Can Evolution Be Reconciled with God?

by Greg Mackie

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The battle between proponents of evolution and "intelligent design" is all the rage these days. Can evolution be reconciled with God? The fundamentalists who are the main advocates of intelligent design say no: Genesis says God created every species in the beginning, they believe it, and that settles it. Scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins also say no, but from the other side: Science says every species evolved over time, God is obviously a primitive delusion, and that settles it. Then there are those like Francisco Ayala, the subject of a recent New York Times article that prompted this piece, who affirm evolution but also insist that yes, it can be reconciled with God. Where does A Course in Miracles stand on this issue? Though it barely mentions evolution, I believe that it does ultimately reconcile evolution with God. However, as is so characteristic of the Course, it does so in a unique and unexpected way.

Ayala is an evolutionary biologist and geneticist at UC Irvine, and also a former Dominican priest. He says that not only is evolution compatible with a belief in God, but it is actually more compatible with a loving God than the intelligent design theory. His contention is that if God designed things as they are from the very beginning, then "he has a lot to account for." Specifically, He would have to explain why He purposely designed creatures that are so obviously flawed and so prone to suffering and death.

There are countless examples of design flaws and cruelties endemic to life on earth. Ayala notes that at least twenty percent of human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, which means that if God designed our bodies to work that way, He "is the greatest abortionist of them all." Then there are midges, tiny flies whose mating practices consist of the female fertilizing her eggs by consuming the male's genitals, along with the rest of him. Then there are parasites, which live by consuming their hosts. A particularly twisted example: I remember reading about a parasite that starts out living in a mouse but must finish its life cycle in a cat. So, it destroys the specific part of the mouse's brain where the fear of cats is located, thereby ensuring that the mouse gets eaten by a cat. The list goes on and on.

Ayala concludes that if God designed things this way on purpose, "then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer." Evolution, however, offers a way out of this dilemma, "the 'missing link' in the explanation of evil in the world." If instead of designing things this way, God simply set into motion the natural process of evolution and then left it alone, then the cruelties and sufferings of life are not part of His divine plan but simply natural by-products of evolutionary development. "As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life….They were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design." Put another way, in his book Darwin's Gift: to Science and Religion: "Indeed, a major burden was removed from the shoulders of believers when convincing evidence was advanced that the design of organisms need not be attributed to the immediate agency of the Creator, but rather is an outcome of natural processes" (p. 159).

I find this utterly unconvincing. Ayala's point seems to be simply that intelligent design would make God directly responsible for the evils of life, but evolution makes Him only indirectly responsible. How does this get Him off the hook? If He is omniscient, as traditional definitions of God affirm, wouldn't He have known that evolution would produce all of these flaws and cruelties? Actually, you don't have to be omniscient at all to realize that if the system you set in motion consists of physical bodies colliding, competing, and consuming each other to survive, you will have a train wreck on your hands. If God knew this when He set the process in motion, wouldn't that make Him just as much of a sadist? If He wanted to have an evolutionary system, why couldn't He have created a version without disastrous flaws and suffering and death? Indeed, why create an evolutionary system at all? Why not just create things that are perfect and complete to begin with?

In the Course's view, this is exactly what God did: He created only beings who are perfect, complete, limitless, and eternal—the ultimate in real intelligent design. If He created anything else—like a physical world—He would be a sadist. The Course is unequivocal that if God created mortal bodies, He is not a God of Love. "If God created bodies, death would indeed be real. But God would not be loving" (M-27.5:2-3). We try to squirm out of this in so many ways. One of the traditional ways (applied to human suffering at least) is to say that the afterlife makes up for all the horrors of earth. One of the customer reviews of Ayala's book that I saw makes this very point: "Believers are sure that the eternal rewards of the next world will more than compensate for the suffering and injustices of this world." But according to the Course, even this does not vindicate a God Who created this mess:

The curious belief that there is part of dying things that may go on apart from what will die, does not proclaim a loving God nor re-establish any grounds for trust. If death is real for anything, there is no life. Death denies life. But if there is reality in life, death is denied. No compromise in this is possible. There is either a god of fear or One of Love. The world attempts a thousand compromises, and will attempt a thousand more. (M-27.4:1-7)

I believe that those who try to reconcile this hellish world with a loving God simply don't look closely enough at how intense and pervasive the suffering of the world really is. In popular culture, the issue tends to come up only when there are "big" disasters like the Holocaust or 9/11 or the tsunami, as if everything is normally hunky dory but these big "exceptions" need explaining. Theologians and philosophers who wrestle with the problem of evil do look at everyday suffering as well (as Ayala does), but usually conclude that there is some great purpose that redeems it—say, the preservation of free will, or the idea the world is a "vale of soul making" and suffering is "character building." These days, evolution itself is often cited as the "great purpose." For instance, you have integral philosophers like Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen proclaiming that the evolution of consciousness is so grand that it is worth virtually any price.

