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Pushing the point…or not


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Once you cast doubt on man’s place in creation, the entire Biblical story of salvation history, from original sin to Christ’s incarnation, is also threatened.
–TULLIO GREGORY, Libertinisme Érudite in Seventeenth-Century France and Italy

As I may have mentioned, I’m up to my neck in fun and fascinating work right now, including an anthology project called Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics.

I was invited to write this book by an editor at ABC-CLIO, a publisher of beautifully-produced and researched reference works in a variety of fields. The final product will be 45 documents by atheists and agnostics — letters, diary entries, essays — each with an intro, framing questions, historical context, and additional resources. It differs from other freethought anthologies by being strictly limited to atheists and agnostics, meaning no heretics (Spinoza, Montaigne), no deists (Paine, Voltaire, Jefferson), and no one whose position can be taken as mere skepticism of the local gods (goodbye to Socrates and most of his chums). I’m also casting a wider net culturally than usual (China, India, Persia, Uganda), filling that annoying 1200-year gap between the Romans and the Renaissance, and aiming at high school and early college readers. Due out August 2012.

When I said last month, “I’m in the research phase for some really engaging writing projects right now…while I’m overturning cool rocks, I always find some fantastic tangent wriggling underneath,” THIS is what I was talking about.

While doing background on the clandestina (several compelling anonymous atheist booklets circulated secretly in 17th c. France), I came across the Gregory line at the top of the post, which reminded me of Darwin’s Autobiography, which reminded me that I hadn’t touched the blog in weeks.

So here’s my bit on the problem posed by evolution for traditional religious belief.

Evolution was the most recent in a series of discoveries knocking us from our central and special role in the scheme of things. The Abrahamic religions are all premised on our central and special role in the scheme of things. It’s hard to think of a more foundational assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam than the special relationship of God and Human. Every major assumption, from sin to soul to savior, relies on the idea that we are separate and distinct from other animals.

Millions of Christians accept evolution. But the implications for belief are almost never dealt with, since they require an incredibly radical rethink. Instead, many say that God created life, then used evolution to create the diversity of life. And I’m left wondering whether to push the point.

Analogy: Suppose the 2012 election approaches. I very much want Barack Obama to continue in office. A friend of mine expresses deep and fervent support for Obama, saying “I just really love the idea of a Muslim president.”

Do I push the point…or pat the back, glad for the ally, and whistle my way on?

The first question I ever asked Richard Dawkins was about Catholic support for teaching evolution. Do we push the point that evolution creates serious, arguably fatal problems for some of the defining tenets of Christian belief, or be happy for allies against evangelical opposition?

“You’ve asked a tactical question, I suppose,” he said, grinning. “Not really a tactical fellow myself. So I think it depends on whether you are Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.”

Since only one of us was either, this didn’t entirely help.

He went on to say that he would certainly push the point, and does, since that’s what inquiry is about. The very idea of withholding challenge to protect a pet hypothesis is anathema to Dawkins. Gould was more tactical and strategic, taking allies where he could find them.

I’ve struggled with years over which is pragmatically best. When I bring up the problem of reconciling evolution and Christian belief even to extremely intelligent and progressive religious friends, they get really tetchy, mumble foolish things about our inability to know how God works, then huff at me for…what, I dunno. I feel terrible for forcing them to suddenly sound so silly, and I never get around to saying why I find the positions incompatible.

So here’s why.

Evolution was not aimed at making us. Thinking otherwise guts the whole enterprise. The countless blind, reckless, wasteful, weaving paths and dead-end alleys of the history of life on Earth make it plenty clear that, clever and handsome as we (currently) are, we are merely one of these side streets, impressive in our way and to ourselves, but otherwise unremarkable. The process that created us is necessarily unguided on the large scale, and is only guided locally by the ever-fickle demands of natural selection. To make evolution a tool God used to create “Man” requires either a complete upheaval in the concept of evolution, or a complete upheaval in the concept of God, neither of which is forthcoming in the mutterance Goddidit.

