Evolutionism is a philosophical worldview distinct from the science of evolutionary biology. Perhaps its biggest difference is that it is underpinned by ideological commitments, typically religious-like in nature by proponents, notably atheists who hold to a naturalistic worldview. This entry will explore these commitments, several alternatives views posited in opposition to it, and how it functions similarly to religious cosmologies.
As a doctrine, evolutionism tries to explain every aspect of the world within the realms of astronomy, chemistry, and biology. It denotes a strong ideological relationship and commitment between atheistic-naturalism (a philosophy) and evolutionary theory (a scientific theory) (1). The proponent of evolutionism in the biological sense believes that because organisms change over time and increase in complexity it somehow supports an atheistic-naturalistic narrative that rejects any supernatural realities. Loosely, atheistic-naturalism can be defined as the metaphysical view that the natural world is all that exists: there is no transcendent, supernatural reality, life after death, and God or gods.
However, this perspective also has its critics. Biologist Kathryn Applegate explains that it is evolutionism, not evolutionary theory, that she as a religious individual finds problematic, “The real danger is not evolutionary theory, then, but Evolutionism – the all-encompassing worldview” (2). Biologos, a Christian-based science organization, holds to ‘theistic evolution’, a view that rejects evolutionism and sees God as responsible for the evolutionary process either by initiating it or having intervened within it at certain points to produce desired outcomes. Biologos claims that evolutionism denotes an
“atheistic worldview that so often accompanies the acceptance of biological evolution in public discussion. Evolutionism is a kind of scientism, which holds that all of reality can in principle be explained by science” (3).
Many view scientism, as defined by Biologos, as problematic for it leaves much of the human experience of the world without explanation (such as, although not limited to, moral values, meaning, purpose, consciousness, and so on) (4). However, perhaps it was the Christian writer and apologist C. S. Lewis who captured the distinction between evolutionary theory and evolutionism most appropriately. He urged readers to,
“[D]istinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth…. [biological] Evolution covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions,” however, argues Lewis, evolutionary theory “makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements” (5).
If Lewis captured the essence of evolutionism then one might wish to point out a practical example and indeed these are not in short supply. For example, the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson remarked that,
“Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the Order Primates, akin nearly or remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material” (6).
Simpson’s thinking is infused with what one might deem “cosmic” and “metaphysical” statements, and one would rightfully point out that his perspective exceeds what the science itself says. Because evolutionary science is not in the business of making metaphysical statements then it would seem than Simpson has transitioned beyond science into some other realm, in the very same way that Biologos transcends the science by connecting evolutionary theory to a creator God. Just as Biologos goes beyond the science to feed the data into a religious ideology, so does the atheist except into a materialist and naturalistic philosophy. Thus, to both camps evolution is far more than merely a science but a major foundation underpinning their respective metaphysical worldviews. However, this is especially prominent among atheists who have used the science of evolution as a trump card against all things religion. The late Marjorie Grene explained that,
“Darwinian theory has itself become an orthodoxy, preached by its adherents with religious fervor, and doubted, they feel, only by a few muddlers imperfect in scientific faith” (7).
Indeed there is truth to Grene’s statement. Such sentiments have been strongly echoed by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the former Christopher Hitchens, among many other of atheism’s notable proponents. Dawkins stated that,
“Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (8).
No-one, in Dawkins’ view, needs to appeal to God as an explanation anymore (or since Darwin published his On the Origin of Species). Whereas God was once the accepted explanation for how human beings came to be (created directly by the work of God, a view known as ‘special creationism’), we now have a better explanation in the form of random mutations. Dawkins further remarked that the science of cosmology now needs to produce its own version of Darwin, namely someone who is able to come up with a theory accounting for what is to many an extraordinarily “fine-tuned” universe in which human beings exist. A number of thinkers within the sciences and philosophies have argued that these features to the universe are best explained by appeal to a creator God as opposed to necessity or random chance (9).
