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Reason and Revelation Volume 16 #8

Why Do People Believe in Evolution?

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

As we make our way through the pilgrimage called “life,” on occasion we stop to reflect upon the nature and meaning of our own existence, because such matters variously enthrall, excite, or intrigue us. Nowhere is this more evident than in regard to our ultimate origin. Few there must be who do not pause, at some point in their earthly sojourn, to ponder such topics as the origin of the Universe, the origin of planet Earth, the origin of various life forms on the Earth, and even their own origin and destiny.

Essentially, there are two fundamentally different, diametrically opposed, explanations for these phenomena. Each of these explanations can be viewed as a cosmogony—i.e., an entire world view, or philosophy, of origins and destinies, of life and meaning. One of these world views, known as the concept of creation, postulates that the Universe is here as the result of the purposeful, deliberate acts of a supernatural Creator Who—with wisdom, planning, design, and forethought—created the Universe and all animate and inanimate systems within it. An alternate and opposing world view, known as the concept of evolution, suggests that the Universe and all its animate and inanimate systems are here as the result of random, nonpurposive, naturalistic forces operating by chance over eons of time.

In 1960, G. A. Kerkut, the eminent British physiologist and evolutionist, authored a small-but-powerful volume titled, The Implications of Evolution, in which he defined not a single theory of evolution, but rather two different theories of evolution. One of those theories he labeled the Special Theory of Evolution (often referred to in the literature as “microevolution”), which suggests that minor changes, within narrow limits, can occur throughout all living things. While the Special Theory of Evolution allows for change within groups, it does not allow for change between groups. There is no controversy over this particular theory, which is accepted as correct by both creationists and evolutionists alike.

In addition to the Special Theory, however, Dr. Kerkut also defined and discussed what he labeled the General Theory of Evolution (often referred in the literature as “macroevolution”). After discussing the Special Theory, he contrasted it with the General Theory in these words: “On the other hand, there is the theory that all the living forms in the world have arisen from a single source which itself came from an inorganic form. This theory can be called the ‘General Theory of Evolution’ ” (1960, p. 157).

This is the idea commonly referred to as organic evolution, or simply “evolution.” Through the years, a number of investigators have defined evolution in a variety of ways. The same year that Dr. Kerkut offered his definitions, the renowned Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote:

Evolution is a fully natural process, inherent in the physical properties of the universe, by which life arose in the first place, and by which all living things, past or present, have since developed, divergently and progressively (1960, p. 969, emp. added).

Previously, Dr. Simpson had defined the theory by suggesting:

First, there is the theory of evolution in the strict sense. This states that all living organisms have evolved from common ancestors in a gradual historical process of change and diversification. The theory rejects the notion that all organisms were designed and created at the beginning of time (1957, pp. 25-26, emp. added).

Notice the recurrent theme in the various definitions offered by evolutionists to explain their theory. First, evolution is regarded as a fully natural process. Second, no “external agent” (read “supernatural Creator”) is responsible for inanimate matter’s becoming animate; evolution “rejects the notion that all organisms were designed and created....” Third, all life forms have descended (evolved) from a common source that owes its own existence to inorganic matter. Fourth, evolution is a continual process of “change and diversification” which ultimately produces living organisms that develop “divergently and progressively.”

IS BELIEF IN EVOLUTION POPULAR?

Although atheistic evolution is not as old a viewpoint as creation, it has amassed a sizable following among certain segments of the population. Especially is this true in regard to the scientific community, where more often than not evolution is considered to be a fact proven beyond dispute. As one university biology textbook, used widely for almost two decades, suggested:

Organic evolution is the greatest principle in biology. Its implications extend far beyond the confines of that science, ramifying into all phases of human life and activity. Accordingly, understanding of evolution should be part of the intellectual equipment of all educated persons (Moody, 1962, p. 1x).

Yes, belief in evolution is popular in some circles. The question is: why?

WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION?

