Is belief in God compatible with belief in evolution?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

What should we make of theistic evolutionists telling us that you can believe in God, while still knowing that matter, law and chance fully explain the development of all of biological life?

Consider this quotation from Phillip E. Johnson.


The National Academy’s way of dealing with the religious implications of evolution is akin to the two-platoon system in American football. When the leading figures of evolutionary science feel free to say what they really believe, writers such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and others state the “God is dead” thesis aggressively, invoking the authority of science to silence any theistic protest. That is the offensive platoon, and the National Academy never raises any objection to its promoting this worldview.

At other times, however, the scientific elite has to protect the teaching of the “fact of evolution” from objections by religious conservatives who know what the offensive platoon is saying and who argue that the science educators are insinuating a worldview that goes far beyond the data. When the objectors are too numerous or influential to be ignored, the defensive platoon takes the field. That is when we read those spin-doctored reassurances saying that many scientists are religious (in some sense), that science does not claim to have proved that God does not exist (but merely that he does not affect the natural world), and that science and religion are separate realms which should never be mixed (unless it is the materialists who are doing the mixing). Once the defensive platoon has done its job it leaves the field, and the offensive platoon goes right back to telling the public that science has shown that “God” is permanently out of business.

(Phillip E. Johnson: “The Wedge of Truth”, IVP 2000, pp. 88-89).

So what naturalistic scientists believe is that God didn’t do anything to create the diversity of life – that nature does all of its own creating without God. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the best naturalistic explanation is improbable or implausible – naturalists must bitterly cling to materialistic explanations of natural phenomena. Any doubts about the efficacy of naturalistic mechanisms get met by “theistic evolutionists” – scientists who think that science shows that God didn’t do anything in the history of life.

When it comes to discussing origins, you have to be very careful with theistic evolutionists. The one question they want to avoid is whether science, done in the ordinary naturalistic way, can discover evidence of intelligent agency in the history of the development of life. And that’s why you have to ask them that question first. “Is there any scientific evidence that intelligent causes were active during the history of the development of life on this planet?” Their answer to that is the same as atheists, namely: “there is no scientific evidence that intelligent causes are responsible for the effects we see in the history of life on Earth”. Theistic evolutionists and atheists agree on that: as far as pure scientific evidence is concerned, nature can do its own creating without any intelligence writing genetic code or engineering animal body plans.

Now, take a look at this article by Jay Richards. He cites some theistic evolutionists.


Biologist Ken Miller:

For his part, [Ken] Miller, a biologist, has no qualms about telling us what God would do: “And in Catholicism, he said, God wouldn’t micromanage that way. ‘Surely he can set things up without having to violate his own laws.'”

I am unaware of any tenet of Catholic theology that requires God not to micromanage. It is, however, a tenet of deism.

Got that? What really happened is that God didn’t do anything. How does he know that? From the science? No. Because he assumes naturalism. Oh, it’s true that he says that God is lurking somewhere behind the material processes that created life. But God’s agency is undetectable by the methods of science. And he is hoping that you will accept his subjective pious God-talk as proof that a fundamentally atheistic reality is somehow reconcilable with a robust conception of theism.

More from Richards:

Then we get Stephen Barr offering his private definition of “chance.”

It is possible to believe simultaneously in a world that is shaped by chance and one following a divine plan. “God is in charge and there’s a lot of accident,” said Barr, also a Catholic. “It’s all part of a plan. . . . God may have known where every molecule was going to move.”

What does Barr really believe? He believes that what science shows is that nature created life without any interference by an intelligent agent. Barr then offers believers his subjective pious God-talk to reassure them that evolution is compatible with religion. He has a personal belief – NOT BASED ON SCIENCE – that the material processes that created all of life are “all part of a plan”. He cannot demonstrate that from science – it’s his faith commitment. And more speculations: “God may have known…”. He can’t demonstrate that God did know anything from science. He is just offering a personal opinion about what God “could have” done. The purpose of these subjective opinions is to appease those who ask questions about what natural mechanisms can really create. Can natural causes really account for the development of functional proteins? Never mind that – look at my shiny spiritual-sounding testimony!

That’s theistic evolution. What really happened is that no intelligent causes are needed to explain life. What they say is “God could” and “God might” and “I pray” and “I attend this church” and “I received a Christian award” and “I sing praise hymns in church”. None of these religious opinions and speculations are relevant to the science – they are just opinions, speculations and biographical trivia. Atheists and theistic evolutionists agree on what science shows about the diversity of life – intelligent causes didn’t do anything.


One of the ways that theistic evolutionists try to affirm design is by insisting that the design is “front-loaded”. The design for all the information and body plans is somehow embedded in matter.

Here is Stephen C. Meyer to assess that:

It’s very important to understand that there is no scientific evidence for design (information) being front-loaded. So although the theistic evolutionists are talking about design, it’s still in the realm of faith – not detectable to scientific investigation. And as Dr. Meyer explained, it doesn’t work to explain design anyway.

I attended a Wheaton College philosophy conference where Dr. Michael Murray read a paper advocating for this front-loaded view of design. I raised my hand to ask him a question, “hey, philosophy guy, did God front-load the information in that paper you’re reading, or did you write it yourself?” But the philosophy moderators must have known that I was an engineer, and would talk sense into him, because they never called on me. However, I did e-mail him later and asked him if he had any evidence for this front-loading theory, and couldn’t God write sequence information in time the same way he had sequenced information in his essay. He replied and said that front-loading was more emotionally satisfying for him. That’s philosophy, I guess. Thank goodness an engineer wrote his e-mail program so that he could at least come clean about his silly view.

