Does Accepting Evolution Require Atheism?

Evolution and Atheism

Church in Brooklyn, stop sign and one way sign
Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images

One thing which seems to cause many people to be inclined to reject evolution is the idea, perpetuated by fundamentalists and creationists, that evolution and atheism are deeply intertwined. According to such critics, accepting evolution necessarily leads a person to be an atheist (along with associated things communism, immorality, etc.). Even some concern trolls who claim to want to defend science say atheists should be quiet lest they give the impression that evolution contradicts theism.

Evolution & Life

The problem is, none of this is true. Contrary to what many critics so often claim, evolution has nothing to say about the origins of the universe, the world, or life itself. Evolution is about the development of life; a person can accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity and development of life on Earth while also believing that the Earth and life on it were first caused by God.

The methodologies used to arrive at and defend these two positions may be contradictory, but this doesn’t entail that the details of those positions must also be contradictory. As a result, there is no reason why a person cannot be a theist and also accept the theory of evolution.

Evolution & Atheism

Even if evolution does not cause a person to necessarily be an atheist, doesn't it at least incline a person to become an atheist? This is a more difficult question to answer. In reality, there seems to be little evidence that this is the case — millions and millions of people on the planet are theists who accept evolution, including many biologists and even biologists who are directly involved with research on evolution.

This suggests that we cannot conclude that acceptance of the theory of evolution inclines a person to atheism.

That doesn't mean that there is no legitimate point being raised here. Although it is true that evolution is not about the origins of life, and hence the way is left open for a god to be thought responsible for that, the fact remains that the process of evolution itself is incompatible with so many of the attributes traditionally ascribed to God in the West.

Why would the god of Christianity, Judaism or Islam produce us humans through a process which has required such untold death, destruction, and suffering over the course of hundreds of millennia? Indeed, what reason is there to think that we humans are the purpose of life on this planet — we've only taken up a small fraction of time here. If were-were to use time or quantity and a standard of measurement, other life forms are much better candidates for the "purpose" of terrestrial life; moreover, maybe the "purpose" is yet to come and we are but one more stage on that path, no more or less important than any other.

Evolution & Religion

Thus while accepting evolution may not cause atheism or even necessarily make atheism more likely, there is a good chance that it will at least force a revision of what one thinks about their theism. Anyone who consciously considers and accepts evolution should think about it long and hard enough to cause them to seriously question some of their traditional religious and theistic beliefs. Such beliefs may not be abandoned, but they may not continue untouched.

At least, that would be the ideal if people not only thought long and hard about science, but more importantly about the implications science has for any traditional beliefs — religious, scientific, social, economic, etc.

The sad fact is, though, that too few people do this. Instead, most people seem to just compartmentalize: they hold beliefs about science in one place, beliefs about religion in another, and the two never meet. The same is true about methodologies: people accept scientific standards for empirical claims generally, but hold empirical claims about religion in a place where scientific principles and standards don't get applied.