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Is Evolution Wedded to Atheism?

To the significant credit of Expelled, it acknowledges that there are at least two different debates involved in what is often thought of as the singular “ID controversy.” The first is a scientific claim about the adequacy of evolutionary theory versus alternatives proposed by ID advocates and others. The second is a philosophical dispute, not just about Creator or no Creator - this we’ve always had - but also over whether evolutionary science is necessarily wedded to atheism. The movie takes a very clear stand on this crucial question. Despite what some compromisers “would lead us to believe,” Ben Stein says, it “appears Darwinism does lead to atheism.”

This is a hugely important claim, which is undoubtedly the core issue in the cultural debate over ID. It is the reason the ID movement musters such passionate commitment and why it is, in fact, a “movement” at all. In the movie, ID proponent Jeffrey Schwartz concludes, “The conflict over the principles of evolution has become a religious war; it is no longer a conflict over science.” Whether or not the debate was ever primarily over science, the film is correct in identifying it as being a world-view conflict that is largely religious in character. The question we desperately need to address is whether this is a conflict that must be fought, and what is the evidence presented in the movie for going to battle? Does Darwinism “lead to atheism”?

To start with, a crucial contribution of the film is its making abundantly clear something that should be but has not always been clear to the public at large: it is not just ID advocates, but also many of the world’s leading evolutionists who think Darwinism is completely incompatible with theism or any other tenets of the major religions. Cornell historian of biology and AAAS Fellow William Provine, interviewed in the film, famously asserts that the clear implications of naturalistic evolution are “no gods worth having exist, no life after death exists, no ultimate foundation for ethics exists, no ultimate meaning in life exists.”William Provine, "Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life." Second Annual Darwin Day Celebration, University of Tennessee Knoxville. February 12, 1998. (http://eeb.bio.utk.edu/darwin/Archives/1998ProvineAbstract.htm)... Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and numerous other prominent interpreters of evolution make similar claims in the public square. In an exquisitely painful interview sequence - which I must confess to having taken some enjoyment in - Dawkins is made to look arrogant, superficial, and foolish as he vacillates between brandishing his ideas and squirming under their scrutiny. The interview appeared to me like it was set-up under false pretenses (something the film’s supporters deny, but a charge that, along with claims of other misrepresentations, Dawkins spends the majority of his response to the film making - fairly convincingly, if whiningly.)Richard Dawkins, "Lying for Jesus?" (http://richarddawkins.net/article,2394,Lying-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins). For more comment on the issue of misrepresentation, see the last section of this... For better or worse, Dawkins does get just a measure of the scorn he so lavishly dished out in his own highly contrived anti-religion documentary, Root of All Evil.

But should we be seeking to mete out scorn for scorn in the public intellectual arena? And tactics aside, none of this dialogue demonstrates evolution and religion must conflict, only that some polemicists say they do. Indeed, the film cuts to an extended disparagement of Dawkins by anti-Darwinian popular writer, David Berlinski, who eloquently if virulently chastises him for being philosophically bungling and utterly inept. Yet this contribution to the nascent tradition of Dawkins-bashing - a tradition increasingly celebrated by the religious and irreligious alike - actually works against the movie’s claims. If Dawkins really is philosophically incompetent, why should anything he says about evolution’s metaphysical implications carry any weight at all? Physicist-priest John Polkinghorne, one of the most esteemed scholars of science and religion featured in the movie, rightly reminds us that “metaphysical claims need to be defended with metaphysical arguments.” Dawkins doesn’t provide such arguments. And neither does anyone else in the movie.

Now even without argument, it is clear by inspection that atheism must entail evolution: for anyone who rejects the possibility of an intelligence behind the cosmos, there is no viable alternative to some sort of naturalistic evolutionary account of origins. But the reverse - that evolution requires or logically leads to atheism as Stein claims - well, this is not clear without argument. For a film wanting to engage a popular audience, it’s not surprising that it raises this issue via personal stories of individuals who (now claim to have) lost some kind of theistic belief upon encountering evolution. But for a film that not only raises the question but ends up endorsing a conclusion, two things seem to be lacking.

