Richard Dawkins visited the University of Oklahoma on March 6, 2009. In the parking lot outside of the field house where he spoke, a van was parked. It was a van for the Thank God For Evolution group. In the logo on the side of the van, a Jesus fish, an extremely common symbol on bumper stickers, was kissing a Darwin fish.
While this sentiment is commendable—who would not want to minimize the unnecessary conflict between evolutionary science and religious objections to it?—it is misleading. It creates the appearance but does not deliver the substance of resolving a conflict.
First, evolution is a science and religion is religion. They do not have the same objectives. Evolutionary science can help to explain the origin of religion and of religions, and science can test religious claims. But science cannot determine which ethical beliefs are right.
Second, a major contradiction remains between evolutionary science and Christianity, no matter which interpretation is used. Evolution is based on natural selection, which is a ruthless, merciless, and often arbitrary process. The losers in the evolutionary struggle may have inferior genes, through no fault of their own; or may simply be experiencing bad luck. And the deaths of the losers in the evolutionary arena are often grisly and painful. How could a God of love and compassion, a God who rewards goodness, use such a process as a method of creation? Nature, in its daily operation as well as its evolutionary history, presents a picture of its creator (or its creative process) that starkly contradicts the Biblical God.
A few years ago, I wrote a book manuscript in which I attempted such a resolution between evolutionary science and Christian belief. (Interestingly, I entitled it “Thank God For Evolution,” the same title that was used more recently by a book that apparently inspired the organization that sponsored the van.) Even Niles Eldredge thought it would be a good book, and told me so. My agent, however, was not interested in it, and in hindsight this was a wise decision for which I am grateful. If I had published this book, I would now be a little bit embarrassed of it, mostly due to its projection of certainty. At the time, I thought I had resolved the conflict; now I know that probably nobody can do so. In that manuscript, I spoke confidently about God, as if anybody could know who or what God is.
The best we can do is to admit the truth and the consequences of evolutionary science; to admit that we cannot define our religious terms; and to make our best efforts to decide for ourselves the ethical principles by which we, and the world, should live. Even an atheist can do this. Atheism does not lead to a rejection of ethics and a pursuit of brutal selfishness. Somebody asked Richard Dawkins (the world’s most famous atheist) if he thought there was any basis for ethical beliefs. While he did not believe there were any transcendent truths, he did note that, all around the world, an ethical consensus is arising: despite ethnic and religious differences, people of many nations now understand that war and oppression and the abuse of the Earth are wrong. It is hard to pinpoint the sources of this ethical consensus, but there it is, and we can believe in it.
This essay first appeared on my website on April 26, 2009.