Philosopher John Wilkins has responded to yesterday’s post about conflicts between evolution and religion. Sadly, he so grossly distorts what I said that I don’t think he has replied very effectively.
John quotes only a single short excerpt from my lengthy post:
So, after all, that, let us return to Plait’s argument. He tells us that the problem is too many people perceiving evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. Indeed, but why do they perceive it that way? Is it a failure of messaging on the part of scientists? Is it because Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers make snide remarks about religion? No, those are not the reasons.
It is because these people have noticed all the same problems the scholars of Darwin’s time were writing about. It is because evolution really does conflict with their religious beliefs, but not because of an overly idiosyncratic interpretation of one part of the Bible. It is because the version of evolution that so worried the religious scholars of Darwin’s time, that of a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought, is precisely the version that has triumphed among modern scientists. And it is because the objections raised to that version of evolution in the nineteenth century have not lost any of their force today.
After a lengthy discussion, he passes judgement on what I said:
This is very like what Darwin said in the Variation: science addresses how things occur by natural law, not by God’s direct intervention. And note that this rather modern view is seven centuries before the Origin. So it is at best rather anachronistic to assert that “religion” could not adopt evolution, when the intellectual resources were not only there in theology, but were in fact the “default” opinion even since the “One Truth doctrine” had been asserted against the Occasionalists and Averroes in the middle ages. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous for Jason and Larry to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. The use of this notion has even become the standard Catholic approach to the issue. (Italics in original).
“Larry” refers to Larry Moran, who quoted me favorably in his own post on this subject.
John says it is disingenuous of me to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. But not only did I assert no such thing, I didn’t even say anything that could plausibly be misinterpreted to mean that.
Go look again at the part of my post that Wilkins quoted. How could I have been more clear that I was not talking about religion or religious people in general, but was instead talking specifically about those people who do have religious objections to evolution? And where did I say anything about necessary contradictions? I referred to “conflicts” between their religious beliefs and evolution. A conflict is not at all the same thing as a contradiction, and my reference to “their” religious beliefs makes it very clear that I was not making any kind of universal statement about religion in general.
In the post I was responding to, Phil Plait said this:
The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs.
But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true.
My point was that this is flatly untrue. If you were uncertain that this was my point, I invite you to reread the title of the post. There are many people who are not fundamentalists who nonetheless have specifically religious problems with evolution. I think this is important, because it shows that people like Plait just completely misunderstand the nature of the problem. When he suggests that scientists only need to change their messaging, and that we just need to tell people that no one but hardcore fundamentalists has a problem with evolution, he simply is not taking seriously the actual objections that actual people actually raise.
Far from refuting anything I said, John’s post is a good illustration of my point. He devotes much of his post to a highly abstract and academic discussion about the difference between primary and secondary causes noting, correctly but trivially, that there is nothing anti-religious in suggesting that God might achieve his ends through secondary causes. But who said otherwise, and what does that have to do with any of the conflicts I raised? The issue isn’t secondary causes in the abstract, but the specific secondary cause of Darwinian natural selection. The issue isn’t whether God could, in principle, employ secondary causes. It is whether Darwinian natural selection specifically is the sort of cause He would employ.
I invite John to go to an ID conference, lecture the attendees about different types of causation, and then see how far he gets. His audience will inform him that he is not even addressing anything they care about.
It gets worse. Though I find it incredible, John actually wrote this:
It is true that much of the debate about Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century was focused on God’s agency and purpose. However, usually the folk doing the debating were public intellectuals rather than theologians. Often they defended a theological perspective that was at best questionable even within their own tradition (as Dewey said, we do not solve philosophical problems, we get over them. This is uneven and cyclical even within a doctrinal community).
He just made that up. Just to stick to the people I specifically quoted, Charles Hodge cannot be dismissed as a mere public intellectual. He was one of the most prominent theologians of his time, and he surely understood the difference between primary and secondary causation. The objections he raised in What is Darwinism? cannot be refuted with John’s preferred style of abstract handwaving. Moreover, his views were all but unanimously held by Protestant intellectuals of the time, as noted in the statement I quoted from historian Frederick Gregory. The view of virtually all Catholic authorities of the time were along similar lines. And most of the contributors to The Fundamentals were prominent scholars. They cannot be dismissed as casually as John would like.
In the final section of his post, John asks:
So when we read this comment by Jason, I am left wondering what the reference class of the term “religion” is for him and Larry, and others.
He then lectures me about the different forms of religion:
To aver that religion is necessarily opposed to evolutionary theory, when there are so many instances of it not being, is a category error. Jason and Larry might reject the idea that this view is “religion” as they understand it. That would be to put the folk definition in a privileged position, when even the scientists who study the phenomenon do not. But allow that these philosophically minded views are part of religion, at least historically, and you find the claim untenable.
What we need to do is to specify the degree of religion that finds evolution impossible to reconcile with belief, for there surely is some, and a lot of it. I think of a particular religion as a series of concentric circles. At the most broad, one’s religion is label and a set of rituals (including statements of belief) that includes anything that falls under that rubric. “Christian” includes folk beliefs in demons and spirits as well as theologically refined views like Drummond’s or Aquinas’. But folk religion is rarely what the more educated people think, and so the superstitions of religion fall away as you move inwards. The average educated believer knows that somehow religion and evolution are not at odds, but they probably do not know how, and take it on faith the two are consistent. More refined thinkers find ways to reconcile the secondary causation of science and the primary causation of God. A few theologians, not all by any means, give the arguments; the extent of their approach is restricted, but logically coherent.
But there is no need to speculate about how I understand the term “religion” in this context. This is something I have written about so often and at such length, that I’m not sure how John missed it. For example, in this post I wrote:
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.
Do I not have reason to feel John has misrepresented me?
Most of John’s argument here, though, is just so much condescending twaddle. The mind reels at the arrogance of suggesting that the community of Christians can be divided into those who adhere to folk notions about demons and spirits on the one hand, and the educated folks who understand, if only at an intuitive level, that evolution does not conflict with Christianity. There’s a reason that scholars have to write at book length in their attempts to defuse all the points of conflict between evolution and Christianity. The many, many people who simply find their arguments unpersuasive cannot be honestly dismissed as just uneducated folk religionists.
Let me close by noting how I summarized my views at the end of Among the Creationists. (The reference to “Ruse’s question” is to the title of his book Can a Darwininan Be a Christian?)
Though I have made my own sympathies perfectly clear, I do not propose to give a definitive answer to Ruse’s question. Instead I ask simply that we recognize it as a matter of opinion and not of fact. How you answer depends on what you believe is central to Christian faith and on what you consider it plausible to believe.
Ruse continued with, “Is the Darwinian obligated to be a Christian? No, but try to be understanding of those who are.” I would ask that the same understanding be extended to those who find the reconciliation too difficult to manage. Once you have acknowledged that evolution forces a profound rethinking of traditional faith — and how can you not? — why is it unreasonable to conclude our reappraisal with the finding that one of the two systems must simply give way?
There can be no question that John has attributed to me a view I have specifically abjured on many occasions, and which I came nowhere near expressing in the post under discussion. He owes me an apology.
Worse, though, is that his entire argument suffers from the ivory tower pomposity that so often afflicts discussions of this topic. His arguments are completely divorced from the concerns of actual people, and his tone is incredibly condescending towards anyone not up on the latest developments in professional theology.