The quickest way to disarm a theistic evolutionist is to ask them for a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life. And for a naturalistic explanation of the Cambrian explosion. And so on. Focus on the science – don’t let them turn the conversation to their personal beliefs, or to the Bible, or to religion. No one cares about the psychology of the theistic evolutionist. We only care what science can show.

9 thoughts on “Is belief in God compatible with belief in evolution?”

  1. “What they say is “God could” and “God might” and “I pray” and “I attend this church” and “I received a Christian award” and “I sing praise hymns in church”. ”

    Classic! Now, when you head off near the end, you are getting down on philosophy, which is correct when it is bad philosophy. But, don’t you actually mean “blind faith theology?” I mean, WLC is a very good philosopher, so I do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” — CS Lewis

      1. Not all of them, not WLC. Oh wait, you are right. All of the miracles that had to take place in him getting all of his degrees, without starving to death, precisely BECAUSE he was so impractical, is evidence enough for the existence of God! :-)

        The rest of us would be sleeping at our increasingly busy homeless shelters. You have found the right mix, WK: tent-making apologetics.

  2. I think your point about certain approaches to “theistic evolution” are valid, but I would point out that to go too far on that approach is to risk unproductively — and inappropriately — polarizing the question, which to me seems to be: What proportion of creation as it stands can be explained “merely” by matter and energy interacting via the (presumed constant) laws of physics, and what proportion of it requires miraculous intervention by God to explain?

    If one is a devout Jew or Christian, then the two opposing poles of this axis — causally deterministic materialism, which eliminates God entirely, and Islamic Ashar’ite occasionalism, which eliminates physical law as a separate objective reality entirely — are both philosophically unacceptable. Therefore the only possible answer must be a mixture: some of what we see is the result of mechanism and some of it is the result of miracle. The challenge, as always, is: How do we tell which is which, and how much of each do we normally see, given that it is always possible to erroneously ascribe miraculous intervention simply to what we do not yet adequately understand? And what do we do when we disagree on which is which, and one person’s academic theory becomes another’s orthodox — or heretical — doctrine?

    It is worth pointing out here that assuming conscious agency of any type — not merely God’s — is excluded by design from all empirical methods of natural investigation, for the same reason that one cannot hope to correctly deduce the rules of a game if one or more players in that game are chronically cheating but cannot be directly caught at it. To assume conscious agency in the factors you are investigating is by definition to abandon empiricism.

    This is, I think, part of the reason for the “anti-micromanaging” philosophy, which I subscribe to under the name of Conservation of Necessary Miracles: never ascribe to a perfectly omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore perfectly efficient, God more miracles than are absolutely necessary to explain something. For me, as a Catholic, those miracles are: 1) the creation of the physical universe, including all its matter and energy and the laws of their interaction; 2) the creation of intelligent ensouled life; and 3) the redemption of that life from its fallen state. (Further miracles occur every day as Gift of Grace, but they are not explanatorily necessary, I think.)

    1. See, this is a good example of someone who is a TE bringing in subjective states of affairs into something that is essentially a scientific debate. You have a presupposition of naturalism, and that’s fine. But don’t bring it into a debate about science. In a debate about science, we care about science. And when you look at the science, (origin of life, Cambrian), it falsifies your religious opinions. You want to win the argument by presupposing that intelligent causes are undetectable. But no scientist thinks this, it’s a religious presupposition. For example, cryptography and archaeology – where intelligent causes are inferred from the properties of artifacts. And when I say your religion, I mean metaphysical naturalism, not any sort of Christian theism.

      1. “You have a presupposition of naturalism, and that’s fine. But don’t bring it into a debate about science.”

        I have to admit I’m a little confused. In what way can you have “science”, i.e. the empirical investigation of natural phenomena, *without* presupposing naturalism, i.e. the precept that natural phenomena operate according to consistent rules?

        Nor am I claiming that one cannot validly infer intelligent cause in specific types of investigation, only that one (a) cannot do it in strictly empirical analysis and (b) in general that inference has to be made as a premise rather than a conclusion. Archaeology and cryptography, for example, spend far more effort on studying artifacts or breaking codes than on figuring out whether a particular object *is* an artifact, or whether a particular signal *is* a code.

        To be sure I understand your point, what is your contention on the interaction of miracle and mechanism, when it comes to biological complexity? If “theistic evolution” is wrong, and — I assume — both materialism and occasionalism are wrong, what is left?

      2. Some research has shown me that I was completely wrong about the accepted meaning of “naturalism”, which explains much of my confusion. I had thought, as above, it meant merely assuming that nature operated by rules; I had not realized it was a de facto assumption that the supernatural did not exist. (I still contend that empiricism cannot assume supernatural cause to justify any specific hypothesis and still be valid empiricism, but that is a limit on empiricism, not on the supernatural.) My apologies.

      3. In other words, I subscribe to methodological but not metaphysical naturalism purely within the framework of empirical investigation of natural phenomena.

        1. That is more or less what I gleaned from your first post. I thought perhaps you and WK were using different definitions of “naturalism,” but I am not smart enough in that area, so I will ask two questions:

          1. Does your position hold to some philosophical form of principle of causality or Premise 1 of Kalam (everything that begins to exist has a cause) or out of nothing, nothing comes?
          2. Since you mentioned that you are Catholic, what is your view of Robert J. Spitzer’s presentation of the Argument from Unconditioned Reality? I have been fascinated with this proof for about a year now.

          Thanks and God bless!

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