I’ve been reading several books on evolution, intelligent design, and related subjects, as I seek to decide on representative readings to assign for my religion and science course this Fall. It seems to me that the differences between many viewpoints centers around the question of what God does.
Naturalistic explanations of various things in the world around us have always challenged religious beliefs. The monotheistic God of the Abrahamic traditions continues to have adherents precisely because of the flexibility and all-encompassing character of this concept of God. While Zeus’ thunderbolts are now the domain of meteorology rather than metaphysics, the God who is responsible for everything does not disappear so easily. Yet the question must be asked by any religious believer: if you believe in God, what do you envisage God doing, and how?
For Michael Behe, the answer must be that God at least does certain things that set in motion the subsequent evolutionary processes. If everything from the start of the universe can be explained in natural terms, then the concept of God becomes irrelevant and obsolete. For this reason, he spends his most recent book looking for The Edge of Evolution. That he is involved in the unceremonious and begrudging retreat of the God of the gaps further and further into the distant past, and thus further and further away from us, seems not to bother him. Nor does the moral objection to Intelligent Design, which has existed since before Darwin, to which he responds dismissively by stating that “Revulsion is not a scientific argument” (p.239). This is certainly true, but neither is the desire to find something for God to do in the world, in contrast to other things that God doesn’t do. Having opened the door to the possibility of design, and thus the inclusion and integration of metaphysics, philosophy and theology into history, Behe then balks at either providing an answer to this moral objection or drawing the apparent implication that the designer is either malevolent or inept.
Much more helpful is Francis Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift To Science and Religion, which is appreciative of arguments such as those of Paley, even when disagreeing with his conclusions. Paley, after all, was working with the best scientific knowledge available in his time. Paley was also an opponent of slavery, which Ayala helpfully notes – it is easy to regard those whose views we disagree with as foolish, particularly authors in the past, and so it is helpful to be reminded of other aspects of their life and work, to remind us to be appreciative of their place in our intellectual history, as well as of the fact that no one alive today will not seem as off target as Paley to some future author writing with the benefit of centuries of hindsight.
The reason why Ayala is able to embrace not just the current state of scientific knowledge, but science as a way of knowing, is that he is able to regard statements about God and statements about the natural world as complementary. The danger here, of course, is that such language can become at best superfluous and at worst meaningless. All our language about God is metaphorical. But we still need at least some clarity if we wish to speak about events in the world, even or perhaps especially those that have natural explanations, as simultaneously ‘acts of God’. Does this mean that we really see them as willed expressions of a personal deity, or as sacramental events that, even without outside tinkering, disclose transcendent aspects of the nature of reality to us?
One thing is fairly certain. If one lives in North America, Western Europe or Australia, and in a number of other places as well, there is no use deceiving oneself about the character of one’s theology. Just as there is no one in any of these places who believes in Zeus in the way that the Ancient Greeks did, so too there is no one who believes in God in precisely the same way that the early Christians did. Our worldview has changed, and attempting to will oneself into an outmoded view of the universe “by faith”, even if it were possible (which it isn’t), still would not be the same thing as taking that view of the universe for granted.
What is the fundamental difference between the various approaches to theology and to the intersection of religion and science today? The question of what (if anything) God does, and by what means. Answers to such questions will by definition involve metaphor – the challenge is to find metaphors that do justice to our deepest religious experiences and insights in a way that also does justice to not just the present state of our scientific knowledge, but the fact that science’s track record suggests that natural explanations of things currently unexplained will one day be forthcoming.