Does Evolution Explain Religious Beliefs?

Michael Ruse

I just finished reading this interview at The Stone, where Gary Cutting talks with philosopher Dr. Michael Ruse about atheism, evolution, and religious belief. I must admit, I found Ruse’s comments to be surprisingly refreshing. Even though he’s a committed atheist, he exhibits none of the scorn or sarcasm of the Richard Dawkins-types (in fact, he expresses greater affinity toward Christian philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas than Dawkins). He also interacts with the best of Christian scholarship, rather than taking the cheap way out by setting up straw men. I would even go so far as to say that we Christians can learn a lot from Ruse about interacting charitably with opposing viewpoints. This is a prime example of common grace in the life of an unbeliever.

I was also impressed by the quality of his arguments, and found myself agreeing with him at many points. Rather than trumpeting the modernist notion of science as the be-all and end-all of human knowledge, he demonstrates a remarkable level of epistemic humility. He says:

In my view, none of our knowledge, including science, just “tells it like it is.” Knowledge, even the best scientific knowledge, interprets experience through human cultural understanding and experience, and above all (just as it is for poets and preachers) metaphor is the key to the whole enterprise.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. And as for his response to the argument that religious belief is merely an evolutionary adaptation, he doesn’t fall for the genetic fallacy: just because you can give an account of a belief’s origins, that doesn’t make the belief untrue. After all, advocates of evolution would have to affirm that there’s an evolutionary account for belief in evolution too!

When it comes to the problem of evil, his response sounds more formulaic and predictable. Nearly every atheist you ask today will tell you that the main reason they can’t believe in God is because of the presence of so much suffering and evil in the world. Ruse isn’t convinced by so-called “greater good” theodicies, and he is pretty candid about his personal bias here:

Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don’t think this is so. More than that, I don’t want it to be so.

I am sure that Ruse is fully aware that his own personal wants can’t dictate the justice of God’s actions. Nevertheless, I don’t think any proposed solution to the problem of evil is going to convince him, until he becomes convinced of the evil within his own heart. I’m not singling him out here for special vilification; this a condition that every human being (myself included) is born with. Besides, even if he becomes convinced of some theistic argument or another, how far does that really get him? No one is saved by faith in theism; we are saved by faith in Christ, and Christ alone.

I will pray for Dr. Ruse’s salvation. And I will also pray that more unbelievers would exhibit the same willingness to listen that he does. For any Christian readers who want to become better familiar with the best of atheist philosophy—rather than the first-year-undergraduate arguments of the Dawkinses of the world (Ruse’s description, not mine)—I would recommend Graham Oppy’s Arguing about Gods (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Jordan Howard Sobel’s Logic and Theism (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Michael Martin’s The Improbability of God (Prometheus Books, 2006).

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

2 Responses to “Does Evolution Explain Religious Beliefs?”

  1. Wow! That article was a real blast from my past when I was taking philosophy of religion classes 30+ years ago. Scientists would say that they use “models” to explain reality. It’s interesting to hear “models” called “metaphors” because that term is certainly equally valid. I don’t agree with any field that claims to have all the answers. That goes for science, religion, economics, political science, etc. Ruse really nailed it. If you want to be able to have certain discussions you have to pick the right metaphor, knowing that once you do you will preclude other discussions. If there is a god, that god worries as much about us as we worry about ants. It may behoove the ant to get out of the god’s way, but that’s usually not possible and no amount of praying will stop the big fat foot from stomping on our ant hill!

  2. I have always thought of the notion of religion as having an evolutionary basis to be reinforcement of the Calvinist pillar of predestination. If one’s genes are encoded with a predisposition (though not necessarily a guarantee) for theistic belief, all the more reason to assert that God has chosen his elect from the beginning. (Of course, not all people with the “God gene” will come to saving faith in Christ, nor are all those without it necessarily doomed to damnation. I would like to see more research into the question of whether genetically based theism is present in all humans, but with varying degrees among individuals, similar to all our other fundamental instincts like reproduction, or whether there truly are those “born godless”. My money is on the former.)

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