Michael Shermer answers yes in his latest column for Scientific American. He conveniently organizes his arguments in a series of bullet points, and we will consider that momentarily.
Shermer gave me my big break in the evolution biz by publishing my reviews of Ken Miler’s Finding Drawin’s God and John Haught’s God After Darwin in Skeptic magazine. I’m usually a big fan of his writing. But in this case I’m afraid he is way off base. In fact, I have a nagging fear that he wrote this tongue-in-cheek, and that by writing a serious reply I am basically falling for a joke. Nonetheless, I will go ahead and assume he intends this seriously.
1. Evolution fits well with good theology. Christians believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God. What difference does it make when God created the universe–10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago? The glory of the creation commands reverence regardless of how many zeroes in the date. And what difference does it make how God created life–spoken word or natural forces? The grandeur of life’s complexity elicits awe regardless of what creative processes were employed. Christians (indeed, all faiths) should embrace modern science for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divine in a depth and detail unmatched by ancient texts.
The difference it makes is that the Bible lays out a clear sequence of events for the creation of the Earth. Modern science, evolution in particular, contradicts that sequence in almost every particular. And the Genesis account strongly implies that the Earth is on the order of thousands and not billions of years old. The difference it makes is that the Bible says God used the spoken word to work his will for the Earth. Accepting evolution requires that the Genesis account be taken with a huge pinch of salt. Many Christians are content to go that route, but they then find it difficult to explain their basis for deciding which parts of the Bible are reliable and which are not.
On top of that, the discovery that natural forces are adequate to explain how a relatively simple sort of life billions of years ago could turn into the complex life of today seriously damages the case for God. Sure, you can intepret our inability to find any sign of supernatural intervention in nature as evidence of God’s great wisdom and skill in creation. You can likewise attribute our inability to find elephants hiding in trees to the great skill with which they hide. The simpler explanation is that we find no sign of supernatural intervention because there was, in fact, no such intervention.
2. Creationism is bad theology. The watchmaker God of intelligent-design creationism is delimited to being a garage tinkerer piecing together life out of available parts. This God is just a genetic engineer slightly more advanced than we are. An omniscient and omnipotent God must be above such humanlike constraints. As Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote, “The Christian idea, far from merely representing a primitive anthropomorphic projection of human art upon the cosmos, systematically repudiates all direct analogy from human art.” Calling God a watchmaker is belittling.
I agree with the basic premise here, but there is a stronger reason why ID should be viewed as bad theology. It excerbates the problem of evil to an intolerable degree. If God is constantly tinkering with his creation to bring about good things like blood clotting cascades and immune systems, then he is equally responsible for all of the evil and suffering in the natural world. Interestingly, this is one of the main reasons fundamentalists don’t care for ID (they prefer to attribute the suffering in nature to the effects of human sin).
3. Evolution explains original sin and the Christian model of human nature. As a social primate, we evolved within-group amity and between-group enmity. By nature, then, we are cooperative and competitive, altruistic and selfish, greedy and generous, peaceful and bellicose; in short, good and evil. Moral codes and a society based on the rule of law are necessary to accentuate the positive and attenuate the negative sides of our evolved nature.
Yikes. That’s really bad. The Christian model of human nature is not that we are both good and evil. It is that human nature is utterly and irretrievably evil, and that there is not one single thing a person can do on his own to remedy that fact. And even taking Shermer’s point at face value I don’t see how it has anything to do with original sin. That term generally refers either to the specific sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or to the hereditary stain on humanity as a result of that sin. Either way, if you reject the story of Adam and Eve you also reject the whole notion of original sin.
4. Evolution explains family values. The following characteristics are the foundation of families and societies and are shared by humans and other social mammals: attachment and bonding, cooperation and reciprocity, sympathy and empathy, conflict resolution, community concern and reputation anxiety, and response to group social norms. As a social primate species, we evolved morality to enhance the survival of both family and community. Subsequently, religions designed moral codes based on our evolved moral natures.
I don’t think many Christians will be happy with the idea that it was “religions” that designed moral codes. Morality is supposed to be absolute and come from God. I suspect they would also balk at the idea that family values are things that need to be explained. Most of the things on Shermer’s list would be viewed as the products of our consciences, which in turn are gifts from God.
5. Evolution accounts for specific Christian moral precepts. Much of Christian morality has to do with human relationships, most notably truth telling and marital fidelity, because the violation of these principles causes a severe breakdown in trust, which is the foundation of family and community. Evolution describes how we developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. Likewise, truth telling is vital for trust in our society, so lying is a sin.
That rampant lying and serial adultery is something that breaks down trust and harms communities is hardly something you need evolution to explain. Nor do you need evolution to explain why it is generally a good thing for people to arrange themsleves into communities in the first place. And, frankly, I’m not aware of any widely accepted evolutionary explanation for how we developed into pair-bonded primates. Evolutionary psychologists might have some interesting thoughts on the matter, but as a pracitical matter it is rather difficult to unravel the evolutionary history of such things.
6. Evolution explains conservative free-market economics. Charles Darwin’s “natural selection” is precisely parallel to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of competition among individual organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of competition among individual people. Nature’s economy mirrors society’s economy. Both are designed from the bottom up, not the top down.
The analogy between natural selection and the invisible hand of the market is interesting, but I’d hardly call the two precisely parallel. More to the point however, I was not aware that an acceptance of free market economics was central to Christian faith. And if you are inclined to defend the merits of free markets, you would not turn to evolution for that purpose. Instead you would point out that free market societies are generally far more pleasant places to live than those arranged around other economic phiolosophies.
Shermer closes with the following:
Because the theory of evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, it should be embraced. The senseless conflict between science and religion must end now, or else, as the Book of Proverbs (11:29) warned: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”
But the conflict between science religion is not senseless. The conflict is real, and must be confronted squarely. It will not be made to go away via the sorts of facile arguments Shermer offers here. Personally, I don’t think it can be made to go away at all.
I realize, of course, that Shermer’s space was very limited in writing this column. But I really don’t think anything like what he is arguing here can be made to work.