Thursday, August 11, 2005

Evolutionary Biology is Key to Understanding God

Well, after my last post on this topic I had hoped to leave it aside for a while until the wounds healed over a little bit, but here we go again.

A friend emailed me this morning to be sure I saw Jacob Weisberg's piece on intelligent design in Slate today. (Dear, I read Slate every day.) He saw it as a good argument as to why discussion of God's role in evolution "has absolutely no place in a science classroom."

I have never suggested otherwise. In fact, a week ago I wrote, "I think it would do Christianity more good to have biology taught in Sunday school than to have religion taught in science class."

Furthermore, the Weisberg article is crap. It is the pure, unmitigated theophobic drivel of kneejerk secular fundamentalists who know and understand even less about intelligent design and religion than George W. Bush knows about evolution.

My friend accused me of talking out of my ass, even saying "only an incredibly misguided person" would argue "that evolution is essentially directionless and random.'" Then he sends me an article, hoping to rebut my points, that talks about "the prevailing scientific view of evolution as an unguided, random process."

I acknowledge that one of the major problems is that a vast number of self-described Christians also do not understand the issue. Intelligent Design is not a "rival" theory. It cannot, as many have pointed out, even accurately be called a "theory." It does not seek to supplant evolution, so therefore George Bush is wrong when he suggests "both sides ought to be properly taught."*

Intelligent Design is unscientific. It picks up where science leaves off, and can never follow: that is, the quite reasonable assumption that God is responsible for the scientific phenomena which we can observe in a laboratory. It is frankly a much more plausible explanation for the world in which we live than ascribing everything to a series of genetic accidents resulting from a causeless Big Bang that coincidentally happened to create the perfect conditions for life on Earth.

The flaw in Weisberg's understanding that unravels his entire argument is the misconception that a) Intelligent Design is Creationism dressed up in a lab coat and b) all people of faith regard Scripture as literally true and therefore Intelligent Design is a desperate, last-gasp attempt to get science to resemble Genesis. Weisberg writes, "Evolutionary theory may not be incompatible with all forms of religious belief, but it surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions."

What Weisberg doesn't know about religion could fill a Bible.

American Evangelicalism is a fragment of the Christian world that has a disproportionate media presence and political influence. They proceed from the instantly disprovable assertion that the Bible is literally true in all instances. (I say instantly disprovable because the Bible contradicts itself in several ways in several places.) Any attempt to invalidate the veracity of a particular Biblical passage -- Genesis 1, for starters -- threatens to undermine the entire Evangelical framework. If Genesis 1 isn't true, then perhaps neither is Matthew nor Romans nor the Book of Revelation. Fundamentalists of both stripes use this idiotic "logic": Christians feel their faith is threatened by the implications, and secularists stick out their tongues to say, "See, it's all nonsense." But if Genesis 1 is not literally true, it does not logically follow that Matthew 5 is false.

For many Christians, belief in the literal 7-day creation is the furthest thing from a "basic teaching" or "doctrine." There is no record in the Gospels of Christ going around testing people on their fidelity to the Genesis creation story or any other Old Testament story. Jesus Christ came to teach us how to behave. My acceptance that the earth is billions of years old, which contradicts Genesis, does not threaten the message of the Gospel: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

If you doubt my assertion that belief in a seven day creation is not a central doctrine of Christianity, I might refer you to the Nicene Creed. This was a statement drafted by various bishops under the auspices of Emperor Constantine during the fourth century. To this day it is recited in Christian churches, spelling out for us what are the non-debatable articles of faith. The Creed says, "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen." That's all it says about creation. Belief in literal Creationism is not central to Christianity. End of discussion. I just blew Weisberg's entire premise.

It is a fair question to ask, however, how it is that I maintain my faith in a religion centered around a book that has been scientifically proven to be inaccurate.

This may sound like a Clintonian evasion, but it depends on what you mean by "accurate." I believe that Genesis contains truths, even as it is not literally true. As I frequently point out, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God exclusively in the form of parables, which I believe is a warning to look past the storytelling surface of most of the Bible to seek deeper meaning within. Fundamentalists reject this thinking, insisting that even Revelation is literally true, which is a frightening prospect.

Here's why my faith is not threatened by evolution. Weisberg himself cites an explanation of the relationship between science and Christianity by Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University. (JWC, this is required reading.) Miller writes, "to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be. In many respects, evolution is the key to understanding our relationship with God."

This is what is meant by Intelligent Design: Miller explains, "As more than one scientist has said, the truly remarkable thing about the world is that it actually does make sense. The parts fit, the molecules interact, the darn thing works. To people of faith, what evolution says is that nature is complete."

