Dr. William Provine

Earlier this year, our apologetics class watched parts of the movie Expelled in order to discern the presuppositions people use in explaining their worldview and to discuss how we might respond. During one clip, producer Ben Stein interviewed Professor William Provine of Cornell University. Dr. Provine explained his evolutionary views, but it was the personal conclusions he drew from them that shocked our class. We were grieved to hear him say that if a brain tumor he had successfully fought off a decade earlier returned and was inoperable (which the movie said had returned), he would take a gun to his head and blow his brains out. Since there is no afterlife, he stated, it made little sense to him to prolong his suffering.

As my class of high school students discussed this, we decided we ought to write Dr. Provine, express our concern, and ask him to reconsider his worldview. To our further surprise, he ended up calling the church, getting my e-mail address, and responding to me and the students. What follows is first his letter, which despite his atheistic worldview reveals through his “gracious inconsistencies” he is made in the image of God. Then I have posted a letter my daughter Emory wrote in return (reviewed but unedited by me) after I assigned my students to read and review the chapter of the book Dr. Provine sent.


Dear Pastor York,

I have received 10 lovely letters from the following students:

Gabrielle Schwartz, Andrew Swinehart, Rachel Visser, Orlena Faris, Emory York, Trevor York, Moriah Fisher, Grace Harmon, Melanie Marcisz, and Abbie Marcisz.

I wish to thank you, and each of these wonderful students, for caring about me.

I gather that you showed the movie, Expelled, to these students. The folks who made this movie did so under false pretenses. They promised a movie with no bias. But the ID view dominates the movie. Had I known this, I would have refused to participate. The moviemakers cut the video shot to place all the evolutionists as mean and nasty people. I had to call them, and threaten a lawsuit, before they put in, near the end of the movie, that I never discriminate against any student, including the most religious. I adore my students, one and all. I work with Cornell United Religious Work to be a part of a secular group devoted to sane and equal society.

I hold atheism the same way I hold biological theories: as the best hypotheses we can see right now. I do not know that all gods are impossible.

My brain tumor, at the end of the editing of the movie, seemed to be growing fast to a neurosurgeon in Rochester, NY, and he recommended immediate chemotherapy in May, 2008. I did not trust him very much, because he said the tumor had been growing since 2004, and many neurosurgeons had told me that was untrue. My usual neurosurgeon in Syracuse retired, and I found another one there who actually was part of my operation in 1998. He asked for an MRI in October, 2008, on the same machine and gadolinium dye used from 2002 to 2006. The result was that he could not tell the difference between this scan and the one in 2006. There was no evidence of growth.

I still plan to teach my last semester before retirement in the fall of 2009 (retirement scheduled for June 30, 2010, when I will be 68 years old. I never expected to live to 65.

So your students can understand why I believe as I do (no gods that count, no life after death, no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no human free will, same as Charles Darwin), I attach an article I wrote for the Handbook of Religion and Science, published by Oxford University Press in 2006. I wrote this for high school students who can read it easily. If any of your students wish to answer that document, I would be delighted to reply.

Thank you again,

Will Provine


Dear Professor Provine,

Greetings! I must first say how delighted and overjoyed I was to hear that you had responded to our letters! Your schedule must be full and it was very thoughtful of you to take time to reply. Rest assured that your kindness did not go unappreciated. Thank God that He has spared you from the possible growth of your brain tumor! I pray that His provision of your life will give you time to rethink your beliefs. You most graciously invited us to respond to your article and my fellow classmates and I are going to happily take up this offer. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to practice our apologetics!

As I stated in my previous letter, you must realize that my commitment to Christ and His saving grace is at the core of my being and argument. You were quite correct in saying that my belief in an intelligent designer, namely God Almighty, stems from my religious beliefs. I in turn can say that your evolutionist/atheist beliefs come directly from your refusal of God. In your considerate letter, you wrote that we were wonderful students, a very true statement. But sir, later you state that you believe in no ultimate foundation for ethics. Was not this previous statement concerning us rather ethical? What basis/foundation did you have for saying this? Also, I would like to ask, if there is no foundation for ethics what exactly is your idea of a sane and equal society? Towards the middle of your letter, you make this statement, “I do not know that all gods are impossible.” Yet, all your arguments are based on the fact that you believe or rather state there is no God. Excuse me for asking so boldly, but are you not grasping after straws?

In your article, you use the argument that the loss of species and bacterial attacks point against Intelligent Design. But how in the world can this be pointing to evolution? My understanding of evolution was that through natural selection, the species on this earth would be perfected. The strongest and fittest would survive, leaving us with a ‘super’ society. This idea is embodied in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. (Few people know this full, racist title.) Your argument claims the exact opposite, that there is a decline. In fact, this seems to fit better with the picture of Christianity than anything. All of creation groans under the affects of the Fall and sin. The whole earth longs for the second coming of Christ and His salvation.

