Can we call a truce?

By Paul Connelly

I’m a bit confused, and as a Christian, a bit embarrassed about the evolution/creationism conflict that’s getting a lot of play in the media. Now, maybe this is all a big media creation (sorry) since conflict sells. But I just don’t get it.

Now, I’m not sure I’ve followed the whole thing completely, but my take on it is that paleontologists and other scientists have been working to test and correct Darwin’s hypothesis pretty well ever since the publication of “The Origin of Species.” Many atheists, no doubt, welcomed Darwin’s work while others were horrified. As far as I can tell, the theory of evolution does not prove God doesn’t exist, but merely(!) claims God is not needed for the creation of the universe. Frankly, I don’t see why that upsets to many Christians because, as far as I can tell, many people – not all of them Christians – act all the time like they don’t need God.

Okay, so evolution is a scientific theory. So far, though I have read no primary works but have relied only on popularizers, I understand that while there has been fossil and other evidence that has refined and (ahem) evolved the theory since Darwin’s time, there has been no credible evidence that the theory, as currently understood by those working in the field, is wrong. There are debates within the field, of course, about exactly how it works, but the existence of such a debate does not mean the basic outlines are in doubt.

Except by people espousing creationism or intelligent design. And this is where I really start to wonder. It seems to me that the Christians who attack the theory of evolution attacking the “strong”, rather than the “weak” side of the theory. From what I’ve read, arguments like “how can you explain eyes through evolution?” or “what about two independent species that have a symbiotic relationship – how could they have evolved?” have been refuted. (I don’t want to rehash the arguments here; that’s not my point.)

I think a lot of Christians have accepted that evolution is a credible theory about how the world works. They (and I) are less concerned with questions about the mechanics of how the world came about and are more interested in questions like what it all means and how do we respond to it. I think it is quite acceptable to say I believe that God created the world and life on it and that evolution is a mechanism by which it happened.

I realize I don’t have any “proof” of either half of that statement. I don’t have any direct evidence that God exists. Similarly, I understand that evolution is “only a theory” and is subject to revision were new data to be uncovered that makes the current theory untenable. But the fact that it’s only a theory doesn’t make it wrong, since it is a theory that fits the data as we know it.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould influenced (or perhaps articulated better) my thinking on this issue with his theory of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” To oversimplify it, this means that science discusses how things happen and religion is how we understand the meaning of these events. Gould’s idea of how to “call a truce” between science and religion was criticized by some scientists and some Christians, but it made sense to me. I was tickled to note that at some point the Vatican officially stated that evolution was not incompatible with Christianity.

Unfortunately, this truce does not look like it will last. On the one hand, many on the evangelical “right” of Christianity (forgive the oversimplification) want to disprove evolution by any means necessary, including promoting bad science in school textbooks. Some atheists (most famously Richard Dawkins from the scientific community and Christopher Hitchens from the argumentative, self-satisfied twit community) have responded by accusing religion of being responsible for mass murder, colonialism, misogyny and a host of other sins. Religious leaders (including the Pope in his recent visit to the UK) then started equating atheism with the worst horrors of the 20th Century (the holocaust, Stalinism, Maoism, etc.).

None of this is very edifying, and I fear that in the quest of both “sides” for “victory,” we’ll all lose. Take, for example, the question of war. In it’s simplest form, it’s a struggle between one group and “the other.” I think maybe this very basic impulse was an evolutionary advantage early in human history. (But that doesn’t mean evolutionary theorists “caused” it.) Early humans faced a hostile world, relied on the people closest to them and were very suspicious of beings outside their group.

Jesus was aware of this dynamic, and spoke against it. He was very clear that his listeners had to expand their definition of what “the group” meant. It meant including Samaritans, tax collectors, the infirm, the Romans, all the people the religious leaders of the day saw seen as outsiders.

The sad truth is that even though Jesus indentified this problem, Christianity has not been able to overcome it. The various wars over the Reformation stand as an indictment.

