Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much

Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much December 16, 2015

Reading and critiquing an apologetics book is like trying to grab hold of a live eel covered with Crisco.  Anyone who approaches such a book with less than a sincere prior commitment to believing whatever it teaches will find it so full of rhetorical smoke and mirrors he can scarcely finish reading the thing.  It is a laborious, tedious, and dauntingly mind-numbing task.

One is tempted to conclude that any belief system needing to work this hard at validating itself shouldn’t be given the time or attention that a substantive critique would require. And yet, I continue. I have my reasons.  This time I’m splitting up my treatment of a chapter into two parts, with part two coming in another couple of days.

Do Our Best Scientists Believe in God?

shootingMoving on to Chapter 6 in his The Reason for God, Tim Keller takes on Richard Dawkins, who argues in The God Delusion that scientific literacy and religious belief are inversely related.  The more a person understands modern science, Dawkins suggests, the less inclined he will be to accept the supernatural claims of any religion. To back this up, Dawkins cites a 1998 study which found that only 7% of the members of the National Academy of the Sciences believe in a personal God.

For the record, I can agree with his assertion up to a certain point, but Dawkins and I do not exactly see eye-to-eye on this matter. I am much more persuaded than he is that intelligence is compartmental, and I have what I would call a much deeper appreciation for the human ability to protect the things we want to believe even in the face of overwhelmingly contrary scientific evidence.  I would argue that the smarter you are, the better you merely are at convincing yourself of what you already believe.

In fact, it was a long dinner conversation with Dawkins earlier this year that led me the next morning to devote an entire post to explaining why intelligent, well-educated people can reach adulthood still believing in intellectually indefensible things.

[Read “Why Do Intelligent, Well-Educated People Still Believe Nonsense?“]

But the statistic he quoted is still correct. Among elite scientific minds in the United States, belief in a personal God is relatively rare—it’s in the single digits—and that’s really saying something in a country as inherently religious as ours. In the general population, belief in a personal God hovers at around 60%, with another quarter of Americans falling back on a belief in some kind of divine but impersonal Force.

Incidentally I call that last category “vaguetheism,” when a person merely believes in “something out there” but can’t quite bring himself to swallow the stories of the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Bhagavad Gita. I wouldn’t call that the God of Christianity, nor would Keller in most cases…except for when he wants to claim that good scientists can still be Christians.  Then suddenly he seems just fine with claiming them for his own team. Keller capitalizes on an ambiguity in the aforementioned study:

To hold that a transcendent God created the universe is not enough to be listed as a “believer.” Any NAS scientist who believes in a God who does not communicate directly with humanity is automatically put into the category of a disbeliever.  The surveys were only designed to “see” scientists with conservative, traditional belief. (p.93)

Now hold on a second.  Keller entitled this chapter “Science Has Disproved Christianity” because he wants to take on the notion that modern science has an adversarial relationship, not merely with religion in general but with his religion in particular. But then he wants to claim for his own team a category of belief which rules out any God who communicates with human beings.  That’s a rather convenient moving of the goalposts to bolster his own side of the argument.  Would it be right to equate with the Christian deity a God who never interacts with or intervenes within his creation?  That detail is pretty crucial for the purposes of what we are currently debating.

Moving the Goalposts, Again

This isn’t the first time Keller has done something like this, nor will it be the last.  Most notably, he argued in Chapter 4 that it was Christianity which deserves the credit both for abolishing slavery in the U.S. and for advancing the cause of civil rights in the 1960’s.  This can only be seen as true if one ignores the prevailing biases among American evangelicals at those times in history leading them to oppose each of those movements more vehemently than any other group in the country. Those who opposed progress were from Keller’s tribe—they were his theological heritage—but he conveniently omits that detail for the purposes of that chapter.

