Coming Soon … “The Talk”? (RJS)

Coming Soon … “The Talk”? (RJS) October 7, 2014

How do we prepare our people, young and old, for “The Talk”?

ThinkerThere was an interesting opinion piece in the NY Times a week ago. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and psychology professor at the University of Washington described how he gives “The Talk” to his undergraduate biology students: God, Darwin and My College Biology Class. “The Talk” isn’t about sex, but about religion and evolution. More importantly, about what he sees as the incompatibility of science and religion. As an evolutionary biologist and psychologist he doesn’t see any real space for religion. Even the idea of two non-overlapping magisteria (noma) put forth by Stephen Jay Gould is falling by the wayside according to Barash. I’ll highlight a few pieces of his argument here with some commentary to start a conversation. The whole piece fleshes it out a bit more.

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.

What are the potent pillars? First, is gaps in explanation for various phenomena including the diversity of life. In Barash’s view the presence of a  “natural” explanation and mechanism removes the need for God as designer filling in the gaps. “Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.” He takes a view that seems common both among scientists and, unfortunately, Christians that natural explanations, mechanistic connections, and the action of God are mutually exclusive options.

Second, humans are not special. Humans are thoroughly natural, completely normal products of the material processes of evolution.

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. … 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.

Hawk_eating_voleIn addition to these demolished pillars, he sees a third knockout punch wiping God off the map entirely – the presence of pain and unmerited suffering in the world.

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

And his conclusion:

I CONCLUDE The Talk by saying that … if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

There are no gaps, humans are natural animals, and unmerited suffering is a part of the natural world.  These remove God from serious consideration. The NY Times online has published some letters taking issue with Barash’s conclusions – and I have some comments as well.

No place for religion?  Barash’s view is far from uncommon, although giving such a talk in his class may be uncommon, … I hope.  He sees the convergence of evolutionary biology and psychology wiping out even the idea put forth by Gould that science deals with one realm of existence and religion with another. For those unfamiliar with Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria a quote from the Wikipedia page on non-overlapping magisteria may help. Gould describes these magisteria:

“the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” (Attributed to Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life)

Barash would counter, I believe, that moral value and social behavior are well explained, or will be explained, by evolutionary psychology and the laws of nature. These laws are not only physical, but also laws of mathematics, logic, and social cause and effect. Art and the perception of beauty and ultimate meaning are likewise natural phenomena. The word “perception” is important here.

I’m not a fan of Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t think the separation is helpful, and it hardens the divide between science and religion without helping Christians wrestle with the totality of God’s action in the universe. Christian religion does deal with ultimate meaning and moral value, but it does so in the context of a creation prepared by a Creator for that purpose. The facts and theories of science are not separate from this reality.

Barash is right, however, that many of his Christian students will need mental gymnastics to bring the ideas emerging from evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology (not to mention archaeology and history) into relationship with an orthodox Christian faith. It isn’t easy to separate the metaphysics and philosophy from the science that is the “facts.” These gymnastics are not, as Barash imagines, a negative; an accommodation of incompatible ideas. Rather these gymnastics can often be an exercise of the mind – moving from a flaccid, loose, inherited faith to a fully owned and experienced faith.

The church has a problem however. See … we tend to be on Barash’s side. Instead of encouraging and enabling spiritual and intellectual growth, we provide answers that often don’t mesh with reality. The physical workout that builds a strong and robust understanding is for others. We’ll take the easy way out. We will run and win the race (we think) without all the trouble of training; pass the course without study. Christian life is bible reading, some worship songs, and a long progression of easy answer self-help books.

Barash, and many like him, can deliver some version of “The Talk” and have an enormous impact because we haven’t done our job. Evolution is not a theory in trouble, soon to fall to the wayside. It is stronger than ever, with increasing explanatory power. When students come to grips with this, the impact of “The Talk” grows, … maybe Barash is right? Wow, the earth is old, the universe is big, evolution is true … maybe Barash is right?

What can the church do to better prepare the student who encounters “The Talk?”

 “The Talk”, by the way, isn’t limited to biology class. It can come up in various ways from a range of professors or colleagues in Old Testament Studies, Religious Studies, Classics, Sociology, Anthropology, Physics, … the list is endless. Wow, the Bible is compiled and edited … maybe Barash is right?

How can we create a culture that prepares Christians to think through the issues?

Or is the answer simply to circle the wagons and define a set of absolutes to be held?

Or perhaps to avoid the possibility of conflict and stick to the simple truths of the gospel?

I’ve found the last to be a common response. The potential for internal conflict in the church precludes the possibility of truly addressing the issues. Who wants to bring the ire of those with strongly held opinions (e.g. young earth creationism) upon themselves by opening up the questions for discussion?  It is easier to just ignore and sideline the issues.

Personally, I think we have to engage. Some of the answers may require us to rethink some of our ideas (a six day creation isn’t really viable at any level) and we won’t get everything right. But I am convinced that Barash is wrong … in his metaphysical conclusions that is. Science and Christian faith cohere quite nicely as part of the same totality of experience and understanding.

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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