Evolution and a belief in God are incompatible

NOTE: This was originally posted as a discussion essay on the old RDFRS site in 2010

A long time ago in a college dorm room, I (still a practicing Catholic) was passionately arguing with my roommate (a biblical literalist) and non-religious friend about the subject of evolution and belief in God. My roommate maintained that one could not be a Christian and believe in evolution, simply because it contradicted the obvious meaning of Genesis. I thoroughly disagreed, citing the Church’s position that evolution did not pose a theological problem at all, that Genesis in fact should be interpreted metaphorically and not strictly literally, and that consistency would demand that a literalist Christian should also reject a heliocentric solar system and a round earth. You see, naïve literalist, evolution was just the mechanism that God used to bring about life and eventually us. In fact, the discovery of the amazing process of evolution only enhances the glory of God, as does knowledge of the great size and age of the Universe.

What followed was a discussion on NOMA and what I thought was a fairly convincing explication of the errors of fundamentalism as opposed to the rational and sensible faith of Catholicism and other “moderate” traditions. My roommate’s counterarguments were limited to reiterating his initial argument and claiming that evolution somehow lead to immorality. I smugly chalked it up as a victory.

If only my roommate had understood what he was arguing against, he would have routed me. If I had understood evolution just a little and wished to remain Catholic, I would have found every reason to avoid even thinking about this topic.

My roommate was right but for the wrong reasons. Just listing the basic steps of evolution by natural selection and comparing this process with the traditional attributes of God creates what might be an insoluble conflict. For evolution by natural selection to work, you must have organisms that vary in their ability to survive and reproduce, and some of these differences must be attributable to strong inheritance. It also appears to be a feature of the mechanics of natural selection that in most populations, far more offspring are produced than could possibly survive. This process ineluctably leads to a change of the composition of a population over time, with the offspring of fitter individuals being preferentially represented in each ensuing generation. The variation that natural selection acts upon appears to arise more or less randomly*. There is absolutely no evidence that this process is anything other than mindless and devoid of any ultimate purpose.

This process is the primary explanation for the millions upon millions of species of life that have ever graced this planet. The religious love to point out the beautiful and pleasurable forms (at least in terms of how Homo sapiens would define beauty), but consistency demands that we also consider, for example, less cuddly things like ichneumon wasps and the many parasites that like humans . Were these exactly what God had in mind, or unfortunate surprises? We must consider not only that this process has produced forms of life that live only through the violent destruction of other forms of life, but that it is difficult to see how natural selection could not have produced life forms that make a living this way. We must consider that evolution by natural selection probably wouldn’t work in a population in which there were always enough resources (food, land, sexual partners, etc.) to go around – therefore the process seems to be dependent upon populations outgrowing resources and the competition that results from this. What inevitably follows is pain and death, especially of cute little infant creatures, as a necessary feature of evolution.

Can this be reconciled with an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good and compassionate God? If the process contains a random element, then God cannot foresee all of its consequences, including the emergence of us. If God wished to create life that was free of pain and suffering, then why use a process that virtually guarantees it? Is being eaten alive an indispensable aspect of the condition of living? Must there be carnivores, parasites, and infanticide? Why bring about life in the first place?

Did God have multiple options in bringing about the immense diversity of life that He apparently so desired? If yes, what was wrong with separate creation? If the goal is to have about a million species of beetles, then why not just create them all at once? In what way was separate creation of each species (or type or kind or whatever) an inferior method to evolution by natural selection, especially as it would have irrefutably announced the presence of a designer? I can’t believe that this was simply an arbitrary decision among several equally perfect alternatives.

If God wanted organisms to have specific functions and modes of living, why not design them perfectly that way from the ground up, instead of relying on a mindless process to jerry-rig suboptimal design?

This argument goes beyond stating that evolution makes God unnecessary. I am stating that evolution by natural selection, as we currently understand it, precludes a belief in a God with attributes as described by the three great monotheisms. It seems to go against the very nature of such a being.

*Random with respect to variations that are adaptive. Some scientists have suggested that the term “blind” is a better descriptor than “random”.

God and perfection

The 20th century discovery that the known Universe actually had a beginning seemed to give succor to those who attempt to formulate rational arguments for God’s existence. It is our common sense notion that if something began to exist, it did not just pop into existence out of nothing. It could not have been self-created or self-caused. Something, or Someone, external to it must have been responsible.