[Read “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“]

This sixth chapter does the same kind of convenient regrouping, only now it does it with respect toward scientific advancement instead of social progress. He wants to claim for his team scientists who don’t believe in anything that resembles evangelical Christianity, forgetting once again that his tradition (Evangelical Protestantism) leads the way in resisting modern shifts in scientific paradigms. He shows remarkably little self-awareness when he parrots the interpretation of Christian sociologist Christian Smith:

Smith argues that the conflict model of the relationship of science and religion was a deliberate exaggeration used by both scientists and educational leaders at the end of the nineteenth century to undermine the church’s control of their institutions and increase their own cultural power…Many scientists see no incompatibility between faith in God and their work. (p.92)

And from which corners of Christendom, one might ask, do these scientists emerge?  More often than not, they come from places other than evangelical churches.  The conflict model doesn’t owe its popularity entirely to the nefarious forces of secularism. The church tradition to which Keller belongs has played (and is still playing) a major role in prolonging this battle.

The harsh reality is that whenever an evangelical finally capitulates to the overwhelming consensus of scientific discovery, he faces a steep uphill battle to convince his own people that he hasn’t been deceived by the devil.  Just try putting The Language of God, a book by evangelical scientist Francis Collins making the genetic case for common ancestry, into the hands of most evangelicals and see if it budges them an inch. Note in the chart below that barely a quarter of white evangelical Protestants today accept the notion of evolution:

evolution2013-2

Evangelicals clearly have a problem with accepting scientific concepts that challenge their beliefs. That would explain why Keller’s own limited accommodation of evolution is so tepid and measured, a problem that I’ll address in just a minute.

Does that mean that “science disproves Christianity?”  Well, no…not exactly.  But there certainly seems to be a high correlation between growing up in an evangelical Christian household and distrusting scientific discovery throughout one’s lifetime. On the other hand, those who excel in science the most in this country seem to come from families that were either non-religious, or at least non-evangelical (For more on this, see the discussion in the endnote).

Unintelligent Design and the Evolution of the Species

So why does it matter that so many of our elite scientists don’t believe in a personal God?  It matters because a solid grasp of science does indeed present a problem for anyone who wishes to argue that a personal God intervenes in either daily life or in the development of the species from single-celled organisms to the amazing diversity we see before us today.  There is a randomness to how the species developed which hurts rather than helps the arguments of those who wish to say that modern science supports the claims of their religion.

Paula Kirby put it as well as anyone else I’ve ever read:

While I welcome anyone who recognizes that the evidence for evolution is such that it cannot sensibly be denied, to attempt to co-opt evolution as part of a divine plan simply does not work, and suggests a highly superficial understanding of the subject.

Not only does evolution not need to be guided in any way, but any conscious, sentient guide would have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving. Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work.

An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that populate the Earth today would be many things – but loving would not be one of them. Nor perfect. Nor compassionate. Nor merciful. Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love. 

In other words, it’s not that science rules out the possibility that one or more gods exist (why does it always have to be just one?), it’s more that any god who guides this particular process would have to be unimaginably cold…or else not a person at all. Think of it as the problem of theodicy, only extrapolated onto a cosmic scale. There would have to be almost no traits of a personality to which humans could relate, unless those traits were psychotic in the extreme.

Sure, you can point to the birth of a beautiful, healthy baby and say that is your proof that God exists. But in so doing you would have to ignore the millions of births that have happened throughout history which didn’t go so well, or didn’t produce a live baby at all. You would have to ignore all the births that never even happened because the mother’s body naturally aborted the already fertilized zygote before it could ever implant (somewhere around 50% of all fertilizations end this way).  You would have to ignore all the miscarriages that preceded this successful birth.  The devout are quick to cite the birth of a healthy, beautiful child as evidence for a loving, intelligent creator, but it seldom occurs to them that the alternatives would have to count as evidence for something entirely different.

What Kind of Evolution Is This?

Keller wants us to believe that his religion and science are not at odds with each other. But his acceptance of evolution is conspicuously noncommittal, and ultimately self-contradictory.  Reading this particular treatment of the subject, you will notice he wiggles and squirms around this subject so uncomfortably that you can’t decide if he just doesn’t fully believe it, or if he does but he can’t openly admit it because doing so would lose too many evangelical readers.

For the record I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as an All-encompassing Theory. (p.98)

What does that even mean?  I would have included more of his explanation around that quote, except there isn’t any. That’s pretty much all he says about the matter at this time. His primary point here is to say that he will allow for the concept of gradual development of the species from one to another over a long period of time so long as you make sure to insist that there are gaps in there which only God could fill through some kind of intelligent guidance and miraculous intervention.

miracle

A couple of years later he went into a bit more detail (see the paper that he wrote for Biologos here), arguing that whatever you conclude about the origins of the species, you have to see Adam and Eve as an actual, literal, historical couple.  Because Pauline theology is fundamentally predicated on the idea of original sin passed down through an historical couple, Keller cannot dispense with that particular detail no matter what modern geneticists tell us about the impossibility of tracing human origins to a singular couple.

