence for evolution. I think this evidence is quite meager. In any case, even if we grant (for the sake of argument) that there is a decent amount of evidence for evolution, the degree of certainty claimed on its behalf and the widespread negative attitude toward creationists are quite beyond what is warranted by the evidence alone. What is going on here?

First, the widely accepted intellectual authority of science, coupled with the belief that Intelligent Design theory is religion (rather than science) means that evolution is the only view of the origins of life that can claim the backing of reason. In our empirically oriented culture, science (and science alone) has unqualified intellectual acceptance. On the evening news, when a scientist makes a pronouncement about what causes obesity, crime, or anything else, he/she is taken to speak as our culture’s sole authority on the issue at hand. When was the last time you saw a theologian, philosopher or humanities professor consulted as an intellectual leader in the culture?

All supposedly extra-scientific beliefs must move to the back of the bus and are relegated to the level of private, subjective opinion. Now, if two scientific theories are competing for allegiance, then most intellectuals, at least in principle, would be open to all evidence relevant to the issue. But what happens if one of two rival theories is considered scientific and the other is not? If we abandon the scientific theory in favor of the non-scientific one, given the sole intellectual authority of science, this is tantamount to abandoning reason itself. Because many think that Intelligent Design theory is religion masquerading as science, the creation/evolution debate turns into a controversy that pits reason against pure subjective belief and opinion. In the infamous creation-science trial in Little Rock, Ark., in December 1981, creation science was ruled out of public schools, not because of the weak evidence for it, but because it was judged religion and not science. Today, in the state of California, you cannot discuss creationist theories in science class for the same reason.

Space forbids me to present reasons why almost all philosophers of science, atheist and Christian alike, agree that creation science is at least a science, and not a religious view, regardless of what is to be said about the empirical evidence for or against it. I have presented these arguments in The Creation Hypothesis (InterVarsity, 1994) and in Christianity and the Nature of Science (Baker, 1989). Suffice it to say that philosophical naturalists currently set the rules for what counts as science. The bottom line is this: Philosophical naturalism is used to argue that evolution is science and Intelligent Design theory “merely” religion, and it is used to argue that reason and rationality are to be identified with science. Thus, the empirical evidence for or against evolution is just not the issue when it comes to explaining why so many give the theory unqualified allegiance.

There is a second reason for the current over-belief in evolution: Evolution functions as a myth for secularists. By “myth” I do not mean something false (though I believe evolution to be that) but, rather, a story of who we are and how we got here that serves as a guide for life. Evolutionist Richard Dawkins said that evolution made the world safe for atheists because it supposedly did away with the design argument for God’s existence. In graduate school, I once had a professor say that evolution was a view he embraced religiously because it implied for him that he could do anything he wanted. Why? Given that there is no God and that evolution is how we got here, there is no set purpose for life, no objective right and wrong, no punishment after death, so one can live for himself in this life anyway he wants.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer made the same statement on national TV. Dahmer said that naturalistic evolution implied that we all came from slime and will return to slime. So why should he resist deeply felt tendencies to kill, given that we have no objective purpose or value and there is no punishment after death? I am not here arguing that secularists cannot find grounds for objective purpose and value in their naturalistic worldview, though I believe that to be the case. I am simply pointing out that evolution functions as an egoistic myth for many intellectuals who have absolutized freedom, understood as the right to do anything one wants. Philosophical naturalists want evolution to be true because it provides justification for their lifestyle choices.

For these two reasons — the identification of evolution as the only option on origins that claims the support of reason, and the function of evolution as a convenient myth for a secular lifestyle — the widespread over-commitment to evolution is not primarily a matter of evidence. This is why people react to Intelligent Design theory with hatred, disgust, and loathing instead of respond to creationist arguments with calm, open-minded counter arguments. This situation is tragic because it has produced a cultural logjam in which philosophical naturalism is sustained as our source of cultural authority, protected from serious intellectual criticism and scrutiny.

For Christians — especially those sympathetic towards or embracing theistic evolution — there is a lesson to be learned from all this and an application to be followed. The lesson is this: The debate about creation and evolution is not primarily one about how to interpret certain passages in Genesis, though it is that. Rather, it is primarily about the adequacy of philosophical naturalism as a worldview and the sole authority of science, an authority that relegates religion to private opinion and presuppositional faith. The application is this: Believers owe it to themselves and the Church to read works that present well-reasoned alternatives to evolution and to keep an eye on the broader implications of taking theistic evolution as a via media. If what I have argued is true, the acceptance of evolution is not primarily due to empirical evidence, and evolutionary theory (in both its theistic and atheistic varieties) lacks the evidential grounding that warrants adjusting one’s view of creation to harmonize with evolution. And theistic evolution may well be inadequate to stop our collective avalanche toward a thoroughly naturalistic culture.

Still, you may think that, given enough time, evolution will be able to explain everything about the origin and nature of living things. In my next article on naturalism, I will show that, however successful evolution becomes in explaining the origin and nature of animal and human bodies, it will never be able to explain the origin and nature of animal/human consciousness and the souls that contain it.

Copyright 2004 J.P. Moreland. All rights reserved.


About the Author

J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life.