Yesterday was Darwin’s birthday, so I watched an HBO documentary called Questioning Darwin, a look at the Creationist movement in the United States and its fierce opposition to the theory of evolution by natural selection. It’s basically a dissection of everything I was taught as a child about myself, the origin of life, and my purpose on Earth.
First, some quotes from Creationists in the film:
- “We believe in Creation, because of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s word, the holy Bible.”
- “If the theory of evolution is a fact, the Bible must be false, so we’re all stupid ignoramuses.”
- “I do not believe that we’re some sort of highly evolved primate.”
- “The Bible says we are created a little lower than angels, which is much more noble and majestic than the explanation that evolution gives for who we are.”
- “I don’t know how someone could observe humans and miss the dignity that’s put there by God alone.”
- “To put man down as just an animal, that we’re no different than a dog, is preposterous. God made us in His image, and so to say that man is an animal, and God created man in his own image… does one come back and say God is nothing more than an animal?”
- “If we are just a product of this random mutation process, where does morality come from? Where does hope come from? Where does love come from?”
- “If that’s the way the world works, then you believe in a God that doesn’t intervene. That takes away any possibility of miracles, any possibility of answered prayer, any possibility of the resurrection.”
- “To think I have no communication with God would be so devastating. I can’t even imagine adopting such a view just to make peace with Darwin.”
- “I can’t imagine life without knowing that God has a plan, and that that plan is not just for the here-and-now, but that plan includes a hope and a future, and a future way beyond whatever we’ll face here on Earth but a future with Him in heaven.”
What I hear in these voices is fear, thinly masked by certainty in a belief that promises to deliver both answers and purpose. These are people terrified by an existence that’s marked by uncertainty and danger. In a way, they’re right to be afraid, irrational as that fear is.
The beginning of my journey to atheism was indeed in finally accepting the theory of evolution by natural selection. I’m not sure when that happened, exactly—somewhere in the years after graduating from Northwestern College. The more I considered the fossil and genetic evidence that all life on Earth is related, and for the age of the universe and the Earth itself, the less likely it seemed that it was designed. For a while I flirted with the idea of theistic evolution, that God put everything in motion. Then something Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God stuck with me:
Intelligent design gets everything backwards. It’s like saying that our hands are miraculous because they fit so perfectly into our gloves: “Look at that! Four fingers and a thumb! That can’t have been an accident!’
Fact is, far from “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we more seem to be haphazardly assembled.
This view of a naturalistic universe had real implications for the beliefs my parents had handed me as a child, beliefs that mirrored the sentiments offered by the quotations above. How could a loving God allow such a world to exist? If I, a being made in the image of God, wanted to prevent suffering, how could an all-powerful being then not banish it completely?
At one point, several individuals talk about surviving substance abuse and how their addiction turned to Christianity. This is a popular talking point: without God we’re just animals, slaves to our darker impulses and passions—that we’ll tear ourselves apart. I don’t know how many presentations I sat through growing up: of “recovering sinners” warning us how bad it was on the outside, and that our only hope for overcoming sin and temptation was Jesus.
A fellow from Answers in Genesis sums it up at one point: “When asked what is the primary reason I believe evolution is incompatible with Biblical Christianity, I can sum it up in one word: death. Whether we’re young or old, death is inevitable.”
In the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham last week, this issue also came up. Ham said something to the effect of: “Bill Nye can’t tell us what happens after we die.” And that’s true. We don’t know. I don’t know. Yet somehow this becomes a talking point for Creationists to insert a Gospel pitch of salvation through Jesus Christ. You cannot talk to a Creationist who won’t do this at some point.
Their response to the news that we’re essentially alone in an amoral and indifferent universe is to try to shut their eyes tight and stop their ears. For them, if evolution is true, that means that life is pointless, aimless, meaningless. I love how Julia Sweeney puts it in Letting Go of God: “What’s going to stop me from rushing out and murdering people?”
For me, accepting evolution was liberating. For years, I agonized over the struggle between my “earthly” desires and my supposed divine purpose on Earth. The news that I’m an animal, with the same origins and subject to the same needs and forces as other creature on this planet, was a relief. It meant there’s nothing wrong with me, the opposite of what Christianity taught.
It’s futile to argue with Creationists. Their arguments are based on emotion, and apparently fear of death and spontaneously becoming murderers or kleptomaniacs. Or gay. Thus, they can easily dismiss threatening, rational evidence in favor of the Bible.
Darwin wrote: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble and I believe truer to consider him created from animals.”