Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

The Reconquista Initiative


Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

Although atheistic-naturalism—the most popular and arguably the only coherent and consistent form of atheism—is not necessarily wed to affirming and accepting the grand narrative of blind and unguided evolution, the fact of the matter is that in practice, for the atheistic-naturalist, the grand theory of naturalistic (meaning blind and unguided) evolution is the only game in town. Consequently, the atheist has little choice but to affirm something like naturalistic evolution and naturalistic abiogenesis as not only the explanation for the beginning of life and its future development, but also as the explanation for such things as human rationality and consciousness. But the fact that the atheistic-naturalist is essentially bound to such a theory presents the atheistic-naturalist with a dilemma which is highly detrimental to the rationality of his worldview as well as to his own intellectual consistency. And so, to understand the problems that arise for the atheistic-naturalist due to connection to naturalistic evolution, consider the two horns of the dilemma that the atheistic-naturalist must face.

Horn One

Initially, consider that if the atheistic-naturalist decides not to affirm the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then the atheistic-naturalist runs into two problems. First, because the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative is the atheistic-naturalist’s only live option to explain the existence and development of life, and yet given that, as even many atheistic-naturalists themselves admit, life readily looks designed, then if the atheistic-naturalist does not appeal to something like the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative as his explanation for the fact that life clearly appears designed, then the option of design suddenly looms large for both the atheistic-naturalist and everyone else. Indeed, if the atheistic-naturalist cannot even appeal to something like the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative as his way of trying to account for not only the existence of life but also the way in which life appears designed, then it is not surprising that people would thus readily start to affirm the fact that life looks designed because it is designed, and that some type of designer must thus exist. So denying naturalistic evolution and abiogenesis causes the design option to become the only live and reasonable option available to explain the existence of life and its apparent design.

But now, the second problem is that if the atheistic-naturalist does not affirm his only live option of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, and yet if he also does not affirm design as the explanation of life, then the atheistic-naturalist thus has such a large and gaping hole in his worldview that it could easily be objected that his worldview is irrational, or, at the very least, it would be a worldview based on blind faith. After all, if the atheistic-naturalist cannot explain something as fundamental as the existence and development of life on his worldview, but nevertheless still believes that it “somehow” occurred naturally and without design, then this is quite clearly a fideistic position. Indeed, for while an atheistic-naturalist could deny the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative without offering anything in its place and yet still technically remain an atheistic-naturalist, holding to such an overall position, especially in the face of the challenge of design and the appearance of design in life, would thus be a position which was one not based on evidence or argument, but rather on mere blind faith. After all, as even atheist and evolution-proponent Richard Dawkins says on page 6 of the 2006 Penguin edition of his book The Blind Watchmaker “…although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” So without Darwin, there is no intellectually fulfilled atheism, and that, quite frankly, would be a serious blow to atheistic-naturalism as a coherent and rational worldview.

But the problem stretches even further, for most atheistic-naturalists pride themselves on not holding anything on “faith”, and especially not on blind faith; and so to an atheistic-naturalist who holds to such an anti-faith perspective, then, in order to be consistent, the atheist-naturalist should not hold to a worldview that has a ‘blind faith’ component to it, and thus the atheistic-naturalist should not be an atheistic-naturalist at all. And so this overall problem is the first horn of the dilemma that evolution presents to atheistic-naturalism.

Horn Two

Now, the second horn of this problematic dilemma arises if the atheistic-naturalist does indeed affirm the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, as he essentially must do and as he almost always does. And what this second problem is, is that it once again makes atheistic-naturalism into a worldview that is based, in substantial part, on blind faith. After all, no matter what sort of just-so stories are offered, and no matter how many appeals to “possibility” are made, the fact remains that numerous major portions of the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative have not been demonstrated at all and are believed to have occurred on the basis of nothing more than faith alone. Consider, for example, the utter absence of any evidence, let alone comprehensive evidence, for a naturalistic explanation for the origin-of-life, the Cambrian Explosion, the development of other body plans, the emergence of language, consciousness, rationality, and so on; and this is not even to mention the more mundane concerns about atheistic-naturalism having little more than just-so stories as the explanation for the development of such minor things as eyes, wings, and so on. And so accepting the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative means accepting large aspects of it on faith; it is, once again, a fideistic position.