One of the most mind-numbing mysteries for those who do not believe in evolution is trying to understand the people who do. [Perhaps evolutionists feel the same exasperation in regard to creationists’ beliefs, but on that point I am less qualified to judge.] Such an observation is not intended to be derogatory, but is offered merely as a statement of fact. Many who believe in creation do so because they have seen the evidence that establishes the Creator’s existence. They understand that where there is a painting, by necessity there must be a painter. Where there is a poem, there must be a poet. Where there is a law, there must be a lawgiver. Where there is design, there must be a designer.

Because the Universe is intricately designed, creationists find it not only difficult, but impossible, to believe that it “just happened.” To them, suggesting that purely natural forces are capable of explaining the size, complexity, and organization of the Universe, and the delicate intricacies of life found within it, is illogical; the only rational conclusion is that there must have been a Grand Designer. Further, those who believe in creation do so because they have examined the empirical evidence, and are confident that a reasonable prima facie case can be made to support their conviction. Creationists contend that the evidence points not to a Universe that is self-created or self-explained, but to a Universe that is the result of creation at the hand of an omnipotent Creator.

As one who writes and lectures often on the topics of creation and evolution, I frequently am asked the question: “Why do people believe in evolution?” Often the question is phrased in what are intended to be complimentary terms: “Why is it that so many obviously intelligent people believe in evolution?” Neither question is easy to answer because generally the querist wants a simple, concise answer. It is difficult for him to understand why people whom he accepts as “obviously intelligent” believe a concept such as evolution that he, personally, considers so unworthy of acceptance or recommendation by intelligent people. It has been my experience that rarely is there a singular response that can provide an answer to such a question, because rarely is there a singular reason that can explain adequately why a person believes what he does. Especially is this true in regard to belief in evolution.

At times, the controversy that centers on the topics of creation and evolution has generated more heat than light. This does not necessarily have to be the case, however. In an open society, the topic of origins, and the varying views that people hold on origins, ultimately will be discussed; in fact, they should be discussed. But because the subject matter has to do with deeply held convictions, emotions often run high. One good way to avoid emotional entanglement, and the “more heat than light” syndrome that generally accompanies it, is to work diligently to comprehend the other person’s position as completely as possible, and therefore to discuss it as accurately and calmly as possible in any given situation. That task is made easier if there exists—at the beginning of the discussion—a basic understanding of why the person believes as he does. Again, especially is this true in regard to belief in evolution.

While it may seem somewhat of a truism to suggest that people believe in evolution for a variety of reasons, realization of this fact, and a legitimate exploration of the reasons people offer for believing what they do, can go a long way toward a better understanding of opposing views found within the creation/evolution controversy. With better understanding comes improved communication. And with improved communication comes increased opportunity for dialogue—which can set the stage for the presentation of other viewpoints that perhaps have not been considered previously (e.g., in this particular instance, persuading the evolutionist to consider the evidence for creation).

As I attempt to respond to the question, “Why do so many obviously intelligent people believe in evolution?,” O hope to be able to provide a better comprehension of the system of organic evolution, and of the people who accept it. Included among the reasons why people believe in evolution are the following.

Reason #1

There can be little doubt that many today believe in evolution simply because it is what they have been taught. For the past century, evolution has been in the limelight. And for the past quarter of a century or more, it has been taught as a scientific fact in many elementary, junior high, and senior high schools, as well as in most colleges and universities. Marshall and Sandra Hall have offered this summary.

In the first place, evolution is what is taught in the schools. At least two, and in some cases three and four generations, have used textbooks that presented it as proven fact. The teachers, who for the most part learned it as truth, pass it on as truth. Students are as thoroughly and surely indoctrinated with the concept of evolution as students have ever been indoctrinated with any unproven belief (1974, p. 10).

In their book, Why Scientists Accept Evolution, Bales and Clark confirmed such an observation. “Evolution,” they wrote, “is taken for granted today and thus it is uncritically accepted by scientists as well as laymen. It is accepted by them today because it was already accepted by others who went before them and under whose direction they obtained their education” (1966, p. 106). People believe in evolution because they have been taught that it is true.

