Thursday, March 05, 2015

Belief in God and/or Belief in Evolution

Today belief and God and belief in evolution have become markers of communal identity. They have come, in popular discourse, to define the boundaries of 'right-thinking.' They tell us whether we are likely to agree with a person, and that person can be trusted.

Those who believe in God cannot abide the moral relativism implied by the theory of evolution. Those who believe in evolution decry the pretense involved in human being supposing themselves to speak on behalf of divinity, which may or may not exist; and if it does, is unlikely look or sound like a bigger versions of his self-righteous followers; and if it does this too, can hardly be worthy of our adoration. One side says that we need a transcendent principle, like God, from which to derive a coherent morality, or all is lost. The other side says that if we, all of us merely human beings, derive our morality from a transcendent principles, we do violence to our fellow human beings.

And if there is a middle ground between the two possibilities, it is occupied by persons (like me) talk too much to be trusted. The simplest answer is usually best answer. Anyone who needs more than three minutes to explain themselves obviously spends too much time thinking, and not enough engaging with the practical everyday of human life to be of much use.

Current discussions about the 'the relationship between science and religion' fall out in roughly the terms that I have described here. The public discussion is clearly polarized. The academic discussion skews heavily towards a single pole: to treat religion as an object of scientific inquiry. Tenured exceptions talk a great length, increasingly to no effect, about why the question is actually more complicated than people are making it out to be. Non-tenured exceptions (like myself) worry that they are committing intellectual hari kari by not aligning themselves with one side or the other.

Even a reasonably well-endowed private organization like the John Templeton Foundation, which ostensibly has a positive view of religion, seems intent on reducing it to merely empirical description. And while public funding organizations are a little more tolerant of projects that are more 'literate,' and less 'scientific,' in their orientation, the winds have shifted there as well. The headwinds are strong; the situation is not favourable to tack against them.

Having taught a class on 'Religion and the Natural Sciences,' I have more than a little invested in the debate. Over the few years of engaging with students, my own thinking has been clarified about what exactly it is that should seen as being at stake. The contemporary discourse is much too 'objectively' oriented. It demands to know if God exists, if evolution is true, and how, if at all, the two might fit together. It treats the question in abstract. But the real question, it seems to me, has to with in what sense belief in God and belief in evolution are comparable. In other words, it is not God and/or evolution that are at issue, but with the nature of belief itself.

Belief (and the fact that communal identities and moral stances seem to flow from it) is the common denominator. And if you say as much, it is almost as if the terms of the discussion change. I say almost as if because the terms of the discussion have not actually changed. They are seen, however, in a very different light.

For example, what could it possibly mean to say that 'I believe in evolution'? A scientific theory does not cease to serve its explanatory function if I stop believing in it. It is true insofar as it is able to account for the facts in question. And the theory of evolution is true given that it is the best account of the empirical evidence that we have available to us. A person can say, 'I don't believe in evolution.' But that changes nothing about the its ability to account for the facts. And insofar as this is true, the theory of evolution is true, regardless what you or I or someone else might believe about it. (Or someone presents a better theory to account for the facts.)

The same sort of consideration applies to claiming 'I believe in God.' If God is the sort of being described in the sacred religious texts, he does not wait for me to believe in him in order to exist. His existence (or lack thereof) owes nothing to my desire that thus and such be the case. If the sacred texts are to be believed, precisely the opposite is the case. My existence is contingent upon God's 'belief,' so to speak, in me.

By making this a zero-sum game about belief in God or belief in evolution, we actually suppose far more about our own selves than we ever did about evolution or God. Belief in God and belief in evolution, in fact, are false equivalents. The problem with the contemporary discourse, both in the popular press and in the academy, is that it cannot see as much.

What could it possibly mean, after all, to say that 'I believe in God' in the same sense that someone else believes in evolution? Belief in God doesn't admit empirical verification like 'belief' in evolution. The evolutionary biologist can point to the fossils record, comparable physiological structures, shared genetic material, and so on. What evidence does the theologian have to offer? Certainly nothing physical. The theologian can point to sacred texts extolling the wisdom of God in creation or waxing eloquent on the wonders of what he has made. Such texts convey a deep sense of God's presence in the natural world. But a natural scientist will very soon point out the obvious difficulty with all such accounts: we can observe all the natural things they talk about, but God is nowhere to be found.

Now, someone like Richard Dawkins has argued that this is proof positive that God, in fact, does not exist. We can observe natural phenomena; but we cannot observe God. Ergo, God does not exist. But this, I contend, is to avoid the basic issue; namely, the nature of our belief.

The contemporary discourse could stand to reflect more carefully on what it is that scientists actually do and what it is that the sacred texts actually claim.

A scientist begins by dividing the world up into little pieces. Individual scientists (or laboratories of scientists) focus specific pieces. From those parts the scientific community builds up a picture of the whole. So of course the scientist never gets around to questions regarding religion, which begins with ideas like God has created the whole world.

On the other hand, a sacred text like the Bible quite literally tells you that God creates the whole world. The texts also prohibits drawing any false equivalence between God and the world. Do worship an idol in the form of anything in the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters below. God will not be found in any one of the little pieces; and if he is, in some way, shape, or form, he won't be contained there. The Qur'an makes an essentially comparable claim. If you go a little further afield, Hindu and Buddhist texts also struggle with the problem of false equivalence, which they answer in their own ways.

This is not yet to say, of course, that science has a 'limited sphere of inquiry' or that God definitively exists. It is to say, on the other hand, a person's belief in evolution ought not to be placed alongside another person's belief in God.

If people persist in doing so, that is only because they overestimate what their belief in evolution or in God can accomplish in the first place.

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