Over at HuffPo, paleontologist Robert Asher serves up the standard cliches about reconciling science and religion:
For many theists, even if they would phrase it differently, “religion” requires a deity who leaves behind evidence in a similar fashion as a human being might do, like Santa Claus not finishing his cookies or a toga-clad Charlton Heston dispensing rules on stone tablets, capriciously ignoring his own natural laws. Many anti-theists agree: if God exists, “he” has to leave behind evidence in a human-like fashion. Notably, such a perspective is at the core of the so-called “intelligent design” movement, which claims to find evidence for clever intervention in biology, relegating what its adherents call “natural” and “random” to the profane.
This, alas, is complete caricature.
From the atheist side, absolutely no one is saying that God has to do anything. We simply observe that a God who works entirely through natural forces is hard to distinguish from no God at all. We ask for the evidence that God exists, and since nature fails so completely to provide that evidence we begin to suspect that maybe there is no God.
But Asher has also badly misstated the ID position. There, too, there are no assumptions being made about what God must have done. I am not aware of any ID proponents who say that if God exists it simply must be the case that He has left behind, tangible, scientific evidence of His presence. Instead the claim is simply that, as it happens, there are, indeed, certain biological facts whose only plausible explanation involves the intentions of an intelligent designer. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I regard that claim as hopelessly misguided, but the fact remains that it differs in important ways from Asher’s caricature.
He is also unfair to those theists who, he asserts, require that God leave evidence behind. This, I believe, fundamentally misunderstands the emotional force of the design argument. At one level the design argument is about proving God exists. But at another level it is about emphasizing God’s nearness in our day-to-day lives. A God who set the universe in motion billions of years ago and then let everything unfold by natural causes can seem too remote to satisfy the emotional cravings God is said to satisfy.
But why can’t a “designer” act through nature? In describing the natural mechanisms behind the evolution of the eye, Charles Darwin similarly asked “have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?” (Origin 1st edition, p. 188). The idea that divine agency has to resemble human agency, and that it is somehow deviant from nature, has been challenged for many years. For recent examples, see publications by (among others) my HuffPost blog-neighbors Ken Miller, Karl Giberson, and John Shelby Spong. Here is where we can identify the overlap between the secular “numinous” and religion, and try to answer the question “what’s left” posed above, hopefully turning a shouting match into a discussion.
This paragraph opens with more caricature. No one has a problem with the general idea that God can act through nature. But things get more complicated when we take into consideration the specifics of evolution. Since God is commonly said to love His creatures, we are certainly entitled to wonder why He would create through a process as cruel and savage as Darwinian natural selection. It is not plausible to suggest evolution as God’s means of creation, since the mechanics of evolution are at odds with the attributes God is believed to possess. If Asher wants to have a discussion, he might begin by being forthright about the magnitude of the problem.
Skipping to the end:
I believe in an agency behind the laws of nature, one which pervades but does not replace the mechanisms expressed in those laws. I understand that skeptics are reluctant to give credence to apologists who use such arguments as a prelude to more specific demands for superstition. Anti-theists can choose to reject the whole thing, to regard accommodation as surrender, but in so doing they’re throwing the blastula out with the bathwater. There is too much at stake in our (still) civil society to insist on the same anthropomorphic “god” who can only act like a giant Charlton Heston, prized by anti-theists and fundamentalists alike. But you don’t have to “insist”. You can leave dogmatism to talk radio and intransigence to the 112th US Congress, and consider what motivates those with whom you disagree. Accommodate, and society will be better for it.
Earlier in the essay Asher specifically mocked everyone who might think that God leaves behind evidence of His activities. Upon what, then, does he base his own belief that there is an agency behind nature? If the belief is based on some rational inference from the particulars of the laws themselves then I fail to see how his view differs substantially from the views he previously criticized. And if it is not a rational inference from some sort of evidence then why should we take the belief seriously?
I’d also like to know more about the agency in which Asher believes. This agency, did it create the world through an act of its will or not? If it did, then I fail to see how it is importantly different from the anthropomorphic God he criticizes. If it did not, then whatever it is, it surely is not the God who lies at the heart of the world’s religions.
There is nothing dogmatic in the atheist’s insistence that theists provide evidence for their beliefs, at least to the extent that they want other people to take their beliefs seriously. And there is nothing intransigent about theists reflecting carefully on evolution and concluding that grave conflicts exist between science and religion. Conflicts, mind you, not just with silly literalist religion but also with far more moderate forms as well. And we are, indeed, united in our belief that reasoned conversation is not furthered by first caricaturing the beliefs of those with whom you disagree, and then presenting yourself pompously as some sort of reasoned middle ground between two dogmatic extremes.