Reason #2

To suggest that many people today accept evolution as true merely because they have been taught to believe it does not tell the whole story, however. Intellectual pride enters into the picture as well. Who among us does not want to present at least the appearance of being smart and well educated? Over the last century, we have been led to believe that if we wish to be considered intelligent, then we should believe in evolution, because intelligent people all over the world believe in evolution. As Henry Morris well stated the issue: “[T]he main reason most educated people believe in evolution is simply because they have been told that most educated people believe in evolution!” (Morris, 1963, p. 26).

Consider the hypothetical example of two college students discussing their professors and courses. One of the students, Joe, asks his friend, Mark, the following question: “Hey, Mark, do you believe in evolution? My professor says all smart folks do.” Honestly, what is Mark supposed to say? If he says, “No, Joe, I don’t believe in evolution,” by definition he has admitted to being outside the sphere of all the “smart folks.” On the other hand, if he says, “Yes, Joe, I do believe in evolution,” he may be admitting to a belief based not on an examination of the evidence, but on the idea that he does not wish to be viewed by his peers as anything but “smart.” Undoubtedly, many people today fall into this category. They do not accept evolution because they have seen evidence that establishes it as true. Rather, they believe it because doing so places them in the same category as others who are considered to be well educated and intelligent.

Reason #3

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that evolution has been given a “stamp of approval” by important spokespersons from practically every field of human endeavor. While there have been those of renown from politics, the humanities, the arts, and other fields who openly have defended evolution as factual, in no other area has this defense been as pronounced as in the sciences. Because science has seen so many successes, and because these successes have been so visible and well publicized, scientists been granted an aura of respectability that only can be envied by non-scientists. As a result, when scientists champion a cause, people take notice. After all, it is their workings through the scientific method that have eradicated smallpox, put men on the Moon, prevented polio, and lengthened life spans. We have grown used to seeing “experts” from various scientific disciplines ply their trade in an endless stream of amazing feats. Heart surgery has become commonplace; organ transplants have become routine; space shuttles flying to the heavens have become standard fare.

Thus, when evolution is presented as something that “all reputable scientists believe,” there are many who accept such a statement at face value, and who fall in line with what they believe is a well-proven dictum that has been enshrouded with the cloak of scientific respectability. As philosopher Paul Ricci has written: “The reliability of evolution not only as a theory but as a principle of understanding is not contested by the vast majority of biologists, geologists, astronomers, and other scientists” (1986, p. 172). Or, as Stephen Jay Gould put it:

The fact of evolution is as well established as anything in science (as secure as the revolution of the earth around the sun), though absolute certainty has no place in our lexicon (1987, p. 64).

These kinds of statements leave the impression that evolution simply cannot be doubted by well-informed, intelligent people. The message is: “All scientists believe it; so should you.” And many do, because, as Marshall and Sandra Hall have inquired: “How, then, are people with little or no special knowledge of the various sciences and related subjects to challenge the authorities? It is natural to accept what ‘experts’ say, and most people do” (1974, p. 10). The simple fact is, however, that truth is not determined by popular opinion or majority vote. A thing may be, and often is, true even when accepted only by the minority. Believing something based on the assumption that “everyone else” also believes it often can lead to disastrous results. As Guy N. Woods has remarked: “It is dangerous to follow the multitude because the majority is almost always on the wrong side in this world” (1982, 124[1]:2).

Reason #4

Without a doubt, there are many who believe in evolution because they have rejected God. For those who refuse to believe in the Creator, evolution becomes their only escape. They generally make no pretense of believing it based on anything other than their disbelief in God. Henry Fairfield Osborn, one of the most famous evolutionists of the early twentieth century, suggested: “In truth, from the earliest stages of Greek thought man has been eager to discover some natural cause of evolution, and to abandon the idea of supernatural intervention in the order of nature” (1917, p. ix). Henry Morris noted: “Evolution is the natural way to explain the origin of things for those who do not know and acknowledge the true God of creation. In fact, some kind of evolution is absolutely necessary for those who would reject God” (1966, p. 98).

Sir Arthur Keith of Great Britain wrote: “Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable” (as quoted in Criswell, 1972, p. 73). Professor D.M.S. Watson, who held the position of the Chair of Evolution at the University of London for more than twenty years, echoed the same sentiments when he stated that “evolution itself is accepted by zoologists, not because it has been observed to occur or can be proven by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is incredible” (1929, 123:233). These kinds of statements leave little to the imagination, and make it clear that those who say such things believe in evolution not because of any evidence, but instead because they have made up their minds, a priori, that they are not going to believe in God.

