Some Comments on the "Godless" Nature of Darwinian Evolution, 
And a Plea to the Philosophers Among Us


Natural Sciences & Mathematics

Livingston University
Livingston, AL 35470

From" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (September 1992): 175-177.


Phillip E. Johnson's book Darwin on Trial was recently reviewed and discussed by several individuals in Christianity Today.1 It was pointed out that one of Johnson's main concerns is that "Darwinian evolution is grounded not on scientific fact, but on a philosophical doctrine called naturalism." "Darwinism" was defined as "fully naturalistic evolution--meaning evolution that is not directed or controlled by any purposeful intelligence." "Naturalism" in most of its forms would certainly be antithetical to any variety of theism because it denies the existence of God.2 However, all of modern science, not just biological evolutionary theory, by definition, excludes God.3 Note, I am not saying that modern science denies the existence of God, but rather, that its descriptions are limited to the observable natural world. Hence, biological evolutionary theory today does not include God in any of its explanations, and neither do the theories of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, or any other natural science. There is no rulebook that spells this out, and indeed it has been argued that it is an arbitrary restriction. Furthermore, this has become the case only in the last 100 or so years. Nonetheless, this is one of the restrictions almost universally put upon science by those who practice it, and it seems to me quite desirable and likely that science will retain this restriction in the foreseeable future. This is also one of the ways that "scientific" pursuits can be differentiated from other lines of intellectual inquiry such as philosophy, religion, etc. However, this does not mean that science cannot point beyond itself to our Creator --indeed, it often does. I recently had a student tell me he was brought back to a belief in God by a cell physiology course! Nonetheless, science itself, by definition, cannot consist of descriptions that mention God. So, in one sense, Darwin's theory of evolution must be "godless" in order to be "scientific" by today's standards.

I am aware that a major part of Johnson's argument was aimed at scientists who adhere to naturalism and use their metaphysical presuppositions as well as Darwinian theory to deny the existence of God. This is implied in the definition of "Darwinism" given above. I agree that this strategy by agnostic or atheistic scientists is invalid and should be resisted. However, I am also concerned that the "godless" (or theologically neutral) nature of science does not seem to have been widely appreciated, especially among those of us who are Christians. And I think a careful look at some of the ramifications of it could be quite important as we evangelicals continue to struggle with Darwin's theory. My primary objective in this communication is to discuss some of the possible implications of the "godless" nature of science, especially biological evolutionary theory. Secondly, I would like to call out to the philosophers (theological and scientific) among us for help.


In most cases for most natural sciences, the restriction to natural causes seems to be understood, accepted, and generally thought to be of little consequence by both scientists and others. For example, when was the last time you heard or read a "Christian critique" of quantum mechanics, or of continental drift theory? Probably never. Yet if God is continually "at work" in maintaining his creation, then these theories actually describe God's actions in the non-biotic part of creation. However, when it comes to the theory of biological evolution, it seems that every Christian has heard some pastor, theologian, or other Christian leader expound upon his or her position on the matter. And the Christian's position on this scientific theory is typically based upon an interpretation of what the Bible has to say concerning how God brought about his creation. In particular, how literally/historically we as Christians in general view the first two chapters of Genesis largely determines how most Christians as individuals feel about evolution. In other words, we press our Scriptures, which are primarily concerned with God and his dealings with creation, into direct comparison with scientific explanations which cannot contain any mention of God. I think this approach has proven itself to be extremely counter-productive, and in fact is essentially the trap that Christians have fallen into for centuries when they have reacted to various scientific theories. Nonetheless, the conflict continues. Why?

Obviously the answer is complex, involving principles of interpretation of the Scriptures, value/risk judgements, etc. However, I think one major reason, pertinent to this communication, concerns a widely held perception that biological evolution is in direct competition with most concepts of creation, or at least it is problematic in regards to them.4 It seems that the main topic in evangelical circles with regard to science and theology continues to be "evolution vs. creation." I get the impression that many evangelicals, even if they tentatively accept biological evolution as the "best" theory available for its subject matter, are simply uncomfortable with evolution, and they secretly (some not so secretly!) hope it is someday abandoned. However, even if this were to happen, we must keep in mind that by today's definition, no "creation" theory (e.g. "progressive creationism," "recent creationism") could become a part of science because all imply a creator or supernatural cause. The fact remains: all of science today is by definition "godless." I think we need to do more to get beyond this stage of "evolution vs. creation" so we are not hindered as we deal with other pressing issues touching upon science and theology.

Another reason for the continued conflict concerns disagreements over boundaries or limitations of science, and thus the definition of science. For example, the topic of biological origins is generally considered to be at the boundary of science, if what is meant by the term is the initial appearance of life on earth. The "origins" of species from previously existing species, which is really what Darwinian evolution is about, is perhaps less problematic in this respect. Nonetheless, there recently has been much discussion in evangelical circles about differentiating between "origin-science" and "operation-science," indicating that there are different kinds of science, or at least different levels of certainty within science. One of the things, as best I can tell, that those advocating this distinction want to do is to eliminate the restriction of science to natural causes. I think this is misguided because the vast majority of scientists today seem to have firmly settled that question--God cannot be a part of any scientific description. And I think it follows that any description that implies a creator will probably also be looked at as improper by most scientists.5 Furthermore, I am concerned that this type of dichotomy allows God as a cause for "origins" but not for things happening today. In fact, the Scriptures seem to clearly teach that God is the ultimate cause of not only the initial appearance (origin) of creation, but also its day to day "operation." These are among the many topics in the philosophy of science that need much work. So what should we do?


