Good Without God? Why Evolution is a Problem for Humanism

What follows is a final exerpt from my response paper to Good Without God by Greg Epstein.

Here I examine the argument put forth by Epstein, and many others, that belief in God can be dismissed as a bi-product of evolution.

Why evolution is a problem for Humanism:

Does evolution show that belief in God is a mere biological adaptation?  According to Epstein and many other prominent atheists, yes. In a clearly affectionate tone, Epstein recounts what he says is the story of evolution:

“From the first multicellular animals, to mammals who could sense their environment and feel emotion, to human self-awareness and the ability to stand upright and use tools, to the domestication of fire and the human creation of myth, agriculture, villages, religion, culture, cities, and eventually to the three universalist religions (Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam), mass migration, liberal democracy, the multinational corporation, and American Idol.”

– Greg Epstein [13]

The quote is significant because of the extremely wide explanatory scope that he attributes to biological evolution. According to most, random mutation through natural selection only aspires to explain how one life form can transition into another.  But for Epstein, it does not just explain biological diversity, it explains everything about human civilization including why people believe in God! This view of evolution is sometimes called “Darwinism”. Epstein makes a number of other fantastic claims about evolution’s explanatory power that, he says, are overwhelmingly supported by science. For that reason, he says that Humanists ‘build their entire worldview’ around evolution. Moreover, he believes that this process must be unguided. [14]

According to Epstein, and many like him, this is a decisive blow against theism because we have a ‘better’ naturalistic account of religious belief and anything that God is supposed to explain.  Therefore, he concludes, we should not accept the supernatural demands of theism.

God or Evolution?

Unfortunately, in my view, it would seem that many Christians have also accepted the Humanist premise that they have to choose between God and evolution. Therefore, some have rejected evolution in favor of what they believe has been empirically verified; their relationship with God. But Christians should reject this choice.  Whether macro-evolution is true or not, there are several fatal flaws with the Darwinian view of evolution and so the choice that is thrust upon Christians (God or evolution) is a false one. 

In fact, while this Humanist haymaker is aimed at theism, it lands on atheism.  Epstein’s Darwinian view of evolution, if true, is a serious, perhaps unworkable, problem for Humanism!

Determined to Believe?

As he explained, Epstein’s understanding of evolution provides a full accounting of our thoughts and behaviors.  But if evolution provides a full accounting of theists’ beliefs about God, then it also provides a full accounting of Epstein’s beliefs about God.  Including his belief that God does not exist!  Is he going to argue that he alone is immune to the epistemic implications of his worldview?  No.  Epstein’s belief in Humanism, therefore, is self-defeating because if it were true he would have no way to know it.  That is, on his view, his belief in Humanism was produced by evolution and, consequently, his thoughts are a mere reflection of the blind, repetitive, and physically determined chemical processes taking place in his brain.  Epstein wants to argue, proudly, that he comes to his beliefs through “free, unfettered rational inquiry” [15] as opposed to the scared and “credulous masses” who believe in God.  But, hilariously, he is completely unaware that his epistemology severely undercuts the reliability of the very cognitive abilities that he claims to champion.

Epstein compounds the error later when he addresses why he believes that some LGBT people are also believers in God.  He says, “we talked earlier about the evolutionary reasons for belief in God” and, he continues, “well these affect gay people just as much as straight people”. [16] It appears that if you disagree with Epstein’s Humanist ideology, you are stuck in your determinism.  Humanists, on the other hand, can rise above their selfish genes; though Epstein does not tell us how.

It should be noted that Epstein does make a point to say that he rejects social Darwinism, but once again he gives us no explanation for how he is able to rise above his genetic programming.  He argues that we must “acknowledge and understand our selfish genes precisely so that we can continue to evolve beyond them”. [17] But this high ideal sits very poorly with the view of evolution that he has just given us!  Even worse, when he argues that we ought to evolve “beyond” our selfish genes, is he not referring to a moral imperative that is ‘beyond’ himself?  This too is incompatible with his view of morality as we saw earlier.

In summary then, if Epstein’s Humanism is correct, then our brains are the result of purely physical, unguided chemical processes.  Since physical material is fully governed by deterministic physical laws, it follows that we do not come to our beliefs through a process of reason and weighing of evidence.  On Darwinism, we lack the requisite free will to engage in such a task.  Rather, we believe what we believe because that is what we were determined to believe by processes beyond our control.  Similarly, if our minds are the purely physical result of Darwinian evolution then our beliefs are, necessarily, aimed at survival and not truth and, thus, we have very little reason to trust them.

What do you think? Does unguided evolution entail genetic determinism? If the Darwinian view is correct, does it follow that our minds are aimed at survival, and NOT at truth? Can we trust our own thoughts? Are you predestined to click “like” and “subscribe” (yes)?

Let met know in the comments and click subscribe if you want to see new posts as soon as they’re published!

