Is evolution atheistic?

Is atheism demanded by evolutionary theory? While some biologists like Richard Dawkins seem to think so, others like Stephen J Gould aren’t so sure.

“The suggestion that the Darwinian theory of evolution is necessarily atheistic goes way beyond the competency of the natural sciences and strays into territory where the scientific method cannot be applied. If applied, it is misapplied.”

In his book, “The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World”, former atheist Alister McGrath suggests that Dawkins has shifted from popularizer to propagandist and presents some very interesting evidence “which blatantly contradicts both those who insist that the sciences inevitably lead to atheism and those who insist that they throw people into the arms of God.”

“The two major surveys of the religious beliefs of scientists, carried out at the beginning and end of the twentieth century, bear witness to a highly significant trend. One of the most widely held beliefs within atheist circles has been that as the beliefs and practices of the ‘scientific’ worldview became increasingly accepted within Western culture the number of practicing scientists with any form of religious beliefs would dwindle to the point of insignificance. A survey of the religious views of scientists, undertaken in 1916, showed that about 40 percent of scientists had some form of personal religious belief. At the time, this was regarded as shocking, even scandalous. The survey was repeated in 1996, and showed no significant reduction in the proportion of scientists holding such beliefs, seriously challenging the popular notion of the relentless erosion of religious faith within the profession. The survey cut the ground from under those who argued that the natural sciences are necessarily atheistic. Of those questioned, 40 percent had active religious beliefs, 40 percent had none (and thus can be legitimately regarded as atheist), and 20 percent were agnostic.”

“The stereotype of the necessarily atheist scientist lingers on in Western culture at the dawn of the third millennium. It has its uses, and continues to surface in the rehashed myths of the intellectual superiority of atheism over its rivals. The truth, as might be expected, is far more complex and considerably more interesting.”

How do you like your truth?

This post is part of an interfaith synchroblog on "Religion and science".

Here are links to other synchronised blog posts on this general topic:

18 thoughts on “Is evolution atheistic?

  1. Upon reading this I immediately thought of Francis Collins, who is a scientist who believes in evolution, he has written a book called, The Language of God : a scientist presents evidence for belief.
    I wrote this in a book review of the book: He (Collins) feels evolution, ‘far from standing in the way faith, reveals a universe of ever greater ingenuity and sublety’. In the past teaching about evolution has excluded God whereas in Collins’ book he explains why evolution requires a creator.
    If you want to read the whole book review it is here:


  2. The real and obvious issue here is that science is being used like an unappreciated child in a vicious divorce custody battle. Both atheists and Christians try to say science is on “their side”, when in reality, science has no place in discussions of God or metaphysics. We call it “supernatural” because it is outside of nature (at least as we know it), and what is outside nature, is outside of science.
    More over both sides are perverting science. Atheists put to much “faith” in a theory that is full of holes and contradiction. Christians try to say that science can prove something that happened before the world was formed…. the whole thing is insanity.
    What is really under attack here is reason… and when we loose that… God help us.


  3. Matthew, Please check out these two related references.
    The first briefly describes how scientism (rightly) eclipsed exoteric religion as the arbiter of what is true, real, and possible.
    Most, if not all, of the usual scientists who are also Christian, fit within this narrowly circumscribed spectrum of possibility—McGrath certainly does.
    Plus an Illuminated Understanding of the relation between religion, science and culture.
    The “creator-god” idea is a reductionist and simplistic philosophical idea, based on a very primitive and chilishly naive point of view. It appeals to people who have not yet profoundly considered its essentially horrific implications. It is meat-body “philosophy”.
    Yaholo—“reason” has nothing whatsoever to do with the Process that is True Religion. Indeed such a Process can only begin when you have become profoundly and positively dis-illusioned with ALL of the usual “answers” that “reason” proposes.


  4. Hi Matt,
    I have a couple of concerns about the quote from Twilight of Atheism.
    First, I’m rather surprised to learn that a “popular argument” among atheists is that greater proportions of scientists will be atheists over time.
    Rather than advocate a “necessarily atheist scientist”, atheists seem to be more than willing to admit that scientists run the gamut of beliefs held by the general public, albeit tending to be far less religious than the general public. And that correlation between atheism and being a scientist seems to be the point most frequently brought up on the topic of science and religion.
    I, for one, certainly do not subscribe to the idea that doing science necessarily leads to loss of religion (heck, in some cases, it doesn’t even necessitate the loss of creationism!) and frankly, I doubt very many people do.
    Second, it appears that the argument fails anyway because other polls conflict with the idea of large and steady percentages of belief in god among American scientists.
    When they surveyed only the National Academy of Science, the poll results were 7% for belief in God (and 72% reporting disbelief) with increasingly godlessness in each survey. Belief in God in that survey apparently does “dwindle to the point of insignificance”, as McGrath puts it.


  5. Yaholo, I gather that is what Stephen J Gould and Alister McGrath are both trying to say in their own way, that both sides of the debate have appropriated science inappropriately, and that truly reasonable persons recognize its reasonable limits.
    Religious fundamentalists and irreligious fundamentalists are mirror images of each other. Neither lets science just be science.


