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”.