Is Darwinian Evolution Compatible with Religion?

By: John G. West
Discovery Institute
May 1, 2009

Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”—Biologist Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.1

Is Darwinian evolution compatible with faith in God? The nation’s preeminent pro-evolution lobbying group, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), would have people believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” In recent years, the NCSE has spearheaded a PR campaign to convince religious believers that evolution and religion are compatible. On a taxpayer-funded website that the NCSE helped design, teachers and students are directed to a list of statements by religious groups endorsing evolution, and Eugenie Scott, the group’s executive director, encourages biology teachers to spend class time having students read statements by religious leaders supporting evolution. Scott even suggests that students be assigned to interview local ministers about their views on evolution—but not if the community is “conservative Christian,” because then the lesson that “Evolution is OK!” may not come through.2

The NCSE’s effort to inject religion into public school science classes in order to promote evolution is a remarkable act of chutzpah for an organization that routinely chastises “antievolutionists” for supposedly trying to insert “religion” into science classes. Apparently, religion in biology class is OK so long as it is used to endorse Darwin’s theory.

The NCSE also encourages inviting ministers to testify before school boards in favor of evolution,3  and it has created a curriculum to promote evolution in the churches.4 The NCSE even has a “Faith Network Director” who claims that “Darwin’s theory of evolution... has, for those open to the possibilities, expanded our notions of God.”5   Other evolutionists have collected signatures from liberal clergy in support of evolution as part of “The Clergy Letter Project” and have urged churches to celebrate “Evolution Sunday” on the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday.6

This attempt to put a religious face on modern evolutionary theory is an effort to deal with what might be called Darwinism’s “Dawkins’ problem.” Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s foremost boosters of Darwinian evolution. Unfortunately for evolutionists, Dawkins zealously expounds the anti-religious implications of the theory, and regularly denounces religion. One of his choicer comments is his description of religious faith as “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”7  By highlighting the religious defenders of evolution, the NCSE undoubtedly hopes to depict Dawkins as a fringe figure whose views are not representative of Darwinists as a whole.

The  problem with this depiction is that Dawkins is far from unrepresentative of the views of prominent Darwinists. The public relations efforts of the NCSE notwithstanding, a dominant majority of leading Darwinists seem to be either avowed atheists or agnostics. Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, is a long-time board member of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, which describes itself as “an affiliate of American Atheists, and [a] member of the Atheist Alliance International.”8  Physicist Victor Stenger, author of Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe, urges his fellow scientists “to make a strong, scientific statement about the very likely nonexistence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.” Geologist Steven Schafersman, head of the pro-Darwin group “Texas Citizens for Science,” describes himself as a “secular humanist”10  and maintains that “Supernaturalistic religion and naturalistic science… are and will remain in eternal conflict....”11  Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who championed Darwinism before the Texas State Board of Education in 2003, believes that the downfall of religion is probably “the most important contribution” science can make to the world. In his own words, “I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive of religious belief, and I’m all for that! One of the things that in fact has driven me in my life, is the feeling that this is one of the great social functions of science—to free people from superstition.”12  Lest there be any doubt about what Weinberg means by “superstition,” he goes on to say that he hopes “that this progression of priests and ministers and rabbis and ulamas and imams and bonzes and bodhisattvas will come to an end, that we’ll see no more of them. I hope that this is something to which science can contribute and if it is, then I think it may be the most important contribution that we can make.”

Even Eugenie Scott, who now tries to convince the public that evolution and religion are harmonious, is a signer (along with Richard Dawkins!) of a document called the “Humanist Manifesto III,” which celebrates “the inevitability and finality of death” and proclaims that “humans are... the result of unguided evolutionary change.”13  By specifically citing “unguided evolutionary change” as part of its case for “a progressive philosophy of life…without supernaturalism,” this manifesto clearly suggests that evolution properly understood contradicts belief in a personal God.

