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A fondness for beetles

The scientist J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what his studies had taught him about God, famously replied, "I'm not sure, but he seems to be inordinately fond of beetles."

This is excellent theology. There are, after all, more than 350,000 distinct species of beetle, ad majorem Dei gloriam.

This is not to say that such a plethora of species suggests an "entomological argument" for the existence of God. The earth is a beetle-ful place. That much is certain. For those of us who believe in God, this fact, as Haldane observed, suggests something about God's character. But it indicates little for those trying either to prove or to disprove the existence of God.

Jacob Weisberg disagrees. He seems to think, somehow, that this abundance of Coleoptera is incompatible with belief in God. He asserts as much in a Slate article titled "Evolution vs. Religion: Quit pretending they're compatible." I would summarize Weisberg's argument, but he doesn't actually make one. He feels his point is self-evident.

"That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument," Weisberg writes. And, "You can believe in both — but not many people do."

And really, that's Weisberg's whole argument. Since "not many people" believe in both God and evolution, these beliefs must be incompatible. If "not many people" believe in something, then they must be wrong and we can pretend that they and their views are of no consequence. Weisberg is so confident in this assertion that he even links to Kenneth R. Miller's fine essay, "Finding Darwin's God," as a curiosity — a perspective to be chortled at, but not engaged.

Miller is, like me, one of those "not many people" who believes in both God and evolution. He's quite accustomed to dealing with Weisberg's assertion that these things are incompatible but, also like me, he's more accustomed to fielding such blanket assertions from the other side — from the "scientific creationists" and their repackaged heirs in the "Intelligent Design" movement.

Miller sees the Intelligent Design argument for what it is: Bad theology.

They claim that the existence of life, the appearance of new species, and, most especially, the origins of mankind have not and cannot be explained by evolution or any other natural process. By denying the self-sufficiency of nature, they look for God (or at least a "designer") in the deficiencies of science. The trouble is that science, given enough time, generally explains even the most baffling things. As a matter of strategy, creationists would be well-advised to avoid telling scientists what they will never be able to figure out. History is against them. In a general way, we really do understand how nature works.

And evolution forms a critical part of that understanding. Evolution really does explain the very things that its critics say it does not. Claims disputing the antiquity of the earth, the validity of the fossil record, and the sufficiency of evolutionary mechanisms vanish upon close inspection. Even to the most fervent anti-evolutionists, the pattern should be clear — their favorite "gaps" are filling up: the molecular mechanisms of evolution are now well-understood, and the historical record of evolution becomes more compelling with each passing season. This means that science can answer their challenges to evolution in an obvious way. Show the historical record, provide the data, reveal the mechanism, and highlight the convergence of theory and fact.

There is, however, a deeper problem caused by the opponents of evolution, a problem for religion. … They have based their search for God on the premise that nature is not self-sufficient. By such logic, only God can make a species, just as Father Murphy believed only God could make a flower. Both assertions support the existence of God only so long as these assertions are true, but serious problems for religion emerge when they are shown to be false.

If we accept a lack of scientific explanation as proof for God's existence, simple logic would dictate that we would have to regard a successful scientific explanation as an argument against God. That's why creationist reasoning, ultimately, is much more dangerous to religion than to science. Elliot Meyerowitz's fine work on floral induction suddenly becomes a threat to the divine, even though common sense tells us it should be nothing of the sort.

Bad theology is incompatible with science, but that's not the biggest problem facing it. The more immediate problem facing bad theology is that it is incompatible with good theology.

  • Beth

    Karmakin,
    The world is a beautiful rosebud, a magnificent orb nearly 8000 miles wide. It unfolds itself to us, and we sup from it’s lifegiving nectar.
    Do you believe that everything in the above sentence is literally true or that everything in it is metaphorical? If your answer is “some of each”, how did you distinguish between them (and why are you not a liar for doing that)?

  • Mnemosyne

    Either you believe everything in the Bible is true or you don’t. Plain and simple. If you think some things are true, but some things are metaphore, that’s bad logic. How do you pick out the true stuff and which stuff is the metaphor?
    Which means, of course, that you never read fiction, right? Because it’s all lies, from start to finish.
    Of course, some of us can read, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and think something other than, “Yes, but there was no such person as Huck Finn, and the things that he said happened to him never happened, so there’s no point in even reading it.”