I’ve always granted evangelicals a point for noticing the problem (if for little else).

Saying God had us in mind from the start does violence to what we know about evolution. Saying he didn’t have us in mind does violence to the conception of an all-knowing God. Take your pick.

Also problematic is the idea of the soul. If other animals are without this lovely thing, God must have chosen a moment in evolutionary history when we were “human enough” to merit souls. Since evolution is an achingly incremental process, there was no single moment when we crossed a line from “prehuman” into “human.” And even if there was, we’re left with the odd prospect of a generation of children who are ensouled but whose parents are not, or some similarly strange scenario. I’d be very happy to hear an argument for ensoulment (of the species, not the individual) that makes more sense, but have not yet.

There’s also the fact that the astonishing wonder of evolution is that it works entirely without a puppeteer. That’s not a reason for accepting it, but so much wonder is lost, so much color and beauty drained, with the introduction of those divine strings.

There are many other reasons, but they all boil down to the decisive dismantlement of human specialness wrought by evolution properly understood. One can apparently be Christian and accept evolution — millions do — but I’d love just once to hear someone acknowledge the profound revolution of Christian belief that is required.

So we’re back to the tactical. It’s easy to wax rhapsodic about inquiry courageous and pure, but the longer I think of this, the more I seem to choose to make but not push the point, at least not uninvited — to allow those who wish to keep their compartment walls well-spackled to do so. Most people forced to choose between doing violence to science or to their conception of God will have little trouble making up their minds.

But I’m wide open on this one. What do you think?



This was written on Saturday, 07. May 2011 at 08:30 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I never pressed the issue with the Jesuit priest that taught me the basics of evolution way back in the 80’s, but I’m fairly certain the answer would be something from George Carlin’s “Its a Mystery” playbook.

    What does strike me is that the non-abrahamic faiths, like modern Wicca, polytheism or animism have a simple pantheistic answer to the soul question. Animals DO have souls. So do rocks and trees and worlds and even abstract concepts in some faith traditions.

    It is a lot easier for me, random blogger (my blog is even drier than yours, need to get on that), to advocate pushing the point, as I have little skin in the game. If I had to walk that line as part of my job I’d probably be a lot more circumspect.

    Comment: blotzphoto – 07. May 2011 @ 2:56 pm

  2. I think one should bear in mind that the arguments against theism are not unique to the Theory of Evolution:

    1) The central and special role of humans is already questioned by what we know from cosmology.
    2) The problem of undirected evolution is akin to the problem of free will versus predestination.
    3) The problem of the soul is already raised by what we know about psychology and neurology.
    4) The problem of evil is also found elsewhere (natural disasters).

    Thus you don’t need to exemplify any of these points by brining up examples from evolution.

    On the other hand if you argue in favour of the ToE it is questionable to bring up these points because you are devaluating the strong empirical support for the ToE in favour of weak theological or metaphysical arguments.

    P.S.: I really, really like your blog. Particularly your stories about your children in conjunction with going to church since I can very much relate to this.

    Comment: anon atheist – 08. May 2011 @ 5:32 am

  3. Dale, absolutely fantastic post, thank you. The Dawkins exchange made me laugh out loud.

    I vote for letting people figure it out for themselves and not pressing too hard. I heard Ayan Hirsi Ali speak a few years ago (Dale, you were there too at the AAI convention in DC, remember?), and someone asked her the best way to relate to, persuade, or “convert” religious fundamentalists. She said simply, “Create dissonance.”

    That’s what did it for her: she had been taught A, B, and C truths by her fundamentalist Muslim upbringing, but when she went to Holland she plainly saw NOT-A, NOT-B and NOT-C all around her, creating dissonance. It was then up to her own critical faculty to come to her own conclusions. I’ve always loved those two simple words: create dissonance.

    So when your religious friends start mumbling and huffing, I think that’s dissonance. Your job is done! They can take the rest from there.

    PS. Awesome book, can’t wait to see it!

