A while back I engaged in an exchange of blog posts with paleontologist Robert Asher. It started with an essay Asher wrote for HuffPo, extolling the virtues of reconciling science and religion. I felt his arguments were insufficient, and said so in this post. Asher eventually replied. I felt his arguments were still insufficient, so I replied again.
During the exchange, Asher suggested it was unfair of me to criticize him for not addressing various theological issues, since he was only writing a short essay. I thought that was reasonable, so I suggested we exchange books. I sent him a copy of Among the Creationists, and he sent me a copy of his book Evolution and Belief. I have now read his book, and what follows is my review.
Most of the book is about science, and substantively this material is very good. When you read descriptions of actual paleontological research, you come to realize the utter absurdity of what creationists say about it. Unfortunately, much of the material is very technical and jargon-filled, which makes for some pretty heavy reading. For large swaths I thought I was reading a textbook.
It’s mostly the first two chapters where he addresses questions about religion, and I shall focus on those. Now, the first question to ask of any book claiming to reconcile science and religion is, “What sort of religion are we talking about?” Even if we confine ourselves just to Christianity, there is quite a spectrum to consider. The sort of religion promoted by the young-Earthers is obviously incompatible with science, but they don’t get to define Christianity for everyone. By contrast, the very liberal versions promoted by people like John Shelby Spong can easily be reconciled with science, but only at the cost of discarding almost every major point of Christian theology. Go that route if you wish, but some will complain that you are thereby left with a version of Christianity that is scarcely distinguishable from secular humanism. The really interesting discussion takes place between those extremes.
So where on the spectrum does Asher fall? Well, here’s the book’s opening sentence: “I believe in God; therefore I’m religious.” That’s pretty stark, but that’s not a definition of “religious” that most people would accept. Belief in God might be a necessary condition for being considered religious, but it is hardly sufficient. AT this point you might suspect that Asher is pretty close to the John Shelby Spong end of the spectrum, and you would be right.
Let’s pan back a bit and look at the book’s first paragraph:
I believe in God, therefore I’m religious. My father is Jewish, my mother Christian, and I was raised in a Presbyterian church in western New York state, USA. At present, I often go to Anglican church services (or “Evensong”) at various colleges within my university, and the music is excellent. I’m not a fundamentalist or evangelical of any denomination, and I do not believe that every word in the Bible is an unfiltered indication of His Divine Will. However, for all it’s human-caused mistakes, I believe the Bible has a lot going for it. It encourages humility and love, and it asks you to recognize your imperfections, put the needs of others ahead of your own, and as a general rule, treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. In my own intuitive, unscientific way, I think this core message is divinely inspired.
I won’t dwell on the fact that Asher is cherry-picking the Bible to an absurd degree. The Bible has quite a lot of nasty bits, after all. Instead, I would point to how casual he is about discussing some pretty weighty issues. To judge from Asher’s usage, to say that a message is “divinely inspired” just means that he likes the message. But it means something far more than that to people who are worried about the corrosive effect of evolution on their religious beliefs, which is Asher’s target audience. And I would certainly agree that if all you want from your church services is good music, then you have nothing to fear from evolution. Likewise, people who take seriously notions like Biblical inerrancy are not going to take kindly to someone saying flippantly that the Bible “has a lot going for it.”
Indeed, Asher’s defense of religion consists, in its entirety, of the assertion that science cannot prove that there’s no intelligent agent behind the laws of nature. Original sin? He never mentions it. The Problem of Evil? Nope. The existence of a soul as anything more than a metaphor? Crickets. You will search the index in vain for any mention of these topics. These are some of the major sticking points for religious people worried about evolution, but Asher has nothing to say about any of them.
Do you think I’m exaggerating? Then consider this, from the book’s conclusion:
As long as a given religion does not insist on a scripturally literal, anthropocentric, or otherwise superstitious form of natural action, whether it’s stars perched upon a metal firmament, a geologically young Earth, or a god who wills biology into existence without a mechanism, and as long as science recognizes its inherent limitations within the domain of human perception and rationality, this view of God as the agency underpinning natural cause means that science and religion are compatible. (229)
Really? That’s all it takes to see science and religion as compatible? What if the natural causes you have in mind are such that they conflict with the nature of God as Christianity has traditionally taught? (A process as savage and brutal as evolution by natural selection does not seem like the sort of thing a loving God would set in motion). And what if some aspects of scriptural literalism are so intertwined with the religion’s teachings that they cannot so easily be let go? (Science has shown the story of Adam and Eve to be false, but this story is intimately tied to the need for Jesus’ sacrifice.)
