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Theistic evolution is a theological response to the scientific theory of evolution, aimed at reconciling that theory with religious myths involving a creator deity. Supporters of theistic evolution generally believe in the creator deity unreservedly, and also accept the theory of evolution to varying degrees.

The term "theistic evolution" arose out of the creation vs. evolution debate, which was often portrayed as a choice between atheistic evolution and theistic creationism, with no middle ground.[1] In more recent usage, however, the term is not specific to evolution and can refer to any mixing of theistic beliefs with naturalistic or uniformitarian views.

Proponents

Many supporters of theistic evolution are simply people who have never seen any inherent conflict between belief in God and acceptance of the theory of evolution. Others started out as creationists, but changed their views as they learned more about science and about the evidence for evolution, the age and structure of the universe, and current cosmological theories about the universe's origins.

Scientists who self-identify as religious generally hold some level of theistic evolution. Such scientists include cell biologist Kennith Miller, notable for his work on Kitzmiller v. Dover, and theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne.

Areas of acceptance

There are many variants of theistic evolution, but most share the idea of a deity-assisted abiogenesis followed by an indeterminate amount of time during which evolution took place.

Few religious bodies have formal statements on their position, though many do support the idea that evolution is correct (or at least "correct enough") and should be taught in schools. This is the position taken by many mainline Protestant churches (many of which signed on to the Clergy Letter Project) and some Muslim groups.

Theistic evolution is the accepted official position of the Roman Catholic Church;[2] however, there is little formal discussion of what God did and did not do, or of the distinction between human evolution and the evolution of other animals.

Theological perspectives

Many theists reconcile theism and evolution simply by not reflecting on potential contradictions too deeply, while others go at the problem in a more rigorous manner.

Christianity

As the Old Catholic Encyclopedia points out, a literal interpretation of Genesis was not a common feature of Christianity even in the church's early days.[3] St. Augustine in particular held the view that God had spent six days planning the world's creation, but had burped it all into existence in an instant.

Some biblical scholars [citation needed] have looked to Genesis 1:24, which reads:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

Thus, it is argued, with a bit of hand waving, the Bible could be reinterpreted to mean that God used the agency of the earth (natural law) to "bring forth" living creatures rather than directly "creating" them. This interpretation is discounted by strict biblical literalists.

Islam

Similarly, the Arabic word khalaq, commonly translated as create, can also mean create by small alterations to successive versions of a thing. In the context of the Qu'ran, this can mean that God created humans by guided evolution, and indeed this idea was well recognised in the Middle East in the ninth century.[4]

Forms and interpretations

Different versions of theistic evolution involve differing degrees of divine or intelligent guidance.

Theistic predetermination

The most scientifically accurate view within the theistic evolution spectrum is that an omnipotent, omniscient God created the universe and designed its natural law. This God would know that under this natural law, life, even specifically human life, would be the result.

Many people holding this view do not (or no longer) believe in an Abrahamic "religion centric" god, but rather a deistic or pantheistic god that is as interested in some planet 7 billion light years away, as in anything here on earth[5].

Theistic evolution and natural selection

In the next rung down the ladder, although evolution is still believed to have been carried out wholly by natural selection and mutation, God was still involved in the process, either by ensuring that some mutations would be beneficial, or by kick-starting abiogenesis by supernatural means. As science has yet to put forward a strong case for how life began (there are many interesting hypotheses, but nothing with strong evidence — yet) this leaves plenty of space for the intervention of a god without having to deny any current scientific facts.

Theistic evolution and guided evolution

Further down the spectrum we have guided evolution, which posits that God used evolution to evolve mankind.[6] Similarly to so-called progressive creationism, guided evolution involves God making a series of explicit interventions and genetic modifications were made, all with the aim of producing humanity.

The scale of these interventions is not fully explained and varies; some may claim that God will generate whole new organisms (making humans special and therefore separate from other animals that are wholly natural) while less extreme views may see a god prodding atoms in a gene sequence around (i.e., directly causing mutations), giving them a small, miraculous "helping hand" to be naturally selected and bring the next life form into existence.

Theistic evolution and intelligent design

Adherents of theistic evolution do not try to pretend, as cdesign proponentsists do, that their philosophy is in any way scientific. However, in practical terms, there are many similarities between intelligent design and some forms of theistic evolution; e.g., the belief that a god intervened in the creation and evolution of life.

Followers maintain that the difference lies in the "formal principle": theistic evolution relies primarily on faith, while intelligent design attempts to use reason and evidence. However, from a factual standpoint, both intelligent design and guided evolution would need periodic or constant, unspecified, and supernatural interventions in order to function in reality. Adherents of guided evolution, however, do not deny this.

Criticism

As a via media position, theistic evolution is criticized from both religious and non-religious perspectives.

Creationists

Creationists are very critical of theistic evolution, which they say is a non-Christian doctrine and gives support to naturalism.[7] A Christian university and other Christian schools in America have banned from their classrooms a book about theistic evolution, Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator, by Richard G. Colling.[8]

Atheist thumpers

Accommodationists argue that spending time attacking theistic evolutionists is too harsh; firstly, because they are not actively trying to stifle science education, and secondly, because they do not necessarily deny scientific facts, as creationists must. This, say the accommodationists, means that they can be powerful allies in the fight against creationism, and that encouraging theistic evolution in religious circles, along with the controversial NOMA principle that religion and science can meaningfully coexist, would be better in the long run than discounting religion altogether.

