Evolution and Atheism: Best Friends Forever

Jerry Coyne. Freethought Today. January 2017.

Accepting evolution and science tends to promote the acceptance of atheism. Now, it doesn’t always, of course. There are many religious people who accept evolution. I would say they’re guilty of cognitive dissonance, or at least of some kind of watery deism.

The path from going to an evolutionary biologist to an atheist is pretty straightforward. You write a book on evolution with the indubitable facts showing that it has to be true, as true as the existence of gravity or neutrons, and then you realize that half of America is not going to buy it no matter what you say. Their minds cannot be changed; their eyes are blinkered.

And so you start studying what it is about religion that makes people resistant to evolution. You discover that religion is in some ways like science, but it’s a pseudoscience. It makes scientific claims, or at least empirical claims, about the real world, but then adjudicates those claims in a completely different way from science.

So you start realizing that religion is perverting what you’re trying to do with science by making statements about the world, but then supporting them with various cockamamie methods. And so you become an atheist and you might then become an anti-theist because you see that religion is promoting ways of thinking about the world that are not sound.

Natural Pathway

This is a natural pathway; it’s the same pathway Richard Dawkins went along—except that he pissed off religious people more than I did.

Look at the subtitle of Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker: A World Without Design. A design-less world is one thing that religious people cannot bring themselves to accept I’m not going to go over the evidence for evolution. You should either know it by now or, if you don’t buy my book. Let me just say it comes from many various areas of biology: embryology, the fossil record, morphology, genetics, biogeography. All these different areas come together to show that evolution, in fact is true. As true as anything is in science.

Case closed, right? Well, no. Not in America, at least. The Gallup Poll has been surveying American attitudes toward evolution for 32 years and the results have held pretty steady. When it asks Americans, “How did humans get here?” 40 percent say, “We’ve always been here like we are now and so have all the other species and the Earth is about 10,000 years old.” For over 30 years this has held steady.

Then we have the theistic evolutionists. Those are the people who accept evolution, but think that God was the motor that did it. And those respondents have pretty much hovered around 30 percent. There’s a sort of heartening downswing in that in the latest years, which is mirrored by a heartening upswing in the number of naturalistic evolutionists, now up to 20 percent. Those who claim, yeah, we got here by naturalistic processes. This happens to be the truth, by the way.

It’s not like people don’t have access to the evidence and information of evolution. It’s that people are blinkered to that truth by religion, and that’s something that I think almost all of us know in our hearts.

Evolution Deniers

Most people who say they accept evolution are nevertheless supernaturalists to some degree. Why? Because of religion. You scratch a creationist, you’ll find a religionist. Intelligent design advocates have been described as creationists in a cheap tuxedo. They say intelligent design, but what they really mean is Jesus.

A poll taken by Gallup asked evolution deniers why they deny it. The first three reasons are all religious and don’t have anything to do with evidence. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” “I believe in the Almighty God,” and “Due to my religion or faith.” It’s only when you get to the fourth most common answer—you can give only one answer in this poll—they say, “Well, there’s not enough evidence for it.”

The poll shows 83 percent of the people who reject evolution say the rejection has to do with their faith. It has nothing to do at all with evidence. There is a strong negative relationship, a highly statistically negative relationship, between religion and belief in evolution.

The countries that have the most belief in God have the lowest acceptance of Darwinism. Countries that have the least acceptance of God, the least belief in God, are those that accept evolution more. Countries in, say, sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East, are not only highly religious, but they’re also deeply opposed to evolution.

What’s the reason for this relationship? This is mainly a correlation, not a causation, but I think there is some causality here. First of all, you can say, well, the higher your belief in God, the less likely you are to accept evolution. There’s something about being religious that makes you less likely to accept Darwin, and I think that is indeed the case.

But the other alternative explanation is that the more you grow to accept evolution, the less you are likely to be religious. That’s also plausible, but I think it’s almost incontrovertibly true that the first explanation is the more correct one, simply because you know how it works in this country: People get their Jesus before they get their Darwin. By the time they get to biology class, they’re already immune. They’re immunized to evolutionary biology.

Religion Hampers U.S.

Where’s the United States in terms of religion and evolution? It’s really bad. We’re second from bottom. The only industrialized country that has less acceptance of evolution than we do is Turkey. So the reason why the U.S. is so resistant to evolution—as opposed to say France, Denmark and Sweden—is because we’re one of the most religious “First World” countries.