Many Christian writers have addressed these points, of course. I don’t think much of their arguments, but at least they recognize the magnitude of the problem. Asher is making life much too easy for himself by taking so narrow a definition of religion.
Need more? Here’s what Asher says about Jesus:
However, does this enable me to believe in an actual human being born of a virgin? No, it does not — at least not in a biological sense, which is how most people understand this question and how, therefore, I should answer it. Female humans do not give birth unless they have been inseminated. As He was a human being, I infer based on what I know of biology that Christ would have developed in His mother’s womb, from zygote to morula to embryo to fetus. … Everything that I understand about human biology indicates that He [Jesus], too, had a biological father. There is no doubt, however, that this father was perceived as divine by his followers. As a human being, of course Christ had a biological father; it is not rational to believe otherwise. Personally, however, I really do believe that father and son were inspired individuals worthy of the impressive documentation with which their legacy has been recorded. (24-25)
Small wonder he goes on to say, “Indeed, much of the text in this chapter disqualifies me as a theistic Christian by most evangelical standards.” Not just by evangelical standards, I would add, but by any but the most liberal definitions of Christianity.
Now, my point in belaboring this is not to belittle what Asher believes. Personally, I don’t see why it’s not rational to believe on the basis of science that Jesus was born of a virgin, but it is rational to believe that an awesome supernatural intelligence established the whole system of natural laws that science studies. I would say that both beliefs are irrational, since there is no good evidence to support either one, but if Asher disagrees that’s his prerogative.
I feel compelled to discuss this at such length, though, because Asher seems to believe that he has made a serious contribution to the discussion about science and religion. He gives pompous little lectures like this:
This doesn’t mean that people like Jerry Coyne should feign admiration or respect for what he regards as superstition. However, it does mean that if he wants to make a positive difference in the public discourse about evolution, a scientist like him … has to reach out to people where they are, not where he thinks they should be. (xxii)
But actually it is Asher who is failing to reach out to people where they are. He’s the one pretending that his massively watered-down version of Christianity will be sufficient for people worried about evolution. When they read Asher’s book and discover that science makes it not rational to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, they are not going to find their worries relieved. They will, instead, find them confirmed.
Absolutely no one denies the bare possibility of an intelligent designer behind the laws of nature. Not Jerry Coyne, not Richard Dawkins, not anyone. Here’s Daniel Dennett, no shrinking violet in the science/religion discussion, making the point explicitly (from Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, which is a debate between Dennett and Alvin Plantinga):
So I agree that contemporary evolutionary theory can’t demonstrate the absence of intelligent design, and any biologist who insists that we can is overstating the case. But Plantinga must deal with the implications of one sentence in the passage above: “Prehistoric fiddling by intergalactic visitors with the DNA of earthly species cannot be ruled out, except on grounds that it is an entirely gratuitous fantasy (emphasis added). Now we might draw the debate to a close right here. I could happily concede that anybody who wishes to entertain the fantasy that intelligent designers from another galaxy (or another dimension) fiddled with our evolutionary prehistory, or salted Earth with life forms, or even arranged for the constants of physics to take on their particular “local” values will find their fantasy consistent with contemporary evolutionary biology. (27)
So Asher goes on at length about a point no one denies, and simply ignores the real issues that people are discussing about science and religion.
There’s much more to say about Asher’s argument. He presents some quotations from people that he thinks show them ruling out the possibility of an intelligent agent behind it all, but none of the quotes say what he seems to think they say. He makes some very dubious statements about the ability of science to detect intelligent agency, and, as I discussed in my previous posts on this subject, he mischaracterizes some of the arguments of the ID folks (though he is admirably clear that the scientific claims of the ID folks have no merit). Perhaps I will devote a subsequent blog post to some of those issues as well, but this one has already gone on too long.
So read Asher’s book for his interesting discussions of paleontology and other scientific subjects. But if you are looking for anything insightful or novel about science and religion, you are likely to be disappointed.