Sir, with all due respect in mind, why are you so adamant in your arguments when there is no “Ultimate meaning in life”? If you did not know deep in your heart that there is a God who judges and rules his people, you would not be trying to defend your position. It is completely futile. There is nothing after this life in your empty beliefs. Though I am just a child before you, I have to say you are being arrogant, wanting to be in control of your life, but not wanting to be held responsible by an awesome Being. You cannot escape His righteous judgment no matter how much you reject Him. Professor, say you witnessed your one and only beloved son suffer an agonizing death to save the life of someone else. Then this rescued person turned around and despised the life that had been offered freely for him. He was thankless for what your son had done. Can you honestly tell me you would not have any feelings, any ethical pains? Well, this is a small-scale example of what you are doing to God and His Son, Christ Jesus. He is longing to bring you to Himself, yet you revile this offering. Please, repent from this denial and turn to Christ.

Well, I have bothered you long enough. Thank you once again for your cordial response. I hope that none of the contents in this letter have seemed too forward or brash. I mean no disrespect, but merely seek to share God’s wonderful gift with you. You are ever in my prayers.

In His Incomprehensible Love,

Emory York


  1. Brent June 2, 2009 at 8:54 pm #

    I skimmed over the introduction part and did not see who wrote the response letter. As I was reading, I was thinking what great points and what a fine job Barry did responding to his letter. "He", I thought to myself, did a wonderful job of using the Dr.'s letter to show how he is essentially lost, and has no real basis for his arguments.Needless to say I was quite surprised at the end when I saw my "sweet little" niece Emory had written the letter. Well done!Praise the Lord for her parents, SCA, and mostly the Grace, Love, and Guidance of Him that first loved us!

  2. Anonymous June 7, 2009 at 8:25 pm #

    Good stuff Barry. thanks for sharing it. And may God grant what your daughter prayed…that this Prof. would turn to Jesus as Savior and Lord.Jeff Kessler

  3. Anonymous August 3, 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    A very good letter indeed. Did he ever respond to that?

  4. Barry York August 4, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    Dr. Provine has yet to respond. I had recontacted him after these letters were sent asking if he intended to do so. He stated yes, but we have not yet heard from him. I will update my blog with his response if we do.

  5. David Bruce Trevecca December 16, 2009 at 8:07 pm #

    I have also had the priviledge of emailing Dr. Provine and in his response to me he said, "If you can offer me any proof, I am more than willing to listen." I sent two more emails explaining God's work in my life and my families lives. This included divine guidence, healing, and the mere fact that he and I share over 5 similarities, raised on a farm, experience with brain tumor, lived near Chicago, lived near Ann Arbor, and also lived near Nashville, TN.

  6. Joseph May 11, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    I happened by this blog post while researching Dr. Provine. I know it has been years since this dialogue, but I feel compelled to respond to some of the points after the response Dr. Provine provided.

    1. To lump evolution and atheism together is simply incorrect. While their are atheists who believe that evolution supports their view (I am not an atheist), there are plenty of people who do believe in Christ, salvation, judgement and morality who also accept evolution. The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) states that there is no conflict in the belief of evolution and the belief of God as Creator.

    2. Dr. Provine does state that there is no ultimate foundation for ethics. The key word is “ultimate”. That does not mean that people are not ethical. Indeed we see ethical behavior from many people all over the world. What I believe is that Dr. Provine is arguing that there is no external ethical model universally imposed on us from an invisible super being. I have heard many people who argue that without God imposing order and rules we would act like unreasoning animals. I would say that people often do. Often people who profess a Christian belief act unethically at times. It is part of mans sinful nature. Now as I said, I do believe in God so I have no problem with this view. Now must God do it by appearing as burning bush and carving into stone some laws? No. My perception of God is that of one who creates self perpetuating systems, not a magicuian with a wand. There is a branch of science called evolutionary psychology that investigates the origins of human behavior. I can accept that ethics, and such things as altruism can have an evolutionary basis and still not conflict with my faith in God.

    3. When Dr. provine states that “I do not know that all Gods are impossible”, he is stating a fact. God can never be disproved, but then again, neither can the Easter Bunny, or the Great Pumpkin, or Allah. God by definition is a supernatural entity that exists beyond space and time. That being is not restricted by the natural laws of the universe as we understand them. Because of this we cannot test God’s existence via natural means only. My faith in God is not disturbed by any scientific conlcusion because it is founded on faith. I believe in the mystical entity within us all, a soul, and it is through my soul that I confirm my faith in God. If God can do anything, he can also do nothing.

