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Evolution, Religion and Free Will

The most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution

Gregory W. Graffin, William B. Provine

How Evolution and Religion Relate

Evolutionists were presented with four choices on the relation between evolution and religion: A, they are non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) whose tenets are not in conflict; B, religion is a social phenomenon that has developed with the biological evolution of Homo sapiens—therefore religion should be considered as a part of our biological heritage, and its tenets should be seen as a labile social adaptation, subject to change and reinterpretation; C, they are mutually exclusive magisteria whose tenets indicate mutually exclusive conclusions; or D, they are totally harmonious—evolution is one of many ways to elucidate the evidences of God's designs.

Religion%20and%20evolutionary%20scienceClick to Enlarge ImageOnly 8 percent of the respondents chose answer A, the NOMA principle advocated by Stephen Jay Gould, rejecting the harmonious view of evolution and religion as separate magisteria. Even fewer (3 percent) believe that evolution and religion are "totally harmonious," answer D. A weak response to both of these options is unsurprising since the participants are so strongly nonreligious, shown by their answers to other questions in the poll. But we did expect a strong showing for choice C, which suggests that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive and separated by a gulf that cannot be bridged. This was the answer chosen by Richard Dawkins, who has a strong reputation for declaring that science has much better answers for human society than does religion.

Instead, the wide majority, 72 percent, of the respondents chose option B. These eminent evolutionists view religion as a sociobiological feature of human culture, a part of human evolution, not as a contradiction to evolution. Viewing religion as an evolved sociobiological feature removes all competition between evolution and religion for most respondents.

Evolutionary scientists are strongly motivated to ameliorate conflict between evolution and religion. Sociobiology offers them an apparent conciliatory path to the compatibility of religion and evolution, avoiding all language of inescapable conflict. Sociobiological evolution is the means to understanding religion, whereas religion as a "way of knowing" has nothing to teach us about evolution. This view allows a place for religion and sounds superficially comforting to compatibilists.

Charles Darwin was also loath to talk about evolution and religion in On the Origin of Species. He sought ways to lessen the conflict between his idea of natural selection and Christianity in the period just after 1859. Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist who was so taken by the Origin, wrote two reviews arguing for the compatibility of the intelligent design of God and Darwin's idea of natural selection. God, according to Gray, guided the available variation and thus controlled the evolutionary process. Darwin sought Gray's permission to reprint parts of both reviews as a pamphlet that Darwin, at his own expense, distributed widely to those who raised religious objections to his views in the Origin. At this time, Darwin privately believed that Christianity was incompatible with his idea of natural selection but used Asa Gray's reviews to help mute public and academic uproar from religious objections to his book.

Nine years later, On the Origin of Species had become a huge international success, and Darwin published The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. No longer needing a compatibilist slant on natural selection and religion, he clearly distanced himself from Gray's views. In the last paragraph of Volume II, Darwin rejects the possibility that God was guiding evolution and writes about Asa Gray:

… no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief that "variation has been led along certain beneficial lines," like a stream "along definite and useful lines of irrigation." 

If Gray were right, then natural selection was superfluous; an omniscient Creator determines the goals of evolution. "Thus," Darwin concludes in the last sentence of the book, "we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination." Darwin, however, had solved the problem of free will more than 30 years earlier; he believed it was nonexistent. He also believed that he had solved the problem of intelligent design in adaptations—that also was nonexistent for him, a view shared by the vast majority of the world's most eminent evolutionists alive today, according to our study.

If Asa Gray represented the commonly held view of scientists who studied evolution in the 1860s, evolution could be subsumed under religion as a manifestation of God's design. Today, as our results show, the commonly held view among evolutionists is that religion is subsumed under sociobiological evolution. There has been a complete inversion of the naturalist worldview in the last 150 years.

Eminent evolutionists are now caught in a bind that reminds us of Darwin in 1859. They worry that the public association of evolution with atheism or at least nonreligion will hurt evolutionary biology, perhaps impeding its funding or acceptance. Asa Gray's gloss and that of the evolutionists in this poll, however, differ fundamentally. Gray offered a theological synthesis with natural selection that Darwin carefully used for a few years before extracting himself from it. Seeing religion as a sociobiological feature of human evolution, while a plausible hypothesis, denies all worth to religious truths. A recent informal poll of our religious acquaintances suggests that they are not pleased by the thought that their religions originated in sociobiology.

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