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Theistic evolution

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I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with 'you' in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not. This kind of modesty is too arrogant for me.
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir[1]:332
A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
Fred Hoyle, atheist English astronomer who formulated the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis

Theistic evolution (also evolutionary creationism) is another attempted theological response to the scientific theory of evolution. It aims at reconciling that theory with religious myths involving a creator deity and is a form of old-earth creationism. Supporters of theistic evolution generally believe in a creator deity unreservedly, and also accept the theory of evolution to varying degrees.

It can be contrasted with the scientific conception of evolution, which maintains that the evolutionary process is unguided — though driven by various selection pressures. Creationists often mischaracterize this lack of explicit direction as "random".

The term "theistic evolution" arose out of the creation vs. evolution debate.[note 1] Believers in theistic evolution felt that the choice between atheistic evolution and theistic creationism was a false dilemma.[note 2] In more recent usage, however, the term is not specific to evolution; it can refer to any mixing of theistic beliefs with naturalistic or uniformitarian views.

The Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued for theistic evolution in his book The Phenomenon of Man, published as Le Phénomène Humain in 1955.[2] Many modern atheists see theistic evolution as an attempt to shoehorn God back into science using god of the gaps-type arguments.

Forms and interpretations[edit]

Different versions of theistic evolution invoke differing degrees of divine evolutionary guidance. Clearly, the less divine interference is involved, the closer the idea is to the scientific consensus.

Theistic predetermination[edit]

One opinion within the theistic evolution spectrum is the invocation of an omnipotent, omniscient — though logically unnecessary or contractionary — "God" who created the universe (or the speculative multiverse) and designed its "natural law". Those who imagine its existence would maintain that under this "natural law", life, even specifically human life, would be the result.

Some people holding this view might not believe in an Abrahamic, "religion centric" god, but rather a deistic or pantheistic god that is as interested in some planet 7 billion light years away as in anything here on Earth.[3] This idea is similar to deistic evolution.

Theistic evolution and natural selection[edit]

In the next rung down the ladder, although evolution is maintained to have been carried out wholly by natural selection and mutation, God is still believed to be involved in the process itself, either by ensuring that some mutations would be beneficial, or by kick-starting abiogenesis by magical means. As science has yet to put forward a strong case for how life began (there are many interesting hypotheses, but nothing with strong evidence — yet), this leaves plenty of space for the intervention of a god, without the need to deny any current scientific facts.

Theistic evolution and guided evolution[edit]

Further down the spectrum, we have guided evolution, which posits that God used evolution to evolve mankind.[4] Similarly to so-called progressive creationism, guided evolution involves a God making a series of explicit interventions and genetic modifications, with the aim of producing humanity.

The scale of these interventions is not fully explained, and it varies; some may claim that God generated whole new organisms (making humans special and therefore separate from other animals that are wholly natural) while less extreme views may see a god prodding atoms in a gene sequence around (i.e., directly causing mutations), giving them a small, miraculous "helping hand" to be naturally selected and bring the next life form into existence.

Theistic evolution and intelligent design[edit]

Adherents of theistic evolution do not try to pretend, as cdesign proponentsists do, that their philosophy is in any way scientific.

However, in practical terms, there are many similarities between intelligent design and some forms of theistic evolution; e.g., the belief that a god intervened in the emergence and evolution of life.

Followers maintain that the difference lies in the "formal principle": theistic evolution relies primarily on faith, while intelligent design attempts to use reason and evidence. However, from a factual standpoint, both intelligent design and guided evolution would need periodic or constant, unspecified, and supernatural interventions in order to function in reality — something which adherents of guided evolution must also accept. Evolutionary theory in no way requires such miraculous interventions in order to operate.


Many supporters of theistic evolution simply have never seen any inherent conflict between belief in God and acceptance of the theory of evolution. Others started out believing in the biblical account (more or less literally) and accepting that God created the world, but changed their views as they learned more about science and about the evidence for evolution, the age and structure of the universe, and current cosmological theories about the universe's origins.