But saying Christianity has not been able to overcome sectarian violence is not the same as saying Christianity causes it. As I say, sectarianism runs right to the earliest days of our evolutionary history. But we’re in a situation now where neither the “Christians” nor the “atheists” (as labeled in the media wars) is interested in nuance. Both sides want “victory,” whatever that means.

And where does that leave me? Frustrated, I guess. I see people ridicule Stockwell Day or Sarah Palin, to take two not entirely random examples, and put them down because of their “Christian” views, because “everyone knows” that “sophisticated” people don’t believe what they do. But I want people to oppose them because their views about how society should be organized are unjust, and basically antithetical to Christianity.

So here’s my question:

How do I rescue a vision of Christianity that can accept evolution, focus on meaning and try to translate the message of Jesus (love the other as yourself, overcome suspicion, worship in spirit and truth) into a way of living that can help redirect the destructive energies of the “Christianity vs. atheism” battle into a common struggle to improve our world and rejoice in creation?

Or am I out to lunch?



Filed under Paul's entries

9 responses to “Can we call a truce?

  1. Dan Cooperstock

    IMHO I think the real conflict to be concerned with is that between fundamentalists (of all religions) and the rest of us, whether religious or not.

    The reason some Christians feel a need to attack evolution seems to me clearly to be because they have a literalist reading of the Bible, by which the world is only 6,000 years old or so, and Genesis is some sort of literal description of creation, which cannot fit with all sorts of science (not just evolution, but carbon dating, the cosmology part of physics, etc.).

    I honestly don’t know what to say to those people. (“You’re stupid” comes to mind, but isn’t helpful.)

    In truth, I think there are all sorts of strong arguments against a literalist interpretation of the Bible, but as Blaise Pascal said, “A false idea, once arrived at, is not easily dislodged.” Especially when that idea is backed by religion, and you believe you will go to Hell if you question what you have been taught.

  2. Paul Connelly

    Yeah, but what do “some Christians” think is going to happen? I mean, Genesis 1 is a powerful story. I often am asked to read it at church at the Easter Vigil, with full atmospheric effect of lights slowly coming on. I think it’s true. But I don’t think it’s a documentary.

    Are you saying that if a literalist view of Genesis is wrong, then Christianity is wrong? Clearly, you, Dan, aren’t. But how do we rescue that view of Christianity from the people who do? Because we need to do that so that we can challenge the “popular” view of Christianity as a “know-nothing” religion.

  3. Dan Cooperstock

    Well, I personally think all religion is about myth & metaphor, never history. And the core importance of religion is how it affects how you live your life, in this world. (And of course, that you can be a good person, and live a good life, with or without religion. Same with being a bad person!)

    There are a lot of good books by modern Biblical scholars and theologians that talk about the mythical nature of Christianity, and the reasons a literal interpretation of the Bible makes no sense. But unfortunately I think one would have a terribly hard time getting died-in-the-wool fundamentalists / literalists to read any of those books.

    • Hamish Robertson

      By some happenstance evolution – the notion – has been bugging me a bit recently. I’ll say something more about that above but first I wanted to say something to this: difficult as it is to maintain ‘literality’ in re. the bible, it is also difficult to hold to some bald notion of the bible as entirely a myth. There are just too many historical events in there which have been corroborated by outside evidence.

      As well, it is hardly satisfying to tell oneself one believes in a myth. I am not too sure the statement is not in fact a misnomer. It is very difficult for me, Mr. Modern Man, to “believe” in a “myth”.

      Remember that when you say what Dan has just said you are saying, in one brave swoop, that the creation story is a myth; that the existence of a fearsome (though sometimes, hardly explicably, a loving) God is a myth; that the prophecy in Isaiah 52-53 is a myth; that the Virgin birth is a myth; that all Christ’s miracles, including His final miracle, His atoning death on the cross, are myths; that all Paul’s finely argued forensic reasoning is somehow ‘mythic’; that Revelation is a myth…. (well you may have me there).

