If I understand my Catholic friends and scholars correctly, God created the cosmos, earth, and life. This God sparked the original organism and designed an evolutionary process that has resulted in endless forms most beautiful and wonderful. But of all these forms, one stands out and one was the goal from the beginning: humans. When this God created the Ur-organism “he” envisioned the evolution of humanity billions of years later, the inexorable result of endless adaptation. This God also envisioned the evolution of religion in general and Catholic Christianity in particular.
This is Evolutionary Theism. Evolutionary Theists bring several assumptions to their scholarly work and interpret data through the following lens: (1) evolution is not random but is designed, (2) because it is designed, evolution is progressive, (3) evolutionary progress occurs through adaptive change, and (4) this adaptive change is directed toward the evolution of humans. With the evolution of humans, we finally have creatures capable of perceiving and worshiping the God who made it all happen.
As this story goes God designed things so that early humans would apprehend the supernatural and their supernatural beliefs would make them cooperative, moral, and fertile. This God knew that humans would wander in the supernatural wilderness for many tens of thousands of years before they arrived at the (Christian) Truth. The Truth, as imagined by Evolutionary Theists, is that God is author of all.
This is not simple or crude Creationism, whether of the young or old earth variety. Nor is it Intelligent Design, which posits an interventionist entity whose many finely-tuned creations give the false impression there has been evolution. Evolutionary Theism accepts deep time, cosmic change, earth history, and evolutionary processes. But it does so with the understanding that none of this is random: it was designed to unfold in a particular way with a particular goal. Everything has been foreseen and foreordained.
None of this presents a problem so long as it is acknowledged. The problem arises when scholars of this persuasion present their work as if disinterested contemplation of data has led to their conclusions.
While it is not possible to approach data with nothing at all in mind, it is possible to approach data without any a priori commitments to the existence or non-existence of an entity or force called God. Scholars who have such commitments are bound to interpret their data in a particular way. For Evolutionary Theists this interpretation nearly always entails a designed and directed evolutionary progression, with one adaptation after another leading ineluctably to humans who can contemplate the majesty of God.
While working on the five-part Göbekli Tepe series for this blog, I came across several articles which noted that the excavator Schmidt is Catholic. There is of course nothing wrong with this but it may explain Schmidt’s premature and probably erroneous interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as the place where shamanistic hunter-gatherers saw the light, sensed the presence of gods (or God), built monuments for worship, and discovered how to domesticate plants-animals. As this story goes, a new “religion” magically or supernaturally appeared and paved the way for subsequent civilization.
If one is an Evolutionary Theist, this extraordinary and otherwise inexplicable progression makes complete sense: history is teleological and the ground was being prepared not only for plants but also for Christianity. If one is not an Evolutionary Theist, the alleged progression is questionable and inexplicable.
It is disingenuous for scientists and scholars who are Evolutionary Theists to present their work as if it were disinterested or compelled by facts and data. At a minimum, they should fully disclose their a priori commitments so we can evaluate their work accordingly.
It is one thing for a theologian such as John Haught to read his faith into evolutionary science and present it as such. It is quite a different thing for scientists and other scholars to read their faith into their science-scholarship without fully disclosing that they have pre-judged the primary issues and their findings flow from this prejudgment.