We can do the same kind of correlation with states as we did with countries. At the top we have Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts. At the bottom: evolution denialists Arkansas, Tennessee and Utah. Sensing any pattern there?

I don’t have the data on the religiosity of every state in the U.S., but what I did find were the 10 most religious states and the 10 least religious states. Those states that are the most religious are the ones that are the most evolution-denying states and vice versa, and there’s no overlap between them. The more religious you are, the less likely are to accept evolution.

There’s another factor that explains why different countries vary in their degrees of religiosity and why different states in the U.S. vary in their degrees of religiosity. And that has to do with well-being.

You see the same kind of relationship we saw for evolution and religion, but in this case those countries with the highest belief in God tend to be the countries that are the least well-off. Those countries that have the lowest belief in God tend to be the countries that have the most well-being. I don’t think this is an accident.

Where is the U.S. here? You can say the reason why we reject evolution is because we’re so religious. But why are we so religious? Because we’re not really that well-off. We have high degrees of income inequality. We have no government health care (or not, at least, until recently), high incarceration rates and high child mortality compared to other countries.

So what’s going on here? Well, again, you have a correlation and not causation. You can say two things. First, you can say that those countries that absolutely believe in God more tend to create societies that are bad. That is, it’s the religiosity that somehow makes the societies dysfunctional. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t jibe with any notion of religion that 1 have.

Happiness Matters

The other explanation is that the more well-off you are as a country, the less need your inhabitants have to embrace God. They don’t feel that they have to have a need to appeal to some celestial being that can give them an additional life that will make things right for them after their own miserable life on Karth is ended.

Every few years, the United Nations compiles a happiness index. It asks the inhabitants, “How are you doing? Are you happy?” They don’t have any objective rating on how happy they are. They just ask people if they are happy or not.

There were 156 countries surveyed, but I could get data on only 52 of them. You can see there is, again, a strong negative relationship. The happier you are ¿ts a country, the less religious you are. The more miserable you are, the more religious you are. The happiest countries in the world are Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. The unhappiest countries in the world are Togo, Benin and the Central African Republic—countries which are deeply dysfunctional and highly, highly religious.

So this supports my explanation of why religious countries tend to be countries that are less well-off. That’s also the explanation of Karl Marx and his famous quote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition it to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

What Marx meant by that, and this is often taken as an anti-religious quote, is that religiosity arises when people have no other place to turn to in their lives. It is the opium of the people. And to rectify the situation, where you have an illusory kind of solution to a very real physical problem, is the next paragraph: “To call on people to give up their illusions about these conditions is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

In other words, if you want to get rid of religion in this world, then you have to get rid of the conditions that breed it.

Perpetual Antagonism

So I hope I’ve painted a picture of the antagonism, the perpetual antagonism between religion and evolution. What I want to say now is why that antagonism occurs. Why is evolution so anathema to believers? Well, there are lots of reasons.

It’s scary. It’s scary in a lot of ways if you’re religious. In fact, I could not finish the list of the ways that the fact and implications of evolution scare religious people.

Here’s just a few of them.

  • We’re products of evolution, not of any protective god. We can be explained largely by natural selection and you don’t need a god to do that. That, of course, is the thing that religious people really cannot stand that all. Their strongest argument for God, which is the appearance of design in nature, has now been kicked out from under them by Charles Darwin and his descendants.
  • There is no evidence for a soul. All of this comes out of science and evolution. Some of these are direct facts, some of them are implications, but both of them are scary to religious people. We’re animals—African apes. If you want to really tick off evangelical Christians, tell them they are just apes. If you tell them they’re a fish, it doesn’t give them the same reaction, although that’s just as true.
  • Morality is not God-given. This is a big thing for Americans in particular. Morality is not something that’s given to us by God, but is either evolved from our ancestors or is a cultural veneer that has developed sociologically over time. And there is no externally imposed meaning or purpose and lives.

So here we see that direct conflict between religion and science and between evolution and religion. I just want to tell you briefly three reasons why science and religion are incompatible.

Competing Entities

Science and religion are competing entities. They both compete to make statements about the universe. You don’t hear people saying that religion and business are compatible. Or that religion and baseball are compatible. You don’t hear that. What you hear is science and religion are compatible. Why science and why religion? Because they both compete to tell us the truth about the universe.

So, in many ways, they’re in the same business, although there’s a lot more to religion than just empirically non-verifiable statements. They differ in their methodologies. You know how science works: We appeal to nature, we appeal to testability, we appeal to hypotheses, we appeal to falsifiability, we depend on consensus. We have all the apparatus of professional science like blind testing, like statistics and peer review.