  • Lila

    “Either you believe everything in the Bible is true or you don’t.” It need not follow that if you don’t believe everything in the Bible, you don’t beleive ANYTHING in the Bible.
    I don’t believe that the merciful Lord who sent His only son to save us also told His loyal followers to kill their enemies, even unto their newborn children.
    I also don’t believe that the world has corners. Nor do I believe that at two of every kind of animal (14 of every kind that is permissible for people to eat) once fit into a big wooden box. With nearly 4000 species of mammals, not to mention 350,000 species of beetles, that gets pretty crowded even before you start looking at other vertebrates and invertebrates.
    However, that doesn’t keep me from believing, for example, that I should love my neighbor, that I should refrain from lying, stealing, adultery, etc., and that God loves us all. Why should it?

  • Lila

    *edit*–please remove “at” before “two of every kind”!

  • Michael “Vendor X” Heaney

    Karmakin, being able to discriminate within a single written work between fact and metaphor is not ‘bad logic,’ it’s common sense. What if parts of the Bible ARE true and parts ARE metaphor? After all, Jesus himself was the master of parable. Were all his stories true, or were some of them metaphors? They appear in the Bible. Obviously, it’s the core of reason to be able to read one of Jesus’ tales in the Bible and recognize it as a metaphor, rather than assuming it has to be true simply because you’ve concluded that some other passage, in another part of the book, pertaining to something entirely diffrent, probably written by a completely different person in a completely different environment, is true. The second scenario is, in fact, pretty ludicrous.
    How do you pick out which things are facts and which are metaphors? Easy! A little exploration of your environment, history and probability via rational thinking and utilized information is a good start, same way we determine whether anything else we read is fact, fiction, metaphor, error or lie. Claiming that other people aren’t allowed to show such discriminatory ability is what is, in fact, irrational.
    But you’re right. Either you believe EVERYTHING in the Bible is true, or you don’t. You believe that some, or none of it, is true. I, myself, am not a Christian, but even I’m aware that, by what we know historically, the Bible manages to make a few apparently truthful claims. Doesn’t mean I believe that most of the rest of it is true, nor that I would have to to uphold any standard of rational thought.

  • Karmakin

    You all miss the point. I have nothing against religion, per se. But JW was right. To attack the branch IS to attack the root. To accept that unprovable claim A is probably wrong, is to accept that unprovable claim B may very well be wrong as well. As they both have equal amounts of positive proof (namely none).
    Listen, I’m sorry about the tenor of the post. But we live in a society, that dependant on faith, allows massive amounts of pain and suffering to be caused. And why? Because our worth is gauged by our faith, and not by our works. That by throwing homosexuals to the wolves, that we can prove our self-rightousness, and go around and raze and plunder all we want to.
    Things are NEVER going to change until you change the fundimental problems. Think about that for a while.

  • evagrius

    Sheeeh! Why don’t you guys read some REAL theology for a change? Here’s an idiot claiming the Bible is either all true or all false. Others come up with notions of God long abandoned by Christian theologians, BEGINNING in
    the first and second centuries C.E.
    Read Origen on the Bible. Origen, the greatest theologian of the early Church, was the premier student and commentator on the Bible. Fully educated in Greek philosophy, ( logic, mathematics, biology etc;), Origen “saved” the Old Testament for Christians by showing its Christological meaning, ( he didn’t care too much for the literal approach, knowing full well the contradictions).
    Read the other Patristic writers.
    Their notion of God is so much more insightful than the evangelical/ fundamentalists that it hurts to read them in comparison with those writers.
    Those writers and theologians would have no problem with evolution within its proper limits, ( the knowledge reason gives to us).

  • Paul

    Atheism is not so much the denial of God, but a denial of a particular concept of God. If acceptance of evolution produces atheists, perhaps that is a good thing. Our conception of God must evolve, and our old concepts must be allowed to die. That is, in fact, what has happened over the past several hundred years. It used to be common knowledge that God literally guided the sun across the sky every day, caused the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike, and caused His disfavored ones to become sick. Now we believe in a theory of gravity which causes the Earth to revolve around the Sun, a bacteriological theory of disease, and elaborate models of weather systems. Our concept of God has changed. So be it.