Scientists who self-identify as religious generally hold some level of theistic evolution. Such scientists include:

  • Cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller,Wikipedia notable for his work on Kitzmiller v. Dover
  • Theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne
  • Physician-geneticist Francis Collins, who established the Christian advocacy group, the BioLogos Foundation, in 2007. BioLogos emphasizes a compatibility between science and evangelical Christianity. The organization's website contains resources supporting an old earth and evolution.[5]
  • Mary Higby Schweitzer,Wikipedia the paleontologist who discovered dinosaur tissue, started out as a young-Earth creationist but later accepted evolution. She remains a devout Christian.
  • Simon Conway Morris,Wikipedia the paleontologist who worked on the Cambrian Explosion, remains a religious Christian while accepting evolution.

Much like Collins, Christian apologist William Lane Craig maintains that evolutionary theory is compatible with Christianity (although Craig's own views on evolution are more ambiguous than those of Collins, an outspoken evolutionary creationist). The British lay-theologian and The Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis alluded to a belief in evolution in his apologetic works Mere Christianity (1952) and The Problem of Pain (1940).

French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) decidedly went further than any of the aforementioned religious writers in synthesizing evolution and Christian theology.[2]

Church positions[edit]

Few religious bodies have formal statements on their position, though many do support the idea that evolution is correct (or at least "correct enough") and should be taught in schools. This is the position taken by many mainline Protestant churches (many of which signed on to the Clergy Letter Project) and some Muslim groups.

Theistic evolution is the accepted official position of the Roman Catholic Church;[6] however, there is little formal discussion of what God did and did not do, or of the distinction between human evolution and the evolution of other animals. Thus far, the only clear instruction has been that Catholics are strictly forbidden to say that the soul evolved, while they must maintain a literal Adam and Eve, with the rest left open.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has formally, informally, and vehemently denounced evolution, organic evolution, Darwinism, and the like, as recorded in a plethora of statements and formal declarations, overwhelmingly consistent and uniform in content, assertion, suggestion, implication, and conviction, made by the highest councils and councilors of the church and by particular church scholars.[7]

Theological perspectives[edit]


As the Old Catholic Encyclopedia points out, a literal interpretation of Genesis was not a common feature of Christianity even in the church's early days.[8] St. Augustine in particular held the view that God had spent six days planning the world's creation, but had burped it all into existence in an instant.

Some biblical scholars have looked to Genesis 1:24, which reads:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

It is argued, based on this verse, that the Bible could be reinterpreted to mean that God used the agency of the earth (natural law) to "bring forth" living creatures, rather than directly "creating" them (on the other hand, he explicitly creates whales and other sea creatures a little earlier, which sort of weakens the argument, but that could also be viewed as metaphorical, we suppose).[9][10] Figures like Martin Luther believed spontaneous generation of fish and other life occurred due to this, before how they really reproduced was discovered.


Similarly, the Arabic word khalaq, commonly translated as create, can also mean create by small alterations to successive versions of a thing. In the context of the Qu'ran, this can mean that God created humans by guided evolution, and indeed, this idea was well recognized in the Middle East in the ninth century.[11]


As a via media position, theistic evolution is criticized from both religious and non-religious perspectives.

Creationist positions[edit]

Creationists are very critical of theistic evolution, which they say is a non-Christian doctrine giving support to naturalism.[12]

Atheist positions[edit]

Atheist accommodationists argue that spending time attacking theistic evolutionists is badly spent; firstly, because they are not actively trying to stifle science education, and secondly, because they do not necessarily deny all scientific facts, as young earth creationists must. This, according to accomodationists, means that they can be powerful allies in the fight against creationists, and that encouraging theistic evolution in religious circles, possibly along with the controversial NOMA principle that religion and science can meaningfully coexist, would be better in the long run than discounting theistic evolution altogether.

New Atheists, who are much less persuaded by NOMA arguments, maintain that supernatural explanations are simply wrong in principle, and that trying to find common ground with holders of magical beliefs is a compromise which helps nobody.

Arguments against theistic evolution[edit]

The theistic parts of theistic evolution are often taken on faith alone. This kind of belief in theistic evolution can only be refuted by appeals to world-views such as philosophical naturalism that reject other ways of knowing. Of course, theists arguing from faith will not likely be swayed by any argument that demands proof of their god.