I believe we have the broad outline of the path to take, yet we seem to have been reluctant to vigorously pursue it. And this reluctance has been at least in two areas. First, the theologian/philosopher Langdon Gilkey has, in my estimation, accurately assessed the situation in academic science programs (and in some seminaries?) when he stated: "....complex questions of the relation of science and its truths to other aspects of culture..have been blithely ignored. The history and philosophy of science which do deal with these relations--are absent from most scientific programs..."6 Hence, although there has been much written on the pages of journals such as Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), I suspect there has been little accomplished in the way of systematic training of our future leaders in college, university, and seminary classrooms. Assuming this problem should be addressed, what should be taught? This is the second problem area.

Although most evangelicals, and particularly ASA members, seem to embrace some variety of "complementarity," we have not, in my opinion, vigorously pursued this or related concepts. In the article cited above, Gilkey deals with the concept of "levels of explanation," and the domains and restrictions of theological and scientific explanations. The two are different because their domains or perspectives are not the same. If this is the case, the idea of "complementarity" must also be relevant. Both concepts are old, dating in some form at least to Galileo, who maintained that God had "two books"--one his creation and the other the Bible. You studied creation (using science) if you wanted to learn "how the heavens go," and you studied the Scriptures if you wanted to learn "how to go to heaven." Hence, Galileo had no theological problem with the heliocentric theory of the universe and the motions of the planets, but those who based their science on what they thought the Bible taught certainly did. The Scriptures teach that God created the "dry ground," but geologists explain the formation of land features such as mountain ranges in terms of crustal "folding" and "thrust faulting." Jesus said that his Father feeds the birds (Mt. 6:26), but no ornithologist would include the Father in a scientific description of bird feeding ecology. Each of us is created in God's image. Yet a "complete" biological explanation of the events that occur during the fusion of the sperm and egg, embryonic development, birth, growth and maturation, would not include God. There are different levels of explanations, and they can be complementary. Hence, I suggest that the "path" I mentioned above begins with the concepts of complementarity and levels of explanation.

As implied above, I am fully aware that these concepts are not without critics, and they do not represent an instant panacea for science/theology conflicts. Nor are they meant to provide a neat way for us to keep theology and science completely compartmentalized, as some have suggested. Furthermore, I am aware that there are different kinds of "complementarity" and a host of ways to view science/theology interactions. However, as Richard Bube has stated in reference to the overall approach: "We may indeed debate whether one should say that science and theology are complementary, but it does not appear that there is any debate that scientific descriptions are often complementary to theological descriptions of the same events. If this were not the case, what other options do we have?"7 I hope we evangelicals can some day bring forth the light and healing that these concepts in their broadest form seem to contain.

I have tried to keep up with some of the work on these topics, and it is not my point to be critical of anyone publishing in this area. My point here is that we need to more vigorously work on determining just how science and theology are to interact, and not only effectively communicate the findings to each other, but also to students in our classrooms and leaders in the church. In the latter case, I urge the philosophers (both theological and scientific) among us to publish their work, when appropriate, in places that are read by people other than philosophers and interested scientists. I have read for years journals such as PSCF and Zygon, and they have contained some marvelously helpful articles. But these publications have very limited readership. It may be true that most scientists (and philosophers?) who are not serious Christians probably do not care about such issues. However, I suspect that regardless of their background, many Christians, and indeed many non-Christians who are seeking answers, would probably be quite interested in such work. Periodicals such as Christianity Today, Christian Century, and others would be excellent places for philosophically oriented articles.

In essence, the basis for my suggestions herein has been that we respect one of the foundational premises of modern science. We criticize agnostics and atheists for mixing their metaphysics and science. I wonder if we evangelicals don't also need to be on guard against our tendencies to try to re-introduce God into science. Are we in danger of starting back down the road to the kind of science that Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Darwin led us away from?



I thank Richard Bube, Wilbur Bullock, Jim Neidhardt, Dave Wilcox, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments and suggestions on a draft of the manuscript. This essay grew out of my interactions with college students during an evolution course I recently taught. I thank them for giving me some insight into how they viewed the "creation issue."



1 Woodward, T. "A professor takes Darwin to court." Christianity Today, August 19, 1991. Three responses were also published, two by ASA members.

2 Angeles, P. A. Dictionary of Philosophy. 1981. .Barnes & Noble Books, New York.

3 Del Ratzsch provides a good introduction to the major views on what science is, its possible limitations, and other relevant topics in his Philosophy of Science, 1986, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.

4 For example, see articles in the August 12, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.

5 Charles Thaxton recently discussed the negative reviews that the high school biology book entitled Of Pandas and People, 1989 by P. Davis and D. H. Kenyon has received. It has been criticized by both scientists and theologians. Central to these criticisms is the issue of "intelligent causes" in science. This is an issue that Thaxton would like to see debated. I suspect that the negative responses by the scientists reflect how most scientists may feel--intelligent cause implies a creator, and is therefore non-science.

6 Gilkey's article is in a collection of essays entitled Science and Creation: Geological, Theological, and Educational Perspectives, 1986, Robert W. Hanson (ed.), American Association for the Advancement of Science. Wilbur Bullock provided a review in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 1988, Vol. 40, p. 175-176.

7 Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 1983, Vol. 35, p. 242.