First, conspicuously absent are any personal stories on the other side, that could have been drawn from thousands of scientists who simultaneously accept evolution and embrace a vibrant religious faith, many of whom testify that their belief in God has actually been deepened in light of evolutionary science and the grandeur of life’s history. This is a regrettable omission, particularly in light of the fact that the film’s own promotional materials emphatically claim, “Unlike some other documentary films, Expelled doesn't just talk to people representing one side of the story.”Expelled press release, (http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/08-22-2007/0004649742&EDATE=) But an important side of the story is entirely unrepresented - that which could be told by any one of the internationally prominent Christian biologists who have recently made major contributions as “Mercutios” by arguing evolution and faith don’t have to be at odds.Specifically, Francis Collins, head of Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God; Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, author of Life’s Destiny; Ken Miller, author of the best-selling...Richard Dawkins criticizes this as the “Neville Chamberlain option” of appeasement, and in his movie review, ID proponent Tom Bethell points out that, on this point, “The advocates of intelligent design agree with him...”Bethell’s American Spectator review, linked from Discovery. (http://www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=12759) So what Expelled ends up presenting is, in fact, just one side of the crucial “Darwin -> Atheism?” debate, upon which the militant Darwinists and anti-Darwinists happen to agree.

Maybe though, in spite their scientific accomplishments, the Mercutios don’t really understand evolution. In his film review that comments on this point, President of the ID-sponsoring Discovery Institute (DI), Bruce Chapman, claims something worse than simple misunderstanding is going on. Chapman contends that “scholars seeking a compromise” by suggesting “God did the creating, but did it through Darwinian evolution,” have allowed their imaginations to construct “a form of comforting self-delusion.”Bruce Chapman, "An intelligent discussion about life." The Seattle Times, April 17, 2008. Quote is from a footnoted version at: http://www.discovery.org/a/4522

And here is the second lack. I may scandalize my colleagues by suggesting this, but the problem is actually not that Chapman, or Bethell, or Dawkins, is entirely wrong. Some interpretations of Darwinian theory are indeed incompatible with some understandings of divine purpose, and waving the wand of happy imaginings does not make conflicts disappear. The trick is to see where the genuine as opposed to manufactured conflicts are, which ones can be solved by the concessions reason recommends, and which ones cannot be avoided without conceding reason itself. A popular film cannot resolve these issues, but Expelled, like Dawkins, doesn’t seem to let on that these are issues at all. What appears to be waved off without consideration is even the possibility of mutually enriching commerce between faith and evolution.

“Implicit in most evolutionary theory is either there is no God or he can’t have anything to do with the world,” the typically very fair-minded journalist Larry Witham asserts in the movie. But this provocative comment could have been used to stimulate rather than settle conversation. Hmm...most evolutionary theory? If such implications do exist, but don’t exist for all versions, how do we distinguish between the ones that do and don’t harbor atheism? How do we know it’s “most,” and would it make a difference if it were only “some”, or even “just a few crackpot extremes”? How could a scientific theory, which just offers an account of how nature operates, ever tell us - even if it’s a wrong theory about how the world works - that there is no God beyond the world’s workings? Or if there is a God, why would belief that certain features of the world are explainable by natural law, mean that God has “nothing to do” with those features or the law that supports them?

Again, there are limits to what can be addressed in a general interest film, but the public is eager to engage and able to have fun with questions about science and meaning. It would have been thrilling to see a theism-friendly, sophisticated exploration of these issues. And even if Expelled wanted to take a very strong stand on an extreme answer to the questions, that would have been stimulating. But the stand seems to have been taken, without letting in the questions. At least on this question - “does evolution lead to atheism?” - the movie seems to have forgotten the Proverb. I don’t happen to think all ID theorists are intellectual terrorists. But ironically, in failing to distinguish genuine enemies of religion from passionate advocates of evolutionary theory - by pitting itself against the evil empire of Darwinism - this part of the film seems to confirm the very stereotype it seeks to debunk.

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