    4. Your understanding of natural selection is not quite correct. Perfection is not the goal of natural selection. Natural selection is a mechanism that adapts species to their environment. These adaptations take a very long time and are never perfected. We live in an ever changing world (something early religious leaders disagreed with this). We as a species continue to evolve. You are somewhat different from your parents. You are not a copy of anyone and your DNA may contain various mutations that neither of your parents have. A mutation in a species may give it a reproductive advantage. If so, it will pass on that advantage to future generations. There is also sexual selection that passes on characteristics but it not my intention to give you a lecture on evolution. You also stated that science confirms your version of man’s decline after the fall. That is simply not true. There is no evidence that man lived longer in earlier times. You can find solace that you will probably live twice as long as your great great great great grandparents. Then again, you may get hit by a bus. Such is life.

    5. Darwin’s use of the word race does not mean he was a racist. Our interpretation of the word is quite different from his time. I will give you this though, Darwin was a product of 19th century English thinking, which tended to place white males at the highest level of creation. During Darwin’s time, the most popular view of creation was published in a book called Vestiges, by Robert Chambers. His view was evolutionary and theistic. He attributed all things to God and still flatly proclaimed that white males were the peak of creation.

    6. People often use the phrase “survival of the fittest” when thinking of Darwin. The phrase originated with Herbert Spencer and his attempt to apply Evolution to society. His view of Social Darwinism still has adherents today. It was especially popular during the Industrial Revolution because it appeared to justify why some people succeeded and others did not. The rich and powerful were somehow “more fit” than the poor and unfortunate. This was not Darwin’s view and should not be applied to him. Darwin in his time was a social reformer.

    7. When Dr. Provine argues that there is no ultimate meanining in life, I believe he is saying that there is not a universal meaning to life. People can find meaning in many things. Indeed, millions of people find meaning through a spiritual relationship with their God. I do think this does present a problem with Dr. Provine’s assertion that there is no free will. He may be saying that we are all guided by biochemical responses. In that sense we may have no free will, but I believe humans can transcend their urges and assumptions. Here I disagree with him.

    8. You calling Dr. Provine “arrogant” contradicts my view of how ministry should be done. Humilty is a difficult Christian virtue. I still struggle with it, but in my struggles, I try not to deride others. I know you are heartfelt and hoping for his salvation, but to me, this is an inapproriate method. Maybe you and I should keep working on that humility thing. It is great to be sure of things, but we are here to model behavior, not to just inform. You are arguing from a certainty of Christ’s judgement. I believe in Christ as judge, but I do not believe that you, I, or anyone knows for certain how that judgement works. The Bible admonishes sin, but as we know, God can do anything.

    Finally, let me say that I am aware that this post is old and my response may never be read, but this issue strikes at me. I am a person of faith who currently is engaged in course of study that wishes to examine why certain sects in the United States are hostile to evolution. Evolution is not a first cause and evolution is not an explanation of how we all got here. Those domains belong to God, or if you prefer, other branches of science. I believe that evolution helps us explain a mechanism of God’s creation.

    • Barry York May 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

      Dear Joseph,

      Please note that the letter above was written by my then 15 year-old daughter, not me.

      But in the hopes you may consider your ways, Joseph, I would like to respond with a few brief clarifications and questions to your points:

      1) Scripture declares that God created ex nihilo. The PCUSA and others declare not so. Why do you believe the latter rather than the former?

      2) You are correct that Dr. Provine does not believe there is any ultimate standard of ethics while at the same time making ethical statements and claiming others such as yourself can as well . But what if he is wrong? Or you are wrong? How would you know?

      3) The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus did not claim to make the heavens and earth or to have been raised from the dead. Jesus did, however. How can you say God has not offered you proof?

      4) To clarify, my daughter did not say that evolutionists believe natural selections brings perfection, but to things being perfected. That is the evolutionists’ claim – a move from less developed to higher forms of life. Now, regarding longer lives, have you ever heard of Methuselah?

      5) Now, now, nice try at sidestepping the definition of a racist while clearly stating Darwin was one. Imagine trying to pull that same stunt for a KKK klansman of the last century. So could you explain further what Darwin then meant in the full title of his 1859 magnum opus, “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection—or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life?”

      6) Herbert Spencer himself claimed to have come to the view of survival of the fittest after reading Darwin. Are you saying it is not an apt summary of what he taught, or his writings did not influence such people as Karl Marx in their sociological and political views?

      7) I see you did find some point of disagreement with Dr. Provine. However, I again ask on what basis? Just your opinion?