      Isn’t that a bit much?

      • I guess Hamish’s point in his Oct. 10 post about “two ways of approaching reality” is why the headline of my original post was a call for a truce.

        Either we have a truce, or acceptance of what Gould called Non-Overlapping Magisteria or we get the unedifying public battle between increasingly hostile and bitter opponents.

  4. Hamish Robertson

    Paul is asking kinda big questions which I ain’t going near. All I’ll do is nibble at the fringes.

    a) The Vatican’s official position is that (I think) as outlined / pioneered in Francis. S. Collins’ 2006 book, ‘The Language of God’, which Duke has just loaned me. Collins was the first leader of the Human Genome project – until 2008 – and is a committed, declared orthodox Christian. His position is to affirm both sides strongly, in a doctrine he calls ‘evolutionary theism’.

    b) My own journey has been peculiar. I was insulated against evolutionary theory early on by reading Dostoevsky’s ‘Underground Man’ which is a brilliant polemic against the kind of social-evolutionary optimism that was prevalent in European capitals in the 1840s. Allowing Dostoevsky to sweep away Comte’s positivism for me, however, meant he swept away Darwin also.

    This was reinforced by a conversion to Christianity via L’Abri’s ill-disguised fundamentalism.

    And so it wasn’t until quite recently – after reading Laurie Garrett’s stunning, scarifying “The Coming Plague” – get it, read it, throw up in the loo – which has a popularized and persuasive version of bacterial evolution embedded in a history of the CDC, the US Center for Disease Control, clearly demonstrating how the horrid little beasties change according to their environment, that I began to give credence to the strictly biological version of evolutionary theory.

    Then reading something about, and realizing the glaring differences between, Australian and Asian ecologies, where there is indeed a stretch of water with the Asian eco-system on one side and the Australian on the other, each structures clearly of huge antiquity; playing mental games in my head seeing how possible it might be to ‘fit’ Australian flora into a European taxonomy, and deciding it probably wasn’t, thus arguing for two very different evolutionary developments; so gradually my defenses fell until I reached my present state of puzzlement.

    Which is indeed a many sided thing as Paul’s probings bring forth, but as I only have space for one: my deepest question has really to do with ‘ways of thinking’ or perhaps ‘modes of perception’ if that isn’t too pompous. I find it difficult to believe that the mind which produced the creation story produced also evolutionary theory in its most fully developed form. And that’s what ‘evolutionary theism’ asks us to believe, that evolution – the process – and creation – the story – have the same source.

    But while the stress in the whole of the creation story is on SEPARATION into fixed categories and types (light, darkness, sea below, clouds above, the very ticking of the ‘days’ of creation itself, trees giving seeds according to their kinds, the naming of the animals, the separation of the sexes), the vision offered by classical evolution is one of continual change, perpetual flux, in which identities, ‘kinds’, are fleeting transitory illusions.

    Now it seems to me that a mode of thinking which seeks to separate things into kinds, in other words, to taxonomize, and one which seeks the flux of things, which prefers purely historical explanations, are indeed very different things. And it is for this reason I think that if you take evolution as your world view base, your core position, it is far easier to come to Buddhism as your intuitive spiritual correlative than it is to come to Christianity. (I found this website after I wrote the above statement but it very neatly makes the argument for me, though from the other pole – that evolution is a theory Buddhists find easy to accept – )

    It still isn’t impossible, that (though Scriptural ‘types’ shift and change on the face of the earth over immense amounts of time) evolutionary change be itself rule-bound, God-breathed, God-directed; nor is it impossible that the very distinction that I am making, between flux and and taxonomy, is itself an illusion: but I guess if you ask me, without ducking, do I think the two modes of thinking are antithetical, I’d have to say that I DO think so.

    My problem is that I just don’t know what to do with that thought.

