During my years of wrestling with the question of whether God existed or not, one thing that didn’t faze me was the idea of evolution. I was never tempted by Biblical literalism, and had no problems at all with the idea of a God who used natural selection as His mechanism for creating humans, restricting His input to setting the whole process going and giving the DNA the odd tweak here and there along the way. Of course, the existence of evolution also seemed perfectly compatible with the non-existence of a God, so I chalked that whole part of the issue up to the ‘neutral’ column. Eventually, of course, I found other reasons to disbelieve in God and the point became moot.
So, when I read Peter Ackroyd’s The Beginning a few months back (a delightful little book giving a simple, readable account of the history of life on earth, starting with a prologue sketching out a brief account of the universe’s development from the Big Bang to the development of the Earth and then continuing on through Earth’s history up to the development of Homo Sapiens) I obviously wasn’t expecting it to have any impact on my atheism either way. I read it because it looked interesting and I liked the idea of learning more about how everything ended up being the way it is. What really struck me as I read the book though, in a way that somehow it just hadn’t before, was the sheer mindboggling timescale of the whole thing.
Hundreds of thousands of years for even the first atoms to form. Almost a billion more to get to the point of galaxies appearing. Billions and billions more before meteorite-pelted molten rock formed into the earliest stages of what would eventually become the Earth we live on. (What would a God even be doing all this time? Twiddling His thumbs?) And then, once life did get started, billions of years worth of new species originating almost at random and lasting for various lengths of time (hundreds of thousands of years, in some cases), only to – in most cases – die out or be wiped out in a wholesale extinction.
There were patterns to it, of course; the ones you’d expect to see from the laws of physics (the formation of smaller atoms into larger atoms, dust into galaxies) or biology (good ol’ natural selection doing its thing and preserving the more successful species for longer). But what was conspicuously absent was any sign of a deliberate plan driving the whole thing towards the eventual development of the human race.
As I read, I asked myself: hypothetically speaking, what kind of god might have been in charge of this? And the inescapably obvious answer was ‘One with no particular interest in humans.’
Traditional Western ideas of a creator-God have always included the assumption that God’s reason for creating the universe was to have somewhere to put humanity. Whether the story is that God brought things magically into existence over six days or that he did it via physical and biological processes over billions of years, the narrative keeps the focus firmly on us as the culmination of the Grand Plan, the whole raison d’etre of the universe, the goal that God had in mind from the Big Bang or ‘Let there be light’ onwards. And I think that in a way the traditional evolutionary teaching in schools actually reinforces that; we get the simplified stripped-down fish-amphibians-reptiles-mammals-monkeys-apes-human progression, with side branches of lesser importance at each stage.
But, when we take a step back and look at what actually went on, that isn’t at all what we see. There is nothing at all about the development of the universe to indicate any guiding hand steering it with any haste or eagerness to the point where living creatures could begin to develop on this one particular planet. There is nothing at all about evolutionary history that objectively differentiates the particular branches and sub-branches that happened to lead to us. Other than our own natural desire to see ourselves as the star of the show, there is simply nothing to make us stand out as anything more than yet one more species that has chanced to appear over the billions of years in which new species have been developing.
That, of course, is quite consistent with what we’d expect to see if there is no God. It’s possibly consistent with what we might expect to see if there is a God or Gods who created the universe for reasons utterly unrelated to the expectation of humanity’s eventual existence within it, and if we then evolved as a lucky but unanticipated by-product. But it is hopelessly inconsistent with what we’d expect to see if a God set out with a deliberate plan to create humanity. Yet again, the facts simply don’t fit with the God that Western religions try to preach.