The Wall Street Journal recently hosted an exchange of essays on the subject of evolution and God. The participants: Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong. Here’s your first question: Which of them wrote this:
Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.
That was Armstrong. Looks like it’s going to be a long day for God.
That was her first paragraph. Here’s the second:
But Darwin may have done religion–and God–a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped–even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.
This indescribable transcendence to which the symbol “God” points, did it create the universe or not? If it did, then it sounds pretty similar to traditional notions of God. If it did not, then I would like to know in what sense it merits the label “God.”
I’m sure Armstrong would agree that for most people, at least in the United States, the term “God” refers to a an agent of awesome ability and intelligence that created the universe with an act of His will. Which part of that view specifically is being derided as unsophisticated? If I’m understanding her correctly the unsophisticated part comes in thinking that the existence of such an entity is the sort of thing for which you can collect evidence or reason about.
It is clear from her first paragraph that she thinks that certain common conceptions of God can be effectively ruled out by a consideration of nature. But I’m sure she is aware of people like Ken Miller or Francis Collins who would strongly disagree with her opening words. When they make their arguments for why the cruelty and waste of the evolutionary process is not a good reason to abandon traditional notions of God, are they in the grip of a hopelessly unsophisticated view of God and theology?
I’d also like to know more about these spiritual exercises that are said to point us towards an indescribable transcendence. Do these exercises have the same effect on everyone who practices them? Or is it only some people who are led to intuit from them an underlying indescribable transcendence? If the indescribable transcendence can only be intuited by first placing yourself in a suggestive state of mind, then perhaps these spiritual exercises are simply telling us something about the brain, and are not telling us anything about worlds beyond the physical.
Here’s an interesting paragraph:
But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.
Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence? That’s great! Guess we should put him right up there with Galois for showing there could be no general formula for finding the roots of a fifth degree polynomial. Reconsider that sentence in light of the fact that Armstrong is the one throwing around charges about who is and is not being sophisticated.
As for this constant derision for the idea of a scientific religion, I’m afraid I see nothing unsophisticated in the idea of wanting to have evidence for the things you believe. What could be more reasonable than to think that the existence of a loving God ought to be reflected in some clear way in the works He created? Paley’s work was an admirable attempt to draw reasonable inferences from nature, and his arguments were compelling and deserving of serious attention. They were only undone when new facts came to light several decades later, not when theologians managed to pinpoint a fundamental flaw in his whole approach.
Armstrong goes on like this for many more paragraphs. In the end she reminds me of John Shelby Spong. (She contributed a cover endorsement to Spong’s manifesto Why Christianity Must Change or Die, which argued for a version of Christianity which, shall we say, was very theologically liberal).
I agree with much of what she says about science making traditional notions of God seem untenable, or about the perils of using religion to make statements about the natural world. If this were an accurate description of how religion were generally practiced:
The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences–and has helped me to appreciate — when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.
I still would want no part of it, but I certainly would not worry so much about people who did.
In the end I do not see what is gained by taking something as simple and beautiful as awe at the workings of nature and our place within them, and glopping it up with talk of God and religion and indescribable transcendence. The headline of her essay is “Karen Armstrong says we need God to grasp the wonder of our existence.” I’m afraid I simply fail to see how her vague, evidence-free indescribable transcendence brings clarity to anything at all. What do I grasp by hypothesizing such a thing that I did not grasp before?
As for Dawkins, I rather liked his conclusion:
Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”
Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.
Unsurprisingly, I mostly liked Dawkins’ essay. Still, I do have two small criticisms. The first is that I wish he would stop writing things like this:
Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex–statistically improbable –and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe–the miracle-free zone that is physics.
Terms like “statistically improbable” do not have much use when you are discussing notions of God. If you are talking about configurations of atoms I can see some merit in saying that configurations corresponding to life and intelligence are far too improbable to be explained by random collisions or what not. But phrasing things in this way opens him up to the charge that he is treating God like just another natural entity, when theology does not treat Him that way.
There is also this:
Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip.
Armstrong seems to accept this sort of thinking as well. Which is strange, since there is a standard response to it. Of course there is something left for God to do after you accept evolution. Someone had to set up the initial conditions to make evolution and life possible. No small feat. Evolution simply pushes Paley-like reasoning back one step.
It would be difficult to address this point in detail given the space restrictions under which they were working. But it still should have been possible to acknowledge the argument.
At any rate, both essays are worth reading, and there is much more beyond what I have quoted. Go have a look.