    Comment: Hallucigenia – 08. May 2011 @ 5:47 am

  4. I like to push a little. I have a favorite nugget of conversationalism that I believe came from Dawkins. I love to mention that in the past 1000 years it has taken over a trillion people, successfully reproducing children able to reproduce to get to me. That’s only 50 generations! It means that 1) we are all pretty much family and 2) the absolute chance it took to get to me makes me appreciate my life.
    It doesn’t really push the God angle too hard but it certainly makes people think. “Creating dissonance” as the previous poster mentioned.

    On the other hand, and this point favors pushing a little harder than I do, hearing about atheism and watching someone scoff at the notion of religion chips away at the mystique, the reverence from religion. It’s the reverence that makes not questioning the hard truths seem ok. It’s the reverence, coupled with unthinking aquiesence into the social norm of faith that keeps so many away from even hearing about humanism and atheism. When that fragile support is cracked I think it helps the more logical-minded to see our side and perhaps nudge a little closer.

    Comment: megmcg – 08. May 2011 @ 7:10 pm

  5. You say you’re wide open on this one, but I think you already know the best approach. You use it to teach your children. Present your point and let them think it through. Make them think. Nothing bothers me quite like a person whose world views are completely perfunctory. As far as your friend’s assumption that President Obama is Muslim, I would take the ally. Whether he is doing it for the right reason or not, he’s supporting the best candidate for the job. Perhaps AFTER the election, you could find a way to tactfully point out that he’s not really Muslim… Your choice.

    Comment: Cass81 – 08. May 2011 @ 9:28 pm

  6. I, too, feel that this is similar to how we deal with our kids. We often have to choose between seizing a teachable moment and biting our tongues (especially once they’ve hit middle school!). The trick is being able to recognize which approach will be effective. Still working on that myself . . .

    Comment: codysmom – 09. May 2011 @ 5:39 am

  7. This is a great argument for the incompatibility of evolution and belief in God, succinct and convincing. However, I do want to point out some of the (possibly false) assumptions the argument makes:

    (1) It assumes that the universe is necessarily self-consistent, that contradictory assertions cannot somehow simultaneously be true. Consistency is an a priori assumption. I don’t know how the universe would work without being self-consistent, but the only arguments I have in favor of self-consistency are begging the question and argument from incredulity.

    (2) Similar to (1), it assumes that the universe itself is not compartmentalized. Since we do compartmentalize our thinking, and since we are a product of evolution, there may be an advantage to this kind of thinking. If it is somehow more beneficial to us to accept certain contradictions than not, whether the benefit is short-term or long-term, then perhaps there is something wrong with the non-compartmentalization assumption. After all, the products of evolution are somehow partial mirrors of the environment, and we only value science for its effectiveness. Note that both math and physics are already compartmentalized. Different mathematical systems employ different axioms and can come to contradictory conclusions. Consider also this example from physics: a quantum entity exhibits a probablistic wave state until observed, while macroscopic entities do not. We don’t yet understand this apparent discrepancy, so for now we compartmentalized contradictory physics into two different domains of scale with no clear boundary between them.

    (3) It assumes that the existence of God requires that God have a special relationship with humans. This is clearly the God of the Bible, and it is clearly what most people in this country think, but I’m not sure that it’s what everyone thinks. I know extreme animal-lovers who at a certain level believe that God treats humans and animals equally. (I don’t know if that belief is self-contradictory.) These people definitively believe that animals have souls. I suspect there are notions of God that need not assume a unique relationship with humans, making your argument not apply to “God” in general.

    (4) It assumes that humans are not special to this universe — please bear with me! I am a human, and being human, I care more about humans than any other animal. In my world — I know of no other — humans are indeed somehow special. My light cone is in a sense my universe. If the laws of physics we are discovering grant no special benefit to humans, and if the history of the universe doesn’t either, then I am engaged in somewhat compartmentalized thinking to say that because of these laws humans are not special. In one sense, humans are indeed special and central to the only universe I know, while in another sense they are not. I cannot speak for the universes that other people experience, but I suspect they are similar. So your argument appears to apply only to certain kinds of human specialness, leaving other kinds of specialness reasonable for religion. This assumption I’m stating relies on the possibility that the universe of individual experience may not be synonymous with the span of universe accessible to science.