Have a topic that you would like to see addressed? Email me at neillology@gmail.com

[13] Epstein, 2005, Good Without God, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., Page 8
[14] Ibid., Page 9
[15] Ibid., Page 10
[16] Ibid., Pages 134-135
[17] Ibid., Page 25

7 Comments

  1. I don’t think the notion of God comes from evolution, but rather from a common experience.
    A newborn child, cold and hungry, cries out to the universe for food and warmth. He is gathered up in his mother’s arms, and is comforted, and fed.
    We don’t remember this experience, but it is one we’ve all shared. I believe it leaves us with a sense that we might implore a greater being to come to our aid in time of trouble, and that it is likely the seed of the idea of ‘God’.
    On a cold day, I walked out of the apartment ready to shiver. Stepping out of the shadow and into the sunlight, I felt a warmth and comfort, as if I were loved by the Sun. And I understood how easy it was for our ancestors to view the Sun as a god.
    In early history people worshiped multiple gods, prayed to them for favors and offered them gifts so that the rains would water their crops, and the river would not flood their homes. By coincidence, this sometimes appeared to work. And so superstition flourished.
    But then something new was added. Monotheism took the strong position that there was only one God.
    And not only was this the God to pray to and worship, but this God also expected you to follow rules. If you followed the commandments, you would prosper, if not in this life, then in the next.
    I remember the preachers from my youth, Oral Roberts and Norman Vincent Peale, teaching that God is a Good God, and that following Him brings both blessings and expectations. I remember the prayer at dinner, “God is Great, God is Good …”.
    God became a way to make being good and doing good both valuable and sacred. And that is why the idea is still useful today, even by those of us who use the term in a literary rather than a literal sense.

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    1. Hi Marvin – thanks for sharing your thoughts. If you’re willing, I would love to get your response to a couple of quick questions:

      You said – “I believe it leaves us with a sense that we might implore a greater being to come to our aid in time of trouble, and that it is likely the seed of the idea of ‘God’.”

      What makes this “likely”?

      Also, in my opinion, your description of the rise of monotheism does not do justice to the men of genius who reasoned that if a supreme being exists as an explanation of the phenomenal world, then it must be something like a monotheistic God.

      But even if I grant that belief in God may have arisen out of this infantile need, would it follow that God does not exist?

      Finally, you say – “God became a way to make being good and doing good both valuable and sacred. And that is why the idea is still useful today, even by those of us who use the term in a literary rather than a literal sense.”

      Does this mean that you don’t recognize good and evil as objective features of reality? That is, does the idea of good correspond to something real or is it merely “useful”, as you say? If real, what do you mean by “good”?

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      1. The relationship of a child to its parent is paralleled in the notion of “God the Father”. The personal relationship with God through prayer is a conversation that one might have with an loving parent. We initially depend upon our parents for our very survival. So, when the parents are no longer present, or no longer capable of helping us, we may turn to a super-parent, “God the Father”.
        What I suspect is that this personal experience would predate any rational arguments for belief in God. They would all come later.
        As a Humanist, I don’t see the necessity for a super-natural creator of the universe. We observe that we’re here and that the world is here as well. The notion that there was a time when nothing at all was here is probably due to our own beginning, where there was nothing, and then there was us. My personal cosmology is the Big Bounce. It is a cycling between Big Bangs of expansion and Big Crunches of consolidation. “Stuff in motion” is eternal.
        Whether God exists or not is beyond proof. For the Humanist it is a matter of what is most reasonable to believe.
        We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. Life implies need. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was his way of explaining human motivation.
        I’m happy to discuss any of these topics.

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      2. Hey Marvin – lots of problems here. Unfortunately most of them will have to wait as I’m heading out for the night. But let me leave you with a few questions for now and would love to continue the conversation later.

        – I agree that there are some parallels between our relationship with our parents and our conception of God… But does it follow from this that God does not exist?

        – As a humanist, do you believe in any kind of immaterial reality?

        – Why do you believe in the cyclical model?

        – Is there such a thing as the present moment? If stuff has been in motion from eternity, how did it reach the current state? (because there is an actually infinite amount of positions the stuff would have had to have passed thru already)

        – I agree that we should believe in ‘what is most reasonable’.

        – Based on your definition of “good” above, would you say that the Spartans were wrong to kill weak, infirm, or otherwise disabled children? Arguably such behavior met personal and societal needs and may also have contributed to the flourishing of the species by narrowing reproductive activities to the physically superior.

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      3. The notion that God does not exist follows mostly from a lack His stepping out and announcing himself for everyone to see.

        Processes are not physical objects. But rather they are a series of changes involving physical objects. We exist as processes running upon the neurological infrastructure of our nervous system. When the process stops, we cease to exist, and the brain becomes an inert lump of matter. We cannot exist without the infrastructure. The infrastructure cannot live without us.

        A cyclic cosmological model solves the problem of where stuff came from. It didn’t come from anywhere, because it was always here, in one form or another. There is no first cause, just an eternal set of stuff in motion and transformation.

        The present moment is what we call the state of things at the current time. I don’t know that there is an “infinite number of positions” that stuff goes through. It may be that there are a finite number of positions that are simply repeated eventually.

        The goal of morality is to achieve the best good and the least harm for everyone. This is the criteria by which any two rules or two courses of action will be ultimately judged morally. The one that best serves the best good and least harm for everyone would be the morally superior choice.

