Human evolutionThere’s something about the creationism-versus-evolution debate that makes me want to poke my own eyes out just so I have something to throw at the opposing sides. A plague on both their houses!

Now, let me clarify my view that the basic theory of evolution is generally correct. I’m not a scientist, but so far as I understand it the theory is in pretty good shape. Of course, it’s not without problems and challenges, but there isn’t much by way of credible alternative. The most recent challenger is the theory that has come to be known as “Intelligent Design.” To many scientists ID is little more than an attempt to sneak theism into science, and are worried because ID is a growing movement winning support around the world.

Some – such as Dawkins – largely ignore it, others engage with it just so they can mock it, and a few – such as Kenneth Miller – do what to me seems best: take it seriously (if for no other reason than lay-people take it seriously) and answer its challenges and propositions. ID’s central plank is that there are many living things which are so “irreducibly complex” that only the gullible could believe they evolved gradually by natural selection. They must therefore have been designed by some intelligent being (not necessarily God, by the way). Irreducible complexity is the term used to describe some piece of “biological machinery” which is composed of parts which must all be present at once if it is to work. The parts are useless by themselves and can only work when combined with the other parts. Since natural selection can only work on something that’s already functioning it can’t be responsible for the pieces coming together in the first place.

Is this “science?” Evolutionists say no. Obviously advocates of ID give a hearty “yes indeed!” I say: who gives a shit whether or not it is? Both sides in the debate get on my nerves.

Firstly the ID squad. OK, they might well be making some points that require answers. Michael Behe, who wrote about the concept of irreducible complexity in his book “Darwin’s Black Box,” isn’t a wacko fundamentalist with his brains up his arse; he’s a professional, reputable scientist. However, much of the problem with ID is that many wackos have jumped on the bandwagon because they see it as the saviour of their religious beliefs. To them it’s another religion-versus-science Cold War. Many hold to the relatively recent claim that the Bible is infallible and to be read literally when it describes the creation of the world in Genesis 1-2. This view is a minority even within Protestantism. Philosopher Mary Midgley puts it well: “Fundamentalism [of this kind] is a perverse attempt to use a particular bronze-age Hebrew vision of God to resolve factual questions of science and history.” I agree, and in fact having studied Genesis 1-2 as part of a theology degree would add that those who wrote it weren’t writing a cosmology as much as they were writing a theology, saying more about the kind of God they believed in (compared to surrounding cultures) than how they thought the world was made. But to many fundamentalists the issue of evolution is caught up with their religious worldview and so they advocate a tying of science to their own (rather narrow) religious beliefs.

However, the reactions of some atheists to religious fundamentalism of this type has been equally ridiculous. As soon as the religious fundamentalists reacted to Darwin we saw the rise of what came to be called “scientific atheism,” with polemicists like John Draper and Andrew White leading the charge, and this equally dogmatic “anti-religious” response to fundamentalist creationism permeates the scholarly world of the sciences to this day. But here’s the trouble: there is nothing whatsoever “scientific” about atheism. It’s no more scientific than theism is: because the existence of God is first and foremost a metaphysical question. And yet we still get atheist scientists who think that their atheism is “scientific” in some way. What are we to make of Dawkins book the “The God Delusion”? Whatever Dawkins’ intentions are it certainly appears to a great many people that the theory of evolution is being tied to atheism when in fact if the former is true it does not mean the latter is. It seems to me that many people are more willing to embrace creationism because they see the only alternative is what they call “scientific atheism.” By tying evolution to atheism some biologists might well be shooting themselves in the foot, for their own doctrines may well put off many people who would otherwise be sympathetic and persuaded by the arguments for evolution. It needs to be stressed that science cannot be linked to atheism in such an affirming way. Science does not – and cannot – disprove the existence of God, it simply ignores God and attempts to explain the natural world in a natural way.

Both sides have their protagonists who are guilty of turning debates about evolution into a struggle between theism and atheism. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to criticise the theory of evolution these days without being labelled fundamentalist and anti-science. Likewise evolution is being blurred into atheism by religious opponents, because it suits them and their project quite nicely to be able to offer us the choice: “creationism or atheism?” There should of course be a theism-versus-atheism debate, but that debate becomes tired, tedious and irrelevant when it’s reduced to creationism-versus-evolution.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, an evolutionist, once argued that science and religion cannot clash because their functions are different: science deals with facts while religion deals in meaning. I disagree with him, but he’s at least on the right track. I think religions deal in fact too and don’t just concern themselves with meaning, transcendental or otherwise. For instance “Jesus rose from the dead” is a statement with a truth-value; it’s not just a statement of “meaning.” I’m being a little pedantic perhaps because Dobzhansky is certainly in the right neighbourhood. Religion deals first and foremost with the metaphysical, and those things are by definition beyond scientific enquiry (the word metaphysics literally means “beyond science”). That does not mean that religion does not deal in facts, the question of God’s existence is indeed a factual investigation: God either exists or does not. But we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the only kinds of facts are those discoverable scientifically, for there may well be what I call “philosophical facts” which apply to the realm of metaphysics and which are relevant when dealing with questions of God’s existence, free will, or life after death.

Science does not prove the existence of God, nor does it prove the truth of atheism. It gives us basic information and facts about the world from which we must argue to other conclusions beyond the strictly “scientific.” Some of the insights of ID theorists might not be “science,” but they can contribute to a philosophical debate about the existence of God. The real debate about God’s existence will never be advanced by scientists, but by philosophers. I suggest that theist and atheist alike stop their nonsense of tying science and scientific theories to their wider worldviews. The fight for theism or atheism will not be won on a scientific battlefield.

Stephen Graham