The Course, however, never soft-pedals the suffering or the terror it engenders: "The sense of threat the world encourages is so much deeper, and so far beyond the frenzy and intensity of which you can conceive, that you have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought" (W-pI.153.4:3). The nightmare of this world is far worse than we think. In the Course's view, there isn't anything that can redeem whoever or whatever made the devastation that is woven into the very fabric of this world. Ayala decries the fact that the pro-evolution side is now associated with militant atheists. But I believe that if "survival of the fittest" evolution is truly the way things work in reality, atheism is the most reasonable stance to take—at the very least, we would need to give up the belief in a loving God. Nothing justifies the agony of life as we know it.

How, then, does the Course regard evolution? While the Course doesn't say anything about physical evolution, it clearly doesn't take the biblical story of the Garden of Eden literally. It does speak of Adam, but he is said to have resided in a "symbolic garden" (T-3.VII.3:4). My assumption is that the author of the Course views evolution within this world as a given. I think he didn't speak of it for the same reason he didn't speak of any aspect of physical science: It just wasn't relevant to his goal of awakening our minds.

However, I do think we can speculate a bit, so let me share a few musings on evolution. As I mentioned, we started out as perfect, limitless, complete, and eternal beings. In the Course's view, that is what we still are right now—as we began, so we remain forever. But then we fell asleep, went insane, and imagined a wholly illusory physical world, a world we made for the ego's purpose of keeping us asleep. Fortunately, however, there is good news: The Course is very clear that even though we made the illusory world for the ego's dark purpose, the Holy Spirit has taken everything we made and co-opted it for His purpose of waking us up through the Atonement. "The Atonement was built into the space-time belief to set a limit on the need for the belief itself, and ultimately to make learning complete" (T-2.II.5:1).

Now, it seems to me that evolution actually serves the Holy Spirit's purpose far better than the ego's. After all, the best way to remain asleep forever would be to never rise up from the primordial ooze. Evolution, on the other hand, produces creatures with minds that are more and more self-aware, culminating (so far) in human beings with minds so self-aware that they are capable of waking up completely. Therefore, I suspect that evolution, while not created by God, is nonetheless inspired by the Holy Spirit as a means of developing minds that can accept the Atonement and awaken to God. The suffering and death involved are not His doing; those are reflections of our insanity. Developing self-aware minds is His doing, and this is the most loving of purposes, for it is the way out of the nightmare of the physical world.

Once physical evolution has produced minds that are capable of awakening to God, the next phase is mental evolution. This is what the Course refers to with its single use of the word "evolution": "The evolution of man is merely a process by which he proceeds from one degree to the next. He corrects his previous missteps by stepping forward. This represents a process which is actually incomprehensible in temporal terms, because he returns as he progresses" (Urtext version of T-2.II.6:1-2). Our mental evolution is essentially a process of gradually accepting the Atonement, "the recognition that the separation never occurred" (T-6.II.10:7). Through this process, we slowly but surely come to realize that we are not limited and suffering bodies doomed to die at the hands of a cruel world, but holy Sons of God who remain just as He created us in the beginning. This is the meaning of "he returns as he progresses": The correction of our false belief in separation from God and each other is both progress through time to time's ending and a return to the state we were in before time was. The endpoint of evolution is the perfect primordial state we were in before evolution became an unfortunate illusory necessity, a state we've never really left.

This is how I believe the Course reconciles evolution with God: God didn't create a real physical process of evolution that is full of pain and death, but He did inspire an illusory physical and mental process of evolution to lift us out of the pain and death we made for ourselves. This is great news, for it means that God is neither directly nor indirectly responsible for real flaws and real cruelty. At worst, you can say that He's indirectly responsible for illusory flaws and cruelty because He created beings capable of imagining a flawed and cruel world. We can wonder why He created beings who could even imagine such a thing, but to me this is a much smaller problem than the problem of trying to reconcile a loving God with a real physical world and its bottomless suffering. All God wants to do through evolution is rescue us from our self-made nightmare and return us to the awareness that we are beings of truly intelligent design who have never left His loving Arms. This is a version of evolution worth celebrating.