Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Flood of Books on Science and Religion

It seems that the science versus faith "debate" has become the topic of the moment. As someone who professes to both have a Christian faith and to believe in the scientific method, I often think this is a debate between the extremes on both sides. In recent years, however, the target of many of the attacks on religion by important figures in science has been directed at people like me. The argument is that even my religious belief is irrational and ultimately dangerous.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently posted an essay by David P. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, that discusses ten (yes, ten) recent books on the science versus faith issue. Here is the provocative beginning of the essay:


In his 2004 book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris pointed out that alone of all human assertions, those qualifying as "religious," almost by definition, automatically demand and typically receive immense respect, even veneration. Claim that the earth is flat, or that the tooth fairy exists, and you will be deservedly laughed at. But maintain that according to your religion, a seventh-century desert tribal leader ascended to heaven on a winged horse, or that a predecessor had done so, without such a conveyance, roughly 600 years earlier, and you are immediately entitled to deference. It has long been, let us say, an article of faith that at least in polite company, religious faith — belief without evidence — should go unchallenged.

No longer. If recent books — many of them by prominent biologists — are any indication, the era of deference to religious belief is ending as faith is subjected to gimlet-eyed scrutiny.


As you might imagine, an essay that discusses ten books is tough to excerpt or even summarize. I will therefore focus on what the essay says about books written by two famous biologists--Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Here is what the essay had to say:

Those and other issues are also confronted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, whose overt dismissal of religion, combined with the brashness and brilliance of his writing, has evoked fury among the faithful and consternation among the decorous. Dawkins has the effrontery to dispatch various "proofs" of God's existence: those of Aquinas, Anselm, and what he calls the arguments from beauty, from personal experience, from Scripture, and from admired religious scientists. He also tackles the evolution of religion and what's bad about the "good book," while disputing the claim that religion is necessary for morality, all the while pulling no punches about why he is so unabashedly antagonistic to religion. (Honestly, is there anything hostile about suggesting, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully"?)

Most effective is Dawkins's chapter "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," which not only sheds logical light on the so-called anthropic principle and the "worship of gaps," but also demolishes yet again the hoary "argument from design." This chestnut has had numerous stakes driven through its heart, but like a cinematic version of the undead, it keeps resurrecting itself, staggering, zombielike and covered with flies, back into public view. Dawkins confronts the version concocted by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, who evidently knew more about stars than about evolution. According to Hoyle, the probability of living things' having been created completely by chance is about that of a windstorm's blowing through a junkyard and spontaneously creating a Boeing 747.

Dawkins agrees that chance alone would not be up to the task but then shows, painstakingly, that natural selection is precisely the opposite of chance: It is an extraordinarily efficient way of generating extreme nonrandomness. Moreover, God as ultimate explanatory device for complexity is especially depauperate, since we cannot credibly maintain that God is less complex than a Boeing 747. In short, God, for Dawkins, is "the ultimate 747": Insofar as the problem is explaining complexity, it hardly suffices to posit the spontaneous and uncaused existence of something that is infinite orders of magnitude more complex.

Dawkins grants that God cannot be conclusively disproved, but he also urges that religion not be granted any special benefit of doubt. "If by 'God,'" wrote Carl Sagan, "one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying. ... It does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity." Dawkins adds, "The metaphysical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs, and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason."

. . .

In The Language of God, Collins shares his personal journey from atheist to evangelical Christian. Collins is no fundamentalist, however; he acknowledges the consilience of modern evolutionary science, arguing passionately and effectively that "new earth creationists" do a disservice not only to science but also to their own faith by denying reason and evidence. He approvingly quotes Galileo: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." But then, in a stunning volte-face, Collins announces, "The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation." (And here I thought it cried out for physics.)


Collins argues that his faith comes primarily from two sources: the existence of what he calls "the Moral Law," and the "universal human longing for God." As to the former, is there really one moral law? Some feel it is lawful to suppress and kill those who disagree with them, or to worship idols, or mutilate their own genitals (typically with religious sanction), or proclaim their unique capacity to be "saved." Collins is greatly impressed, nonetheless, that people have a single, deep, shared knowledge of right and wrong, which he might find less impressive if he were more familiar with basic sociobiology. He seems not to understand that infanticidal male behavior in langur monkeys does not preclude the use of "altruism" at other times, and by other species, as a means of mate attraction, or that the evolutionary biology of kin selection is based on identity of genes via common descent, not just in ants but in any sexually reproducing organism. Taken together or in various combinations, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination, provide biologists with more than enough for the conclusion: God is no longer needed to explain "Moral Law."


As to that longing for God, Collins asks, "Why would such a universal and uniquely human hunger exist, if it were not connected to some opportunity for fulfillment? ... Why do we have a 'God-shaped vacuum' in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?" As his spiritual mentor, C.S. Lewis, pointed out: "A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water." Many people would love to live forever. Does that mean that there is immortality? (I guess so, if they believe in the right religion.) Indeed, why would Janis Joplin have sung, "Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?" unless there is such a thing as a Mercedes-Benz? Evidently the existence of a Mercedes-shaped hole in Joplin's heart indicated that it was meant to be filled.


