Evolution, Religion and Free Will

In the July-August 2007 issue of American Scientist, Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine published an article entitled “Evolution, Religion and Free Will” from which I quote the conclusion: “Only 10 percent of the eminent evolutionary scientists who answered the poll saw an inevitable conflict between religion and evolution. The great majority see no conflict between religion and evolution, not because they occupy different, noncompeting magisteria, but because they see religion as a natural product of human evolution. Sociologists and cultural anthropologists, in contrast, tend toward the hypothesis that cultural change alone produced religions, minus evolutionary change in humans. The eminent evolutionists who participated in this poll reject the basic tenets of religion, such as gods, life after death, incorporeal spirits or the supernatural. Yet they still hold a compatible view of religion and evolution”.

In the context of creationist opposition to evolution theory, the results of this research seem to indicate that a serious attempt is made to eliminate religion by making it a mere element of an evolutionary process and not a human reference to a different and transcendent God. Inevitably, theologians today will have to address these issues. I attempt to do so in what follows, but I feel that I am walking on shaky ground and the reflections that follow are certainly not meant to be definitive. Rather, they represent an invitation to others to think.

As far as I can see now, the interest of the article and the research it presents lies in the fact that a poll was taken amongst eminent evolutionary scientists. To them, the basic tenets of religion are not really important, but in the face of existing religions and the trouble these could cause to their research by influencing the faithful against them, they still want to fit in religion as part of the reality they study. The idea that religion itself is part of a broader evolutionary dynamism, part of a sociobiological process, is an obvious response to the challenge – and it is certainly an interesting perspective to consider, also for theologians. In this way, an “acceptable” explanation is provided for the existence of religion as a human phenomenon.  The issue of the basic tenets of religion is left out of the picture, except if these tenets can be explained as a logical feature of a religion that fits in an evolutionary process.

All of this means, I think, that religion is, indeed, a very human phenomenon, that can be explained as part of very human dynamisms and processes. This is certainly not surprising. But it doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that the human phenomenon of religion would not also be a way in which human beings creatively articulate – individually and socially – an encounter that is not just the result of human psychological and social, or even biological, processes. Experiences of love are human processes that can be explained as such; but these explanations do not undo the fact that someone else loves me, and that there is something very difficult to explain there: why this person? why me? why now? why here? So explanation and non-explanation (or “surprise”) seem to go hand in hand.

In that sense, the results of the poll do not seem to threaten faith and religious experiences, as experiences of encounter. Of course, these religious experiences are human experiences and in that sense will fit in scientific explanations of reality – but this does not undo the reality of the religious experience as encounter with another. This situation reminds me of the interpretation Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave of “religion”: as a human construct it may fall prey to human abuse and egoism. Therefore, one should be suspicious: is religion really the best way to allow the encounter with God – an encounter that originates in God – to be articulated? In this perspective, I think, the danger is to separate the experience of encounter with God and religion as a human phenomenon that attempts to articulate that experience. In that sense and in the face of the quote from Graffin and Provine’s article, I would see in the results of the poll an interesting perspective to put in tension (not opposition) with the very experience of encountering God in our reality. Encountering the “other” God is a human experience and, therefore, will inevitably be part of human processes that can be studied and analyzed. Such study and analysis provides an explanation, but does not explain the experience away.

Some will consider this an approach in the line of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) as advocated by Stephen Jay Gould. I am not sure I would be happy with this view. In a way the two magisteria (sciences and experience of encounter with God) interlock and interact with one another in a tensional way. Problems will arise when one of the “magisteria” wants to absorb the other. Is that what the scientists polled in the article wanted to do?


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