2010-10-04

What sort of God is compatible with evolution?

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by Neil Godfrey

Phylogenetic Tree of Life

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The fact of evolution means that humans are not some sort of distinctive “end product” any more than elephant grass or grasshoppers or lichen are “end products”. The fact that we have evolved language makes us no more unique in the grand evolutionary scheme of things than elephants that have evolved trunks. Humans have not been here very long, and given the nature of evolution, there is no reason to assume they will be around forever. Self-conscious life with our level of intelligence may even prove not to be such a good idea in evolutionary terms if it ends up wiping out most other species and even ends up extinct through destroying its own environment or through advanced technological warfare. Or if it does survive, it may find it does so in something no longer human as we understand human — in another species yet again. Evolutionary history surely guarantees it.

Yet most religions as I understand them, at least those big 3 “of the Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, give a special place to humans above all other species. The more enlightened adherents of these religions claim to believe in evolution, but I try not to think too much about how they can do that. If they are thinking that there is nothing really random about the mutations or anything truly natural about the conditions that affect survival, that God somehow did pull a few strings here and there along the way, or started it in a way so that it would turn out just so, then they are no longer evolutionists but closet supernaturalists, creationists, or Intelligent Designers — only trying to be less “in your face” about it.

Or if they say that mankind is made in the image of God then they are declaring evolution has somehow come to an end with us, and they are not evolutionists at all. They are creationists who try to keep the little angels tinkering with things along the way hidden from view. Will Abraham or Jesus be relevant once a new species replaces humans as the dominant one on the planet?

The problem of evil multiplies, too. The unspeakable evil inflicted by some humans on their own kind and other animals is bad enough. But evolution has bred evils of terror and suffering too painful to contemplate among so many species, not only humans. What sort of God is opting to tinker this but not that along the way?

I can understand the need for God. Religion is one of those “human universals” I think humans by nature will always have to live with. Some religions had a hard time adjusting to relocating the Earth to a lower place in the heavens, and today the “religions of the book” are continuing to be challenged by new understandings in genetics and human nature.

If human cultures by nature are destined to always have religion of some kind, a religion that is genuinely compatible with the facts of evolution, and what we know of genetics today, will have to discard any holy book that implies homo sapiens is somehow the ‘end’ (in both the sense of finality and goal) of evolution.

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