View by:  Subject  Theme  Question  Term  Person  Event

Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?

The most recent challenge to theology comes from the emerging fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. They attempt to offer an account of religious behaviour in terms of the reproductive fitness it confers on its adherents. Where religious believers claim that the body of theological wisdom has been in part revealed by God, sociobiology purports to show how all beliefs and practices are a natural human invention, and have been retained because they contribute to the survival of the group. The most outspoken advocate of this view is E.O. Wilson. He expects that “the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.”Qtd. in Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 125.

What difference would it make if Wilson is correct? While it appears that a sociobiological account explains religion away, it also provides a justification for its continuance since it is adaptive - by definition - at least while the environment in which it evolved persists. Other evolutionary thinkers are more hostile. Dennett suggests that religious ideas should be preserved, but in contained environments or in a ‘denatured state.’Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 515.Dawkins, as we might expect, sees no redeeming value in religion at all. As far as he is concerned “the achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't achieve anything, don't even mean anything.”Letter to The Independent. March 20th, 1993.

When we look up at a sky full of stars we are sometimes caught up in the wonder of it, and are tempted to draw upon religious vocabulary in our response. Einstein spoke of his sense of a “cosmic religious feeling.” Peter Atkins, however, an outspoken advocate of the ‘omnicompetence’ of science, offers a different view: “Awe stultifies. Think of the universe as a puff of dust about a metre in diameter. Every dust grain is a galaxy. We live near a rather ordinary star which is a member of a rather ordinary galaxy somewhere insignificant in the puff of dust.”P. W. Atkins, Creation Revisited (Oxford: W.H. Freeman, 1992) 9.The way forward is clear: “Complete knowledge is just within our grasp. Comprehension is moving across the face of the Earth, like the sunrise.”P. W. Atkins, Creation Revisited (Oxford: W.H. Freeman, 1992). 159.Needless to say, Atkins’ comprehension has no need of contributions from religion.

 Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Adrian Wyard

Go to Evolution Topic Index

Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to human uniqueness and status?
A challenge to purpose in creation?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
A challenge to Christian morality?
The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Holmes Rolston III
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix