Some university students recently shared a challenge to their faith thrown at them by an atheist friend. The challenge went something like this: “Religion is just a crutch that evolution gave to help people cope with life in the world so they could survive…nothing more.”
When faced with an objection like this we quickly find ourselves on the defensive trying to justify our faith as something real. In cases like this though, responding directly to the objection itself allows our objector to set the terms of the discussion, forcing any response we give to pass through the filter of their own assumptions. This dooms any response to failure.
In helping these students to reply, one of the suggestions I made was to cut through the rhetoric of the objection itself and identify the assumptions that gave rise to it in the first place. This is where all fruitful discussion needs to start. What follows is the rest of what I had wished I had said given more time to think about the issue.
A Frequent Objection: ‘Religion is just evolutionary adaptation.’
This is a typical charge from evolutionary thinkers. In his book, The Evolution of God, Robert Wright (whose writings have popularized such arguments as stated above) summarizes this perspective:
“Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some “primitive” beliefs may sound – and bizarre as some “modern” religious beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics – they are natural outgrowths of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective output isn’t wholly rational.” (p. 15)
However put, the basic charge is that religious belief is irrational. It is mere ‘psychology’, which is to say it is just the stuff of a person’s mind; much like fear, anger, worry and guilt, etc. These are not things which correspond to artifacts in reality, but simply describe processes taking place in the brain that impact how we think and feel about the world.
Much could be said but to keep things brief, here are two points I think need to be made in order to turn the argument around.
First, Christian faith indeed does meet certain ‘psychological’ needs. I have the need to know that my life was intended for something; that there is a plan and purpose for why I’m here; that the world is not spinning out of control, but that someone is orchestrating the events of history so that there is order instead of chaos; and I have the need to know that there is someone I can ultimately trust my life with. Indeed, faith in Jesus Christ does supply all and more of these ‘psychological’ benefits.
However, to say that they are nothing more than psychology and are therefore ultimately an illusion of my mind can only be justified if in fact there is no God and evolution is responsible for the creation of all life. THAT is the material point upon which this argument rests, and so the discussion needs to move to whether or not it can indeed be shown that evolution has done such a thing. As a theory, evolution can do no such thing. Dallas Willard summarized this point well:
“Evolution, whether cosmic or biological, cannot — logically cannot! — be a theory of ultimate origins of existence or order, precisely because its operations always presuppose the prior existence of certain entities with specific potential behaviors, as well as of an environment of some specific kind that operates upon those entities in some specifically ordered (law-governed) fashion, to determine which ones are allowed to survive and reproduce. Let us quite generally state: any sort of evolution of order of any kind will always presuppose pre-existing order and pre-existing entities governed by it. It follows as a simple matter of logic that not all order evolved. Given the physical world — and however much of evolution it may or may not contain — there is or was some order in it which did not evolve. However it may have originated (if it originated), that order did not evolve, for it was the condition of any evolution at all occurring. We come here upon a logically insurpassable limit to what evolution, however it may be understood, can accomplish.”
No matter what evolutionary theory an objector proposes, that theory gives no knowledge concerning the origin of life; life’s spontaneous beginning through purely natural means is presumed. Upon what basis is it presumed? It is just believed. You might equally ask your friend if this is rational?
The second point to make is to show that the charge of irrationality against religious thinking on the basis that these are mere ‘illusions’ favoured by evolution can likewise be levelled against any thinking that evolutionists consider to be rational. In other words, if evolution could ‘trick’ us once into believing in something ‘false’ like God’s existence, then upon what basis do we trust in our now apparently ‘true’ belief that God doesn’t exist and that we now have a non-illusory understanding of the universe?
In fact, the problem with naturalism (the view upon which evolutionary theory is built) is that it suggests that the truly rational (i.e. man’s reasonable, self-aware and purposeful intelligence) came from the non-rational (i.e. an impersonal, purposeless, random collection of atoms). On evolution then, what ‘rational’ basis do we have to trust in human rationality at all? Such was Darwin’s own concern when he began thinking his theory through. In a letter written to one W. Graham July 3, 1881, Darwin admitted:
“With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
The belittling of Christian faith as intellectual ‘hogwash’ is nothing new and is becoming a common sceptical soundbite, but Christians need to be prepared to disregard the rhetoric and return the discussion to the underlying assumption: namely that ‘evolution is true and this proves God doesn’t exist’. If you can bring your friend back to the point of airing his/her own assumptions, then you have a basis for reasoning together. Don’t take offence; don’t try to belittle back. Simply try to agree upon the material point to be discussed and then gently and respectfully show them that they may not have the corner on true and ‘rational’ knowledge that they thought they had.