    If you can’t tell, I’m a really hard-core agnostic. Thank you for this succinct, lucid argument. I also found the preceding comments really thought-provoking. Great blog, great readers.

    Comment: Joe Lapp – 09. May 2011 @ 9:50 am

  8. I should summarize my long comment. I agree that in a self-consistent universe, the God of the Bible and evolution are mutually exclusive. However, we don’t know the ways in which the universe must be self-consistent, and only fundamentalists attempt to understand God entirely as fed to them. Notions of God are diverse and complicated, so arguments against universal notions of God have limited applicability.

    Also, when scientists encounter inconsistent results, they either throw one (or both) of the results out, or they accept both results and declare incomplete understanding. Quantum mechanics and classical mechanics are apparently in violation of each other, but we keep both and try to find the resolution. Seems to me that it’s fair for religious people to do the same with their notions of God.

    Comment: Joe Lapp – 09. May 2011 @ 11:16 am

  9. This actually isn’t a problem at all. It works like this: God creates the whole universe, content in the knowledge that beings that were capable of knowing god would evolve somewhere. This gives you both undirected evolution and the centrality of mankind (or a species with the same properties) to god’s plan. God keeps tabs on everything, notices the smart–but soul-free–biological humans that have evolved on earth. God finds a population of these humans and imbues ALL of them (young and old) with souls. That gives you a moment of creation–not creation of the biological human, but creation of the spiritual human. And of course that’s the source of the special relationship between man and god. Solves all your conundrums.

    The thing is, once you grant an idea as fantastic as god, you can construct unlimited fantasies with it.

    Comment: philosodad – 09. May 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  10. I think there’s a benefit to pushing the issue. You’re right not to push it unnecessarily but the more people realize religion is an old hat you can take off, the more people will also realize there are a lot of sensible folks who have doffed said hats.

    A lot of people simply do not take the time to think about subjects such as religion or even science. And most of those people probably have religion as a result of a kind of community popularity contest. Evolution is a new good reason to question the “facts” that come from blind faith. But being a person who rejects such facts also gives us a chance to have community popularity contests work for us as well.

    Comment: camoguard – 11. May 2011 @ 8:54 am

  11. I think, regardless of whether you are right or wrong, we desperately need more voices like this.

    I have followed the “Accommodation wars” pretty closely, and while I most definitely fall in the so-called “gnu atheist” camp, I am beginning to understand that there are some valid concerns and criticisms with the overall agenda and tactics — or at the very least there are some discussions that need to be had that people are not having.

    But it’s difficult to have those discussions when it seems like the vast majority of those who criticize the gnus are simply being unfair and borderline dishonest about it.

    For instance, when you question whether Dawkins is right to “wax rhapsodic about inquiry courageous and pure”, even though there is an implied criticism of his strategy, you are at least acknowledging what his strategy IS and the reasoning behind it. I find that too often there’s this implication that gnus are being mean for the sake of being mean, but at worst it is TRUTH that we care about for its own sake — perhaps sometimes at the cost of other worthy tactical concerns, and perhaps this is sometimes a mistake, but it’s really frustrating when this motivation is unacknowledged.

    The other thing too is that you aren’t even trying to deny the obvious theological problems here. You know I have seen died-in-the-wool atheists like Rosenau actually engage in Christian apologetics! The mind boggles…

    IF we are to take a tactical approach — to “not push the point” as you say — then posts like this are how the conversation starts, not with absurd attempts by nonbelievers to justify others’ incompatible beliefs, or by misrepresentation of motivations, or a refusal to acknowledge that other strategies can ever be effective. Hats off to you for getting it right…

    Comment: jay.sweet – 01. June 2011 @ 6:37 am

  12. Thanks Jay, well said. It must also be noted that it flows both ways. “Accommodationists” are just as often cartoonishly derided and strawmanned as simpleminded Kumbayas. I’d like to see much more effort from both sides at understanding the real motivations and complexities of the other.