Now, it needs to be understood that the problem here is not that the atheistic-naturalist lacks any explanation or evidence for how things like life, consciousness, rationality, and so on, came to be naturally—although this problem is bad enough even on its own—but rather, the problem is that the atheistic-naturalist does not even know whether it is possible at all that these things could come about naturally. Sure, it is ‘logically possible’ in the broad sense that these things could come about naturalistically—after all, there is no logical contradiction in them—but this does not mean that these things are physically possible in the real world given the conditions that operate in this world. And by way of analogy, consider that it is ‘logically possible’ in the broad sense that an unassisted human being, today, could run ten thousand miles per hour, but this does not mean that it is physically possible given what human beings are today, and given the conditions of this earthly environment, etc.; and indeed, no human being could actually run that speed today even though it is logically possible that one could. And, as stated, the atheistic-naturalist has the same problem: he can claim that it is possible that life can come from non-life naturalistically or that consciousness can do the same, but making such an appeal to mere possibility in the broad sense is ultimately vacuous, for it does nothing to show that such a thing is possible in this universe. And sadly for the atheistic-naturalist, the only way to show that such a thing is physically possible, is to actually show it come about. And yet doing so in a clear evidentiary way would be very difficult, if not impossible; however, until and unless the atheistic-naturalist does so, then a major component of his worldview is, as stated, based on nothing but blind faith. Furthermore, and as with the first horn of the dilemma, for any atheistic-naturalist who normally refuses to believe anything on blind faith, then the fact that a major and critical component of his worldview is held to be true based on nothing but blind faith means that such an atheistic-naturalist, if he is to remain consistent, should cease being an atheistic-naturalist at all.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  for all practical purposes, atheistic-naturalism is wed to the grand naturalistic version of the evolutionary narrative, which is the only live option that the atheistic-naturalist can appeal to in order to explain the existence and development of all life. Yet if the atheistic-naturalist denies this connection, then he suddenly has a worldview that has absolutely no explanation for the existence and apparent design of living things, as well as having a worldview that has a critical dollop of blind faith attached to it. On the other hand, if the atheistic-naturalist ties himself to the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative, then the fact that that narrative has no evidence for many of its major claims also means that the atheistic-naturalist holds to a worldview based on blind faith. And so either way that he turns, the atheistic-naturalist does not hold a worldview based on evidence, but rather he holds to a worldview where some of its most critical components have no supporting evidence at all. And since holding to certain beliefs on the basis of blind faith is allegedly anathema to many atheistic-naturalists, then this dilemma means that they should cease being atheistic-naturalists, or at least they should stop pretending to be consistent ones. Now, there are indeed objections that can be mounted against this dilemma, but those objections will be addressed in a separate essay.

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Anno Domini 2016 12 29

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6 thoughts on “Atheism’s Other Evolutionary Dilemma

  1. Since I responded to your first evolutionary dilemma, I thought I’d take a crack at the second one, too so here goes:

    Atheists are a diverse bunch. There are atheists who believe in ghosts, there are atheists who believe in re-incarnation and I’m sure there are atheists who believe in The Force. The only thing atheists have in common is that they don’t believe in any deities. That’s it. From reading your post, it seems you view atheism as a worldview, which would be a mistake. It’s a position on a very specific issue (that of the existence of deities) but that’s all it is. It’s not a worldview, it’s not a philosophy and it’s not an attempt to explain anything.

    Atheists certainly have worldviews but they tend to be different from each other. My atheism is not my worldview – it’s a result of my worldview, which I would describe as skeptical empiricism. In short, I’d like to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible and, so far, the best way to achieve this that I’ve found is to test whether an idea is true or false by empirical verification (basically the scientific method). Since claims about the existence of deities don’t seem to be testable this way, I simply withhold belief until the situation changes – hence my atheism.