In his text, Man’s Origin: Man’s Destiny, the eminent United Nations scientist, A.E. Wilder-Smith, observed that “Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism, rightly or wrongly, have been used everywhere in the East and West, in the hands of the atheists and agnostics, as the main weapon against the biblical doctrine of origins” (1975, p. 31). For the person who stubbornly refuses to believe in God, belief in evolution becomes automatic. Similarly, opposition to God as the Creator, the Bible and His Word, and the system of origins the Bible describes become just as automatic. Whenever a person rids himself of God, he simultaneously (even if unknowingly) embraces evolution. By his disbelief, he has eliminated creation as an option regarding his origin.

Reason #5

Another reason people offer for their belief in evolution has to do with the fact that there is so much evil, pain, and suffering in the world. No rational, well-informed person can deny the widespread and unmistakable occurrence of “bad” things that happen, often engulfing those who seem undeserving of such tragic events. To some, no explanation from religionists—regardless of how elaborately stated or elegantly defended that explanation may be—ever will provide an adequate answer to the conundrum of how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God can allow atrocities to fill His specially created world.

Evolution, on the other hand, provides what appears to be a perfectly logical explanation for such a scenario. According to evolutionary dogma, throughout the history of the world various species (including man) have been engaged in a struggle for survival and advancement. Charles Darwin, borrowing a phrase from the English philosopher, Herbert Spencer, referred to it as “survival of the fittest.” The evolutionist—by the very nature of his theory—is forced to view the Universe and everything within it as the end result of numerous purposeless accidents. All living things, man included, exist on the Earth not because of any Grand Plan, but because of fortuitous occurrences that resulted from chance happenings in nature. And, to survive, and thrive, in such a world may seem to justify a “might makes right/strong subjugates the weak/to the victor go the spoils” attitude. It’s a jungle out there, and in the jungle it is the law of tooth and claw that prevails.

Since man is viewed as little more than a “naked ape” (to borrow the words from the book by that title, authored by evolutionary anthropologist Desmond Morris), why should he somehow be exempt from the perils that continually befall other species of animals? These animals live their entire lives with one eye looking over their shoulder, as it were, because they exist in a dog-eat-dog world with no set moral standard. Man, according to evolutionary theory, is no different. His claim to fame lies in the fact that (thus far) he stands on the last rung of the evolutionary ladder.

But nature confers on him no special rights, privileges, or protection. In a world where evolution is considered as true, and “survival of the fittest” is touted as nature’s way of weeding out the weak, it should be no surprise that evil, pain, and suffering exist. In fact, from the evolutionary vantage point, whenever competition occurs for such things as food supplies, adequate shelter, reproductive advantages, etc., humanity has to learn to cope with evil, pain, and suffering. Granted, at first this may sound harsh, but from the evolutionists’ perspective it is consistent, and offers an attempted explanation for the undeniable existence of “bad” things in our world. Unfortunately, all too often the answers offered by religionists for the problem of evil, pain, and suffering have fallen short of the mark, and as a result people have accepted evolution as providing a legitimate explanation for a very real problem in their lives.

Reason #6

As unpleasant as it is to have to admit it, some people believe in evolution because they have heard about, witnessed, or experienced firsthand the mistakes of religionists through the ages. Whether it is the offering of young virgins to an imaginary deity, the burning of alleged witches at the stake, or the adultery of a highly visible televangelist, the truth of the matter is that on occasion believers in God have set a very poor example—one that sensitive, thinking people naturally would have difficulty following.

To some, the very history of religion makes it suspect from the outset. Attempts to force people to accept a certain religion (as in the Crusades), or misguided attempts to squelch open discussion of important issues (as in the Catholic Church’s censure of Galileo), have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Add to that the hypocrisy of, or word spoken in anger by, a person who wears the name “Christian,” and the damage may be such that even in a lifetime it cannot be repaired. The result is that those who have been offended want nothing whatsoever to do with the God of the Bible, and as they reject Him, they also reject His account of the creation of the world in which they live.

