Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Another ill-informed atheist attack on the belief that Christianity and evolution are irreconcilable

University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash writes in the New York Times both about his belief that Christianity and evolutionary biology are incompatible:
This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun or beyond it to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms (everything that we know about biology and geology proclaims that the Earth was not made in a day). 
So far, so comforting for my students. But heres the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish. 
As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God. 
The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paleys 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon. 
A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism. 
Adding to religions current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering. 
Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
One must be blunt, and call his argument one that is dangerously close to a straw man, given that it ignores the rich tradition of the history of the relationship between science and Christianity. The New Atheists rightly attack YECs for their evidence-free criticism of evolutionary biology, but their attacks on Christianity betray a similar lack of evidence.

With respect to his first point, the fact that Genesis is not a description of when and how God created but a polemic against ANE mythology which is concerned with describing functional origins undercuts his first point, while his second point likewise fails to impress when one considers how an evolutionary theodicy extends the free will defence to the natural world.

Barash's talk merely confirms that fundamentalism is alive and well on the non-theist side. There's more to this story however than atheist caricatures of Christianity. Dutch theologian Taede Smedes criticises Barash's arguments, then makes the point that Barash is effectively bringing religion into the classroom by attacking it:
Barash writes in the beginning of his essay:
Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.
His essay describes in effect the arguments that Barash uses to convince his students that religion and evolution are incompatible. But, as I argued, his idea of what Christians belief or what Christian theology entails is hopelessly naïve. In other words, Barash is not stating the facts in his teaching, but is proclaiming an opinion that is not backed up by facts. Barash is telling his students nothing less than fairy tales. What he is doing, in effect, is not so different from what creationists intend to do: teach religion in the science classes. I find this highly dubious.
Smedes has received support from an unexpected source. Evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne shares Barash's belief that science and religion are incompatible, but nonetheless shares Smedes' reserve:
But in fact, and this is my beef (a small one, like a filet mignon): Barash may not be accomodating science with religion, but he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university. One could even make the argument that he’s skirting the First Amendment here, mixing government (a state university) and religion. After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?
Smedes also points out the hardly insignificant fact that Barash would appear to have a religious conflict of interest:
Even more, there seems to be a personal agenda involved. Barash recently published a book at Oxford University Press with the title: Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science. You should never judge a book by its cover, but this reeks like the biological analogy to Capra’s and Zukav’s The Tao of Physics books, that hooked up quantum mechanics to Eastern mystical ideas. I haven’t read Barash’s book, so I’m not going to say anything about it. But apparently Barash is a Buddhist, so a religious believer himself (although he has religious beliefs that are of a different kind than Christian religious beliefs). It seems then that he uses his classroom as the space to argue that one religion is scientifically inferior to another. Apologetics for buddhism perhaps? Anyway, Barash clearly takes his religion into the science class room. Again, highly dubious if you ask me.
More than highly dubious, I'd argue.