Religion makes claims about the universe that does not have this apparatus. It has dogma, authority and scripture, and that’s the way it tests its claims. So right off the bat when they’re making claims about the universe, science and religion differ in how they adjudicate them. Methodologically, it can’t be expressed more strongly than this: In science, faith is a vice; in religion, faith is a virtue.

In science, we have ways of knowing that we re wrong. If you have a scientific frame of mind, then if you believe something, you can think of ways that you’re capable of being shown wrong.

In religion, there’s no way that the beliefs can be shown to be wrong. You may say to them, “Everybody is suffering and dying. Look at that little girl over there who’s got leukemia. How could your god do that?” They’ll always find a way to explain it. It’s a system of bias where you always find out exactly what you want to believe to begin with.

Science and religious investigations tell us different things about the world.

Here, for example, is what Christianity told us about the world before science came in and blew them all out of the water: the creation story, the exodus, Adam and Eve, a great flood, prayer works, young Earth. These are all wrong. We know this now. And why are they wrong? Because science has shown them to be wrong.

Asymmetric Relationship

We thus have an asymmetric relationship between science and religion. Science can show that religious beliefs are wrong. Religion cannot show that scientific beliefs are wrong. Religious people know this in their heart and that’s why they hate science so much—at least many of them.

So science advances and people feel threatened by the implications of science, and the more science advances, the more threatened the believers get.

Evolution, of course, threatens them for ways I’ve mentioned before. Cosmology, the idea that there’s a big bang and that there could be an infinite series of big bangs that go back forever and ever so you don’t need a first cause. That’s scary to religious people.

We don’t have the kind of libertarian free will that is absolutely essential to many religious people. You have to be able to choose to accept Jesus. You have to be able to choose freely to accept God. If we don’t have that, then the underpinnings of religion are seriously eroded. And this is what neurobiology is starting to tell us. We can now predict what choices you are going to make in certain circumstances 10 seconds before you’re cognizant of having made that choice yourself.

And finally, archaeology, history and biblical scholarship are starting to tell us that the bible is largely a human-made construction. It’s a work of fiction. Many of the things in it don’t turn out to be true, like the exodus or the census of Caesar Augustus.

I don’t know how religious people come to deal with that, particularly fundamentalist ones. So we have this constant tension.

Now, don’t believe the people who tell you science and religion are friendly, because they’re not. Science advances and each time it does, religious people have to figure out how to incorporate that change into their worldview.


So what does a religious person do when they’re faced with these ideas? They don’t want to give up their religion, that’s for sure. They practice what we call accommodationism. They try to find ways in which science and religion are friendly to one another.

Here’s one solution: These two areas are non-overlapping. One of them deals with what’s true in the universe, the other one with what’s right and wrong in the universe, and they can be friendly because they’re separate from one another. So I guess distance breeds amity, or something like that.

But this isn’t the way religion works in most countries. Religious people really do have an epistemological underpinning to their beliefs. A Harris poll, taken a couple of years ago, shows what supernatural ideas Americans believe in. It’s always between 55 percent and 85 percent: the existence of God, the existence of heaven and hell, Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the virgin birth, the existence of angels. A full 68 percent of Americans believe in angels. That’s three times more than believe in evolution or accept evolution.

These are real empirical statements about the nature of the universe. This is a religion that is absolutely grounded on certain propositions about what’s true. You cannot call yourself a Christian unless you believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Religion as some nebulous collection of moral dicta and songs that you hear in church is completely at odds with the way religions really are in America, including Christianity, and even more so with Islam.

Try telling a Muslim that there is no truth in the idea that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammad, and many of them will slit your throat. I mean, not all of them will. But they take these things very seriously as empirical truths. Try telling a Mormon that Joseph Smith was a con man and made up those golden plates. If they really believed that, they couldn’t be Mormons.

A “factless” religion, whatever its attraction to the liberal scientist, could never be Christianity or, for that matter, Judaism or Islam. So think of religion as a form of science, because at bottom all religious beliefs must be based on certain claims about the universe and the world that, at least in principle, are empirically testable. If you can test them, then you can show whether they’re wrong. They always are wrong.

Testing Religious Claims

Some say religion and science are separate because you cannot put God into a test tube. You cannot do scientific tests on claims about religion, and therefore they’re different magisteria. Well, of course you can do scientific tests on claims about religion. Creationism is one such test and it’s been shown to be wrong.

