Part 3: Does Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Lead to Atheism?
This short series probes the differences in understanding between the general public and the academic sphere in the following three claims:
- Science leads to certainty
- Darwin’s theory of evolution is indisputable
- Darwin’s theory of evolution leads to atheism.
In the first article, we discussed the nature of science itself and the fallacy of reinterpreting Islam to follow it. In the second article we analysed some of Darwinian evolution’s biggest criticisms—which happen to be from evolutionary biologists.
In this article, we will discuss the third claim in the list above, propounded by some who do not understand the intellectual foundations of science itself, in light of what evolutionary biolists and atheist thinkers themselves say.
Claim 3: Darwin’s theory of evolution leads to atheism
In The Blind Watchmaker, one of the most popular books on evolution, Richard Dawkins writes:
“Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
When the average person with no training in biology or philosophy reads this statement from a well-known academic, they are likely to simply accept it. As social creatures, we like to unquestionably accept what is given to us by those in apparent authority. Through the above statement, Dawkins firmly links atheism and Darwinism, and he is not alone. Millions of people today believe that one leads to the other.
Yet again, there is a large gap between the public and the academic understanding of evolutionary science. Dawkins here is stating his personal views on evolution, which are not the findings of biology, but instead his atheism colouring the biology. Most people mistake statements coming from scientists as scientific statements. This is, of course, not true. A scientist may have a worldview of atheism, theism, agnosticism, or any other -ism. However, they should be careful not to mix their beliefs with science when talking to the public. There is nothing in Darwin’s theory that entails atheism or proves that design is an illusion. The above statement by Dawkins is a mixture of oil and water – good biology with bad theology.
Despite being an atheist, the philosopher of biology Elliott Sober gives the correct understanding between the intersection of God and Darwinism:
“Theistic evolutionists can of course be deists, holding that God starts the universe in motion and then forever after declines to intervene. But there is no contradiction in their embracing a more active God whose post-Creation interventions fly under the radar of evolutionary biology. Divine intervention isn’t part of science, but the theory of evolution does not entail that none occur.”
This should not come as a surprise if one understands how science works. Science uses observations to create and test hypotheses and theories. By definition, God is a unseen Being, so any direct observation of Him is impossible. Anyone that claims that God is disproven by anything in science – whether through Darwinian evolution or quantum mechanics – is clearly mistaken. As the philosopher of science Hugh Gauch explains, the idea that “science supports atheism is to get high marks for enthusiasm but low marks for logic.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that people think that science leads to atheism is because scientists do not include God as a cause or an active agent when they provide explanations for natural phenomena. However, this does not mean that God does not exist. Mechanics can tell you how your car works and can explain the fuel consumption, electronics, gearing system, braking mechanics, air conditioning, and other mechanical aspects of your car. While these are natural explanations of how the car works, it does not entail that the car has no designer. Likewise, scientists use natural explanations when they set out to give us accounts of how the world works. This is known as methodological naturalism.
All scientists are methodological naturalists when doing science. This means that they only refer to ‘natural’ causes and natural effects. God is not allowed to be invoked in science as per the rule of methodological naturalism, but this does not mean that God does not exist. The evolutionary biologist Scott Todd highlights this point:
‘‘Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic. Of course the scientist, as an individual, is free to embrace a reality that transcends naturalism.”
On the other hand, philosophical naturalism is the idea that nature is all that exists and God does not exist. Methodological naturalism is not the same as philosophical naturalism; the former does not entail the latter. The confusion is when these two types of naturalism are conflated. People imagine that since scientists do not refer to God, God does not exist. This is fallacious thinking.
Despite being a proponent of atheism, the philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci explains this difference:
“The fallacy lies in the fact that most people—including, alas, prominent science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins—do not make the subtle but crucial distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.”
Pigliucci, like other philosophers of science, conclude that science does not demand any commitment to atheism.
Although popularisers like Dawkins promote the idea that Darwinism somehow disproves God, Darwin himself would have strongly disagreed! Darwin was never an atheist, and it would come as a surprise to him that his theory is being used as an argument for God’s non-existence. Darwin wrote:
“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.”
Darwin was initially a Christian before becoming a deist. Deists believe that God exists, but they do not believe in any religion, miracles, or life after death. Darwin remained a deist while writing his theory of evolution. Even after he published On the Origin of Species, he was a firm believer in God.
In fact, in his own autobiography, Darwin wrote that not only was it possible to fully accept evolution by natural selection and the existence of God, but that this was the position that he himself held. Later on in life, Darwin moved away from belief in God and became agnostic. This change was because of the problem of evil, an issue that always made him uncomfortable. He went through many personal tragedies, including the death of his beloved children. Nevertheless, he still maintained that his theory did not undermine God. The connection between atheism and Darwin’s theory is a missing link, and although popular, it is not something that can be academically justified.
