Thursday, July 03, 2008

Can't Darwin and God Get Along?

Salon ran a nice interview with Karl Giberson the other day -- he is the author of Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. His book is the latest in the new literary genre of Evolution vs. Religion (OK, I just made that up, but long-time readers of this blog will know what I am talking about).

Can't Darwin and God get along?

Of course they can, argues physicist and theologian Karl Giberson, if only many believers were more sophisticated and atheists less dogmatic.

By Vincent Rossmeier

July 1, 2008 | With biologist Richard Dawkins leading the way, many scientists today are locked in an unending match of whack-a-mole with Christian creationists, who insist that God created heaven, earth and humanity in its present form, and with disciples of intelligent design who want to expel evolution from its scientific prominence in public schools. If you've been following the battle, you might be inclined to believe that Americans are faced with a choice between believing in God and scientific fact.

In his new book, "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution," Karl Giberson calls this a false choice. A professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, Giberson believes in evolutionary theory as adamantly as he does in God. For Giberson, evolution and Christianity are not in competition but complement one another. Holding equal disdain for creationists who read the Bible literally and scientists who disregard God altogether, Giberson seeks a middle way, and attempts to resuscitate Darwin's reputation as both a religious man and a scientist. In conversation, Giberson possesses a boundless inquisitiveness typical of many scientists, but also displays the wry wit of a seasoned polemicist. He seems to know how to counteract your best arguments before you have even made them.

Why does Darwin need to be saved?

He has been vilified in American evangelical culture and even more broadly than that. Yet his important contribution to science reaches into theology and religion, and so it's important to rehabilitate him so that you can't simply call something Darwinist and have people say, "Oooo, that smells bad."

Why do misconceptions about Darwin persist?

Because in the latter part of the 20th century, evolution became identified with negative social agendas, and some very effective polemicists like Henry Morris and Ken Ham convinced people that evolution was responsible for the breakdown of the family and drug abuse and all manners of evil. Christians who tend to see satanic or sinister influences behind those things were only too ready to demonize Darwin and say he had an agenda to destroy their faith. In their eyes, Darwinism destroyed belief in God the creator.

Darwinism became associated with repugnant beliefs like Nazism and eugenics. But as you point out, evolution doesn't make judgments, it merely describes.

Right. There's an important distinction between a theory that tells us the way the world is and a theory that tells us the way it ought to be. In practice, however, we think we should behave by the way we think the world is. That's why there's such an intense debate about homosexuality. Conservatives don't want homosexuality to be perceived as something natural because that would force them to reevaluate the way we treat it from a moral perspective. While it's true that you can't justify eugenics on the basis of Darwin's observations, as soon as genetics was recognized to be as important as it is, people began to realize that genetics could be used to improve the species. This was kind of a natural extension but it's certainly not implied in Darwin's work.

Aren't some people threatened by evolution because they can't reconcile biblical literalism, or "young-earth" creationism, with the fact that the earth is not 10,000 years old but billions?

Yes, but young-earth theory is an interpretation of Genesis that requires that you bring a certain set of suspect assumptions to the text. The early chapters of Genesis do not read like history. They have a different sort of character to them. People who read Hebrew and understand the ancient Near Eastern worldview, and the cosmology that informed it, have given us ample reasons why you would not read Genesis that way, even if you weren't worried about reconciling it with a billion-year-old planet.

Read the rest of the interview.

One of the interesting things he rails against (and that term may be a little strong) is Biblical literalism and the commensurate distrust of academic scholarship. In the fundamentalist community there is HUGE distrust of academics -- they have been so strongly defined as the enemy in the "culture wars" that all things academic are rejected out of hand. This in part explains the rejection of science in general.

Any way, here is a good quote:

Biblical literalism is very simple. You read the Bible in English and you say to yourself that these are the things God wrote down through a secretary a long time ago, and all I need to do is read this in English and that's all the work I have to do to understand it. Who wouldn't want that to be the case? If you try to tell these people that they need some egghead scholar from Harvard, who can read Hebrew, to come in and help them with it, that seems offensive and alienating, and people aren't attracted to that. So I think the ability of American religion to invent itself and to appeal to common denominators, sometimes the lowest denominator, has allowed these evangelical movements to flourish with their own agendas.

Here is one more quote -- I quite like this guy. If more Christians held this worldview, the world might be a little less violent.

I'm not at all uncomfortable saying that religious experiences can be genuine. A lot of them are fraudulent and some of them are epileptic seizures or whatever. But I believe in God, I believe God is personal and that God exists and cares about the created order. I think it's a very reasonable belief that God interacts with creation and that experiences people have of interacting with God are profound and deeply meaningful.

But you reject the idea that God tinkers and has his hand in day-to-day processes, so how do nature and God interact?

That's the tough question. You should rewind the tape and erase the question because I don't really have a good answer. What I would say, however, is when you know a lot about how something works, it's reasonable to rule out certain things and say, well, I don't think it could be this or that. When you know almost nothing about how something works, you need to be more humble. We don't know how we interact with the world. Somehow you got it into your head that you were going to call and talk to me about this book. Some kind of vague intention, purposeful agenda emerged in your mind, and it got translated into a whole set of actions, and now we're talking on the phone. We don't understand that.

Consciousness is a very deep mystery. All of our models say consciousness shouldn't be possible, that it should just be atoms and molecules in your brain randomly doing things. Nothing that we've developed for a model of how human intentionality works makes sense of our own experience of the world. But here we are, doing things in the world. Somehow a conscious-like starting point for human actions emerges and we are able to execute things in the world and change physical reality. Now, we know this happens, this isn't a mystical theory, you can see this happening every day.

How do we know there isn't some similar mechanism by which God interacts with the world, that God can be understood as a spirit, that God is more like consciousness than a material object? If we have an all-encompassing, pervasive personal being that has created the entire universe, and is coupled to that universe in some way, it just seems to me that the notion of God acting through the world without violating its laws is no more mysterious than us acting through that same world. So I'd say to Dawkins, until you explain to me how human beings interact with the world, don't tell me that God couldn't interact with the world in the same way we do.

I like this last part quite a bit. If I believed in any kind of divinity, it would be a God as Consciousness model, something on the order of a sentience that pervades the universe, as source and destiny of evolution.

Be sure to read the whole interview.

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