  • J.C. Jones

    I’m curious as to whom he surveyed when he came up with the conclusion that ‘few people’ believe in both God and evolution.
    Most Christians of my acquaintance accept our current understanding of evolution as adequate and not in need of God to fill in the blanks. Of course, most Christians of my acquaintance are liberal and not Biblical literalists, but the literalists and theocrats don’t speak for a majority of Christians anyway; they merely claim to be the only ones with the right to the name. Even John Paul II had the sense to proclaim that evolution was “more than a theory” about ten years ago (using the colloquial meaning of theory as hypothesis, not the scientific definition).
    If one restricts one’s inquiries to the Ivory Tower, particularly to that section of it which concerns itself with beetles and the other things which creep and crawl upon this earth, one may indeed draw the conclusion that only a minority admit to finding evolution and God compatible. Western science has never really gotten over the indignity of the suppression it once endured from the Church. However, on the outside of it I have met quite a few people who take an unprofessional scholarly interest in paleontology, astronomy, geology and the like, and don’t find that it disrupts their faith in the existence of something.

  • Texmandie

    I highly recommend Kenneth Miller’s full book with the same title (available as an inexpensive paperback). I’m going to re-read it, once I find it among all the boxes I shipped over here.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    “Atheism is not so much the denial of God, but a denial of a particular concept of God.”
    Really? Can you elaborate on this? Like, which particular concept of God does an atheist deny, and which concepts of God can s/he accept while still being called an atheist?

  • alex

    Evolution (and all the hard sciences) are about how. Religion is about why.
    Good theology embraces mystery and celebrates our participation in the world, the universe, in creation. Bad theology wants to back God into a corner and nag a copy of the final exam out of him. Bad theology hates mystery, hates the unknown, and fears ever having to defend a decision made with free will and reason.
    Religious totalitarians will never be content with the God that dwells in the why. They demand that all of reality and thought be ranged on their side, and thus display that their faith is as strong as a tissue.

  • Beth

    Those writers and theologians would have no problem with evolution within its proper limits, ( the knowledge reason gives to us).
    That should be science and religion’s common ground. Any decent scientist should realize that scientific theories are bounded by human knowledge and understanding, and any sensible theologian should realize that within the realm of objective knowledge, science is king. Maybe if Jesus were here, he would resolve this controversy by saying, “Render unto science what is science’s and unto God what is God’s.”

  • Erik L

    Listen, I’m sorry about the tenor of the post. But we live in a society, that dependant on faith, allows massive amounts of pain and suffering to be caused. And why? Because our worth is gauged by our faith, and not by our works. That by throwing homosexuals to the wolves, that we can prove our self-rightousness, and go around and raze and plunder all we want to.
    Things are NEVER going to change until you change the fundimental problems. Think about that for a while.
    Karmakin, you seem to be confusing faith itself with some individuals’ religious interpretations of their faith. Faith doesn’t automatically cause someone to shun homosexuals any more than it automatically causes someone else to blow people up. The things that cause people to commit those acts are their religious upbringing and education, not the existence of faith. It’s all in how it’s channeled.

  • eriol

    I should probably stop commenting on evolution ’cause I only seem to cause trouble. But I need to respond (not argue) to some of the responses to my questions (even if the questions were only rhetorical). I write very poorly so I do not come across clearly. Also I am quite confused by the “problem” of how evolution and religion co-exisit. So I would be grateful for any real direction.
    Beth,
    Darwinism is the idea that evolution occurs very slowly as oppossed to Huxleyism which says that (in my stupid, simple words) that a dinosaur laid an egg and from that egg hatched a sort of bird. If I’m wrong (which is happening more frequently) please correct me.
    Rebcecca,
    Thanks for your comment, it was terrific. I did confuse the two. If God is not a watchmaker perhaps he is a conducter, to give the players purpose while still leaving them to their free wills. What do you think?
    Bulbul,
    I was confused and incoherent. So thank you for replying intelligently and coherently to my remarks. One of the things I was confused about was on the differences between religion and science. Religion often concerns itself with mystery (not ignorance). Hypostatic union? I cannot know, it is simply a mystery, while science examines the physical world or to borrow Rebecca’s words, religion deals with purpose and science deals with process (is there a way to resolve this dualism?). When I read your comments I was struck with how your view on the first few chapters of Genesis is similar to the original understanding of Revelation. That Revaltion can only be properly understood as the story of the church, allegorical history for the most part, with some prophecy as well (of course one has to think that anything having to do with Jesus or the Bible is true, to care about what Revelation has to say). Also it was humbling to read your response because God continualy asked Job where he was at the beginning of the world. So I can’t say for certain how the world began, but I can understand how the world is (your remarks on continuing evolution). So I think it would be presumptous for a Christian (or a Jew) to say exactly what happened, even it is in Genesis.
    Futhermore I agree with evagrius that the true creation story of the Bible is in the Gospel of John ch. 1.
    Finally I’ll quote Frederick Buechner’s “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC”
    from his entry ‘Science’,
    “The Conflict between science and and religion, which readched its peak towards the end of the last century, is like the conflict between the a podarist and a poet. One says that Susie Smith has fallen arches. The other says she walks in beauty like the night. In his own way each is speaking the truth. What is at issue is the kind of truth you’re after.”