Here’s another one. A study was meant to test whether intercessory prayer was effective. They took patients who had undergone cardiac surgery and they had people pray for them. And some people knew they were being prayed for, some people didn’t know they were being prayed for, and people didn’t know who they were praying for. So it was a pure double-blind study.

And then they could monitor the effects of this prayer. What do you think the outcome was? It’s zippo. Actually, not zippo—the people who were prayed for the most were marginally worse off than everybody else. But believe me, if it had gone the other way, if prayer had worked, then you would hear this study trumpeted from the highest mountaintops by every Christian in this country. But when it doesn’t work they’ll say things like, “Ah. You can’t test God. It’s a meaningless study.”

You don’t need a god to construct an ethical system or to have a philosophically consistent system of virtues and morality.

I’ll finish up with a question: Can religion and science have this friendly dialogue that everybody is always saying we need to have?

No, that is not possible. You cannot have a dialogue like that. You cannot have a constructive dialogue between religion and science. You can have a destructive monologue between religion and science. The monologue is because the only discipline that can meaningfully speak to the other one is science talking to religion. Science has the capability of telling religious people their beliefs are wrong. Religion doesn’t have that effect on science. It can’t. There is nothing, and there is no scripture, there is no religious belief that has ever had any influence in promoting the advance of science whatsoever.

So it’s a monologue. Science talking to religion. Religion having to swallow it.

So let me finish with this question: What is our task in light of all this antagonism between science and religion? The relationship between atheism, humanism and evolution. What do we do? How is the best way to promulgate evolution, or to promulgate nonbelief, or promulgate humanism?

Evolution and Atheism

There are several ways to do it. One way is to just teach evolution and shut the hell up about being an atheist. You hear this all the time by people who say, “Richard Dawkins, you know, he really had me believing in evolution, but then he wrote The God Delusion.” And, I mean, I just can’t stand that anymore. This is what I call the “Dawkins Canard.”

If you look at the evidence that Richard’s atheism has impeded his efficacy in promulgating evolution, there is none that I can find. If you go to his website, you’ll find a place called Convert’s Corner. There are hundreds and hundreds of letters from people. People who have read The God Delusion and by reading The God Delusion have not only become atheist, but have accepted evolution.

So what you find when you look at data is a synergy between atheism and religion. The Dawkins Canard is not correct, in my opinion. I’ve never heard anybody tell me, interacting with creationists over a long time, saying, “You know, I really, really, really want to accept evolution. I really do because I know that all the data are buttressing it. But as long as Richard Dawkins keeps propagating atheism, I’m not going to do it.” That’s the contention that these people make.

Second of all, you can criticize a religion and teach evolution, but just don’t do it at the same time. That’s one strategy. This is the one I usually use—not because it’s duplicitous, but because you don’t want to confuse people with what your message is. Or, you can bring up religion and science and evolution at same time. You need a special audience to do that, like the collection of molecules I have in front of me.

And finally, this is the lesson I really want to give you—that the allimportant thing here in propagating evolution and atheism is the rise of humanism itself. If you want to get people to accept evolution, you have to get rid of the blinkers that prevent them from doing that—which is religion.

So if I was going to ask what’s the best way really to get people to accept evolution? My answer would involve income and health care. Get rid of income inequality and give everybody health care. That’s going to take a long time, but when you do that, you’re going to build a lot of societies like the ones in Northern Europe, which are largely atheistic. They’ve given up the need for God because they don’t have a need for God. And every one of those societies is an evolution-accepting society.

We have evolution that perforce leads to accepting atheism because of the implications and the facts about evolution. And then if you become an atheist, because you think religion is wrong, then you want to become a humanist because you realize that humanism is not only the sole way to create societies that are fair, just and have the most well-being, but also leads to more rejection of God.

And then you can go the other way around. If you’re a humanist, then you just simply build good societies and you don’t worry much about atheism or evolution. But, it turns out, that once you improve society, people don’t need to believe in God anymore. They become atheistic, and as soon as they become atheists, their opposition to evolution just drops. Drops like a stone.

So I’ll finish by saying we’re winning. This country, and most of the West, is becoming more and more secular over time. The “Nones” (people who don’t belong to an organized faith) are increasing in the United States, as well as in Europe. In Britain, Christians are now outnumbered by people who said they have no religion at all.

The last thing I want to add is a quote (in honor of his biographer Susan Jacoby) from the great agnostic Robert Ingersoll, who said the most perspicacious thing I’ve ever heard about the relationship between science and religion: “There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in its cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete, ‘Let us be friends.’ It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse. Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”