Reason #7

While it is undeniable that some reject creation because of inappropriate conduct on the part of those who advocate it, nevertheless it is true that some reject God, and creation, to excuse or legitimize their own inappropriate personal conduct. In other words, they believe in evolution because it allows them to avoid any objective moral standard of behavior. It keeps them “out of reach” of any deity. It provides a subjective climate of situation ethics where any and all behavior, no matter how absurd or perverse, is acceptable. It nourishes a “do your own thing” attitude that precludes rules and regulations, in a vain attempt to circumvent the guilt that inevitably comes from doing wrong.

In the evolutionary scenario, humans are merely the last in a long line of amoebas, crocodiles, and orangutans resulting from fortuitous cosmic accidents. In such an arrangement, it is futile to speak of “personal responsibility.” There exists, in the grand scheme of things, no reason why one “ought” or “ought not” to act a certain way, or to do/not do a certain thing. Aldous Huxley stated the matter succinctly in his article, “Confessions of a Professed Atheist”:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently, assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find reasons for this assumption.... The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do.... For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom (1966, 3:19).

Were Huxley and his cohorts to abandon belief in evolution and accept the existence of God and the truthfulness of creation, it would have interfered with their “sexual freedom.” Realizing that, they freely chose instead to abandon belief in God. That left them with only one option—belief in evolution. It was not something they accepted because of the weight of the evidence. Rather, it was something they accepted because they wished to avoid any personal accountability to their Creator. Their actions belied their motives. As Guy N. Woods has remarked: “Convince a man that he came from a monkey, and he’ll act like one!” (1976, p. 514).

Reason #8

Lastly, we may state that some people accept evolution because they are convinced that it is the correct answer to the question of origins. They have examined the evidence and, on the basis of their examination, have concluded that evolution is the only plausible explanation for the Universe and all that it contains. These people generally are both sincere and open-minded. They are not attempting to rid themselves of the idea of God. They do not feel the need to be “intellectually correct.” They are not reacting to unkind treatment at the hand of religionists. They are not searching for a way to justify worldly behavior. They simply believe the evidence favors evolution, and thus have accepted it as the correct view of origins. What, exactly, is that evidence? Does it substantiate belief in evolution? And what is the creationist’s response to it? I invite your attention to future articles as we investigate these, and related, matters.

REFERENCES

Bales, J.D. and R.T. Clark (1966), Why Scientists Accept Evolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Criswell, W.A. (1972), Did Man Just Happen? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Gould, Stephen Jay (1987), “Darwinism Defined: The Difference Between Fact and Theory,” Discover, 8[1]:64-65,68-70, January.

Hall, Marshall and Sandra Hall (1974), The Truth: God or Evolution? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Huxley, Aldous (1966), “Confessions of a Professed Atheist,” Report: Perspective on the News, June.

Kerkut, G. A. (1960), The Implications of Evolution (London: Pergamon).

Moody, Paul Amos (1962), Introduction to Evolution (New York: Harper & Row).

Morris, Henry M. (1963), The Twilight of Evolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Morris, Henry M. (1966), Studies in the Bible and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Osborn, Henry Fairfield (1918), The Origin and Evolution of Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s & Sons).

Ricci, Paul (1986), Fundamentals of Critical Thinking (Lexington, MA: Ginn Press).

Simpson, George Gaylord (1960), “The World Into Which Darwin Led Us,” Science, 131:966-969, April 1.

Simpson, George Gaylord, C.S. Pittendrigh, and L.H. Tiffany (1957), Life: An Introduction to Biology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World).

Watson, D.M.S. (1929), “Adaptation,” Nature, 123:233, August 10.

Wilder-Smith, A.E. (1975), Man’s Origin: Man’s Destiny (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship).

Woods, Guy N. (1976), “Man Created in God’s Image,” Gospel Advocate, 118[33]:514,518, August 12.

Woods, Guy N. (1982), “ ‘And be not Conformed to this World,’ ” Gospel Advocate, 124[1]:2, January 7.



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