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God or Nature?

by Grant Bartley

This would have been a big year for Darwin, if he had been fit enough to survive this long. The intellectual fact of 2009 is that it’s Darwin’s bicentenary (February 12th), and the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection (November 24th). In this issue we explore some of the philosophical fallout of Darwin’s thought explosion, including a featurette on evolutionary ethics and a focus on some of Darwin’s intellectual disciples, notably Spencer, Huxley and Dewey. But let me comment briefly on the religious vs science debate.

Many atheists will celebrate the current Darwin promotion as further evidence of the evolution of society away from a primitive abyss of reasonless superstition. This deduction would be premature. In a recent ‘Question of the Month’ competition (Issue 67) we asked: ‘Is there a God?’ The answers from our well-educated and presumably scientifically-aware readers were basically, Yes 52%, No, 31% and Don’t Know 17% – an overall majority for God. This response from a small and self-selected sample is hardly a scientific survey of reader opinion, but it may reflect a general truth that many people believe in evolution while also believing in a God. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are irrational. We may no longer require a divine Designer to explain how we came to be here (what Aristotle would have called an ‘efficient cause’). Evolutionary theory suggests that all that is needed are the right physical conditions and lots of time. But the competition entries gave other reasons for a belief in God, many having to do with purpose (purpose being the ‘teleological cause’ in Aristotle’s scheme of types of explanation). Mary Midgley argues for purpose as part of evolution. Furthermore, it does seem coherent to imagine a Creator creating the world in such detail that specific quantum events manifest just those mutations by which natural selection led precisely to us. For such reasons God is not vanquished simply by the establishment of evolutionary theory. Acceptance of an evolutionary timescale could even mean a larger perspective on God’s designs.

Such unsanctioned expansions of perception are precisely the sort of growth religions seem to resist. Thus to the other side of the debate: why do creationists so vehemently resist the theory of evolution? Why is it important to them that God dictated the Bible? Is it merely a question of authority?

The authority of a religious hierarchy evidently rests on its claim to know what its god thinks, and to represent its god’s thinking. Yet a claim to authority becomes increasingly untenable the more the alleged source of knowledge comes under reasonable criticism by people who prefer a different authority – in the present case, the Bible and the church’s interpretation of it by people who prefer the authority of science. The Inquisition knew this when it attempted to repress Galileo. Archaeologically-reconstructed natural history is violently incompatible with the literal meaning of the creation stories in Genesis (did you know there are two versions?). For example, in Genesis 1, the plants are created before the sun and the moon (!), and the birds before large land creatures. Imaginative theologians might reinterpret the text in modern cosmological terms, but the fact that such attempts are not loudly proclaimed from evangelical HQ suggests a resolutely secured mind-set: an intellectual siege mentality.

I sometimes used to think ‘infallibility’ was a question of control; but now I think that for the evangelical in the pew it’s more about security. If it is no longer obvious how, or even that, the Biblical text is to be taken as the guaranteed words of God, uncertainty is introduced – whereas certainty is what gives you peace of mind. How can you now be sure what God thinks? One way to slice through this paradox is to cling to literal infallibility.

One nagging question when faced with textual uncertainty is ‘How could God lie?’ The furthest visible heavenly objects, quasars, are of the order of ten billion light years away (and light itself provides our standard for time). Since we can see them, it follows that the universe looks at least ten billion years old, rather than the six thousand or so claimed by creationists. A creationist may respond that God created the universe just to appear very old (this is sometimes said about fossils). But this would be God lying too – systematically, and on a vast scale. In this case, would God be morally any better than Descartes’ all-deceiving evil demon? So rather than denying the overwhelming evidence, maybe a more nuanced understanding of the word ‘Inspired’ would be a wiser project for the spiritually inclined. Heaven forbid?

The inescapable conclusion from the history of ideas is that how we think about biology will be very different in another hundred and fifty years (Massimo Pigliucci offers a summary of the evolution of evolutionary theory so far); but Darwin currently appears to have the evidence overwhelmingly on his side. Equally evidently, what our natural history was is a different issue from the purpose of it – the implication being that the answer to the God question will not be found through evolutionary debate. I would argue that science ultimately cannot deal with questions of purpose, that is, of teleology, of the need to justify existence, because on the contrary, science’s field of study is the detail of the mechanism and material of the physical world. I believe that for many the answer to the question of a purpose for existing will instead spin on whether or not (and how) they think a God is credible given the pain, suffering and evil inescapable in the world.

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