    • I’m no expert on Dostoevsky, but I think what he was reacting to (and it sounds like maybe you were too) was what we now call “Social Darwinism.” You may be right that there was a “kind of social-evolutionary optimism that was prevalent in European capitals in the 1840s.” Certainly, when “On the Origin of Species” came out it was hailed as “proof” that there was a scientific basis for believing in “progress” rather than that old-fashioned stuff like God. But that faith in progress as a driver of history – a kind of uncritical assumption that every new invention was a sign of progress, and therefore was good – died at Verdun and the Somme.

      Of course, Social Darwinism continued to have its proponents, and these people continued to claim that “survival of the fittest” was morally correct because it was based on a reality that had been “scientifically proven.” Rightly enough, you and others are horrified at that notion.

      But Social Darwinism isn’t really about evolution. It was (is?) an ideology that states competition and power (physical, economic, military) are superior to compassion, concern for the other, loving your neighbour as yourself; you know, the message of Jesus.

      In any case “survival of the fittest,” in the way Darwin used it, does not correspond to the Social Darwinist ideology. The word “fit” doesn’t just mean strong, it also has a connotation of adapting well to the surroundings (i.e. to fit in). That’s closer to the way Darwin meant it, namely that the way an organism survived was to be in synch with its environment, not to overcome it.

    • I’m not sure I understand all of Hamish’s points about how he perceives the conflict between the creation narrative and the theory of evolution, but I have a few thoughts:

      I think everyone is familiar with the concept that change and permanence are not exactly opposite. “You can’t step in the same river twice” is an example.

      We learn from genetics and biology that many life forms, although apparently radically different in appearance, share much of their genetic makeup. This is not to say that they are actually the same species, but the differences implied in the Genesis account aren’t as great in reality.

      I’m not sure that you can equate “changing” with “illusory.” Unless, of course, you go along with the theory that everything in the universe, which is finite and time-limited, is illusory and that the only reality is God, who stands outside of time and space. But that view is, I think, a bit extremist, and also at odds with our everyday experience.

      I think it’s possible to have different ways of showing or explaining the same thing, with a different purpose for each way. For example, a still photograph can be “accurate” or “life-like” and presents information in a certain way about something. A movie or time-lapse photography can present different information about the same thing. That doesn’t make one thing “more true” and the others “less true.”

      The Genesis narrative, has a number of goals, and I’m not sure what they all are. But one of them, I think, is to assert the supremacy of God over objects that others might be worshipping or tempted to worship, like the sun or the great sea monster, by pointing out that God made all of those things. In this way, it is “true” the way that a work of art – even a novel – can be true if illuminates reality in a new or insightful way. But such an illumination doesn’t have to be the only way of revealing or understanding reality.
      I expect most scientists in the field believe evolution is “rule-bound.” The laws of thermodynamics, for example, certainly seem to apply.

      I guess in summary I’m saying I don’t see the contradiction.

      • Hamish Robertson

        hiya Paul – been off sick, hence the long delay.

        Rereading, I realise I haven’t been as clear as I would like. To clarify the discussion (I hope), the distinction I was trying to make was between what in technical philosophical terms would be called the ‘synchronic’ and the ‘diachronic’.

        Each represents a different methodology – the synchronic looks to ‘what is’, to ‘natures’, as in ‘the nature of language’, say: the ‘diachronic’, on the other hand, looks at phenomena as they change in time.

        The distinction is not in practice as clear as that makes it sound, since all philosophies have to integrate time, change, development, in some way, but I think we can see that (e.g.) existentialism, in its stress on time-bound existence, is largely diachronic, whereas Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics, in their concern with ‘essences’, are largely synchronic.

        Post-modern philosophy is almost entirely diachronic, ‘essentialism’ being a kind of cuss-word to them.

        So what I am asserting, I guess, is that the opening chapters of Genesis are a kind of naive synchronic analysis: whilst evolutionary thought is largely diachronic. I was very aware at ICS of the gulf between these two ways of approaching reality.

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