Karl Giberson is interviewed about the subject of his new book, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It looks interesting, in an aggravating sort of way, and it’s on my long list of books to read and use to put dents in my wall. The interview reminds me why I detest the rarefied apologetics of sympathetic theologians as much as I do the bleatings of the purblind literalists — neither one even notices the fundamental flaws in their core of belief.
Let me be nice first. Giberson does say a number of eminently sensible things — he’s a physicist by training, he has no brief for creationism at all, he might wish Intelligent Design were true but he sees it as a betrayal of the scientific enterprise. Don’t mistake him for your corner bible thumper! Here, for instance, is a good argument well spoken:
Wouldn’t that suggest that if God was involved in evolution that he had to tinker and give us consciousness?
No, because, here’s another mystery: Consciousness emerges in the development of an embryo. We have a fertilized egg and there’s no consciousness there, and it’s not that consciousness is present but is really small, it just isn’t there. And then, some months later, a baby is born, and child psychologists debate about exactly when self-awareness occurs, but at some point before the age of 3, you’ve got a conscious human being.
Now, God doesn’t have to step in to make consciousness occur, but something that we don’t understand at all is occurring. I don’t think it’s supernatural. I think that someday we may understand this. There’s something going on that when the neuronal networks reach a certain level of complexity, something appears that maybe is brand-new and that is consciousness. But that’s just a guess about how we’ll eventually be talking about that phenomenon.
That’s an argument I’ve used before, but I can see stealing that for the conciseness. Giberson also doesn’t make the mistake of demonizing atheists as amoral monsters, either.
Do you think life can only have meaning and purpose with God?
I think it’s very dangerous to try and argue that. I have children and raising them has been one of the most inspiring and purpose-filled parts of my life. Yet it doesn’t seem helpful to say that seems meaningful and not meaningless because God made child-rearing purposeful. I found it purposeful to learn how to do a Willie Mays basket catch when I was in high school. I got very good at it and loved doing it. But certainly, God didn’t make that a part of the natural order. So I think there’s loads of ways to get purpose because purpose ultimately is a psychological state of mind. And certainly people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould aren’t walking around glum all the time, saying, “Oh, life has no purpose, I think I’ll just kill myself.” They are very energetic people who love life and do lots of fun things. I don’t think Christians are wise to say we’ve got the corner on purpose.
Good for him. Of course, now we also have to note an unfortunate reality: that statement immediately removes him from the realm of the majority of believers, whose central objection to scientific conclusions rests on the twin pillars of a sanctimonious sense of morality and a demand for recognition of the superiority of their species/culture/race/sect, that unfortunate combination of exceptionalism and bigotry. This is one of many reasons I dislike these theologians, despite the sensible bits with which I agree — they provide cover for inanity. So often, you’ll get into an argument over the latest insane nonsense from the world of the god-soaked, and someone will petulantly tell you that you’re picking on the weak arguments, that there is a world of smart, clever, well-informed religion, and then they’ll point to someone like Giberson and tell us that his is the real religion. Liberal divinity schools seem to have the primary purpose of churning out theological stalking horses, so the benighted mob can frolic in ignorance behind them.
But all right, Giberson can’t be blamed for that — he deserves some credit for extracting reason and rational support for science out of the slop-trough of religion. Would that many, many more Christians and Moslems would put the thought into what they ought to believe that Giberson has.
Of course, if Giberson carried that reasoning to its logical conclusion, he’d be an atheist. He isn’t. That means that his ideas are full of the woolly headed apologetics common to those who make excuses for faith, and for that I do fault him. Even the premise of his book is the kind of category error he and his ilk try to deny.
His book is about reconciling science and religion. Funny word, that “reconcile”. We don’t talk about reconciling apples and oranges, yet practically the first defense of theologians is to claim that gods are completely different phenomena, not of this natural world, distinct from the subject of science, yet at the same time they babble obsessively about reconciling the two. This is what I tell creationists all the time: cut to the chase. You’re going to declare a miracle at some point, so all the flailing about to claim scientific relevance is a waste of time. I would say the same to Giberson: you can’t reconcile science and religion, and it’s all a pretense on your part, because somewhere in your rationalization you’re just going to trot out the warm fuzzies of “metaphor” and “faith”, and you’re ultimately going to profess a belief in some weird sect that contradicts other weird sects, and you aren’t even going to try to explain why. These are people who sit down to a fine meal, rich with delicate flavors, and sprinkle dried bullshit on it … and then declare the ripe, repulsive flavor of dung was the best part of dinner.
Giberson does not disappoint.
Many Christians insist the Bible is the literal word of God.
Yes, that’s widespread and again it’s because of a certain lack of sophistication from a literary point of view. Many people translate “the word of God” into the “words of God.” They don’t recognize that when you talk theologically about the Bible being the word of God, you mean that it contains an important message, that God is revealing himself through the history of Israel and Jesus Christ. New Testament theology gives us the “Word made flesh in Jesus.” But that phrase makes no sense if you’re talking about words and sentences. But it does make sense if you’re talking about some kind of revelation about the nature of God.
The Bible is correctly understood in Christianity as the Word of God. But it’s a distortion to say the Bible contains the words of God as if God had dictated these things. We need to grant that there are differences in the way that biblical authors talked about the world. We can’t just pull all of this into the 20th century as if it was just recently written down by God for our benefit.
