Biology Defeats Theology

…and it’s not even close

I was born just about fifteen years after Edwin Hubble determined that Andromeda is a galaxy outside the Milky Way; this disproved the argument of some astronomers that our galaxy was the extent of the universe. What a gift this was for our understanding of who and where we are! For the first time humans had insight into the inconceivable vastness of the Cosmos.

I was an adult when the implications of this discovery began to sink in. In fact, I was in seminary. It occurred to me that there might be civilizations “out there”—who knows how many—that have been researching and contemplating the Cosmos far, far longer than we have been. What they must know! The vast distances preclude exchange of information, which means that, truly, our knowledge of the universe hovers just above zero.

And yet, we run with our confident theologies, constructed from ancient, uninformed speculations, and with our feelings about spiritual certainties. Who are we kidding? Well, ourselves—and this dawned on me in seminary. So, okay, call me a slow learner.

But this applies as well to another discovery right here on our home planet. I grew up in a home—a Christian home, mind you—where evolution was accepted; in fact, denial of evolution would have been considered eccentric. But its full implications were not grasped; this failure was enabled by what might be called the “domestication of evolution,” championed by some churches: “Yes, evolution is real, and was created by God for the ordering of nature.”

God set evolution in motion, so the Bible and Darwin can co-exist. It all looked very neat, but this actually doesn’t work at all—and slow learners don’t catch on; once evolution has taken over, God is left with nothing to do. In fact, God is excluded from the process, and stands indicted for many of the horrors that evolution brings. Many Christians are upset about evolution because they resent the idea that we “came from monkeys”—which is not only wrong, but should be the least of their worries.

The problem was stated clearly by British scholar A. N. Wilson, in his 1999 book, God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization:

“…what Darwin was able to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt was not merely that the species mutate, evolve, change, but that they do so within a system which requires for its ‘explanation’ no theory of volition by a creator—no Watchmaker, coming in from the outside to ‘make’ what is. On the contrary, what is, is. And ‘this’—this immense continuum of time and space—is what there is. All the pictures which humankind had crudely made for itself of the here and now—depending for their existence on some exterior agency—had to be discarded.” (p. 223)

Of course, believers still hold fast to the “crudely made pictures,” without which hope for eternal life is diminished. But the evidence for evolution by natural selection has increased exponentially since Darwin’s time.

One handy, easily accessible essay illustrating this is Abby Hafer’s, “Evolution Is a Fact!” in the most recent John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles. It is the longest essay in the book, and Hafer offers an engaging presentation of facts. At the outset she defines theory in scientific thinking:

“A theory in science is a big, broad, explanatory idea with lots of evidence for it, not somebody’s tentative guess (that’s a hypothesis, which is different). A theory in science is a large model that takes account of many different facts, including ones that have not been explained before, and explains them in a coherent fashion, using quantifiable evidence.” (p. 332)

Occasionally very intelligent observers come along, who revolutionize our understanding of the world—for which we should be grateful, not scornful:

“Evolution began as a hypothesis in the minds of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace almost 200 years ago. Massive data-gathering proved it to be a powerful scientific reality, a fact that explains many other facts. It is the biggest, most important idea in all biology, the one that ties everything else together. Nothing in biology makes sense except through the lens of evolution, and we pretend it doesn’t exist to our peril.” (p. 333)

If God Is Competent and in Control—Why These?

Personal theism continually invites the accusation that it is incoherent. If God hears the prayers of billions of humans—i.e., reads their minds—and can interfere in human bodies to cure cancers, then his competence is very much in doubt. Hafer offers a devastating catalogue of biological blunders that are inexplicable as the work of a loving creator.

In fact, she presents twenty-two aspects of nature that evolution allows us to understand, while faith-based explanations end up making God look bad. Disease-as-punishment, for example, means God is inexplicably evil.

New Diseases

“If someone is foolish enough to ignore the theory of gravity and jumps out a high window, they only harm themselves. But people have ignored the predictions of evolution for decades and other people are dying as a result…This is often the problem with those who ignore scientific reality: It’s other people who are harmed.” (p. 333)

Hafer cites examples, AIDS and Zika:

“…if scientists had accepted some religious peoples’ opinions that AIDS was a punishment from God, they never would have discovered that it’s actually caused by a virus and developed the treatments we now have…people around the world should be grateful that scientists do not accept supernatural explanations.” (p. 340)

“…why would God suddenly choose to infect women with a disease that damages fetuses in the womb and causes untold suffering in the children they become? Religious people frequently claim to care deeply about fetuses, and use this as an excuse for preventing women from getting abortions. Yet, in this case, why would God separately create the Zika virus, long after He supposedly created everything else, and then visit it upon the unborn? Why would God create a virus that specifically tortures infants, who, according to many religions, are incapable of sin?” (pp. 340-341)