Collins is more persuasive, although certainly not original, when trotting out the anthropic principle, the argument that the universe is tuned to bring about life in general and human life in particular. There are a number of physical constants and laws such that if any had been even slightly different, life might well have been impossible. For example, for roughly every billion quarks and antiquarks, there is an excess of one quark — otherwise, no matter. If the rate of expansion immediately after the Big Bang had been a tiny fraction less than it was, the universe would have recollapsed long ago. If the strong nuclear forces holding atomic nuclei together had been a smidgen weaker, then only hydrogen would exist; if a hair stronger, all hydrogen would promptly have become helium, and the solar furnaces inside stars, which we can thank for the heavier elements, would never have existed.

Both Dawkins and Sagan examine this argument, which Dawkins caricatures as "god-as-dial-twiddler." Such twiddler-twaddle is oddly tautological, in that if the universe were not as it is, we indeed would not be here to wonder about it. In Fred Hoyle's science-fiction novel The Black Cloud, we are reminded that the probability of a golf ball's landing on any particular spot is exceedingly low — and yet, it has to land somewhere! The anthropic principle can also be "solved" by multiple universes, of which ours could simply be the one in which we exist. This might apply not only to horizontally existing multiverses, but also to the same one occurring differently in time, if there have been (and will be) unending expansions and contractions. Moreover, it isn't at all clear that the various physical dials are independent, or that the physical constants in the universe could be any different, given the nature of matter and energy.


The Language of God reveals its author as the writings of the Four Horsemen do theirs to be decent, generous, and humane. Unlike the latter, however, Collins desperately hopes for a reconciliation, or, at least, a lessening of animosity, between believers and non-, and one hopes that he might serve as an ambassador from science to evangelical Christianity, immunizing the latter against fear of the former. He would also like to missionize in the other direction. Recall the rabbi, visited by two members of his congregation who hold mutually contradictory positions, who reassures each that he is correct. The rabbi's wife reproves him, noting, "They can't both be right," and the rabbi agrees, "You're right, too!" Collins fervently maintains that both religion and science can be right.


Thus he explicitly denies a strict interpretation of Scripture — e.g., Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, Jonah inside the whale — eschewing literality when biblical accounts run obviously contrary to current science. At the same time, he believes fervently in Jesus' resurrection and the reality of a personal god who answers prayer.


What, then, is his basis for accepting some Bible stories and not others? If Collins is simply clinging to those tenets that cannot be disproved, while disavowing those that can, then isn't he indulging in another incarnation of the "god of the gaps" that he very reasonably claims to oppose? What about, say, those loaves and fishes, or the Book of Revelation? And does the director of the Human Genome Project maintain that Jesus of Nazareth was literally born of a virgin and inseminated by the Holy Ghost? If so, then was he haploid or diploid? Is it necessarily churlish to ask what it is, precisely, that a believer (layperson or scientist) believes? In the devil, angels, eternal hellfire, damnation, archangels, incubi and succubi, walking on water, raising Lazarus?

Read it all.

My take on this essay--and most of the books he discusses--is that they all display a profound misunderstanding of both the nature of the faith shared by the vast majority of mainstream Christians like Collins and me. The authors can easily understand--and refute--a fundamentalist who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but really do not understand a more complicated view of the scriptures. The last paragraph I quote above is perhaps the best example of this. It is clear that neither Dawkins or Barash have taken any effort to understand how we read the Bible or determine religious truth,

My answer to that final paragraph is this. I accept evolution because the scientific evidence is overwhelming and because I do not believe that God intended the Bible to be a 21st Century science treatise. The Bible is a work of a tribal, agrarian people, and should not be read as the truth on scientific issues such as the details of creation.

I also reject the assumption, however, that because people do not usually rise from the dead, walk on water, or cure diseases by touch, that the Bible is "wrong" when it describes the Resurrection and miracles. This is taking the scientific world view too far, and it is indeed inconsistent with modern science. As I have said before, under modern quantum theory, there is not a deterministic universe. All matter and energy is the result of a probability wave function. This means that nothing is impossible--especially if you believe in a God who acts in our world and who can influence the world.

So how can I believe in evolution, but also the resurrection? Simple. The creation story is a tribal myth of an agrarian people with a pre-scientific world view. I reject the notion that it was ever intended to be a description of scientific fact. The Resurrection, however, is described by people just years later as a real event--and these early believers were willing to die for their belief that this Resurrection really happened. I find the history of the earliest Christians to be pretty profound evidence that the New Testament is describing real event in history.

Hat tip to Pharyngula for pointing me to this review.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post. Reading the Bible as a science text book is not reading it as intended.