That is so awful and so typical. He is correct that taking the bible literally is unsophisticated. What he then does, though, is waffle, lifting his own vague inferences up out of the text, and assumes that this implies that somehow the bible is a valid window into the nature of his particular god. Why should we accept that this uneven hodgepodge of scattered writings by authors of varying degrees of talent and lunacy is an inspired insight into the mind of his god at all? What makes it better than the Bhagavad Gita, the Iliad, the Gilgamesh, Moby Dick, or the latest potboiler from Danielle Steele? He does not say. This class of theologian never says.
I don’t think God is revealing himself through the history of Israel and Jesus Christ. I think humanity is revealing itself through its own narratives, and that’s equally true of the history of the Ashanti as it is of the Hebrews, and the words of Paul are as true a slice of the human experience as the words of Dan Brown. If you want to take the stream of words generated by humanity as non-literal, as you must, and interpret them as a reflection of something real, it makes more sense to see them as a mirror of the human condition rather than a crystal ball into the mind of an imaginary deity.
To call a book the metaphorical wisdom of a god is as offensively stupid as calling it the literal wisdom of a god. And note, Giberson seems to blandly accept that cock-and-bull story of the cosmic ruler of all taking earthly form and trotting about in some Roman backwater until he died of heart failure on an instrument of torture. What kind of reasonable rationale exists for that bit of nonsense? Why isn’t he expecting us to believe without evidence in Anansi stories, or Thor’s battles against the frost giants, or the sacrifice of Prometheus?
And then there’s this:
You criticize creationism’s leading opponents like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould for treating evolution as religion. What’s your main point of contention with them?
I think there’s a reckless extrapolation from what we know about evolution to an all-encompassing materialism. Evolution has so much of its data missing in history that to look at the whole thing and say we know for sure that despite all the stuff we can’t find, and have never seen, has purely naturalistic causes — and we know this with such certainty that we insist the knowledgeable buy into this idea — goes way too far. It overlooks the reality of human experience, overlooks that religious experiences are very common and meaningful for a lot of people.
I’m not at all uncomfortable saying that religious experiences can be genuine. A lot of them are fraudulent and some of them are epileptic seizures or whatever. But I believe in God, I believe God is personal and that God exists and cares about the created order. I think it’s a very reasonable belief that God interacts with creation and that experiences people have of interacting with God are profound and deeply meaningful.
This is more infuriating blather. Gould and Dawkins do not claim that evolution as a religion, or that it should be treated as one, and neither do I; that would be ridiculous, since if I were equating the two, that would mean I think people ought to grow out of their absurd faith in evolution. Evolution is not a god-of-the-gaps enterprise, either — we have positive evidence for natural phenomena, and reasonably extrapolate those phenomena to tentatively explain what we don’t know…and most importantly, suggest observations and experiment that can further expand our knowledge. It’s the inverse of a faith that seeks solace in unexamined beliefs about the voids in our understanding, filling them in with fantasies and demanding that those darned nosy scientists leave them alone.
And far from overlooking the reality of religious experience, we scrutinize that reality far more carefully than the theologically inclined find comfortable. Where the pious see the Virgin Mary in a pita, we look and see cooked bread, random mottling, and a credulous brain that matches an irregular pattern to a familiar expectation. I think we have the more accurate and useful explanation; if the religious think they have a better explanation, then they’re welcome to propose it and subject it to critical evaluation. If it’s just nebulous, airy-fairy “you’ve got to believe” or “you’ve got to respect our faith” B.S., then they can go get in line with the dowsers and UFOlogists and Bigfoot fans.
I don’t think Giberson sees universal spiritual truths in the Madonna-in-a-pita phenomenon (but maybe he does; I’ll have to read his book to find out), but he does believe in something equivalent. He is not a literalist looking for a bearded man in the sky described in the bible, but instead has this vague metaphorical notion that if he melts down the bible in the philosophical flux of his personal beliefs, he’ll be able to extract something ethereal and true from its words — a beautiful, loving, personal god who thinks he is really, really important and wants to give him eternal life in a paradise. That’s his Madonna-in-a-pita, his credulous imposition of an expected pattern on the swirling chaos of generations of ravings and noise and poetry that is the Christian faith. I suspect he is sincere in his delusion.
It’s still just as wrong as expecting a god’s dimensions to be spelled out in Imperial units in a mathematically defined pattern of letters in the book of Daniel. It’s all pareidolia, pure and simple, and there is no reason given that we should respect that — it’s simply assumed that all matters of faith deserve reverence.
Look at the bible as a pastiche, a collection of mutually and often internally inconsistent fragments slapped together for crude reasons of politics and art and priestly self-promotion and sometimes beauty and a lot of chest-thumping tribalism, and through that lens, it makes a lot of sense. It does tell us something important…about us, not some fantastic mythological being. It tells us that we are fractious, arrogant, scrappy people who sometimes accomplish great things and more often cause grief and pain to one another. We want to be special in a universe that is uncaring and cold, and in which the nature of our existence is a transient flicker, so we invent these strange stories of grand beginnings, like every orphan dreaming that they are the children of kings who will one day ride up on a white horse and take them away to a beautiful palace and a rich and healthy family that will love them forever. We are not princes of the earth, we are the descendants of worms, and any nobility must be earned.
Theologians like Giberson who try to impose their fantastic personal delusions on a book like that actually interfere with our understanding — they betray the entirely human story that we should be trying to extract from it. I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter, and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth. That’s harsh, I know — a Giberson isn’t the clear, present danger of a fundamentalist theocrat, but he is undermining the core of rationalism we ought to be building, and I find his beliefs pernicious rather than malignant. But that’s still something we must resist.
What do you know: Jason Rosenhouse has already written a review of Giberson’s book.