Some atheists argue that Darwin was actually an atheist pretending to be an agnostic, and that he did believe that his theory leads to atheism. These atheists argue that Darwin softened his stance towards God and the implications of his theory due to public pressure. There are three problems with this argument.
Firstly, there is no evidence that Darwin was an atheist, so this speculation is simply baseless. Darwin had already renounced Christianity publicly and had argued that a literal reading of the Bible could not be correct. If he took such bold steps, why would he hide his atheism? Since he already challenged a conservative Victorian society, he had nothing to lose. In fact, he publicly disagreed with those who used his theory to support atheism at his time.
Secondly, even if he was an atheist and believed his theory leads to atheism, he would be wrong. This is because science, as we have mentioned, only deals with observables. How can a theory based on observations of the natural world disprove the unobservable Creator?
Lastly, what we find in Darwin’s personal writings is quite the opposite to what we would expect if he was an atheist. In a letter to John Fordyce in 1879, only three years before his death, Darwin wrote:
“What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”
The upshot is that belief in God is not undermined by Darwinian evolution or any other theory in science, which itself does not have the capacity to challenge God. This statement is not anti-science – it is simply a matter of fact. In today’s world, we benefit enormously from scientific achievements that have helped us to live longer and more comfortably. Science has enriched us with knowledge unknown to previous generations, so science and scientists are often venerated. However, they should not be venerated to the extent that we subscribe to scientism (excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge). Science is a great tool, but it has limits and cannot do everything. Science is based on mathematics and logic, which cannot be proven by science as it depends on them to function.
Science cannot tell us why the Pythagorean theorem a2 + b2 = c2 is the way it is. Science uses inductive and deductive logic, but it cannot explain how it is that logic works the way it does. Science cannot tell us if giving charity is good or if kicking an animal is bad. Science cannot tell us anything about moral facts, aesthetic judgements, metaphysical truths, whether historical figures existed, or even what to do with scientific knowledge and if it is good to pursue science in the first place! Science also cannot tell us why science works – you need philosophy for that.
If we understand science and how it works, together with its philosophy and history, we will not fall into the mistake of thinking that science – or any product of science such as Darwinism – can oust God. An understanding of the philosophy of science and of Darwinian evolution shows us that the theory of evolution is not literally true, although it may be the best naturalistic and scientific account that we have at this time.
There is a difference between the academic and public understanding of science generally, and evolution specifically. The public might imagine that science gives us the truth, yet an academic understanding shows us that nothing in science is set in stone. Darwinian evolution as a product of science is not (and could never be) eternal truth. The philosophy of science teaches us that we can always gain a new observation that can challenge our previous theories, while the history of science shows us that many successful theories in the past have since been disproven.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is a working model. It is a valid scientific theory, not a fact in the sense of being absolute, certain, and unchangeable. Darwin’s theory is based on a probabilistic framework, which has assumptions, and there are disputes about its core ideas. The popular idea that evolution undermines the existence of God is simply wrong. Science only deals with observable phenomena, and God by definition is unobservable. Understanding the philosophical foundations of science is very important because that is how we get a clearer picture of what science can and cannot do.
Atheists and agnostics should recognise that science does not (and cannot) negate God. Not only does science not lead to atheism, but atheism does not necessarily lead to science. An atheist may choose whether or not to pursue scientific knowledge about the natural world. The Islamic tradition has historically not just been very open to scientific enquiry, but made significant contributions to the sciences and the scientific method itself (which will be the subject of a future article, God willing). For many people, it was (and still is) a path that leads one closer to God – a path rooted in the prime source of Islam: the Qur’ān.
“The revelation of this Book is from God—the Almighty, All-Wise. Surely in [the creation of] the heavens and the earth are signs for the believers. And in your own creation, and whatever living beings He dispersed, are signs for people of sure faith. And [in] the alternation of the day and the night, the provision sent down from the skies by God—reviving the earth after its death—and the shifting of the winds, are signs for people of understanding. These are God’s revelations which We recite to you in truth. So what message will they believe in after [denying] God and His revelations?”
In Islam, the purpose of life is to know God. Through this, one can glorify, love, and gladly accept the wisdom of Divine guidance into one’s life. Through deep thinking about God’s creation and studying it to benefit humanity, one embarks on a path of deep insight and profound understanding that evokes a sense of gratitude, wonder, and awe of the Creator that leaves the one immersed in it complete and filled with noble purpose.
The question, “Should we change Islam to fit with Darwinism?” is therefore replaced with, “Why should we change a timeless truth to fit an evolving theory?”
 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1986, Norton,p6
 Elliott Sober, Evolution without Naturalism. 2011, Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. p11
 Hugh G. Gauch, Jr. Scientific Method in Brief. 2012, Cambridge University Press. p. 98.
 Scott C Todd, correspondence to Nature 401(6752):423, 1999
 Massimo Pigliucci, Science and Society, 2005, Science and Fundamentalism
 Al-Qur’ān 45:2-6