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.

Shermer begins:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew Wade
    September 28, 2006

    Jason Rosenhouse,

    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.

    Um, no. That is a depressingly common model of human nature in Christianity, but it is not “the” model.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    September 28, 2006

    The fifth point is the worst, in my mind.

    The “invisible hand” of the market is a gross oversimplification that only finds currency now of days in libertarian circles. Modern day economics recognizes a complex set of relationships involving public goods, externalities, monopolies and oligopolies and other market failures. There is a great deal of centralized and “top-down” organization in all of the modern day industrial economies, and none have ever conformed to the laissez-faire fantasies of classical economists like Ricardo and Marshall. In addition, most economists recognize far more complex levels of social interaction than the atomistic homo economicus model that Shermer appears to endorse.

    And probably the worst part about the argument is that, even if we overlooked the above, it’s no a good argument. To say that X operates in a similar fashion to Y doesn’t mean that X validates Y.

    I’m disappointed, I usually get better writing from Shermer.

  3. #3 The Ridger, FCD
    September 28, 2006

    That was the most awkward thing I’ve ever read by Shermer. I hadn’t considered that it was a joke – that might redeem it somewhat. But committed conservative Christians are not going to accept evolution because it’s pitched to them like this: as a replacement for, and foundation of, their god. The article was, if serious, just … bizarre.

  4. #4 David Heddle
    September 28, 2006

    Jason,

    I won’t bother getting into another argument about how the bible can be reconciled with an old earth without doing violence to the text–because we’ve had that argument several times and I have no strength to go there again. I’ll just nit pick one point. You wrote:

    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

    This is not so, we are not utterly evil–most people are reasonably “good citizens” and even the most evil person (take your pick) could have committed even more heinous acts. The Christian model of human nature is more properly stated this way: fallen man has a moral inability to please God. Or, as Augustine put it, fallen man can not choose not to sin. This, however, is not the same as “utterly evil.”

    This [Shermer’s article] is an absurdly bad piece of analysis–almost to the point where it reads like a parody.

  5. #5 Alejandro
    September 29, 2006

    Either way, if you reject the story of Adam and Eve you also reject the whole notion of original sin.

    I’m no Christian, much less a theologian, but given that large portions of Christianity (including the Catholic Church) reject the story of Adam and Eve as literal but believe in original sin, what you are saying here cannot be right. Perhaps you mean that they ought rationally to reject it? But surely they can build up an allegorical interpretation which satisfies them and the criteria of rationality of their field. You and I may regard theology as a game with no relation to reality, but it is still a game played according to internal rules (even if those rules are too far removed from those of science that we don’t grant them the name “rationality”, we may say at least that arguments and consistency checks play some part in it). And presumably its practitioners are more skilled at applying those rules than outsiders like us, so it seems presumptuous to me to say that they are not being consistent in their interpretations.

    This criticism applies to your more general and often stated point that fundamentalism is more “rational” or “consistent” than non-literalistic, conciliatory-with-science theology. I don’t think that someone who has not studied theology nor the rules by which it is “played” and sees it all like a huge fantasy can make such a statement. We atheists may dispute directly the arguments that purportedly prove the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus; but it is not our business to tell teologists how to best reconcile beliefs that we do not wish to share. However, on purely pragmatical grounds, we should welcome and foster, or at least not shoot down, non-fundamentalistic and science-friendly versions of religion; something your position is not very helpful at.

    (But I agree with you that Shermer’s piece is quite bad. The free-market thing is in particular ridiculous. Evolution shows that an order can arise from a “free natural competition” scenario, but it does not imply that the order that arises is an ethically desirable one. In the free market of evolution unfit individuals die and unfit species become extinct; we might not want the analogues of these things to happen in our society.)

  6. #6 Richard Wein
    September 29, 2006

    I hope Jason is right about this being a spoof, because otherwise it’s awful. Point 6 (“Evolution explains conservative free-market economics”) is drivel worthy of a creationist.

    Of course, the real reason why Christians and conservatives (and everyone else) should accept evolution is because it’s overwhelmingly indicated by the evidence.

