Saturday, 8 February 2014

Accommodationism versus the Imperial Atheists

Evolution denialism is a huge problem for any society as it is a proxy for a distrust of science and a lack of critical thinking skills, both of which retard the growth of modern society. The question of why this is a problem and how to resolve it have split defenders of modern science into two groups, the accommodationists, who argue that Christianity and evolution are compatible, and the New Atheists who argue that religion is the source of the problem, and evolution denialism will only vanish when religion withers away. The debate has been protracted and acrimonious, with biochemist and anti-accmmodationist Larry Moran opining as long ago as 2006:
For the record, here's what it means to be a Neville Chamberlain Atheist. It means you're happy to attack Intelligent Design Creationists like Micheal Denton (Nature's Destiny) and Michael Behe (Darwin's Black Box) for mixing science and religion. But, you don't say a word when Ken Miller (Finding Darwin's God), Francis Collins (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief) and the Rev. Ted Peters (Evolution from Creation to New Creation) spout equally bad religious nonsense in the name of science.  

The Neville Chamberlain Atheists object when Behe talks about intelligent design but mum's the word when Ken Miller talks about how God tweaks mutations to get what He wants. Hypocrisy is a strange thing to be proud of.
He must be joking, right?
Eight years later, the disagreement continues, with astronomer Phil Plait exhorting scientists to defend science and refrain from needlessly attacking religion,  mathematician Jason Rosenhouse voicing his opposition to Plait's position, and Moran unapologetically pushing the hard line by commenting approvingly on Rosenhouse's post and ending with:
I hope Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Simon Conway-Morris are listening. They are not on my side in this war. 
Claims that evolution is opposed to Christianity may well play well in the New Atheist echo chambers, but as a strategy to wean Christians away from the poison of special creationism, it is frankly stupid. The real issue here, as Moran admits, is the New Atheist desire to exterminate Christianity. If the average undecided Christian sees the evolution-creation debate as a proxy war between theism and atheism, one can hardly blame them for objecting.

The fundamental question that needs to be raised here is what Christianity are we talking about? Characteristic of many of the New Atheists is an appalling ignorance of theology and philosophy, with Christianity ludicrously characterised as either snake-handling fundamentalists or the sort of liberal who thinks that there is at most one God.

At his blog Evolving Thoughts, non-theist philosopher of science comments both on this continuing battle between accomodationists and the New Atheists, as well as the perception that evolution is inimical to Christianity:
It is true that what most theists (usually very far from fundamentalists) of the nineteenth century objected to with Darwin’s view of evolution, or rather the popular version of it presented by writers like the anti-clericalist Haeckel, was the implication that evolution was, as Jason puts it, “a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought”. Basically the theist account of intellectual Christians presumed that humans were part of God’s plan, and so the idea that there was no purpose to our existence was, to put it mildly, a stumbling block for the brightest religious of the day. But it was not insuperable. 

Almost immediately, theists appealed to a distinction that had a long history in theology: that of a distinction between primary cause (God’s actions creating and supporting the world) and secondary causes (the laws of nature acting as if they were basically mechanical causes. Some, like Asa Gray, argued that God intervenes to make the requisite variations occur (for the causes of variation in heredity were as yet unknown) so that natural selection, a secondary cause, would result in humans, like a cook who regulates the heat in cooking to ensure the right outcome, or as he put it

“that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Quoted by Darwin in his Variation under Domestication (1868) Vol. 2: 432]

Others held that God had foreordained the ways the mechanism of selection would work by choosing the right initial conditions. In effect, God chose this world to make knowing, as he must, that humans would be the result. Much appeal to Matthew 10:29 – that not a sparrow falls with God knowing it – was made.

Darwin, of course, rejected this interpretation:

There is another point on which I have occasionally wished to say a few words.— I believe you think with Asa Gray that I have not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a Higher power.— I have had lately a good deal of correspondence on this head. Herschel in his Phy. Geograph. has sentence with respect to the Origin something to the effect that the higher law of providential arrangement shd. always be stated. But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet.— The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. [Letter to Lyell, 1 August 1861]
 and he repeated this argument in the Variations chapter above. But the point to be made here is that some religious were able to accommodate Darwinian blind evolution by natural selection as a secondary cause. Darwin is right, I think, to reject Gray’s irrigator model of a divine intervention from time to time to keep things on track. It is ad hoc and certainly not good theology. But Gray was no theologian. Both are scientists trying to do science (one in the context of prior belief; the other dismissing this as beyond a modified monkey’s brain).

So let us return to Rosenhouse’s claim: that evolution, of itself, challenges religion. Secondary causes were discussed as long ago as Aquinas in the 12th century, and he did not invent the idea (Wikipedia has Augustine, in the 4th century, as the originator of this). His mentor Albertus Magnus, no mean naturalist himself, wrote:

In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass. [De vegetabilibus et plants l.2 tr.2 c.1. Some more on Albert as a scientist here: PDF]

This is very like what Darwin said in the Variation: science addresses how things occur by natural law, not by God’s direct intervention. And note that this rather modern view is seven centuries before the Origin. So it is at best rather anachronistic to assert that “religion” could not adopt evolution, when the intellectual resources were not only there in theology, but were in fact the “default” opinion even since the “One Truth doctrine” had been asserted against the Occasionalists and Averroes in the middle ages. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous for Jason and Larry to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. The use of this notion has even become the standard Catholic approach to the issue. (Bold emphasis mine)
I've long stated that the New Atheists have the same fundamentalist mindset to the Bible that the YECs do. Both privilege a naive, wooden, literal interpretation of the book as the only way it can be read, with the latter rejecting the Bible because a literal reading is ruled out by science, while the former rejecting science for much the same reason. An awareness of the intellectual tradition of Christianity and a dose of humility would not go astray with both the YECs and the GNUs.