      8) Is not the amount of arrogance one has, according to definition, directly proportional to a superior attitude one assumes or presumptuous claims one makes about himself? So what would that say about someone who sets aside what God says in His word for their own or other’s opinions? If you make yourself to be superior to God, that seems to me about as arrogant as you can get.

      Joseph, we are all persons of faith – Christian, Buddhist, or atheist. The question is what are you placing your faith in? As you continue to study, maybe you should turn your thesis around. Instead of asking why certain sects are hostile to evolution, ask why is evolution hostile to Christianity? After all, why should they care?



      • Joseph May 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

        Thank you for replying and I apologize for my late reply. I have finals and that is taking a great deal of my time, though not as much as it should.

        I was aware that you were not the author of the original post. I had read closely enough to note that it was your teenage daughter as the author and as a father, I also noted your pride in her thoughtful response to Dr. Provine. Let me repsond to some you your points.

        1. That God created the universe out of nothing is not in dispute. Evolution does not dispute that. Darwin was not expressing anything about the origin of the universe. He was noting a mechanism for change. I believe that God is the creator of everything. God is also the creator of the laws of nature. Evolution is an explanation of how nature works to change organisms.

        2. You ask if I am concerned if I am wrong, or Dr. Provine is wrong. How about you? We all could be wrong. I, like you am guided not only by nature but faith. I am content to leave God as my judge for my beliefs. While I still believe that “Sola Scriptura” is debateable (as it is by many theologians), I too am informed by scripture though clearly my interpretation is not that of Biblical literalsim. If I am wrong, than on my judgement day, I will have what I have always wanted, I will know.

        3. I did not say that God did not offer me proof. I said that I do not require proof from science. Now as for the Easter Bunny etc.; there have been many invented creation stories about Gods we do not believe in. There is no evidence for those either. My evidence is my soul. What I do object to is the argument that scientifically, you can see scientific evidence for God. Science just does not support that. It is not that people cannot look at the Pacific Ocean and marvel at the majesty of God as I do, but even as I wonder at the power and majesty of it all, I do not consider that scientific. That is my distinction.

        4. As an evolutionist, I have never said that it produces perfection. For one, that would imply a conscious purpose rather than a mechanism. That would be an argument for a designer. What evolution does is modify organisms over a great deal of time to better suit their environment.

        5. Again, when Darwin uses race he was not talking about racial identity as we do now. The concept of race itself is fallacious to many scientists, but it is hard to get rid of. Science for example tells us that genetically, skin color constitutes an insignificant genetic variation. Darwin was a product of his time. He came from a liberal abolitionist family and supported that cause. His use of language could be found to be racist if you place it modern context. The same by the way could be said for Abraham Lincoln. They were born on the same date.

        6. Because Spencer read Darwin does not mean he understood it. He attempted to apply evolution to the social sciences, and not by studying cultural anthropology. As for Marx, his problems with religion did not start with Darwin. As someone who believes in evolution, I find myself objecting with some of its strongest proponets. The most glaring example is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins if a very famous atheist who uses evolution as an argument to deny the existence of God. It is not his only argument, but he does use it. Dawkins is a bright guy, and it would be fascinating to talk with him, but to say that God is a delusion is only a matter of his personal opinion. I find it unethical to mix that opinion with science. Science can never disprove God and to argue that, is just as misguided as to use science to prove God. Now before me move on, remember, there have been many foolish and dangerous ideas and leaders who claimed favor from God. Hitler’s army wore belt buckles that said “God is with us”.

        7. My disagreement with Dr. Provine is with some of his conclusions. It does make me sad when people reject faith. Faith and interpretation of scripture once held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around it. For most of mans history that was the accepted view and the church found evidence for that in scripture. Now when it became established that the earth revolves around the sun, that did not disprove scripture, it disproved the common interpretation of scripture.

        8. I must remind you that I do believe in God and in fact the triune God of the Bible. I struggle with arrogance but not because I also study and am informed by science. It does not mean that I should only view science through “biblical glasses”. St. Augustine wrote of the “City of God”. Written shortly after the fall of Rome, it attempted to answer why an empire that had been so successful would fall after the acceptance of Christianity. Augustine noted that there were two cities, a secular and a spritual. Science by design deals with a material world. I believe in God’s word. I am not sure about your interpretation.

        Lastly you ask me to consider why evolution is hostile to God? Now, you don’t know me, but I would like you to accept that I have studied this for many years. Some people have a problem with God and use evolution as evidence. I disagree with that. Some believers object to evolution because they feel that it contradicts scripture. I disagree with that too.
        How some people use evolution is just as bad as how some people use God.
        Evolution is not hostile to God. You can trust me on that.