Even more importantly, this fact of a beginning seems to be consistent with traditional creation stories. Scientific confirmation of Genesis! Or Pangu and the egg.

But I’m not going to use this discussion to revisit all of the valid philosophical and scientific explanations for how a Universe really could come into existence from “nothing”, absent a creator (this has been dealt with far more competently by others).

What I what to point out is that a Universe that begins to exist seems to pose problems for at least one attribute that theists often attribute to their God. That attribute is perfection.

Before (if that is the right word) the physical Universe was formed, the immaterial reality that existed was by definition perfect, because God is perfect. There could have been nothing lacking in this reality; no possible room for improvement. No reason to change.  Then, for some reason, the perfect God altered reality by creating an imperfect physical Universe.

Now, had the imperfect physical Universe always existed, perhaps as some necessary manifestation of God’s nature, then there might be a way to reconcile these two things. Maybe the analogy of “without darkness, there is no light” could be wheeled out to explain why evil must always exist with good, why suffering must accompany happiness.

I find the above argument specious (I don’t need to experience abject suffering to know happiness), but not even that rickety old argument is available explain why a perfect God, doing just fine in infinity without darkness and evil and this mystical necessity of yin/yang, would suddenly BRING INTO existence an imperfect Universe.

The theist might push back that our definition of perfection is off. Perhaps perfection does not necessarily mean unchanging or static, that there may be different versions of perfection, and therefore perfection does not rule out creative acts. A perfect being can choose to alter a perfect reality into a different kind of perfect reality. In fact, the theist might turn this around and note that by definition, anything a perfect being does must somehow be perfect, including bringing material Universes and sinful creatures into existence.

But is this explanation just doing violence to the meaning of perfection? God was not merely changing the paint color of reality – by engaging in an additive, creative act, He was bringing something into existence to fulfill a specific purpose, to achieve an end. So can a state of reality with unfulfilled ends (which was certainly the case before the existence of the Universe and is probably the case now, as the Universe still contains imperfect beings) be just as perfect as one with fulfilled ends? It does not seem to follow.

Maybe perfection simply means “without error”. An unfulfilled end is not really an error or mistake. But it is a state of incompleteness, which is also contrary to the concept of perfection.

Or, the theist might focus on the concept of love. Perfect God did not have to do a bloody thing; rather, he freely chose to create beings to be objects of his perfect self-giving love. Everything is still perfect. Except that it isn’t, because many of these imperfect beings will fail to accept that love, which is of course a worse state of affairs. We are still back at the same contradiction.

Perhaps it is an error to conflate God with the Universe. God is perfect, the Universe isn’t, but God is separate from the Universe. Of course, this falls apart immediately – God is supposed to be omnipresent, and we still have the problem of perfection begetting imperfection.

Maybe there is no contradiction and it is a fallacy to assert that there is. Perhaps the Universe as a whole is perfect even though some of its components, like Satan or the DMV, are not. But how could independent, imperfect agents such are ourselves aggregate with the other aspects of the universe to create “perfection”?

The theist believes that a state of reality with a perfect God, maximal love and no material Universe, is just as perfect as a state of reality with a perfect God plus a material Universe containing imperfect beings, evil, and unfulfilled ends. I think that this is an utterly incoherent statement.

If God was really perfect, then we would not be here. It’s not like we would have been missed.

It’s far more rational to ditch this notion of a perfect God than to shoehorn it into an imperfect Universe that began to exist.

I gained weight (and empathy)

I thought that this would be a great way to kick off the blog.

So I now have man tits, but I gained some insight. I’ll explain what I mean, but first some history. For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced life as a lean, athletic person. The term “overweight” was an alien concept to me, and never in a million years did I think that I would approach obesity. In fact, like so many young American males, I spent my teenage years worrying that I wasn’t big enough. At age 19, I’d reached my present height of around 185 centimeters (6 ft.), but tipped the scales at a mere 80 kilos soaking wet. This was despite a fairly intense regimen of weight training, regular trips to Old Country Buffet, and mass gainer shakes. In those days, I could put away an entire large Papa John’s pizza in one sitting and be hungry again two hours later. Gaining those extra kilos seemed extraordinarily difficult, and I cursed my ectomorphic body and humming-bird metabolism.

