Is Evolution a Religion?

Is It a Religious Belief System Based on Faith?

X-rays showing stages of human evolution (B&W, negative)
Nicholas Veasey / Getty Images

It has become common for critics of evolution to claim that it is a religion which is being improperly supported by the government when it is taught in schools. No other facet of science is singled out for this treatment, at least not yet, but it is part of a wider effort to undermine naturalistic science. An examination of the characteristics which best define religions, distinguishing them from other types of belief systems, reveals just how wrong such claims are: evolution is not a religion or a religious belief system because it does not possess the characteristics of religions.

Belief in Supernatural Beings

Perhaps the most common and fundamental characteristic of religions is the belief in supernatural beings — usually, but not always, including gods. Very few religions lack this characteristic and most religions are founded upon it. Does evolution involve belief in supernatural beings like a god? No. Evolutionary theory neither encourages nor discourages it. Evolution is accepted by theists and atheists, regardless of their position on the existence of the supernatural. The mere existence or nonexistence of supernatural beings is ultimately irrelevant to evolutionary theory.​

Sacred vs Profane Objects, Places, Times

Differentiating between sacred and profane objects, places, and times helps religious believers focus on transcendental values and/or the existence of the supernatural. Some atheists may have things, places, or times which they treat as "sacred" in that they venerate them in some way. Does evolution involve such a distinction? No — even a casual reading of explanations of evolutionary theory reveals that it involves no sacred places, times, or objects. Distinctions between the sacred and the profane play no role in and are as irrelevant to evolutionary theory as they are to every other aspect of science.

Ritual Acts Focused on Sacred Objects, Places, Times

If people believe in something sacred, they probably have rituals which are associated with that which is considered sacred. As with the very existence of a category of "sacred" things, however, there is nothing about evolution which either mandates such a belief or prohibits it. Most important is the fact that there are no rituals which are part of the evolutionary theory itself. Biologists involved with the study of evolution engage in no incantations or ritual acts of any sort in their research.

Moral Code With Supernatural Origins

Most religions preach some sort of moral code and, typically, this code is based on whatever transcendental and supernatural beliefs are fundamental to that religion. Thus, for example, theistic religions typically claim that morality is derived from the commands of their gods. Evolutionary theory does have something to say about the origins of morality, but only as a natural development. Evolution does not promote any particular moral code. Morality isn't irrelevant to evolution, but it plays no fundamental or necessary role.

Characteristically Religious Feelings

The vaguest characteristic of religion is the experience of "religious feelings" like awe, a sense of mystery, adoration, and even guilt. Religions encourage such feelings, especially in the presence of sacred objects and places, and the feelings are connected to the presence of the supernatural. The study of the natural world can promote feelings of awe among scientists, including evolutionary biologists, and some are led to their research by feelings of awe about nature. Evolutionary theory itself, however, does not explicitly endorse any sort of "religious" feelings or religious experiences.

Prayer and Other Forms of Communication

Belief in supernatural beings like gods doesn't get you very far if you can't communicate with them, so religions which include such beliefs also teach how to talk to them — usually with some form of prayer or other rituals. Some who accept evolution believe in a god and therefore probably pray; others don't. Because there is nothing about an evolutionary theory which encourages or discourages belief in the supernatural, there is also nothing about it which deals with prayer. Whether a person prays or not is as irrelevant in evolution as it is in other fields of the natural sciences.

A World View & Organization of One’s Life Based on the World View

Religions constitute entire worldviews and teach people how to structure their lives: how to relate to others, what to expect from social relationships, how to behave, etc. Evolution provides data people may use in a worldview, but it is not a worldview itself and doesn't say anything about how to organize your life or incorporate knowledge of evolution into your life. It can be part of theistic or atheistic, conservative or liberal worldviews. The worldview a person has is ultimately irrelevant in the study of evolution, though one's study won't go far unless one uses a scientific and naturalistic methodology.

A Social Group Bound Together by the Above

Few religious people follow their religion in isolated ways; most religions involve complex social organizations of believers who join each other for worship, rituals, prayer, etc. People who study evolution also belong to groups which are bound together by science generally or evolutionary biology in particular, but those groups are not bound together by all the above because none of the above is inherent in evolution or science. Scientists are bound together by their scientific and naturalistic methodology as well as their study of the natural world, but that alone cannot constitute a religion.

Who Cares? Comparing and Contrasting Evolution & Religion

Does it matter whether evolutionary theory is a religion or not? It appears to matter a great deal to those who make the claim despite the fact that doing so misrepresents religion, evolution, and science generally. Are they simply unaware of the differences between religion and science? Perhaps some are, especially given how many people tend to use very simplistic definitions of both religion and science, but I suspect that many leaders of the Christian Right are not so ignorant. Instead, I think they are arguing in a deliberately disingenuous manner in order to blur the distinctions between religion and science.

Godless, atheistic science is no respecter of tradition. Over the years, science has forced the revision or abandonment of many traditional religious beliefs. People think that there need be no conflict between religion and science, but so long as religion makes empirical claims about the world we live in, a conflict will be inevitable because that's precisely what science does — and most of the time, science's answers or explanations contradict those offered by supernatural religions. In a fair comparison, religion always loses because its claims are consistently wrong while science consistently expands our knowledge and our ability to live well.

Religious believers who are unwilling to abandon making empirical claims and are unhappy with their ability to challenge science directly have sometimes opted for undermining people's willingness to rely on science. If people believe that science generally or at least one part of science, like evolutionary biology, is just another religious faith, then perhaps Christians will be as unwilling to accept this as they are unwilling to adopt Islam or Hinduism. If science and evolution are just another religion, it may be easier to dismiss them.

A more honest approach would be to acknowledge that while non-religious themselves, science generally and evolutionary biology, in particular, do make challenges on many religious beliefs. This forces people to confront those beliefs more directly and critically than they might otherwise have done. If those beliefs are sound, then believers shouldn't be concerned about such challenges. Avoiding these difficult issues by pretending that science is religious does no one any good.