Saturday, 16 April 2016

Evolution, death and God

If the theory[1] of evolution by natural selection is correct, I don’t see how there can be a God who is both good and all-powerful.

Consider the question of why there is suffering in the world, why there is disease, why there is death. If there is a God, why is the world like this? Does he cause suffering, or does he just allow it; and, if he allows it, why does he do so? Does he lack the power to prevent it? Or does he allow it for some other reason?

The best answer that Christianity can give is as follows: God doesn’t cause suffering; humans do. God allows suffering it because it’s an unavoidable consequence of giving us free will.[2] That’s essentially what the Genesis story of Adam and Eve says (regardless of whether you read it as history or as myth)—God created the world perfect, but evil, suffering and death came about by human free choice.

That was a good enough explanation until the modern era. But we now understand that suffering is woven into the very fabric of life. Natural selection only works because there is death and disease. We wouldn’t be here without death; our species would not exist. It’s only when individuals with less favourable characteristics die with fewer offspring than those with more favourable ones, that life advances. Like it or not, suffering, disease and death are part of what has created us. There was no perfect initial state; life on earth has always known death, long before humans made their appearance. And the first humans were no exception; they were part of a branch of animal life that was becoming increasingly self-aware, which meant becoming increasingly aware of pain, suffering and death. If we accept the current interpretation of the evidence in the rocks and in our own DNA, we can no longer hold onto the Genesis idea that God created a world that was perfect until humans spoiled it.

So it’s no longer enough to explain why God allows suffering as the consequence of free will; believers now have to explain why God would choose to create a world in which the development of life is founded on death in the first place. They have to explain why God would create life in this way, knowing in advance that this process would result in conscious suffering in the higher forms of life, regardless of the choices they make. To me, this stretches the idea of a good Creator beyond breaking point. I can imagine a world like ours being made by a higher being who was indifferent to suffering, but not by one who is supposed to care. I can also imagine there being a force for good that we can draw on (which we could call ‘God’ if we want to), but which can’t have been our creator.[3] What I can’t imagine is a being who is both the source of good and the creator of a world founded on suffering.

Of course, you can choose not to believe in evolution, and believe in the Creationist version of Christianity instead, which takes Genesis literally, with its perfect original state of creation. On one level, I have some respect for that position; it may be crazy, and fly in the face of the scientific evidence, but at least it is self-consistent!—unlike the average Christian who admits that evolution must be right, and yet doesn’t think through what that implies about God.

I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t say much about the original cause of suffering in the world. People in his society tended to believe that specific cases of suffering were caused by specific sins. But when he was asked whose sin he thought had caused a man to be born blind, he made a point of contradicting the question—it wasn’t caused by anyone’s sin; instead he took it as an opportunity to do some good. And in general when he encountered people with disabilities or diseases, his main concern was to restore them into a society whose religion had made them outcasts. He didn’t use it as an opportunity to blame anyone (apart from the religious leaders who maintained the rules of exclusion). It seems that he just accepted that that’s how the world was, and got on with trying to improve it where he could. I’m all for that.

[1] I’m using the term ‘theory’ in the scientific sense of a hypothesis that is generally accepted as correct, because it is the best fit with all known evidence, not in the popular sense of something that’s ‘just a theory’.

[2] Why God is supposed to have given us free will is a whole topic in its own right; I may come back to that another time.

[3] Although as it happens, I don’t see any particular evidence for such a force for good, apart from our own human spirit.


  1. Ah, the old epicurean paradox. Always a good one!

  2. The whole "free will" thing doesn't cover the suffering of newborns either, unless you subscribe to some kind of abhorrent "sins of the father" viewpoint.

  3. I'm glad you're writing this and find it interesting. It is good to explore these ideas.

    I think the whole how could a good God create a world where suffering exists is a a hopeless argument in thinking about if God exists or not. A divine being either exists or doesn't, once we decide where we stand on that we can start to think about what is the nature of that being. But as argument for existence or not it's just a non starter.

    I have a lot of time for sympathy for the atheist/humanist point of view although I find it incoherent. It ia almost always an emotional reaction rather than a rational one. To start we can never know if God exists. Only God knows if God exists and only God can ever know that. Let's say we have conscious knowledge of a being that is 20 million times more evolved and more powerful than us. And this being tells us that he or she is God, the creator, the one and only. How do we know there isnot another being 100 million times more evolved and powerful than us. We don't, and we never can. It can only be by faith. In the same way you don't know about the person sitting next to you, if they want to you good or kill you. You live life based on the evidence you have but you don't actually know it.