New Atheists, who are less persuaded by NOMA arguments, would maintain that supernatural explanations are simply wrong in principle and that trying to find common ground with holders of magical beliefs is a compromise which helps nobody.

Arguments for theistic evolution

The theistic parts of theistic evolution are often taken on faith alone, without any arguments or reasoning in their favor. This kind of belief in theistic evolution can only be refuted by appeals to world-views such as philosophical naturalism that reject any other ways of knowing.

Arguments that are made in favor of theistic evolution are often the standard arguments for God's existence that are not the teleological argument, and may be refuted in the same way.

Arguments against theistic evolution

A theistic evolutionist should be required to give evidence of cases where God's intervention is necessary to explain the gaps in evolutionary theory. Theistic evolutionists don't agree about where these gaps are. Even if there are reasons for assuming a gap, trying to explain it by proposing that God intervened still raises a challenge to parsimony, as well as consistency. If some natural phenomenon cannot now be fully explained this is in no way positive evidence for theistic evolution - a fact that some theists concede. Why should God be content with natural processes, when they are demonstrably so inefficient?[9] Why was God content for religious believers to remain ignorant of the true nature of evolution and natural processes? Couldn't he have inspired, even in an indirect way, a spirit of inquiry that for example might have lead to atomic theory in ancient Israel? Or did he intend[10] that science would only slowly discover the truth, causing enormous discredit to the religious authorities that tried to suppress it? The whole thing seems terribly convoluted.

Theistic evolution and the problem of evil

Many theistic evolutionists believe in an omnibenevolent God. For those who believe that the problem of evil is an insurmountable problem for theism and that theodicies are a load of dingoes' kidneys, evolution provides a wealth of examples of seemingly unnecessary suffering as species evolved through "Nature red in tooth and claw.[11]

Arguments against guided evolution

One variant of theistic evolution, guided evolution, makes stronger claims that prompt a wider variety of counter-arguments.

For example, guided evolution posits that God's guidance was required for currently existing species to evolve. This implies the existence of gaps where a natural methodology would be unable to explain observations — in other words, this is a classic appeal to the God of the gaps.

An adherent of guided evolution, thus, would need to give evidence of cases where God's intervention is necessary to explain any "gaps" in evolutionary theory. Scientists do not believe that there are any such gaps; but even if there were, trying to explain those gaps by proposing that God intervened raises a challenge to parsimony, not to mention the wrangling over questions such as which god intervened, and how the interventions were carried out.

Occam's Razor

One general counter-argument is that if one accepts that natural selection can explain everything that is observed on its own, without God violating natural law, and if divine intervention is indistinguishable from naturalistic causes, then God becomes an unnecessary hypothesis that should be dispensed with, per Occam's Razor.

Scale of the universe

Another counter-argument involves the scale of the universe. Previously, the earth was thought to be the center of the universe, and the idea that the universe came about with humans as a specific purpose or goal did not seem so far-fetched. These days, thanks to heliocentrism and later developments, our view of the earth is more of — as Douglas Adams put it — a utterly insignificant little blue-green planet orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun lying far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy.

Evolution and the sheer size of the universe strike further blows at the idea of humanity as the ultimate purpose, seeing as how humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of the lifespan of a planet that takes up an infinitesimally small portion of the visible universe. There is no "final product" to the process of evolution itself, which is atelic (goalless).[12] Humans are simply one of millions of species that have been born, walked the earth, and since become extinct over billions of years.

Thus, the counter-argument goes, the more we contemplate the immense span of the cosmos, from the sub-atomic level up through the enormous mostly empty expanse of space-time, the less significant any event (e.g., the foundation of the Temple, the Incarnation, God's revelation to Muhammad, the natural phenomena personified by pagan deities) or personage becomes, and the less likely it becomes that any god would take a special interest in humanity.[13]

Books on theistic evolution

See also

Footnotes

  1. Many scientists including Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, and even Stephen Jay Gould have argued that there is a danger in reducing, or appearing to reduce, the evolution debate to the false dilemma of "God or science — choose".
  2. MESSAGE TO THE PONTIFICAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES: ON EVOLUTION
  3. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_%281913%29/Biblical_Chronology
  4. http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/postmonth/nov96.html
  5. For example, Polkinghorne's Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology (2011)
  6. http://www.religioustolerance.org/evolutio.htm
  7. Theistic Evolution and the Creation-Evolution Controversy by Jerry Bergman
  8. Review by Joseph H. Lechner, Professor of Chemistry
  9. See "Stupid Design" [1].
  10. remember, God is omnipotent and omniscient, so the whole "humans are flawed and have free will" defence doesn't cut it - God would have seen that coming.
  11. Natural selection: God’s tool?
  12. See unguided evolution.
  13. But it is, of course, completely ludicrous to suggest that this subjective view of humans as utterly insignificant stemmed, not from any factual basis, but from the instincts fostered by Protestant notions of total depravity.

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