And nowhere is that reality more apparent than when they discuss the Christian faith.
The latest example comes from a University of Washington psychology professor named David Barash, writing a piece called “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.” In it, he boasts about “The Talk” (yes, he capitalized it) that he gives his young charges, a talk that purports to demonstrate the following:
As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.
I’m intrigued. This psych professor has apparently unlocked the keys to life and the universe, wrecking thousands of years of faith and theology. How did he do it? Since my own faith is at stake, I can’t wait to read on:
The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness.
Considering the fact that I’m not a “modern creationist” but much more in the Francis Collins camp, color me unimpressed. You’ve just “demolished” an argument I don’t advance or believe. I’ll let Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project (it’s not the psych department, but it’s something) respond:
If God chose to create you and me as natural and spiritual beings, and decided to use the mechanism of evolution to accomplish that goal, I think that’s incredibly elegant. And because God is outside of space and time, He knew what the outcome was going to be right at the beginning. It’s not as if there was a chance it wouldn’t work. So where, then, is the discordancy that causes so many people to see these views of science and of spirit as being incompatible? In me, they both exist. They both exist at the same moment in the day. They’re not compartmentalized. They are entirely compatible. And they’re part of who I am.
But what was Barash’s second point? Surely it’s better, right?
Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.
Torch, meet straw man. I’ve never heard even young earth creationist argue that humans aren’t physiologically like animals. We’ve got hearts, lungs, kidneys, and other such things. But unless he’s reading from the Great Dolphin Library of Alexandria, or moved by the works of Chimpanzee Shakespeare or rocks hard to the driving beats of Baboon Bon Jovi, there are some rather self-evident distinctions between men and animals, the distinctions that happen to matter if one argues that humans — unlike animals — have a soul.
So, my faith is still intact despite the promised demolition. What about the belief in an “omnipotent and omni-benevolent God?”
Wait. What does he even mean by “omni-benevolent?” I prefer the term “holy.” Those are not the same thing. How many straw men must burn in one op-ed?
Here’s Barash again:
Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.
Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things.
Honestly, theodicy holds little interest to me. Typically defined as a kind of “justification” or “defense” of God, I find that the real-world practice typically consists of well-meaning Christians often trying to jam the God of the Bible into a cultural box that demands that he be little more than a kindly divine parent who provides the (desired) good gifts to his children. Regardless of theodicy’s place in Christian apologetics, scripture’s rather clear that the world is full of Barash’s “ethical horrors.” Indeed, the Apostle Paul declared that the “whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” The rain falls on the just and the unjust after all, but the truly salient human question is not whether we get the good things we want but instead whether God spares us from the wrath we most assuredly deserve. God doesn’t need an advocate. We do.
Thankfully, we have one.
Barash smugly takes on not the Christian faith itself, but instead a caricature of a subset of Christians. The Left vastly overstates the importance of young-earth creationism to Christianity and thus wrongly inflates its own ability to undermine Christians’ core beliefs. But that certainly doesn’t stop them from trying, nor does it stop the Times from gleefully printing pieces laced with ignorance and spite.
This article first appeared on National Review Online