  7. Anne Wanjiru June 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Please excuse my saying so but I find it totally hypocritical for professed Christians to say that evolution and God can cohabit. Evolution denies God as the creator period. Genesis chapter 1 says God created all things. Evolution says things just happened. People who claim otherwise mock God.. If you believe in evolution you don’t believe in what the Bible says, It is like and evolutionist saying that he can both believe in God and evolution, He would shake his heard and wonder how that can be.
    I have heard Christians say that the first chapter of Genesis cannot be taken literally. That to me is changing the word of God to fit your world view, God clearly warns us of that. He says all Scripture is God breathed.

    • Joseph June 25, 2012 at 11:49 am #

      Having been a student of Anthropology and Religion, I do not find the theory of evolution to be hostile to religion. I do see that some people are hostile to both and use one or the other against one or the other. I do see that their are atheists who use evolution as evidence against religion, but I also see plenty of people who use their particular interpretation of scripture to attack science.
      Evolution does not address origins, it does not take a position on who or what was there “In the beginning”. I find it miraculous that God can create a system the perpetuates and changes without direct intervention at every turn. To me, God is the creator and evolution does nothing to remove God from his throne.
      Evolution does not say something came from nothing, and I would challenge you to find any scientist who makes that claim, any evolutionary scientist. Atheists often will argue that it is theists who claim that something came from nothing, that there was nothing and God just caused it to come into existence from no preexisting state. Those who do not have faith can only speculate at origins, and many do. Some say that if God has always existed, why couldn’t matter? Some may say, that if God always existed, then why would it have to be the Christian God or why only one? None of this is what evolution posits. Evolution is not about that.
      Evolution is a scientific theory that explains how species change over time, not how the universe started.
      There are many Christians who do not take Genesis literally, that is their interpretation and mine. I believe the message of Genesis, which is to convey the power, glory and beauty of God and his creations does not diminish because evolution is scientifically valid; nor does it diminsh our special place and role in God’s plan.

  8. Anne Wanjiru June 21, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    I find it highly offensive for you to make such a sweeping statement as evolution is not hostile to God, You even add that we should trust you.How can a concept which removes
    God as the only creator of the universe be compatible to God as a creator. If you have doubts as to the is responsible for what you see around you then feel free to do believe in what you want to believe. I have no problem believing that God is the sole and only creator of the universe. I do not believe for a moment on evolution I think it is the most embarrassing thing our scientist have put out there, it makes no sense to and I believe it is foolish.To believe something came from nothing is absurd.

  9. Mr. P. Zammer September 6, 2012 at 12:14 am #

    Ben Stein’s movie is absolute rubbish, and anyone with a decent college education would need to see only about 5 minutes of it to arrive at that conclusion. From the tenor of the ignorant things you write in your response to Joseph, it is abundantly clear that you are precisely the kind of uneducated cretin for whom the movie was intended.

    Your stupidity is unremarkable though; most Christians are stupid people.

    It is your malevolence that I find more noteworthy.

    So you see in the movie a blatant mischaracterization of Professor Provine, and you take it on yourself to try to help him see the error of his ways so he can become an ignorant cretin like you? What bloody business is it of yours that he does or does have cancer, and that he has ideas about how he will respond to that fact, if it is indeed a fact? Who gave YOU any stake in this man’s life, and on what authority do you butt into his life with your laughable beliefs? Yes, yes, I know–the authority granted you by a mythical entity that has every bit as much basis in reality as the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Professor Provine is very kind in his response to you–he is a gentler man than I am.

    Here’s what I hope for you, you pathetic wretch: I hope that YOU are soon diagnosed with some horrific and terminal illness, and I hope (against all the odds of this happening to so cretinous a man) that in the despair of the final days, you finally come to realize the truth about the world, and, given the smallness of your humanity, that you will be unable to cope with it, and that you will die screaming to your absent God about the life you wasted looking for Him. I hope you will pray for His healing touch, and I hope your family does too, and I hope you despair when there is no answer, and you at last understand that your entire life has been so much wasted time.

    Good day.

  10. CR Davis September 16, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    I am so sorry that you have to express such vitriol in order to give your viewpoint. In my educated opinion (I have a degree), it takes much more faith to believe in what you purport than to believe in the God of the Bible. It is my opinion that cretinism is very evident in your curse of death. Who, in their right mind would wish this evil on anyone?! I wish you joy and peace because it is obvious that you will need it in this life because if you do not find Jesus, there will be none for you in the next. Denying the God of the Bible does not make Him go away, it just makes your heart harder!

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