Fast forward a few years into my mid-twenties. I’m working long hours and starting to go weeks at a time without strenuous exercise. I’m still eating like a 15 year old. The pants are definitely getting tighter; I hop on the scale and we are now up to 87 kilos. I pinch my abdomen and upper chest and I’m not happy.   In the weeks that follow, I’m at the gym or on the basketball court much more regularly, and my weight rapidly stabilizes at a very lean 82-83 kilos. As I was a single guy at the time, I’m still eating garbage and drinking (excessively) on the weekends, but those few hours a week of regular exercise are more than enough to ward off any weight gain.

Throughout the rest of my twenties and into my early thirties, I was able to more or less continue to eat and drink whatever I wanted without gaining any excess body fat, provided I put some time in each week at the gym. After I discovered a certain Mark Rippetoe and his Starting Strength program around 2006/2007, and finally learned how to train with weights effectively, I consistently weighed a solid 87-89 kilos. This actually represented a legitimate gain in muscular bodyweight; in fact, my waist size was almost back to where it was at age 19. Although Rip would probably have said that I need another 30 lbs, I was completely satisfied with my physical appearance and fitness levels, and I hadn’t even cleaned up my diet yet! With a little effort, I could easily maintain this general physique for decades.

Or so I thought.

As of today, I weigh 98 kilos. A little less than a year ago, I was still at a respectable 89 kilos. Seemingly out of nowhere, I’ve gained almost 20 lbs. All of this weight gain is centered around my abdomen and upper chest. With a BMI just over 29, I’m not only overweight, I’m a couple of Stellas away from being technically obese.

What happened? Did I return to my old eating habits? Granted, due to a new job I have been working longer hours and exercising less. But this should have been offset by my much improved and responsible adult diet, one that no longer includes significant liquid calories in the form of soda or beer. Clearly, as I have passed beyond my mid-thirties, something has gone awry in the fine-tuning between my appetite and calorie needs. Gaining weight is now effortless. Hi middle age, nice to meet you.

After initially feeling a bit depressed and frustrated about this situation, I reflected on my attitudes towards, well, overweight people. First and foremost, I now had to deal with an implicit, lifelong assumption that people who are significantly overweight were manifesting some underlying character flaw. This seemed especially true when I saw overweight younger people. If you would have asked my 25 year-old self at a bar, hanging out with my other lean friends, about my opinion of the sizable number of overweight twentysomething’s surrounding us, I might have given you a polite-sounding explanation about how the combination of our modern lifestyle and unfavorable genetics make it tough for some people to maintain a healthy weight. But secretly I would have suspected that sloth and lack of self-control were mainly to blame. After all, I had experienced my own bit of weight gain, and I corrected it in short order. Couldn’t these people just make some simple lifestyle changes and lose a few pounds?

Yet this dismissive and sneering attitude would not be justified when applied to my present self. My recent transformation into a fat person coincided with one of the most disciplined periods in my professional life. That 25 year-old was a disorganized, procrastinating underachiever who only got things done in the midst of a panic-fueled sprint to the finish. Older, tubbier me is infinitely more reliable and competent, and with much more on his plate than worrying about which club to hit on Friday night. But when this older, sleep-deprived chap does have time to exercise, it is harder by an order of magnitude. And his knees hurt. Self-discipline is not really the problem.

Now, I’m not discounting the fact that the main reasons for my weight gain are due to factors that are under my control. Given this new disconnect between my feelings of satiety during meals and my actual calorie needs, I have to find ways to increase my level of activity, and my diet must improve even further. Unlike Mr. Louie, I have high hopes that my physiology will right itself, and that I will get back to a healthy, hopefully boobless weight. But it won’t be nearly as easy as it was to lose those few pounds a decade ago. I’ll give updates as I reach that goal.

I no longer reflexively view overweight people as indolent, lazy, or other such nonsense. Some of them may happen to be, but so are a lot of thin people. Issues with delayed gratification and motivation are probably a lot more evenly distributed among the fat and the thin than I previously thought. Most overweight people are likely dealing with legitimate obstacles similar to those I’m now experiencing. I’m ashamed that I was not able to recognize this before it hit affected me personally, but better late than never.

Thanks, man-boobs.