Of course, apologists have offered many variations on the disease-as-punishment excuse. By no means can God be at fault: surely humans are getting what they deserve. Hafer notes that these arguments fall flat:

“…if diseases are sent to humans as punishment for sins, then there shouldn’t be new diseases (or diseases at all for that matter) among other animals and plants, which are considered unable to sin since they don’t know about God and his rules. Yet new diseases arise is animals and plants all the time.” (p. 341)

Vestigial Structures

These fascinating five pages of the essay, pp. 350-355, are especially incriminating for a Creator who supposedly wants everything to be neat and tidy:

“At the base of your spine you have a vestige of your primitive ancestors’ tails. You have feet with nearly useless toes, because your primate ancestors had strong, finger-like toes that helped them grasp tree branches.

“The thing to remember here is that evolution in incapable of planning. Species just stumble from one generation to the next, and as long as enough members of the species can breed before they die, the species keeps going.” (p. 350)

If you don’t want to pass the buck to evolution, then own it: your God is incapable of planning. Humans don’t need the appendix; it’s a leftover from our animal ancestors who needed it to help digest wood. It is “still with us because it’s not detrimental enough to kill us before childbearing too much of the time. However, it does kill us sometimes…” (p. 351)


“Evolution predicts that species will go extinct. Evolution is an ongoing process, and just as new species will evolve into existence, other species will be unable to cope with some changing conditions and go extinct.” (p. 359)

Again, wouldn’t a competent God have wanted everything neat and tidy, a perfect creation, intelligently designed? How does the massive failure of species align with that? “Extinction is a problem for any supernatural view of life, since it is strange that a God would carefully design organisms that are unfit to stay alive…Since about 440 million years ago there have been five mass extinctions, when large fractions of all species on Earth were wiped up…In all, over 90% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.” (p. 360)

“The plentitude of fascinating animals and plants we see in the fossil record are not even mentioned in supernatural creation stories. What a small, limited world they discuss!” (p. 360)

Badly “Designed” Body Parts

Hafer points out that “human bodies have so many structures that work poorly even when at their best.” (p. 366) She discusses men’s testicles located outside the body; many other mammals have them safely inside: “…humans got an inferior kludge of a system that leaves a crucial part vulnerable. Such poor design can only be explained by evolution. This problematic setup does not kill us or prevent reproduction often enough to be weeded out, so it persists.” (p. 367)

She also mentions this major design flaw: the esophagus and the windpipe joined in the neck. “Here’s another case of an obvious, sometimes fatal, and completely unnecessary design flaw in humans that fails reasonable criteria for a competent designer…many, many other avoidable ‘design’ flaws exist in the human body and in most other organisms as well.” (pp. 367-368)

Evil Adaptations

“Evolution is amoral, meaning it doesn’t care.” Isn’t this awkward for those who claim that a moral God set evolution in motion? “It has no mind with which to care. Therefore, [evolution] predicts, no ecological niche will be so disgusting, so cruel, that some organism will not occupy it.” (p. 368) And she mentions one of Darwin’s observations that was a deal breaker for him—in terms of seeing God behind it all.

“…there are over 60,000 species of ichneumon wasps. These wasps paralyze caterpillars, lay their eggs on them, and then the paralyzed caterpillar is eaten alive by the larvae that hatch out of the eggs.” (p. 368)

For Darwin this was an example of biology defeating theology: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding inside living bodies of caterpillars…” (p. 368)

Hafer’s essay deserves careful review; I have highlighted only five of the 22 examples she provides. See also:

• Hafer’s book, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not

• Her essay, “Intelligent Design Isn’t Science, and It Doesn’t Even Try to Be Science,” in John Loftus’ anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion

• And the book she co-authored with David Orenstein, Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues

Devout folks, especially those in the employ of the church, advocate listening to your heart, having faith that their messages are authentic. But whenever there is a whiff that science may back them up, then they are all too willing to rejoice, “Ah Ha! Here is the proof!” But there is too much peril in this approach, because science reveals too much about how the world works. When Catholic priest and physicist Georges LemaĆ®tre proposed a primordial explosion that kicked off the universe (later labeled the Big Bang), Pope Pius XII considered this proof that “God did it.” LemaĆ®tre cautioned the pope against taking this approach. He knew that science was not done: there could very well be a non-divine explanation of the Big Bang.

And to the devout folks who have conceded—because of the overwhelming evidence—that evolution is true, we have to say smart move, nice try. Nonetheless, their concept of God, a god that is competent and loving, who carefully supervises his creation, take a big hit. Evolution presents a big picture of incalculable suffering. Amateur and professional apologists alike are not up to the task of rescuing the god who created evolution.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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