Does religion blur understanding of evolution?

By Ken Perrott 14/02/2013 4


Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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4 Responses to “Does religion blur understanding of evolution?”

  • His last paragraph which you quote is simplistic and not representative of many thoughtful theologies. See, e.g., Philip Pattemore’s recent book http://amimykeepersbrother.com (NZ Doctor & Scientist) – he has blogged on what he sees as limitations of ID.

    btw – I looked at the survey – 95% of the “religious” responders were Christian groups so they are talking about God not a god.

  • John, I think there can be a difference between ID – a specific current trend – and design creationism in general. The point I try to make is on the question of guidance. So many Christians who do say they accept evolutionary science nevertheless sneak in a “divine” guidance element which is just not part of the science. It’s like accepting Newton’s laws of motion but then saying there is “divine” guidance of the motion itself.

    Biological and evolutionary science seems to bring out this need for “guidance” whereas other science don’t generally. When people like Plantinga claim it is an essential part of evolutionary science they are just telling porkies.

    Had a brief look at Pattemore’s webpage.. Although he may be critical of ID he still argues for design and I suspect “divine” guidance in one form or another (although hard to tell from the few extracts there).

    However, I would really like to know just how widespread the idea of guidance (in one form or another) is amongst local believers. I do suspect Stenger actually has a strong point here.

    As for this god/God issue – I try to generalise (after all those 5% non-Christian religious deserve to be treated respectfully too). I am also aware that for any particular group, like Christians, god concepts vary so widely they one may as well accept that everyone has their own god. Certainly the picture you get of individual Christian’s god varies enormously from one individual to another – they can’t all be one person with one name.

    I just think it is more correct, and more respectful to different groups and individuals, to use the collective descriptor rather than a name given to one imaginary individual.

  • The issue of “guidance” is one that is at the centre of nearly all religious thought. The idea of “sneaking in” divine guidance to cover a gap in scientifically acquired knowledge is anathema to the scientists I know who happen to be Christian. The anathema applies to the idea of intermittent or continuous “interference” (for want of a better word) in the evolutionary process discoverable by scientific methodology. That said, I would agree that many with less sophisticated understanding of science and theology would think of guidance as just that – tweaks here and there to get a particular result (maybe like some hope humans may do in the future to avoid propagation of certain genetic diseases).

    I accept when you are wishing to lump various religions together that you use god with a lower case g (although some religions are atheistic, pantheistic or polytheistic which makes use of a singular noun problematic which talking about them all). I just ask that when talking about Christian or Jewish groups that the personal pronoun God is used irrespective of whether you believe God exists or not. This is just good English (and respectful). After all, we use Zeus, Micky Mouse and other such personal pronouns for beings we do not believe in.

  • Yes, I wonder to what extent this less sophisticated approach prevails in New Zealand amongst believers.

    John, after checking I don’t think I have used the cases wrongly here. Clearly my comments are not restricted to Christian and Jewish groups. I would naturally use the capital for Zeus, Micky Mouse, Yaweh, etc. In fact, in the quotes I think the pollsters actually used it in a disrespectful way – as in the US different believers have different gods.

    I suspect that this particular mistake is quite common because of habit.

    Mind you, I do insist on not capitalising the pronoun and often switch gender.