* When I earlier described Bush's statement on the teaching of Intelligent Design as "admirable," I was commenting on the irony that a narrow-minded, arrogant ideologue for whom dissent equals treason was extolling the virtues of being exposed to new ideas.


Tin Man said...

First, I commend you for everything you've written about intelligent design. It's changed my views of the motivations of people who propound it.

I think the confusion arises because "intelligent design" is a bad name. Creationists can also claim to believe in a form of "intelligent" "design," so they should come up with a more accurate phrase that doesn't bring creationism to mind.

The dispute over ID is really a dispute as to whether evolution is outcome-oriented or blind to outcomes. I'm in the latter camp.

I take issue with something you say: "It is frankly a much more plausible explanation for the world in which we live than ascribing everything to a series of genetic accidents resulting from a causeless Big Bang that coincidentally happened to create the perfect conditions for life on Earth."

But in an infinite (or near-infinite) universe, isn't it plausible that the perfect conditions for life would occur on at least one planet?

Furthermore, the Big Bang is not necessarily causeless. I think there's a big difference between thinking that God directed evolution and thinking that some entity caused the Big Bang to occur. It's all about where in the process you put the level of involvement, if any. For instance, I can't believe that God (if there is a God) is involved in evolution, but I do think it's possible that some entity caused the Big Bang. Or at least I don't discount it. But I don't think that any such entity has an "awareness" as we think of it, or that such entity has the least bit interest in human affairs. I think humanity is a byproduct of whatever physical laws run the universe. What I'm saying, basically, is that I don't think human affairs need be explained by any reference to a divinity.

Andy said...

Thanks, TM. On further thought, I wonder if perhaps *I* shouldn't stop using "intelligent design." It's just going to confuse people. I think I'm more likely to win over people like yourself -- at least to the recognition that I'm not a crackpot, if still somewhere short of convincing you of God -- than I am to swing George Bush to my views on theology.

I'm open to suggestions.

Andy said...

Fellow blogger Thunder Jones, to whom I would defer on all matters theological, put it best in his post today:

"Christians in America need to get a life and focus of the heart of the gospel, not the craziness they create on the edges of it."

jwc said...

"reason" means you can use observation, experimentation and deduction to reach a conclusion. therefore you can't say "the quite reasonable assumption that God is responsible for the scientific phenomena which we can observe in a laboratory" if you are using the word "reason" correctly. Something isn't reasonable if it has no possibility of being proven or disproven and there's no direct evidence. I will believe it's a reasonable assumption when I am introduced to god (or the devil) after I die.


Andy said...

That's the best you can come up with, JWC? I'm flattered. If we're going to play that game, I won't say you're wrong, because you're not, but I will add that the dictionary also says, "being within the bounds of common sense; not excessive or extreme." To that extent, I think the word choice is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

The main problem that I have with ID is, given all the physiological flaws in the human species, the maker would seem to be less than intelligent.

While the human body is truly amazing and on the surface one might be tempted to think that someone, somewhere was pulling our evolutionary strings – our bodies are not flawless.

The classic example being the appendix, which serves no purpose, yet occasionally gets infected and kills people. Another example would be childbirth, as humans began to walk upright, childbirth became increasingly difficult and occasionally (even today) deadly.

(There was a terrific op-ed piece printed in Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago that made this argument 10-times better than I am making right now, but you get the point.)

I guess that the bottom line is, as much as we may think we are perfect we are not. The physiological flaws of the human body (for me anyway) cast doubt on the intelligence of the alleged designer. Therefore, ID would seem to cast doubt on God's omnipotence.

Belief in an all-knowing, all-seeing God would seem to be to be a much more fundamental tenant of Christianity than either A) the rejection of Darwin, and / or B) the literal belief in some ancient creation myth that most definitely precedes even the Jewish faith.

Careful what you wish for fundies, when you start teaching kids about intelligent design and then little Bobby dies from a ruptured appendix, suddenly God doesn’t look so intelligent.


PS I am so glad that I went to an Episcopalian school, science was taught in science class, and religion was taught in religion class. Period.

Andy said...

KH, you're falling into the theological trap of, "If I were God, I wouldn't..."

You're assuming that the appendix is a flaw in our design because people die from it. Therefore, following your logic to its end, a perfect design would be immortal. This follows the same dangerous thinking that says, "If there really were a God, bad things wouldn't happen."

We cannot see God's full purpose now, and it's not our place to fault Him for doing what we would not, given that He knows all ends and we don't.