According to The New York Times article introducing Alvin Plantinga’s new book [Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism], Plantinga states that belief in God is a basic belief that does not need to be proven, just as the existence of God cannot be disproven. He points out that many naturalists marshal science to support their stance as atheists, but it is the atheists who have misinterpreted Darwin in assuming that his theory of evolution by natural selection excludes the existence of intelligent design.
Plantinga’s opponents emphasize that natural selection is a random, unguided process. However, this random process, whether guided or not, has a purpose: the evolution of the individual species. Natural selection is a purpose-driven system, which begs the question: is there a reason behind the purpose? The article quotes Plantinga as saying “I think there is such a thing as ‘sensus divinitatis’ and in some people it doesn’t work properly.” This innate sense of the divine—is it real or is it a vestige of the earlier evolutionary needs of our ancestors, a need which has outlived its purpose? One only has to look at the suggestions of ritualism found at Neanderthal burial sites dating some 60,000 to 80,000 years ago to see that the sense of the divine has been at work in our hominid history since earliest times. As rational beings, we have a need to make sense of the world, to give it order. This consciousness of the divine, and the spiritual and religious traditions that spring from it, provides us with a means of doing so, and also gives us a code of ethics and morality by which to live in society (although, interestingly, the definitions of “right” and “wrong” differ from culture to culture.) Similar to the ways in which our bodies have evolved and adapted to changing environmental conditions, is the sense of the divine something which has evolved within us as a necessary survival mechanism to help us cope in a complex social world? If not, if instead this sense is an evolutionary vestige, like the human appendix and coccyx, why then does the need for belief in the spiritual world remain so strong in cultures across the globe, surviving with such tenacity that wars are fought over these beliefs? Is it simply a matter of cultural inheritance, the passage of traditions down through generations dating back to our early hominid ancestors, or is it indeed an inherent part of our nature, planted into us while we’re still in the womb?
And what about Darwin himself? After years of studying the natural world, was the man who consolidated the theory of evolution an atheist? In an 1879 correspondence, Darwin writes, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. . . . I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally . . . an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” (Letter to John Fordyce, May 7, 1879. Source: Darwin Correspondence Project Cambridge University, UK)
So it would seem that Darwin would side more with the views of Plantinga than with Plantinga’s opponents. Regardless, his theories continue to generate discussion about questions that may never be answered, but which provide a forum for another human trait—the penchant for theoretical debate.
- Lisa Sita