Clearly Keller’s willingness to accommodate modern science has its limits. And his commitment to biblical inerrancy forces him to credit the writers of the Bible with somehow still knowing things which they could not have known:

I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a “song” about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation. Genesis 2 is an account of how it happened. (p.97)

Uh, what?  Exactly how so?  In that chapter, God creates people separately from all other species, using dirt to make them (rather than shaping them out of previously created primates). Furthermore, he does so before he has even created vegetation, with the notable exception of a magic garden with special trees in it which will make you wise, but then will kill you in the process, somehow.  I fail to see how the second chapter of Genesis is supposed to be taken any less poetically than the first, and it seems to me that Keller is running a fool’s errand trying to reconcile this with modern science.

To theologically conservative Christians like Tim Keller, human origins present a problem—I would argue an insurmountable one, in fact. But it’s their problem, not mine, and I’m not going to spend any more time on it today.  In my next post I want to take on Keller’s treatment of the concept of miracles in this chapter, demonstrating just how slippery this discussion becomes whenever it is brought up.  Stay tuned for that next.

And as with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out.  Here he covers Chapters 6 and 7, along with the intermission in the middle of the book.

And if you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

[Image Source: Flicker, Science Cartoons Plus]

———-

Endnote:

In 2007, Ecklund and Scheitle did a study (link here) to follow up on the earlier NAS study in an attempt to account for the differences of religious belief among the leading scientists in America.  They began the study expecting to find a significant watershed between those who chose to study the natural sciences and those who selected the social sciences. What they found was that after controlling for confounding variables, neither field showed a significant difference in religiosity. What did make a difference, however, was how the scientists were raised as children.

Our results indicate that people from certain backgrounds (the non-religious, for example) disproportionately self-select into scientific professions. In contrast, being raised a Protestant and in a home where religion was very important, for example, leads to a greater likelihood that a scientist will remain relatively religious. (p.302)

So on the one hand, they found that secular homes produced better scientists, or at least they were disproportionately more likely to produce scientists who were competitive enough to make it into the most elite research environments.  On the other hand, those scientists who were raised religious were most likely to remain religious throughout the duration of their careers.

This corroborates my contention, contra Dawkins, that merely providing adequate scientific education will not automatically disabuse intelligent people of their religious beliefs.  Again, we are geniuses when it comes to protecting our own beliefs, which I maintain are comprised of emotion more than intellectual content.  And it means that the presence of religious belief among well-educated adults, some of whom have earned advanced degrees through a great deal of hard work, does not cancel out their intelligence.

Just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you are stupid. It just means that, more than likely, you were raised to be religious, and that’s not an easy thing to shake.

Keller acknowledges this, citing sociologist Peter Berger and Alister McGrath (who is a theologian but was trained in biology), which means that he and I agree on at least this one point:

Sociologists of knowledge like Peter Berger have shown that our peer group and primary relationships shape our beliefs much more than we want to admit. Scientists, like non-scientists, are very affected by the beliefs and attitudes of the people from whom they want respect. In McGrath’s experience, most of his atheist colleagues brought their assumptions about God to their science rather than basing them on their science. (p.94)

Of course, this realization cuts both ways. It means that neither the atheists nor the theists can really benefit all that much from finding their own kind among the elite minds in academia.  Neither group should really get to claim that science is on their side simply because there are scientists who belong to their own team. The discussion should be about the evidence itself, not about the biases of the people who believe or disbelieve.

Ecklund and Scheitle conclude:

Finding that the strongest predictor of religious adherence among this group was childhood religiosity recasts previous theories about lack of religiosity among academic scientists in a new light. The idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, whether due to an inherent conflict between science and faith or institutional pressure, is not strongly supported by these data. If this was the case, then religious upbringing would have little effect on religion among scientists, with even those scientists who were raised in religious homes losing religion once they entered the academy or received scientific training. (p.303)

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