    So we can only live by the evidence we have and the evidence for the existence of God or not is just down to interpretation. But this is where I lose sympathy with the atheist/humanist view. There is no more evidence for the existence of justice, love or reason than there is for God. Yet the atheist live life as if they exist. They don't, they are simply imagined concepts, handed down in exactly the same way as religion does. Everyone lives their lives with faith in these things. You can not prove that Justice and love have some kind of existence outside humanity but you could not function as human being without faith in them. If you let them go life would become unbearable for a human or you would become a psychopath or a savage animal.

    So for the majority of humans life must be lived by faith in things you can not prove exist and yet few would pour scorn on the empty unthinking acceptance of humans who follow these things.

    So if we wiped out the entire human race today would justice, love and reason still exist? Would the laws of music still exist if there was no man or woman to play it? My answer to that is yes. I believe thet would still exist, all those spiritual elements to our human life exist outside and separate to ourselves. And if humans did not exist reason would still exist waiting for the next beings to come along who could utilise it. The same with Justice and love. They did not evolve from the physical world so the evolution of the physical is irrelevant, how did the spiritual stuff get here? How is there music and beauty, all these things we have discovered as humans who have the ability to do so.

    So at the moment I see a big disconnect between evolution and the existence of a spiritual world. It really seems in my view to pre-date man as something we have discovered and is entirely un-needed by the theory evolution. If left purely to time, chance and natural selection I don't see any need for thesee things evolve. If suffering is so bad for man why have we evolved to be able to suffer it. A more sensible evolutionary route would be for us to deaden our emotions and spiritual life and be some sort of animal/zombie hybrid, or to have become unfeeling machines that are efficient but uncaring. For me the theory evolution and natural selection as the only explanation for the human spiritual life is woefully inadequate.

  4. I dont really have an alternative, I don't believe in creationism but I don't find evolutionary Christians any more inconstant than atheists for the reasons above. You know me and probably know I can't stand Christian doctrine. It's like a snake trying to hold on to and live in it's old skin. Uttery pointless and hardly an honour to God if you believe in a divine being. Christians are unbelievably lazy, and cowards, when it comes to thinking through what modern discoveries mean to their theology.

    When you know in your heart that death pre-existed sin and you believe in a religion that is entirely based on the absolute opposite you are in deep deep shit unless you throw out pretty much all your doctrine and start again.

    At the same time I don't seen the atheist need to invalidate the experiences of the ancients and think of them as stupid because they didn't have the scientific knowledge we do. A human must have a narrative and you use what you are given. They had no choice but to write the way they did and slating them is irrational, emotional nonsense(I'm talking about the very unhelpful Dawkins and followers).

    I like your stance because you don't do that. You look at what has been offered up by people from thousands of years ago and say 'how can this help us now?'

    I would imagine that the theory of evolution will prove to be part of the story of existence, not the final word. At least I hope so because if everything is only down to time and chance, then humans really have purpose, and if they think they do it is merely a fantasy in their own head and everything is meaningless.

    So finally I guess my main very rambling point is this. The first question in considering our existence is not does God exist or can a good God create a world where conscious being suffer, but do spiritual things exists in and of themselves? Are they real like the physical world is real. If no, then why the hell am I bothering to live as if they do. If yes, then how the hell did they get there?

    David(your old college pal)

    1. Davey P thanks for your excellent comments.

      I think we're saying the same thing to start with. I'm not saying God can't exist because of suffering, I'm saying a good, all-knowing God can't exist because of suffering. I'm allowing there could be a different God instead, who is malicious, or who doesn't have the power to intervene, or who is just waiting to see the outcome of his experiment without realising that we are conscious, or who just doesn't care. As an aside though, I don't see the need for such a God to exist to explain why we are here.

      The decision about whether there are spiritual things is a difficult one to define. What are spiritual things? Anything not yet explained? Anything that is an idea rather than a physical thing? I don't agree that Reason, Justice, Love or Music 'exist' in isolation. I think any species that developed rational thought would probably discover them in the same way as we have. But not because they have some abstract existence, just because they naturally follow from thinking, the same way as maths does. And thinking itself is a product of biology that has in turn emerged from the physical world. So there isn't anything that I would classify as spiritual. There are things we have explained, things we will explain in the future, and quite probably things we'll never explain, but they are all physical. They are all part of the cosmos that we live in, even if that cosmos turns out to have many more dimensions than we can possibly imagine at the moment. So to me the question of why 'spiritual' things exist, if I were to use that word at all, is no different from the question of why anything exists.