        What you described as Spartan policy would be eugenics. This is becoming a more relevant issue today given the ease by which CRISPR can be used to modify a person’s DNA. Hitler attempted to create a “master race”. And I understand that in the United States there were historical policies where people with undesirable characteristics were routinely sterilized.

        I believe there is some value in allowing random mutations to continue, even while eliminating some of the more serious genetic diseases. The big problem here is that there may be unintended consequences that are hard to predict. We don’t want to create long-term harms that would eventually outweigh short-term benefits.

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  2. Hey Marvin – Really interesting response! Let me try to take these one at a time:

    1. “The notion that God does not exist follows mostly from a lack His stepping out and announcing himself for everyone to see.”

    [RESPONSE] Is this an argument against God’s existence in your mind? How do you define God? Also, the claim of Christianity is that God actually DID enter into human history for everyone to see…. Why would we expect that God, if He exists, would manifest himself this way for every generation?

    2. “Processes are not physical objects. But rather they are a series of changes involving physical objects. We exist as processes running upon the neurological infrastructure of our nervous system. When the process stops, we cease to exist, and the brain becomes an inert lump of matter. We cannot exist without the infrastructure. The infrastructure cannot live without us.”

    [RESPONSE] How do you know that you are a “process running upon neurological infrastructure”? What do you call this immaterial process? How does an immaterial entity “us” come into existence within a material framework? Where does it come from? How does something immaterial act upon something material?

    Is this process governed by the laws of physics given its co-dependency on the physical framework? If so, could you have done differently than you have? Could you believe differently than you do? If not, why should you believe what your neurological infrastructure tells you?
    If you believe you are not purely physical and are NOT purely subject to the laws of physics in virtue of something non-physical (i.e. non-natural)… then why be a naturalist (or a Humanist)?

    3. “A cyclic cosmological model solves the problem of where stuff came from. It didn’t come from anywhere, because it was always here, in one form or another. There is no first cause, just an eternal set of stuff in motion and transformation.”

    [RESPONSE] How so? It seems to me that cyclical models just back the question up a step… The question, the way I constructed it, still stands even if the cyclical model is correct.

    For example, if the universe has been expanding and contracting from eternity, then it follows that there is an actually infinite number of expansions in the past… But if that’s true, how did we ever reach the present expansion? The universe would have had to have passed thru this infinite number of expansions to reach the present, but this is metaphysically absurd. That’s like saying that you have counted to infinity and reached the end… But of course, you can never count to infinity because there will always be one more number that you can add to the set.

    4. “The goal of morality is to achieve the best good and the least harm for everyone.”

    [RESPONSE] What do you mean by “best”, “good”, and “least harm”?

    5. “This is the criteria by which any two rules or two courses of action will be ultimately judged morally. The one that best serves the best good and least harm for everyone would be the morally superior choice.”

    [RESPONSE] Why is that morally superior? You seem to be operating on a principle of fairness here (and perhaps human flourishing), but what makes fairness, human flourishing, or anything else, objectively “good”?

    Thanks again for your comments. Look forward to reading your response.

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    1. 1. My mother had a book called “Dispensational Truths” that suggested God appeared to man differently over time as man’s understanding evolved. I find it more reasonable to believe that the Creation Story and Adam and Eve were fables rather than historical events. Many different religions have their own creation stories, so there seems no reason to prefer one over another.

      Christianity, on the other hand, seems to be a new way of looking at things altogether. The New Testament and the Old Testament are like Buddhism and Confucianism. One concentrates upon the spiritual aspects and the other upon the rules.

      I don’t know that there is a definition of God that I would subscribe to.

      2. Processes are physical, and thus can alter and be altered by neurological activity. Frankly I struggle with how to classify the process, because it is not a physical object, but it is a physical process.

      Reasoning is a mental process. The mental process is also a physical process. However, we cannot say that reasoning is covered by the laws of physics. Objects behave differently according to how they are organized.

      An inanimate object behaves passively in response to physical forces. Place a bowling ball on a slope and it will always roll downhill.

      A living organism behaves purposefully in that it is driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Place a squirrel on that same slope and he will not be governed by gravity, but rather by where he expects to find the next acorn.

      Intelligent species can behave deliberately, by reason and calculation. This is where free will shows up. Free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion and other forms of undue influence, such as a significant mental illness, or hypnosis, or authoritative command, etc.

      3. There are an infinite number of cycles in the past. There will also be an infinite number of cycles in the future. We are always precisely in the middle of eternity, with one eternity behind us and another eternity ahead. One half of an eternity equals an eternity. Metaphysics has nothing to do with this. It is just the way things are. What “is” cannot be absurd, even though it sounds absurd to us.

      4. We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. Something is harmful if it injures us or prevents us from obtaining what we really need.

      5. Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. That’s what morality itself is about. It’s sort of like Matthew 22:36-40, especially verse 40. As a Humanist, I paraphrase that as “Love Good for others as well as for yourself. All other rules derive from these two.”

      Like

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