    Another thing i noted from reading your post is your use of the moniker “atheistic naturalist” which seems to suggest that people who are looking for naturalistic explanations do so from a dogmatic, atheistic position. This is clearly not the case for the many scientists who are also theists but still devote their lives to searching for natural explanations for various phenomena. It’s also not my experience with the many atheist scientists I have interacted with through the years. They simply want to know how things work and the scientific method is the best way they’ve found to do it. Their focus on naturalistic explanations doesn’t come from some self-imposed philosophical limitation that excludes supernatural explanations a priori but from a very practical limitation imposed by reality: we have no tools to investigate supernatural explanations scientifically. Scientists look for naturalistic explanations because that’s the only road that’s open to them.

    Looking at the horns of the dilemma you’re presenting, I don’t see anything that poses a problem for my worldview. The dichotomy you’re setting up involves either affirming or not affirming “the grand naturalistic evolutionary narrative” but affirmations simply don’t have any place in matters of science. We don’t affirm scientific theories, we provisionally accept them as our best current explanations until a better one comes along. Likewise, your use of the word faith is misplaced when discussing matters of science. Scientific theories are built on evidence – when there isn’t sufficient evidence to develop a theory, the rational position is to simply accept that we don’t yet have one. We are of course free to speculate but speculation has nothing to do with faith. As Aristotle said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

    As for all the phenomena for which you claim there is no evidence of natural explanations (“origin-of-life, the Cambrian Explosion, the development of other body plans, the emergence of language, consciousness, rationality”) I think you have it exactly backwards – the only evidence we have all point to a natural explanation. Until the proponents of supernatural explanations present a hypothesis that makes predictions of what evidence this supernatural entity would leave behind I really don’t see how it could be otherwise. The problem for the supernaturalist is the one I touched on earlier: supernatural explanations are unfalsifiable. If the supernaturalist can’t exclude the possibility that the supernatural explanation is an omnipotent deity (and they seem reluctant to do this) then there are no testable predictions he can make since such a deity could have created any conceivable evidence. Until this dilemma is solved, natural explanations will remain the only ones on the table from a scientific point of view.


    1. KR,

      Ha…again, sadly, no time to respond in detail now.

      But just quickly: atheistic-naturalist means an atheist who is also a naturalist, and thus does indeed have a worldview. The reason that I use atheistic-naturalist, rather than just naturalist, is because a person could be a theistic-naturalist as well, and so, given the potential confusion of just using the term naturalist, I use atheistic-naturalist instead.

      Second, just a point on unfalsifiability. Atheists actually have this completely backwards. It is, in fact, naturalistic explanations which are unfalsifiable, whereas supernatural ones are falsifiable. Now, I will be writing on this topic in detail soon (I already have a few drafts in the works), so I will be explaining my thoughts then.

      Finally, my apologies if my responses to you take some time, but as I have a number of things to write about, and very limited time to do so, I can only promise that I will get to them at some point.

      All the best and Happy New Year!


    1. KR,

      Great. The other thing as well is that, if, for some reason, I am unable to address your comments in particular–for I find your comments to be written in good faith and thus worthy of a response–then please note that the only reason for this is a time issue given other priorities. So I am not ignoring your comments nor considering them unworthy of a response, it is just that other work takes precedence given certain time constraints. Sadly, for me, that’s just reality.



  2. Just for clarification, could you specify what definition of naturalist you’re using? I’m asking because there are a couple of definitions of naturalism that mean very different things. Philosophical naturalism, as I understand it, is the position that the natural world is all that exists. From my empiricist perspective, this is an indefensible position – a claim that cannot be verified. Methodological naturalism, on the other hand, I see as the position that the natural world is the only one that’s accessible to scientific inquiry. I would tend to agree with this – with the caveat that if the supernatural has an effect on the natural, this effect should in principle be detectable and therefore accessible to scientific study.


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