  7. #7 Richard Wein
    September 29, 2006

    Hmmm… I just noticed Shermer’s use of the word “designed” in the sentence “Both are designed from the bottom up, not the top down.” To me this strongly suggests that Shermer either is pulling our legs or was stoned at the time he wrote this!

  8. #8 Corkscrew
    September 29, 2006

    The difference it makes is that the Bible lays out a clear sequence of events for the creation of the Earth.

    Two complete sequences, surely?

  9. #9 SLC
    September 29, 2006

    The similarity between Adam Smiths’ economic theories and Darwins’ theory of evolution was poorly addressed by Shermer. The real similarity is the concept of survival of the fittest. In Darwinian evolution, the species that can adapt to changing environments most readily leaves the most decendents and survives. The species unable to adapt goes extinct. In Smithian economics, the business entities that can adapt most readily to changing market forces survive and prosper, those entities unable to adapt go out of business.

  10. #10 GH
    September 29, 2006

    won’t bother getting into another argument about how the bible can be reconciled with an old earth without doing violence to the text–because we’ve had that argument several times and I have no strength to go there again

    Even before I looked at the comments I knew Heddle would be down here dropping, well, droppings. ‘Without doing violence to the text’ is quite poetic.

    The entire day = age argument is such a loser. I once held the age position myself but kept finding it coming up empty. A rationalization that simply didn’t seem honest on any level. The writer clearly had no concept of ‘ages’ and was speaking in the knowledge of what he knew days starting and ending.

    But surely they can build up an allegorical interpretation which satisfies them and the criteria of rationality of their field

    Not without alot of rationalization. But I agree with your general premise that anyone who believes anything can make it fit with anything and as long as they are happy it is no problem for me.

    non-fundamentalistic and science-friendly versions of religion; something your position is not very helpful at.

    I do think the fundies are much more consistent and can appreciate their position. I think they are wrong but I do find them consistent.

    We atheists may dispute directly the arguments that purportedly prove the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus; but it is not our business to tell teologists how to best reconcile beliefs that we do not wish to share.

    If it is brought into public discussion it is fair game for discussion. Once one proves the existence of a deity be it Zeus, Allah, or whomever then the discussion can proceed from there. This of course excludes Fideism.

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 29, 2006

    Andrew and David-

    According to Christian teaching, we are born in to the world in a state of sin so severe that eternal damnation is the punishment we rightfully deserve. No act of will can allow us to overcome our sinful nature. Instead, we can only recognize our need for a Savior and accept God’s free gift of salvation; a gift we do not deserve and can not earn. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that our best works are as “filthy rags” to God. In light of this, I really don’t think my characterization of human nature as “utterly evil” is out of line.

    Alejandro-

    I believe you are mistaken about the views of the Catholic Church. For example, in paragraph 404 of the Catechism we find the following:

    How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”. By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.

    This is exactly what I described in my initial post. “Original Sin” can refer either to the specific act of Adam and Eve, or to the blot on human nature we all inherit as a result of that sin. I suppose you can remove Adam and Eve from the picture altogether and still retain some sort of metaphorical meaning for the term “original sin” but I’m pretty sure that what I described is the way most Christians view the matter.

    I would also respectfully point out that I’ve read quite a lot of works by Christian theologians. My current view that Christian theology is a lot of hooey was the result of that reading, not my premise going into it. I also find very little in the way of rules that govern the way theologians approach their work. I tend to agree with Richard Dawkins’ implication when he asked in frustration how one goes about distinguishing good theology from bad theology.

  12. #12 Steve
    October 11, 2006

    There’s a flaw with point #6, free economics isn’t just about survival, its about thriving. All other creatures on this earth do work to survive, but man goes beyond survival and aims for pleasure and fulfillment. If we simply evolved, wouldn’t we still be aiming just for survival?

  13. #13 Tomas
    October 17, 2006

    Actually, in terms of using evolutionary arguments in Economics you do not arrive at the conclusion that we are libing in the best of all worlds in a hypothetical market economy.

    And to keep apealing to Smith is annoying as the ultimate garrant for the benevolence of the free market is annoying. He was a very interesting thinker, but the subject has move for the last 200+ years.

    Just goes to show that the general point on this blog that people shouldnt publish stuff about stuff they honestly dont know anything.

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