The Ignorance of Some Scientists
Ok, it’s been a while since I’ve been as worked up as I am about a scientist who publicly ridicules religion and dismisses out of hand the possibility that women and men of faith — particularly Christian faith — can hold both their beliefs and solid scientific truths at the same time. The most recent instance of what I am calling “the ignorance of some scientists” appeared in the New York Times this weekend in an article titled, “God, Darwin, and my College Biology Class,” by the University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash.
Professor Barash tells the story of his routine introductory lecture given to students early in each new semester. He makes it clear that if one is uncomfortable with the concept of biological evolution on account of religious beliefs, they would do well to suspend those convictions or at least not allow them to get in the way of adequately and accurately learning biology. Up to this point, I am essentially in agreement with Barash. Those who are often loosely grouped into some general category called “fundamentalist” or “biblicist” who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old or that the universe was created in a literal week are certainly entitled to hold such theologically empty, historically unsound, and biblical unsubstantiated views. However, they will undoubtedly cause problems when those who hold such views attempt to study the natural sciences.
Where I depart from Barash’s view is when he takes a further step to claim that evolution has essentially demolished fundamental religious beliefs. He writes about his talk to his students:
I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.
That reference to Professor Stephen Jay Gould has to do with Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” which means that one can hold both world views because they deal with totally different material and fields. This is popularly referred to at times as the different foundational questions of “how” and “why,” proponents of Gould’s way of thinking argue that science seeks to address the former and religion the latter.
Barash disagrees — vehemently, by his own admittance — with Gould. Barash does not believe that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but rather present an irreconcilable tension.
I actually agree with Barash in his distaste for the “Non-overlapping magisteria” argument. While I do believe natural sciences and religion are concerned with essentially different questions, they in fact overlap quite a bit. So we may agree on that point.
The problem, though, in Barash’s easily perceptible theological ignorance. His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence and his ostensible unfamiliarity with the work of those who are both scientists and theologians haunts his own fundamentalist presuppositions.
I would love for him to sit down with Ilia Delio or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne or any other scholar who holds doctorates in both scientific fields and theology. Even those who haven’t earned advance degrees in both areas, those like John Haught or Elizabeth Johnson, have gone far out of their ways to not only take the natural sciences seriously, but to engage in complex and rigorous research that correlates the depth of the Christian theological tradition with the scientific discoveries Barash thinks “demolish” religious belief.
Barash argues that there are three critical “strikes” to religious belief that evolution blows. The first is the defeat of “what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.” I actually don’t have any problem with that. Arguments from complexity are not seriously considered by real theologians who study creation or theological anthropology, not at least in terms of the caricature he presents (which is probably more closely connected to the beliefs of the pedestrian biblicist).
The second is what he calls the “illusion of centrality.” Here’s what he says:
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.
And this is where I get really worked up!
I agree completely with the contention that human beings are not above and against, nor entirely distinct from the rest of nonhuman creation. As do many other theologians, as does the scriptural tradition. In fact, I’m proposing to write a dissertation that seeks to advance precisely this line of thought, critiquing among other things models of creation and theological anthropology that are typically presented in terms of both dominion and stewardship. Much of my own theological research in recent years has been working in this area and following the leads of theologians — I’m even presenting a research paper directly related to this question in November at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Diego. This idea is not entirely new.
While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, now way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!”
It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been “literally no whales ever found in space.” Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing. This is where the groundbreaking work of people like Karl Rahner (“supernatural existential”) and Teilhard de Chardin (on evolution and theology) is especially instructive.
Likewise, just because one is learned in one field of research and scholarship (biology) does not mean that she or he is qualified to so definitively proclaim apodictic truths in another field (theology). If the theologians I named above, including myself, take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, he should do likewise and take seriously our work. He might actually learn something.
Barash’s last “blow to religion” is with regard to theodicy. He writes that, “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.” This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.
To conclude, I want to say that the way Barash comes across is not unlike the scientifically ignorant religious fundamentalists he critiques. Their childish and literal interpretations of complex scriptural narratives are to science what Barash’s absolutist and incontrovertible interpretations of evolution are to theology.
This irony hasn’t been lost on me. And I hope that Barash may also realize this discovery. Maybe then his way of thinking could evolve just as the species have, though I hope it doesn’t take as long.