  6. John, the author you favourably quote states that he is “deeply dismayed by the trends of popular culture in this day” which he sees as anti-mystical as well as anti-religious. How can you then say that scientism is “rightly” in ascendancy? Your quote seems to be somewhat self refuting, given your own path is eclipsed as much as our own, if not more, if number of adherants are any indicator.
    As for the charge that the “creator-god” idea is reductionist, I suggest you observe the fact that monotheism arose some millenia before the rise of that philosophical movement. Maybe the Christianity you have experienced has been reductionist, but to me that just suggests your experience has been rather limited. Can I suggest you look beyond western Christianity take stock of world Christianity?
    But beyond this I have to ask, to what extent are you conflating reason with reductionism? Do you draw any sort of distinction? I am trying to understand so I can follow your argument better.


  7. RPG, that link seems to be dead. For the record I accept evolution as a useful theory, though I am more inclined towards punctuated equilibrium models than more traditional slow and steady models, and note there is still much that remains mysterious.


  8. Hydra, interesting reference so thanks for bringing it to my attention. A question that arises immediately, and I am not sure it is possible to answer this adequately, is what the scientist undertaking the survey understood by the word ‘God’?
    I note that Richard Dawkins himself seems somewhat confused about this. For example, on a number of occasions he has defined pantheism as ‘sexed up atheism’, thereby limiting his definition of ‘God’ to monotheism and polytheism. And I have heard (from Atheists) that atheist author Sam Harris is even more emphatic, even to the point of labelling Buddhism irreligious and therefore kosher for atheists! As a former pantheist and Zen meditation practitioner this just leaves me shaking my head at their religious illiteracy. I therefore makes me wonder how prevelant this atheism / pantheism confusion has become amongst ‘atheist’ scientists. This could skew the more recent results considerably.
    I note that the article talks of the “near universal rejection of the transcendent”, but “What of the immanent?” is the question I am left with. “Is pantheism lurking in there undetected?” If God is only defined transcendantly I think they’ve only done half a survey.
    As for the “popular argument”, all I can say is that my participation in Atheist forums and blogs and reading of Atheist literature matches McGrath’s observations.


  9. Matt:
    And I have heard (from Atheists) that atheist author Sam Harris is even more emphatic, even to the point of labelling Buddhism irreligious and therefore kosher for atheists!
    One of the interesting subtexts that you hear from some of the New Atheists(tm) is that everything they dislike is religious and everything that they like (or can tolerate) isn’t. One of the sillier examples is Christopher Hitchens’ opinion that Stalinism was religious but Trotskyism wasn’t.
    Dawkins, to his credit, is consistent on this point: His book is narrowly targeted against the idea of a supernatural creator. Therefore, according to him, anybody who doesn’t follow a supernatural creator is a functional/sexed-up Atheist. This would, presumably, include people like Rudolph Bultmann and Richard Holloway, who would be very surprised to learn of their Atheism from a third party.


  10. Although I am not as educated on the subject as many participants of this thread obviously are, I have always been interested in trying to understand why Atheists believe what they do and how it informs the living of their lives.
    Just this morning as I was driving to work I listened to The Religion Report on ABC National radio and really enjoyed hearing an interview with Dr John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. He has personally debated with Dawkins and I found his approach to be very clear thinking in terms of getting to the essence of matters in relation to the various arguments in relation to atheism and religion. He explores the intelligence and threads of some of the classic “arguments”.
    One of his points was that whether you believe in the TOE (Theory OF Everything – somewhat elusive, in itself), or whether you believed in a divine designer of some description, the buck stops somewhere. He states where he, as a Christian chooses the buck to stop and that it is as valid as an atheist choosing where his buck stops. I also liked his discussion about things eternal and the supposition of “ceatedness”.
    Here is the url in case anybody is interested.
    Unfortunately due to the Australian summer holiday season, printable transcripts are not available as quickly as usual from the website, but you can listen to a podcast.
    (Welcome back from hols, Matt. If we had have known your church was doing something on New Years Eve, we would definitely have turned up! We had a doozy of an experience that night… will have to tell the story on another appropriate blog-thread…)


  11. Pseudonym
    Yes, I have noticed their like/dislike labelling tendancies too. I find the battle over Einstein particularly instructive. Einstein spoke of God, but often in a pantheistic sort of way. So we find Atheists claiming him as a posterboy for their anti-monotheist cause, and Christians claiming him as a posterboy for their pro-God cause, when ironically, he was really outside of both camps. I have not heard of the Stalinism / Trotskyism example but that’s very interesting.
    Dawkins is consistant, but consistantly propogandistic. In broadening the definition of Atheism to include any path not involving a supernatural supreme deity it allows him to inflate the numbers of those he claims to represent. But to insinuate Buddhists are Atheist just because they lack a supernatural supreme deity is quite disingeneous. Rebirth is a thoroughly religious concept and I challenge anyone to prove it otherwise. They can dismiss Mahayana Buddhists as not true and “original” Buddhists because of all their Bodhisatvas, but even Theravadan Buddhists hold rebirth as a core belief.
    Belief systems are complex and cannot be defined so simplistically in terms of who sits on top. A most robust definition of Atheism would acknowledge its anti-supernaturalistic and anti-mystical tendancies and not merely its anti-God tendancies, thereby excluding Buddhists specifically and pantheists more generally.


  12. Lucy
    Yes, whatever we label our ultimate reality, however we conceive of ultimate reality, whether we call it “God” or “Nature”, the buck always stops somewhere. Atheists have a God-equivalent, they just see it as impersonal, indifferent and unintelligent.


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