Survey research of the nation’s leading scientists seems to corroborate the anti-religious attitude prevalent among biologists. According to a poll of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, 57.5% of the biologists who responded were atheists or agnostics and 59.4% disbelieved or were agnostic about personal immortality. The nation’s most elite biologists are even more atheistic. According to a 1998 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), 94.4% of the NAS biologists are atheists or agnostics. A similar percentage rejects life after death.14  By contrast, the vast majority of Americans continue to believe both in God and in personal immortality.15

If leading Darwinists tend to be anti-religious today, so too do the grassroots activists. This fact can be seen by the list of groups sponsoring annual “Darwin Day” celebrations to mark the birthday of Charles Darwin each February. The list is top-heavy with organizations bearing such names as the “San Francisco Atheists,” the “Gay and Lesbian Atheists and Humanists,” the “Humanists of Idaho,” the “Central Iowa Skeptics,” the “Southeast Michigan Chapter of Freedom from Religion Foundation,” the “Long Island Secular Humanists,” and the “Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin.”16 

Of course, many Christians and other religious believers have embraced “evolution” too. Don’t these “theistic evolutionists” prove the compatibility of Darwin’s theory and traditional religion? Not exactly. On closer inspection such religious believers either reject full-blown “Darwinian” (i.e., unguided) evolution or they jettison traditional theism in order to uphold a consistent Darwinism. Consider the case of astronomer and Catholic priest George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican Observatory.17  A strong defender of Darwin’s theory, Coyne is often cited in the newsmedia to show (wrongly) that the Catholic Church endorses Darwinian evolution. But in order to defend a truly unguided evolution, Coyne appears to deny traditional Christian doctrines of God’s omnipotence and omniscience:

If we take the results of modem science seriously, it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of the scholastic philosophers... Let us suppose that God possessed the theory of everything, knew all the laws of physics, all the fundamental forces. Even then could God know with certainty that human life would come to be? If we truly accept the scientific view that, in addition to necessary processes and the immense opportunities offered by the universe, there are also chance processes, then it would appear that not even God could know the outcome with certainty.18

So in Coyne’s view, God could not even know beforehand that human beings would be produced by the evolutionary process.

Father Coyne shows how difficult it can be for theistic evolutionists who take Darwin seriously to maintain their traditional religious commitments. Sometimes they completely give up trying to do so. That is what happened to retired Calvin College professor Howard Van Till, who Arnhart cites as a prime example of the “Christian evolutionists” who embrace Darwin. Arnhart apparently does not realize that Van Till’s beliefs have now evolved well beyond traditional Christianity. According to a lecture he recently delivered to the Freethought Association of West Michigan, he now considers himself a freethinker.19

Those who argue that Darwinian theory is compatible with religion have to account for far more than Richard Dawkins. They need to explain why the dominant majority of leading proponents of Darwinism seem to combine it with atheism or agnosticism. Perhaps these Darwinists reject religion on grounds completely unrelated to Darwinism, or perhaps they are all guilty of sloppy logic. But the association between Darwinists and the rejection of religion at least raises a serious question about the presumed harmony between Darwinian evolution and religion.

Other than dismissing Richard Dawkins for offering “almost no evidence to support his passionate assertions that science and religion conflict,” Arnhart offers little explanation for why the ranks of Darwinists are so dominated by those who oppose traditional religion.20  He does try to make the case that conservative Christians in the past had no difficulty reconciling their beliefs with Darwinism: “In fact, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, many conservative Christians in Britain and America accepted Darwin’s teaching as compatible with orthodox Christianity, and thus they adopted various conceptions of theistic evolution.”21

But this claim is misleading. While many orthodox Christians during the period in question accepted Darwin’s idea of descent with modification, they rejected Darwin’s mechanism of unguided natural selection acting on random variations as an adequate explanation for the complexity of life. As historian Peter Bowler points out, what made it possible for many religious believers to accept “evolution” during the initial decades after Darwin “was the belief that evolution was an essentially purposeful process... The human mind and moral values were seen as the intended outcome of a process that was built into the very fabric of nature and that could thus be interpreted as the Creator’s plan.”22 

Interestingly, even Asa Gray, who is often regarded as the most important “theistic evolutionist” in America to support Darwin, was in fact skeptical of the ability of natural selection and random variation to produce complex organs like the eye. According to historian Ronald Numbers, “Gray confessed to a friend that this theistic version of evolution was ‘very anti-Darwin’....”23

In other words, many traditional religious believers were able to find common ground with “evolution” precisely because they rejected Darwin’s unguided mechanism and embraced a teleological form of evolution. This was possible because many scientists of the time also remained deeply skeptical about the extent to which natural selection and random variation could explain the development of fundamentally new biological features. What brought this era of accommodation to a close was the resurgence of Darwinian natural selection in the early 1900s, fueled by work in experimental genetics.24

So just how compatible is modern evolutionary theory with faith in God?