    Comment: Dale – 01. June 2011 @ 9:20 am

  13. The desire to seek the truth, for me, eliminates the choice to “pat the back” and “whistle on my way”. Though I am an atheist, atheism itself is not my primary goal – truth is. So when I see my “ally” aligning with me on one topic (evolution), but getting it horribly wrong on another, how am I to decide which mistake is worse? I can’t. So I must push the point and highlight a non-truth wherever I see it. I agree with Jay in this regard.

    Besides, your Obama analogy doesn’t quite fit. If you only desire Obama to be re-elected, and your friend votes for him (for whatever reason), this friend *is* your ally (in effect). But being an atheist is not about “believing” in evolution or not – it is about not believing in god/s. So if the Catholic still believes in God, even though we might consider their belief in evolution to be a concession on our part, they are still essentially our “foe” (at least in this debate!) and the point must be pushed.

    Having said this though, I rarely debate Christians about this sort of stuff nowadays unless they approach me about it. If they aren’t open-minded enough to start the discussion, it’s basically guaranteed to be a waste of time!

    Love your blog though. Great stuff.

    Comment: KiwiCC – 29. September 2011 @ 5:11 am

  14. @KiwiCC: Yep, that’s the idealistic answer I would give as well, though not necessarily the strategic/pragmatic one. That’s the question here.

    I would strongly question the assumption that advancing atheism automatically trumps advancing evolution education in my concerns. It might, and it might not. An atheist is only one of the things I am.

    Finally, what if the Obama question isn’t just about getting him re-elected (the pragmatic concern), but about our shared desire, yours and mine, to seek the truth and to stop the spread of misconception? The quandary is so similar, the analogy strikes me as very close to perfect.

    Comment: Dale – 29. September 2011 @ 8:33 am

  15. True. I guess my black and white mind didn’t fully grasp your actual question!

    I guess then it comes down to the actual point being pushed – each specific context.

    I am currently debating with a Christian friend who recently sent me a copy of “The Selfless Gene” by Charles Foster – which oddly seems to promote evolution a lot better than God – in an effort to explain to me why he believes in both (my research on this topic is what eventually led me to your site). I know it is only affecting a singular person, but I am pushing the point with my friend. I just don’t understand how a Bible-believing Christian can accept evolution (without a single Biblical reference) without opening the Bible up to so much possible interpretation as to make a mockery of the truth of it. How much else “lying by omission” can one let into the Bible if one grants evolution?

    So in regards to your actual query, I question the point of teaching scientific facts to people to whom (I believe) haven’t got their logic systems sound yet. Though I daresay the issue of teaching evolution is much less of an issue down here in Australia / New Zealand than over with you in the States!

    Comment: KiwiCC – 03. October 2011 @ 5:22 am

  16. Since your friend opened the can, that is a *perfect* situation for pushing the point. And it seems to me you’re pushing it on exactly the right grounds. Good luck!

    Comment: Dale – 03. October 2011 @ 5:40 am

  17. Dale, I like your Obama analogy as I think it highlights the very real danger of accepting an ally on point X by allowing them their delusion over point Y.

    If my friend votes for Obama because he thinks Obama is a Muslim I might accept that but I cannot know what harm that do. What if he convinces two people that Obama is a Muslim and they then proceed not to vote for him – net result is one vote fewer for Obama.

    Similarly by allowing Christian X to believe in evolution and his faith you are then allowing the possibility in future that there is a dichotomy in school where you either allow god in or evolution, but not both. The Christian who accepts evolution may be happy to trade evolution for god whereas the Christian whose faith has been rocked would be less likely to give up facts for faith.

    Comment: keddaw – 05. October 2011 @ 4:10 am

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