Philosopher Michael Ruse, an atheist himself and strong critic of creationism and intelligent design, noted that it is not only atheists who have such a strong religious-like ideological connection to evolution but also some of atheism’s ideological opponents, namely biblical creationists of the Young Earth-type (8). Young-Earth Creationism, very much a product of 20th-century developments in science, scientific education, and modernist theology, has attempted to refute evolutionary theory and propose alternative scientific models that are pro the Young-Earth view. Proponents of this model hold that the Earth is only 6000 to 10 000 years old, a view they derive from a certain interpretation of their religious scripture. Unsurprisingly, this view hasn’t been well received by mainstream scientists and it is increasingly losing numbers in traditional strongholds, particularly where science education is effective.
But when it comes to evolution and religion, Young-Earth proponents and atheist evolutionists, despite their vociferous disagreements, find some common ground in evolution’s perceived antithesis to religion and belief in a creator God. Not only do many atheists view evolution as an equivalent to their atheism, thinking that it replaces God or otherwise rules out God’s involvement in the development of life, but so do many of the creationist Christians (11). Ruse is honest in his analysis,
“there is indeed a thriving area of more popular evolutionism, where evolution is used to underpin claims about the nature of the universe, the meaning of it all for us humans, and the way we should behave… I am saying that this popular evolutionism – often an alternative to religion – exists.”
But, as Ruse rightly warns,
“we who cherish science should be careful to distinguish when we are doing science and when we are extrapolating from it, particularly when we are teaching our students. If it is science that is to be taught, then teach science and nothing more.”
Ruse is refreshingly honest because although he is certainly committed to his atheism he finds importance in making it known when extrapolating from “doing science” into the realm of metaphysics. He is aware that if one does not do this, especially as a professor or teacher who happens to be an atheist, then he or she is equally guilty of committing the same error that creationists have historically attempted to do, which is to promote metaphysical-religious views in the classroom.
It seems clear that evolutionary theory remains a hotly contested subject between ideological groups, as we’ve briefly noted with atheists, theistic evolutionists, and Young-Earth Creationists. It would be appropriate to suggest that evolutionism, which as we noted is distinct from evolutionary theory, functions as a religious-like cosmology for atheists. It fulfills similar functions that religious cosmologies typically do (and have), which is to provide an overarching and comprehensive (or, as Applegate earlier put it, “all-encompassing”) explanation of human beings within the universe. It provides explanations on origins, particularly that of the created world and humanity, and renders commentary on meaning and purpose which exceeds empirical and scientific verification and experience. Whereas religious cosmologies typically attribute such phenomena to the work of a single God, or gods, or a conflict between gods, atheism and atheists avoid this. Although the supernatural is avoided in favour of naturalism, the atheist’s cosmology cannot be scientifically “proven.” Although features within the universe might point to the truth of atheistic-naturalism (or, alternatively, to a religious worldview), its metaphysical convictions are beyond empirical proof. One can no more prove that the universe is devoid of meaning and purpose (a central tenet of atheistic-naturalism) than anyone is able to prove that Brahmins offering please the gods or that washing in Ganges river relieves one of sin and impurity.
On some very broad definitions of religion (think of Paul Tillich’s definition that religion is that which offers answers to questions of ultimate concern, as both religion and atheistic philosophies do), atheism could be called a religion. Others would remain skeptical of defining atheism as a religion, but would no less agree that atheism shares many of the assumptions, views, and faith commitments that are typical of the religious and their worldviews.
1. Ruse, Michael. 2003. “Is Evolution a Secular Religion?” Science 299(5612): 1523-1524.
2. Biologos. 2018. C.S. Lewis on Science, Evolution, and Evolutionism. Available.
3. Biologos. How is BioLogos different from Evolutionism, Intelligent Design, and Creationism? Available.
4. Craig, William. 2011. Is Scientism Self Refuting? Available.
5. Lewis, C. S. 1967. Christian Reflections. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 85.
6. Simpson, George. 1967. The Meaning of Evolution. Yale University Press. p. 344.
7. Grene, Marjorie. 1974. The Knower and the Known. University of California Press. p. 187.
8. Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 6.
9. Craig, William., and McLeod, M. 1990. “The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle.” The Logic of Rational Theism: Exploratory Essays. p. 127-153; Ross, Hugh. 2001. The Creator and the Cosmos (3rd ed.). p. 145-157, 245-248
10. Ruse, Michael. 2003. Ibid.
11. Biologos. What is Evolution? Available.