In addressing this question, one needs to return again to the issue of definitions. If by “evolution” one means biological common descent, then surely evolution is compatible with most forms of theism, although perhaps not with a completely literal reading of the book of Genesis. If “evolution” means that natural selection can produce many small changes in existing species, there is even less of a problem. Not even Biblical creationists deny that such “microevolution” can occur. But if by “evolution” one means that all life was developed through an unguided process of chance and necessity, with no particular end in view, then it seems much more difficult to square evolutionary theory with religion, at least in its Judeo-Christian form.

Of course, there are still some possible ways to reconcile robust Darwinism with religious faith. The first option is to insist that evolution is indeed guided by God, but that His guidance is hidden from us. In other words, while the development of life may appear to be the product of chance and necessity, it is in fact following a plan that we cannot detect. This is the view promoted by Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, in his recent book The Language of God. “[E]volution could appear to us to be driven by chance,” writes Collins, “but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.”25 

While Collins’ view is logically compatible with the idea that God actively guides the development of His creation, it is still in tension with the traditional Biblical understanding of God. Both the Old and New Testaments teach that human beings can recognize God’s handiwork in nature through their own observations rather than special divine revelation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork,” proclaimed the psalmist.26  The apostle Paul likewise argued that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made....”27  The idea that God’s action in the world is in principle undetectable by us seems hard to reconcile with the traditional Judeo-Christian view that God’s design in nature is clearly evident to all human beings through the use of their reason.

There is an equally serious difficulty for the idea of undetectable design from the standpoint of evolutionists: Darwinism proclaims that evolution is blind and unguided. Postulating that evolution is guided but undetectable essentially guts this claim. Furthermore, if evolution truly is guided, it is hard to see how one can maintain that such guidance is in principle undetectable and will remain so forever. If evolution is guided, how do we know that it cannot be detected some day? It is unsurprising, then, that committed Darwinists who espouse religious beliefs are loathe to adopt this position.

Roman Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller considers the position of guided but undetectable design in his book Finding Darwin’s God, but rejects it. “Evolution is a natural process, and natural processes are undirected,” he insists.28  Miller denies that the evolutionary process was directed in order to produce any particular result—even the development of human beings. In fact, he says he agrees with the view “that mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained, that we are here not as the products of an inevitable procession of evolutionary success, but as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.”29

There is, however, another way to try to resolve the tension between Darwinism and religion. Darwinian evolution, strictly speaking, begins after the first life has developed, and so I agree with Larry Arnhart that it does not necessarily refute the claim that there may be some kind of “first cause” to the universe that stands outside of “nature.” But this “first cause” allowable by Darwinism seems incompatible with the God of the Bible. It cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. The most it could do is to set up the interplay between chance and necessity, and then watch to see what the interplay produces. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation. In the end, the effort to reconcile Darwinism with traditional Judeo-Christian theism remains unpersuasive.


1Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996), p. 6.

2See “Misconception: Evolution and religion are incompatible,” http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/misconceps/IVAandreligion.shtml; Statements from Religious Organizations (Oakland, California: National Center for Science Education), http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/5025_statements_from_religious_orga_12_19_2002.asp#home (accessed July 16, 2005); Eugenie Scott, “Dealing with Antievolutionism,” http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fosrec/Scott2.html (accessed August 25, 2006). 

3In her tips for activists who want to support evolution before their school board, Eugenie Scott advises: “Call on the clergy. Pro-evolution clergy are essential to refuting the idea that evolution is incompatible with faith…If no member of the clergy is available to testify, be sure to have someone do so—the religious issue must be addressed in order to resolve the controversy successfully.” Eugenie C. Scott, “12 Tips for Testifying at School Board Meetings,” http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/7956_12_tips_for_testifying_at_scho_3_19_2001.asp (accessed July 16, 2005), emphasis in original.

4Congregational Study Guide for Evolution (Oakland, California: National Center for Science Education, 2001), http://www.ncseweb.org/article.asp?category=11 (accessed July 16, 2005).

5Phina Borgeson, “Introduction to the Congregational Study Guide for Evolution,” http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/8888_csg-int.pdf (accessed July 16, 2005).

