I once sat across the table from Alex Rosenberg, a well known philosopher, who argued persuasively that one cannot be both a Christian and accept natural selection. I think Alex intended this as a reductio for Christianity, as natural selection is both true by definition and also observed in the real world. Is it correct?
The recent Frame Wars (which followed the Clone Wars) suggest this is really what’s at issue in the Expelled case (Yes, I said I wouldn’t post on it, but this is broader than that kerfuffle). Is accepting evolution going to make nasty atheists of us all?
Let’s think of reasons why it might:
1. If natural selection (NS) is correct, then Providence is out the window. Since NS relies on random variation, and (as Darwin argued forcefully) it is not likely that God would be directly responsible for the variants (we’d call them mutants) that might one day serve the interests of humans breeding pigeons, by analogy NS is unlikely to be squareable with Providence.
2. NS is incredibly wasteful – and many, if not most, organisms die horrible deaths in the process. Even the successful animals often die from the strain of being the alpha male in a herd, and so on.
3. Evolution forces immoral conclusions – it is OK to kill if you get better fitness as a result, and so on.
Now whether you think these claims have force or not, and I don’t, for a Christian, they are what people usually put forward as reasons not to “believe” evolution (as if facts were something you could “believe” in or not at will). In particular what I call the Epicurean Objection is very common – if all this is true, then God, or the gods, simply do not care very much for us. Shit happens, and the deities are off contemplating imaginary numbers while it does (this is very close to Epicurus’ actual view – he was no atheist, but a distant deist).
Since the raîson d’etre of the Christian deity is that He is directly involved in everything, this is contradictory. One might be an Epicurean theist and accept NS; not a Christian.
So there are two horns of a dilemma here. On the one hand, NS is observed. It’s a fact, Jack. If you want a reasonable faith that deals with the real world, get over it. But on the other hand, it runs counter to the providential loving intimate deity of Christianity. One might get away with a Tillichian deity that is the “ground of being”, but not a deity that suffers not the birds of the field to fall without concern. Points one and two are correct. Point three, an argument from consequences, is not compelling, or at any rate no more compelling that the more general Argument from Evil. If you find that compelling, then this is; if not, then not. Theodicial arguments (that justify God’s ways to Man, as Houseman said) are no harder because of NS than they were before it.
And yet… I know such Christians. I know folk who understand evolutionary biology, in some cases better than I do, who also know their theological tradition well, and who do not resile from either. It’s a hard balancing act, and not for everyone (most Christians take both their science and their theology on trust, a form of faith known as fides) but they manage it. Or do they? Are they just compartmentalising incompatible ideas?
As one who is now well out of the faith community and traditions of religious beliefs, I cannot say for sure. It seems to me that NS poses no logical difficulties that, say, the universal law of gravitation doesn’t, psychological force notwithstanding. If God is not challenged by the natural process of universal attraction, why should He be challenged by the logically necessary principle of NS? In fact, that is an analogy made directly by Darwin. The problem here is a deeper one than mere evolution, philosophically. Is God constrained by, or need to be the underlying causal agent of, the physical world? Whatever answer you give to that is going to be true of NS and gravitation. It seems to me that if an intelligent and educated theist can answer in a way that does justice to both the science and the theology, then they are no worse off because of NS.
I think that nobody is purely rational, not even cephalodesque Elder Deities that eat creationists at movie premieres. So I am unable to say that my theist friends are compartmentalising their beliefs any more than, say, I do when I contemplate quantum mechanics and hold to a classical view of causation at the macro level. But there is a problem with Providence, taken literally. If God wants so many organisms to die horribly, or refuses to act to resolve it (Fall or no Fall) then He is not a providential deity. So maybe Providence has some other meaning. Not for me to say. Good luck to those trying to come to an accommodation. I merely point out that formally NS is not a special problem for theists – reality is.
The other well-known objection to evolution, based on biblical literalism, is a non-starter. Nobody is truly a biblical literalist or they’d think the universe was shaped like a tent or a dome with a brassy sky. Not even the weirdest literalists think that, or if they do, they aren’t admitting it in public. If you can deal with the fact of an old earth and universe, stellar evolution, and descent with modification, then you have some answer to what the Fall might be in terms that are coherent with science, and I have no objections to your beliefs. Personally, I think it is on a par with Mormon cosmology and other religiously based etiologies, but I think none the less of you so long as you accept the facts and don’t try to make me or the children of others believe what you do. It’s a hard place to be in, I guess. Faith often leads to hard places. I hope you manage to balance it.
But for now I will say that I think one can be both a Christian and accept the facts of biology, in ways I can’t understand. Alex assumes a view of rationality that excludes everybody from being rational, and so a tu quoque applies in reverse. I don’t. There’s a sort of bargain to be made, rationally, of a kind that we all have to make at one point or another, and theists are in no worse a situation than anyone else in my view. But the problem is there. Have at it.