December 4, 2005

Why Evolution Truly Does Threaten Religious Beliefs

(A couple of weeks ago Duane Valz debunked “intelligent design” by showing how it is nothing more than Creationism in new packaging; today I follow up with a discussion of how evolution itself undermines core religious beliefs.)

As the battle of rationality and reason against religious dogma continues in American society, I have recently observed a particularly disturbing trend: scientists and science writers seem to be going out of their way to say that evolution does not contradict religious belief. In fact it clearly does.

Many scientists may be loathe to directly challenge religious views for fear of retribution, both political and otherwise, and so they skirt the clear implications of evolutionary theory, which invalidate one of the key tenets of almost all religions (and certainly all Judeo-Christian religions): the myth of human exceptionalism. (For those who have yet to read Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, I would compare many of today’s evolutionary scientists to the religious “moderates” whom Harris blames for allowing religious extremism to flourish.)

It is a central tenet of most religions that God created human beings in “His” image, and that human beings are somehow the highest and final product of creation. In addition, religions teach that humans are the only beings with souls, and that our lives are infinitely more valuable than the lives of all other creatures. Evolutionary theory disproves this train of thought for the following reasons:

1. Genetic research has proven that all of life evolved from a single source and that human beings are the direct descendants of primates. What we consider “human” actually came into being over millions of years, so that it would be impossible to identify the “first” human being on this long continuum. While no doubt there was a time when modern humans first started to exhibit traits that we now associate with human consciousness, these did not happen at one single instant in time. Therefore, if such a thing as a soul actually exists, it is not possible that only humans would have them; there is no clear dividing line between us and our “pre-human” ancestors. Either no beings have souls, or our primate relatives and other animals have them as well.

2. Humans do not represent the “end point” of evolution. We are still evolving; millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions of years from now, humans will have become markedly different creatures from what we are now. Future humans will likely view humans as they existed in the 21st century as less evolved creatures (perhaps just as we view monkeys and gorillas today).

3. From what we know about evolution, if there were to be another Big Bang (as is predicted in 3-4 billion years), there is no guarantee that humans as we understand them today would come into being. It is simply a fact that while we are not entirely the products of random phenomena, neither are we the inevitable destiny of creation. In addition, it is extremely likely that evolution is playing out differently on other planets in other galaxies, and that whatever higher-order life forms develop, they will likely not resemble human beings.

In summary, the creative force at work in the universe has no prejudice in favor of human beings. We are the product of mysterious and complex forces that we are only beginning to understand, and our evolution is by no means finished. The religious belief that somehow a static representation of “humans” as they exist now represents the highest end product of all of creation is untenable; it is completely unsupported by the biological and evolutionary facts.

This invalidation of the core of most religious belief does not, however, invalidate what might be considered “spiritual” principles. If anything, the fact that our existence is even more tenuous than we ever believed should further humble us and make us realize how extraordinarily fortunate we are to be alive and to inhabit this amazing planet. In addition, our scientific knowledge should continue to inspire awe and a sense of mystery regarding the universe and the creative power that drives it.

In essence, science and rationality are entirely consistent with various forms of deism and spirituality, but not with religions that are unable to come to grips with the scientific advances of the last two centuries. Perhaps if our country’s top scientists were more vocal about this fact we would witness a decline in the religious dogma that continues to poison American society.


P.S. Biologist Kennith Miller (one of the scientists who I believe is too timid with regards to criticizing religion- based on his recent comments on Open Source Radio) read my piece and unsurprisingly disagreed. He said that the issues I raise are philosophical and therefore not in the realm of science. I disagree since everything I stated above are straight-forward implications of the science of evolution. Your thoughts?

P.P.S. A great article on the new ID theory of "Incompetent Design".

Jason Scorse