“Does Darwinism Conflict with Religion?
Jamie Milton Freestone
Jamie Milton Freestone is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He studies contemporary Darwinism as well as narrative, and is writing a book about non-supernatural meaning.
To some extent, a conflict is based on perception. If disputants think they’re in conflict, they are. And perhaps religious visions of the world are metaphysically incompatible with a worldview built out of basic science. But if this is true, most people haven’t heard the bad news and happily believe in whatever combination of ideas they hold, without marching in the streets or attacking one another for their views. Religious authorities aren’t actively trying to crucify biologists or ban evolution. Admittedly, in certain school districts in America they are trying to ban the teaching of evolution, but that’s something of an anomaly. Overall, people’s views are insulated from the content of scientific theories—as we can see with attitudes towards climate change.
This disconnect between the rhetoric of spokespeople for Darwinism or intelligent design and mainstream attitudes raises a bigger question. Rhetoric generally has less impact than we often suppose. The Darwinism versus intelligent design debates are just one example of the way in which commentators often mistake what is written by experts—who are, by definition, more interested in and motivated by a topic than the general populace—for a reflection of public opinion. Either that or they assume that any reader who encounters these books will be helplessly swayed by their framing of the argument. It’s the same impulse that makes people worry about the influence of video games, pornography, fake news, conspiracy theories, school syllabuses, advertising, politicians’ gaffes, etc. Those things may have some effect, but a growing body of research is sceptical of the basic model whereby people simply imbibe what they’re exposed to.
This boils down to an is versus ought question. Is there a conflict today between Darwinism and religion? The answer seems to be no. Ought there to be one? The answer is evidently yes for most of the people who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. This is fitting because the whole debate hinges on an is–ought dilemma of another kind. Science is said to provide answers to the is-questions, the ones that concern neutral facts about how the world is. Religion is said to be in the business of oughts: how should we live? what are our values? how do we want the world to be?
Stephen Jay Gould, a more irenic Darwinian, tried to separate science and religion into “non-overlapping magisteria,” arguing that they simply answer different questions, so they needn’t be in conflict. This is wildly wrong for multiple reasons. First of all, religions clearly pronounce on factual questions all the time. Second, science often pronounces on ought questions. Third, what about all the other domains, like the arts, humanities and social sciences, where do they fit in? Fourth, is it even possible to separate is and ought?
These are tricky questions, but they get to the heart of what science is and whether it is a worldview or religion in its own right. Let’s take Dawkins’ view. He thinks that the worldview offered by modern science is a constraint on what other kinds of knowledge we can have. Darwinism, for him, says that the blind mechanism of natural selection accounts for everything complex in the universe. Does that extend to human designs and purposes? Not exactly. He certainly thinks it rules out religious and folk ideas about the world. But he also thinks that humans, and only humans, have reached some kind of escape velocity and can now rebel against the otherwise binding orders of our genes. People can decide on their own goals, purposes or values beyond those of mere survival and replication. So, for Dawkins, the facts of science tell us what is and isn’t possible in the world of human concerns. Or, as some critics have argued, Dawkins starts with a liberal ideology of individualism and projects that onto the nature he studies, conveniently finding that the actions of self-interested genes control everything, except human freedom.
There is a long and proud history of this kind of projection. Consider Gould. His politics—a soft Marxism—seem to have informed his view of evolution, as he sparred with Dawkins over the primacy of adaptation in life’s history. Gould always emphasised the environment side, the historical contingency of evolution. This seemed to align with his dialectical materialism, which says that real world economic conditions determine social reality, more than the drives or consciousness of individuals.
Evolution is a particularly spiky issue. Not only is it a field in which you can find support for many different ideologies, but it arguably determines what ideology, morality, politics and the entire normative realm can be. Dawkins says it’s natural selection all the way up, until you hit human purposes. But other Darwinians say that the acid burns through everything. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett argues that the Darwinian algorithm (replication plus variation) accounts not only for the origin of species but for the origins of anything interesting: cultures, languages, technologies, reasons, norms, meanings. Alex Rosenberg takes an even starker view. He says Darwin’s algorithm explains all the seeming design in nature—including that which is expressed in our thoughts and actions—in a purely physical way, thereby precluding all the human stuff we care about. In a Darwinian world, even human purposes are illusory.
Most science communicators would defend a version of 1 or 2. A lot of science communication is underwritten by a democratic ethos. The public ought to be informed about science so that they can have more agency in their lives and participate in a scientifically advanced democracy. Admirable. But this is exactly the kind of ought statement that science is supposed to be silent about and also the kind that Darwinism—if the hard cases are right—eliminates. That democratic ethos works well for something like vaccinations, where the public clearly benefit from knowing that they’re safe and from being equipped to debunk conspiracy theories. There is a clear policy application. Amazingly, in the case of Darwinism, it’s not considered to be in the public’s interest to know whether or not most of what they believe in is a mirage.
For more mundane reasons, I think the traditional science outreach position is misguided because it’s very difficult to get the public engaged in anything—rhetoric generally doesn’t work. So why bother writing this article? Frankly, because I assume that my readers are self-selected, already interested in the topic and probably have an opinion on it. That makes science outreach something of an elite discourse, communicating only with a group who already have access to roughly the same information as the communicators.
If this stark reading is the best way of thinking about evolution, does it conflict with religious views and is it incompatible with secular life philosophies? I believe it is.