6For information about these initiatives, see http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/clergy_project.htm (accessed August 25, 2006).
7Richard Dawkins, “Is Science a Religion?” http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/dawkins.html (accessed July 16, 2005).
8New Orleans Secular Humanist Association home page, http://nosha.secularhumanism.net/index.html. Forrest is listed as a member of the board of directors on the “Who’s Who” page of the website, http://nosha.secularhumanism.net/whoswho.html (accessed July 6, 2002).
9Victor Stenger, Has Science Found God?, preface, http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Found/00Preface.pdf, p. 16 (accessed August 26, 2006).
10Steven D. Schafersman, “The History and Philosophy of Humanism and its Role in Unitarian Universalism,” speech originally delivered in Sept. 1995 and revised in December 1998, http://www.freeinquiry.com/humanism-uu.html (accessed July 25, 2005).

11Steven Schafersman, “The Challenge of the Fossil Record,” http://www.freeinquiry.com/challenge.html (accessed July 25, 2005).
12Steven Weinberg, quoted in “Free People from Superstition,” http://ffrf.org/fttoday/2000/april2000/weinberg.html (accessed July 25, 2005).
13“Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III,” (Washington, D.C.: American Humanist Association), http://www.americanhumanist.org/3/HumandItsAspirations.htm (accessed July 16, 2005).
14See Larry Witham, Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 271-273.
15The proportion of Americans who believe in the existence of God is 80-94%, depending on how the question is asked. In a 2004 Gallup Poll, 89.9% of respondents said they believed in God. When offered a choice between God or “a universal spirit or higher power,” 80.9% said they believed in God, while another 12.6% said they believed in a universal spirit or higher power, for a combined rate of 93.5% This is virtually the same result as a Gallup Poll in 1988, which found that 94.6% of respondents said they believed “in God or a universal spirit.” [Gallup Poll, 5/02/2004-5/04/2004, 12/21/1988-12/22/1988, http://brain.gallup.com/ (accessed July 16, 2005] The proportion of Americans who believe in life after death is 68-77%, depending on how the question is asked. In a 1988 Gallup Poll, 68.1% of respondents said they believed in “life after death,” but 76.8% of respondents said that “there is a Heaven where people who had led good lives are eternally rewarded.” [Gallup Poll, 12/21/1988-12/22/1988, http://brain.gallup.com/ (accessed July 16, 2005)]
16“Darwin Day 2002 Events Calendar,” http://www.darwinday.org/events/calendar.html (accessed June 6, 2002).
17See Bruce Chapman, “Vatican Astronomer Replaced,” http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/08/vatican_astronomer_replaced.html (accessed August 24, 2006).
18George V. Coyne, S.J., “The Dance of the Fertile Universe,” p. 7, available at http://www.aei.org/docLib/20051027_HandoutCoyne.pdf (accessed August 25, 2006).
19For an account of the lecture, see “From Calvinism to Freethought: The Road Less Traveled,” http://www.freethoughtassociation.org/minutes/2006/May24-2006.htm (accessed July 25, 2006).
20Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2005), p. 91.
21Ibid., p. 89.
22Peter J. Bowler, Darwinism (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), p. 6.
23Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 27.
24See discussion in Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), pp. 19-26.
25Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 205.
26Psalm 19:1 (NKJV).
27Romans 1:20 (NKJV).
28Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 244.
29Ibid., p. 272. Despite Miller’s clearly stated view that evolution is “undirected,” Miller also claims in apparent contradiction that “the final result of the process may nonetheless be seen as part of God’s will” [p. 236]. What Miller seems to mean by this is that once God set up the undirected and unpredictable process of evolution, he could know that “given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for—a creature who, like us, could know Him and love Him….”[pp. 238-239]  By saying that evolution “would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for” Miller is engaging in word games. In fact, according Miller’s view human beings do not represent an “exact” intention of God, at least in any way that most people would commonly understand that term. In Miller’s view, while God may have wished for some sort of rational creature to develop in the universe, he assigned the job to an undirected process that could have produced any number of different results other than human beings. Thus, it was mere “happenstance” that human beings developed. Miller’s view is a radical departure from traditional Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) teaching that human beings are created as the result of God’s specific plan. The point here is not to argue whether Miller’s view or the view of traditional theology is correct, but to point out that Miller’s theological defense of unguided evolution is open to significant challenge from traditional Judeo-Christian theology.



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