General theistic evolution and Occam's Razor[edit]

One general counter-argument is that if one accepts that natural selection can explain everything that is observed on its own, without God violating natural law, and if divine intervention is indistinguishable from naturalistic causes, then God becomes an unnecessary hypothesis that should be dispensed with, per Occam's Razor.

Arguments against guided evolution[edit]

One variant of theistic evolution, guided evolution, makes stronger claims that prompt a wider variety of counter-arguments.

For example, guided evolution posits that God's guidance was required for currently existing species to evolve. This implies the existence of gaps where a natural methodology would be unable to explain observations —in other words, this is a classic appeal to the God of the gaps.

An adherent of guided evolution would need to give evidence of cases where God's intervention is necessary to explain any "gaps" in evolutionary theory. Scientists do not believe that there are any such gaps, but even if there were, trying to explain those gaps by proposing that God intervened raises a challenge to parsimony, not to mention the wrangling over questions such as which god intervened, and how the interventions were carried out.

Theistic evolution and the problem of evil[edit]

Many theistic evolutionists believe in an omnibenevolent God. For those who believe that the problem of evil is an insurmountable problem for theism, and that theodicies are a load of dingoes' kidneys, evolution provides a wealth of examples of seemingly unnecessary suffering as species evolved through "Nature red in tooth and claw."[13]

Scale of the universe v. anthropocentric evolution[edit]

Another counter-argument for some versions of theistic evolution involves the scale of the universe. Previously, the earth was thought to be the center of the universe, and the idea that the universe came about with humans as a specific goal did not seem so far-fetched. These days, thanks to heliocentrism and later developments, our view of the earth is more of — as Douglas Adams put it — an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun lying far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy.

Evolution and the sheer size of the universe strike further blows at the idea of humanity as the ultimate purpose, seeing as how humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of the lifespan of a 4.5 billion-year-old planet that takes up an infinitesimally small portion of the (at least) 13.7 billion-year-old visible universe. There really is no "final product" to the process of evolution itself, which is atelic (goalless). Humans are simply one of millions of species that have been born, walked the Earth, and, frequently, since become extinct over billions of years.

Thus, the counter-argument goes, the more we contemplate the immense span of the cosmos, from the sub-atomic level up through the enormous, mostly empty expanse of space-time, the less significant any event (e.g., the foundation of the Temple, the Incarnation, God's revelation to Muhammad, the natural phenomena personified by pagan deities) or personage becomes, and the less likely it becomes that any god would take any kind of special interest in humanity.[note 3]

This, though persuasive, is one of the weaker arguments against theistic evolution, being an argument from incredulity. Given that religious types argue this way constantly, though, it may actually sway them if you're lucky.

Books on theistic evolution[edit]

Good books not on theistic evolution but whose titles might confuse you[edit]

  • Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (2009) by theologian Michael Dowd.

See also[edit]


  1. The Oxford English Dictionary records use of the phrase from 1906: s.v. "regnant".
  2. Many scientists, including Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, and even Stephen Jay Gould have argued that there is a danger in reducing, or appearing to reduce, debates about evolution to the false dilemma of "God or science — choose".
  3. But it is, of course, completely ludicrous to suggest that this subjective view of humans as utterly insignificant stemmed, not from any factual basis, but from the instincts fostered by Protestant notions of total depravity.


  1. Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens (2010) Twelve. ISBN 0446540331.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Phénomène Humain. French & European Pubns, 1955. ISBN 078591241X.
  3. John Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology. SPCK Publishing, 2011. ISBN 0281064008.
  4. Beliefs about the origins & development of the species, the Earth, & the universe: Evolution, Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, Theistic Creationism, Intelligent Design. Archived from, 13 January 2013.
  6. Pope John Paul II, Message To The Pontifical Academy Of Sciences: On Evolution. Archived from, 7 July 2016.
  7. The Origin of Man, By The First Presidency of the Church. Archived from, 14 July 2018.
  8. Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Biblical Chronology. wikisource.
  9. Don Stewart :: Can Theistic Evolution Solve the Controversy between Creation and Evolution? Blue Letter Bible.
  10. Theistic evolution contradicts Genesis One. Oxford Bible Church.
  12. Theistic Evolution and the Creation-Evolution Controversy by Jerry Bergman
  13. Natural selection: God’s tool?