  • eriol

    I should probably stop commenting on evolution ’cause I only seem to cause trouble. But I need to respond (not argue) to some of the responses to my questions (even if the questions were only rhetorical). I write very poorly so I do not come across clearly. Also I am quite confused by the “problem” of how evolution and religion co-exisit. So I would be grateful for any real direction.
    Beth,
    Darwinism is the idea that evolution occurs very slowly as oppossed to Huxleyism which says that (in my stupid, simple words) that a dinosaur laid an egg and from that egg hatched a sort of bird. If I’m wrong (which is happening more frequently) please correct me.
    Rebcecca,
    Thanks for your comment, it was terrific. I did confuse the two. If God is not a watchmaker perhaps he is a conducter, to give the players purpose while still leaving them to their free wills. What do you think?
    Bulbul,
    I was confused and incoherent. So thank you for replying intelligently and coherently to my remarks. One of the things I was confused about was on the differences between religion and science. Religion often concerns itself with mystery (not ignorance). Hypostatic union? I cannot know, it is simply a mystery, while science examines the physical world or to borrow Rebecca’s words, religion deals with purpose and science deals with process (is there a way to resolve this dualism?). When I read your comments I was struck with how your view on the first few chapters of Genesis is similar to the original understanding of Revelation. That Revaltion can only be properly understood as the story of the church, allegorical history for the most part, with some prophecy as well (of course one has to think that anything having to do with Jesus or the Bible is true, to care about what Revelation has to say). Also it was humbling to read your response because God continualy asked Job where he was at the beginning of the world. So I can’t say for certain how the world began, but I can understand how the world is (your remarks on continuing evolution). So I think it would be presumptous for a Christian (or a Jew) to say exactly what happened, even it is in Genesis.
    Futhermore I agree with evagrius that the true creation story of the Bible is in the Gospel of John ch. 1.
    Finally I’ll quote Frederick Buechner’s “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC”
    from his entry ‘Science’,
    “The Conflict between science and and religion, which readched its peak towards the end of the last century, is like the conflict between the a podarist and a poet. One says that Susie Smith has fallen arches. The other says she walks in beauty like the night. In his own way each is speaking the truth. What is at issue is the kind of truth you’re after.”

  • eriol

    Sorry for the double comment, especailly since the original post is long enough to begin with. I’ll shut up now.

  • Ray

    eriol, nobody except creationists ever talks about ‘Darwinism’, and the Darwin/Huxley debates about the speed of evolution are over a century out of date. If you’re interested in finding out more, I’d recommend the talk.origins archive http://www.talkorigins.org/ , or any of Richard Dawkins’ books on evolution (The Blind Watchmaker, for example).

  • eriol

    Thanks for the information. I started from Creationism, moved to ID and trying to move away from that as well. Only now am I beginning to grasp just how much Creationist terms have prevaded my thought, and just how stupid a lot of it sounds.

  • Doctor Science

    Fred, you misquote Haldane slightly. The story as I’ve heard it is:
    Theologian: What can we infer about the Creator from a study of Creation?
    Haldane: That He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.
    The clearest indication that ID is not science is that they have no research program to answer the theologian’s question. What scientists want most in a scientific theory isn’t a comprehensive answer, but a bunch of good questions — preferrably the kind that lead to many successful dissertations.
    If ID were really science, IDers would be using evidence in nature to try to deduce what the Designer is really like and how he/she/it/they works. How intelligent are the Designers, really? How do they tend to put living things together? What kind of toolbox are they using? Did they design everything, or only some things? And what *is* with all the beetles?
    Of course, ID can’t actually afford to investigate those questions, because they might end up with the Beetle God, not Yahweh. But that’s how you know it’s science, dudes.


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