Is debating about the validity of the evolutionary paradigm a waste of time? My Facebook friend Deb, an atheist, thinks so. After I posted a brief critique about human evolution, she left this comment out of frustration:
Instead of hitting each other over the head about evolution, maybe we could work together to solve some of this planet’s pressing problems (climate change, poverty, war, environmental degradation, wealth inequality, lack of health care and educational resources, prejudice, discrimination and so forth).
Does Deb have a point? Does the creation-evolution controversy detract us from more weighty concerns?
I would say no. In fact, I assert that our concern about humanity’s social ills and our planet’s environmental catastrophes—and our motivation to act—are deeply connected to what we think about human origins.
Let me explain.
Scripture teaches that God created human beings to bear His image (Genesis 1:26–27; 9:6). Accordingly, all human beings have intrinsic worth and dignity. All human beings are equal. The way we treat image bearers equates to the way we treat God. Serving others likens to serving God. These ideas—so clearly taught in Scripture—inspire Christians to good works. They rouse Christians to action against the injustices in our world.
On the other hand, while individual atheists are as capable of good deeds as Christians, atheism itself provides no genuine motivation for such acts. If human beings are the product of unguided evolutionary processes, then we are one among countless species that have existed on Earth. From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings are a historically contingent accident of an indiscriminate, natural process. Human life has no intrinsic value; there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to human life.
From an atheistic perspective, why should we care what happens to other human beings? In an atheistic framework, it really makes no difference if human beings suffer from poverty, lack of health care, or injustice. In fact, one could argue that an atheist showing compassion to the sick and weak is “immoral” because it disrupts the evolutionary process, in which survival of the fittest serves as the engine for evolutionary advance.
I’m not saying that atheists can’t be good or aren’t good. Many nonbelievers do good works, and I deeply admire and applaud the caring things that they do. It is wonderful to see people of different worldviews lock arms and work together to confront injustice.
But what features of an atheistic worldview justify good works? Deb explains that atheists “feel it’s the compassionate thing to do….We’re not doing this because we expect any reward in the afterlife, as we do not believe in anything beyond death. We do it because we love life in the here and now so much.” However, an atheistic worldview doesn’t require compassion or kindness or acknowledgement of human dignity. It is just as valid for an atheist to reject good works as it is to embrace them. In an atheistic framework, it is not clear what justice actually looks like; it is not clear what distinguishes a “right” action from a “wrong” one. There is no objective standard for good and evil in atheism. Without that standard, what is wrong for one society (or even one person) could be right for another.
In contrast, the biblical God, through scriptural teachings, clearly defines how and why we should live and how we should treat each other.
In my view, the reason that atheists can extend compassion toward others and place high value on human life arises from the fact that all human beings bear God’s image. We inherently know that all people have dignity and worth. We have a “law written on our hearts” that guides our behavior if we let it. The moral code many atheists adopt is designed into their DNA, as it is in all humans. Atheists are, unwittingly, borrowing from a Judeo-Christian worldview, when they express a commitment to combat poverty, end war, provide health care, and end discrimination. That is why believers and nonbelievers can work together to improve our world.
Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.1
Again, if atheism is true, we should ask why we would want to “upset the designs” of our selfish genes, because to do so, would be to upset the evolutionary process. Why should we stand in opposition to biological nature? Like all atheists, Dawkins’ morality is at war with his worldview.
In the end, it is only the Christian worldview that provides the necessary framework to truly justify addressing the evils of this world.
And that is why it is important to “hit each other over the head about evolution.” What we think about human origins really matters. And the good news is that a scientific case can be made for credibility of the biblical account of human origins.
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3.