Is Evolution a Threat to Religious Belief?

Michael Shermer -- with whose views I often agree -- posts at Huffington Post about the evolutionism/creationism debates; and in the process he says two things that strike me as worth considering together:

The primary reason we are experiencing this peculiarly American phenomenon of evolution denial (the doppelganger of Holocaust denial), is that a small but vocal minority of religious fundamentalists misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions.

OK, sounds plausible on its own (though I’ll say some more about it later) -- the theory of evolution doesn’t speak to whether God exists or what he has done, but simply aims to explain how things likely happened, and if you believe that God made them happen that way, that’s something the theory just doesn’t discuss. But here’s another quote from earlier in the piece (emphasis added):

In March of 2001 the Gallup News Service reported the results of their survey that found 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while 37 percent preferred a blended belief that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” and a paltry 12 percent accepted the standard scientific theory that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”
(For more on this poll, see here.)

Well, if “the standard scientific theory” is that “God had no part” in the process of evolution -- not just that human beings developed in a particular way, but that God didn’t guide this -- then it seems to me that the theory of evolution is a challenge to many people’s deeply held religious convictions. And that’s so not just as to the young-earthers who believe the Earth was created several thousand years ago, but also to people who are willing to embrace the scientific evidence but see the guiding hand of God in the process.

What’s more, how exactly do scientists come to the conclusion that “God had no part in this process”? What’s their proof? That’s the sort of thing that can’t really be proved, it seems to me -- which makes it sound as if scientists, despite their protestations of requiring proof rather than faith, make assertions about God that they can’t prove.

And on top of that, if the standard scientific theory is that “God had no part in this process,” then the opponents of evolution are right -- the standard theory of evolution may not be taught in the schools. The Court has repeatedly said that the Establishment Clause bars both government endorsement and disapproval of religion. Teaching that God exists and teaching that God doesn’t exist are both unconstitutional in government-run schools. Likewise, if teaching that God created humans is unconstitutional, so is teaching that God had no part in creating humans.

Now here’s what I think Mr. Shermer is driving at by saying that “God had no part in this process” is the standard scientific theory: The standard theory tries to explain how humans might have evolved without calling on God as an explanation. This isn’t because scientists can prove that God doesn’t exist in any logical or even empirical sense of “prove.” Nor is it because assuming that God had no part in the process is more consistent with the facts than assuming that he did have a part in the process; the God assumption is perfecty consistent with the facts. Nor is it even because in some abstract sense omitting God yields the simplest explanation; “God did it” (3 words!) is a much simpler explanation than the theory of evolution.

Rather, looking for naturalistic causes is standard scientific operating procedure because it seems more likely to produce more useful results, and has in the past produced useful results. Science can’t prove to us that there are no angels pushing planets around the sky; maybe they do push the planets around, though in extremely regular patterns. But if you look for a naturalistic explanation, you’re more likely to come up with useful, predictive explanations of the world than “the angels are doing it.”

In that sense, the theory may be described as “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and we can explain that without bringing in God’s intervention.” Many scientists conclude that this explanation makes it more plausible that God had no part in the process. Others may conclude that if there’s no evidence supporting the existence of some influence, it’s methodologically more useful to assume that the influence doesn’t exist until some supporting evidence is found. Still others may use “God had no part in this process” as shorthand for “God had no observable part in this process.”

Nonetheless, the phrasing that the poll used -- and the one that Mr. Shermer endorsed as the scientifically proper theory -- didn’t include these subtleties. It essentially asked people to decide whether, given that they thought that humans evolved from less advanced life forms, “God guided this process” (which could include the most indirect sort of guidance, perhaps guidance that yields results identical to the naturalistically predicted results, or guidance in the form of having created the world that yielded this process) or “God had no part” -- not an indirect part, but no part at all -- “in this process.” Small wonder that many religious Americans, even those who are quite happy to accept evolution, preferred the approach that’s consistent with the theory of evolution but that let them acknowledge their religious faith. And small reason, it seems to me, to complain. (The “created in the last 10,000 years” group, on the other hand, is definitely reason to complain.)

In fact, science is deeply subversive of religious belief in what one might call “descriptive religion” (religious claims that purport to describe what exists, what happened, what is happening, or what will happen, as opposed to purporting to make normative assertions about what’s morally right and morally wrong). This is not because science in some logical sense disproves such assertions. Rather, the scientific mindset, for better or worse, leads people to find descriptive religious claims less plausible.

The more science explains processes that were once thought to be divinely or supernaturally operated (the movement of the planets, the spread of disease), the more likely it is, I think, that people will be skeptical of other claims of divine or supernaturally operated processes; that’s not a logical mandate, but it is a psychological effect. The more science trains people to be skeptical about descriptive claims in the absence of evidence that leads us to endorse those claims, the more people will question things that they are asked to take on faith. There are certainly scientists who are religious (even in the “descriptive religion” sense); it is possible to have a scientific worldview but believe in descriptive religion. But the spread of scientific habits and principles makes it less likely that people will accept descriptive religion.

Yet scientific popularizers and educators have to deal with the fact that in our society, many people are still religious, and still accept descriptive religion (at least ostensibly). If the popularizers and educators describe science as taking no stand on the existence or influence of God, and as leaving such questions to others, I think they’ll have great success; and, whether they want to or not, they will indeed further undermine descriptive religion. But if they insist, in my view unnecessarily, that the standard scientific theory does take a stand that God is not influencing the world -- and that accepting evolution as the best scientific hypothesis while seeing God’s hand in its operation is an inferior conclusion that is worthy of scientific criticism -- then they will encounter much more resistance.

I have turned on comments; please, keep them polite, substantive, on-topic, and nonobvious.