A moment ago, I posted a very long comment in response to a post by Quinn O’Neill at 3QuarksDaily. Ms O’Neill’s post was a response to criticism that she had received after saying, in an earlier piece on the same site, that the most effective strategy for increasing the likelihood that schools will teach a biology curriculum based on sound scientific research might not consist of atheists making displays of personal hostility toward religious believers. Much of the criticism Ms O’Neill received was based on the premise that anyone who questions the efficacy of such displays has betrayed the holy cause of Science and opened the gates to the Satanic hordes of Creationism. In her response, Ms O’Neill felt obligated to reassure everyone that she is a True Unbeliever who renounces religion and all its works, and said among other things that she does not “believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.” I had to respond to that statement, and did so at a length that is really quite unreasonable for a blog comment. Here it is:
“I don’t believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”
That sentence includes some pretty broad terms. I grant you that a religious sect which demands that its followers believe the earth to have been created in October 4004 BC is not likely to be pleased by the findings of geology, or biology, or astronomy. But what about a religion like Confucianism, which, to the extent that it represents a worldview, does so not by preaching doctrines but by guiding its followers through ceremonies and structuring their social relations? Where is the faith/ reason battle there?
To the extent that “religion” is a meaningful category, I suspect that its defining features have far less to do with the belief systems that many religions have than with the social bonding that they all promise. I’m inclined to agree with James P Carse, longtime professor of religious studies at New York University, who in his 2009 book THE RELIGIOUS CASE AGAINST BELIEF argues not only that religious can get along perfectly well without having belief systems attached, but that their belief systems often keep religions from achieving their real value, which is their ability to bind people together into communities that endure for many generations.
Professor Carse’s argument may seem odd, but if we draw an analogy with science I think we can see more clearly what he’s driving at. The point of science isn’t to uphold certain doctrines or theories, but to challenge all doctrines and theories with evidence and logic. A scientist who would rather defend a pet theory than face the facts that cast that theory in doubt isn’t making the most of science. Likewise, religious believers who wage holy war in the name of militant ignorance in order to protect a cherished belief aren’t breathing life into the past and binding the present to the future; they are condemning past and present to the contempt of the future.
So “religion” is a problem. “Theism” is a problem, too. So far as I can tell from the Oxford English Dictionary, “theism” was first coined in 1678 by Ralph Cudworth as a contrary to “deism.” While deists affirmed the existence of some sort of god but denied that the god they believed in had communicated directly with the world, Cudworth wanted a word to name persons who, like himself, believed in divine revelation. Later it was used as we would now use “monotheism,” and presented as a contrary to “polytheism” and “atheism.” Nowadays “theism” sometimes embraces polytheism and deism, and is defined in smaller dictionaries as “belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism.”
Does this attitude actually exist? Is there, anywhere in the world, anyone who, as a matter of pure intellect, simply believes that there is at least one deity in existence? I suspect not. On the contrary, it seems likely that every person who would sincerely agree to such a proposition would also be a supporter of some particular religion, and of various other ideas and practices that come bundled with that religion.
However, let us assume, for the moment, that there is some point in talking about “theism” and “theists” in the very broad sense of agreement with the proposition that at least one deity exists. Is it true that this proposition is not “logically compatible with” evolution? Surely not. An ancient Greek like Hesiod would fervently agree that at least one deity exists; however, in his THEOGONY, Hesiod describes the origin of the physical world as a spontaneous process that predated the birth of any gods, and frames the origins of the gods within the processes of nature. It is admittedly unlikely that science will show Hesiod’s claims to be factually sound. However, they are not only logically compatible with evolution, but are in the strictest sense of the words a story about evolution.
What about monotheism? Is it logically inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that a single personal God created the world and rules over it, and on the other hand to say that life as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process. I don’t presume to know why you think that these ideas are logically incompatible, but I can think of some other people who hold them to be so. What I say next is directed at them, not at you.
In the early modern era, the idea took hold that the physical world operates like a machine. It came to be widely expected that, given adequate knowledge, it would always be possible to predict what output would result from any given input. In time, this idea became so familiar that it was fashionable to claim that reason could function only if events in the world were all predetermined.
When determinism of this sort reigned supreme and nature appeared to be a grand machine, theologians often described God as a grand machinist. For thinkers like Jean Calvin or William Paley, reason demanded determinism and so faith demanded a God whose plans were complete before the creation of the universe and were bound to be realized in every detail. For people still invested in these theologies, evolutionary theory is profoundly disquieting, since it suggests a world in which events not only need not be predetermined to be described rationally, but in which many events may be in principle impossible to predict. Obviously, quantum mechanics is a problem for them as well.
Is an unpredictable world logically incompatible with monotheism? It seems not. Not only was the idea of a universe that operated like a machine as alien to the ancient Hebrews as it was to everyone else before modernity, but the idea of a God who has nothing to learn from nature is absent from the record of their religious ideas preserved in scripture. At several points in the Hebrew scriptures God changes his mind in response to appeals from the prophets and patriarchs. Evidently these men, members of nature as they are, have told God something he did not know. As a result of what he learned from them, God alters his plans. These passages were a scandal in the early modern era, but they don’t seem to have bothered the Jews before the West had its encounter with mechanistic determinism. Now that evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics have shown that reason can get along quite well without determinism, why should the idea of a God who can learn from the world and change his mind as a result of that learning bother any believer?