If, as we concluded in the last post, the concept of evolution seems to be such an effective weapon in attacking religion, how can it be seen as a cornerstone for, as Teilhard put it, “a clearer disclosure of God in the world”? How can such a secular concept as evolution, used to support the belief that God is no longer needed as a source of creation, be turned into a means for understanding God?
As we saw in the last post, evolution from Teilhard’s perspective embraces understanding the whole of the universe, not just living things. It incorporates the full spectrum of cosmic time, from the big bang to the present. With such enlargement of the picture, we can begin to see how viewing evolution from this vantage point permits us to understand the concepts of matter, energy, life, consciousness and persons from a unified perspective.
Before we follow Teilhard in this cosmic journey, it is important to understand why evolution is such a source of conflict between the two great modes of thought represented by religion and science.
The Emergence of Nonbelief
We only have to go back a few hundred years or so to find a Western world still acknowledging, for the most part, a world whose development was considered to be adequately described in the book of Genesis. Even though most educated persons were beginning to see the story as a metaphor, the idea of a God in charge of everything was still accepted by most. Even the very structure of government, in many cases, still bore the imprint of the Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic doctrine.
The Christian idea of God as the supreme lawgiver and source of reality was also one of the cornerstones of the empirical methods that we now call ‘Science’. As opposed to many of the Eastern modes of thought, in which reality is considered as ‘subjective’, and in which man is so completely enmeshed and thus unable to see existence ‘objectively’, western science applied the ancient Greek approach of empiricism. The Eastern thinker did not see the workings of nature as underpinned by a universal force, which was also personal in nature. Instead he was “left to contemplate the ever changing dance of life and time” relieved of any intuition that the workings of nature might reflect the actions of a single, universal creator.
As western society started to painfully morph from the form of ‘empire’ into that of city-states, and then to countries, the basis of belief also began to fracture, spinning off theological doctrines which departed significantly from the (mostly) unifying Catholic concepts of the early medieval age. This in turn supported the development of regional societies unified by ethnicity and radically different beliefs. As it became more acceptable (and often more safe) to express different opinions on the basis for existence, different ideas were now often publically in contention.
One of these ‘different ideas’ was that which began to question aspects of the Christian bible. With the rise of the middle class, the increase in numbers of those neither at the top (royalty) of society nor at the bottom, owing loyalty neither to the established monarchy nor to the state religions, came the increased freedom to think independently and question positions long held by both establishments.
Out of such questioning came the concept of seeing traditional Christian teachings in the light of the human enterprise. This point of view was well articulated by the ‘Deists’ of the eighteenth century, many of which were responsible for the composition of the Constitution of the United States. In a nutshell, Deism accepted the general idea of God and the teachings of Jesus, but denied such concepts as miracles and the divinity of Jesus. This approach to understanding reality reflected a belief in the logic of the universe, the value of human reason in pursuing it, and a natural law as reflected in the logic of the constitution.
Although most Deists were not considered ‘atheists’, an exploration of their writings, for instance Thomas Jefferson, reveals an antithesis to organized religion. Today’s atheists consider Deists to be the first public nonbelievers. This ambiguity was to be stretched even further a few decades later with Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of the Species”.
The idea of things ‘evolving’ from one form to another is not a new concept. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander postulated the development of life from non-life and the evolution of man from animal. Charles Darwin simply brought something new to the old philosophy: the plausible mechanism of “natural selection”. Darwin’s natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations, thus it is seen as a mechanism of replication and survival. While Darwin still considered himself to be a ‘believer’ in the general sense, his theory of ‘Natural Selection’ nonetheless offered a mechanism for the appearance of species of living things that has been interpreted by many as displacing the action of God in creation.
As Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor in the department of Molecular Biology at Brown University, observes, “With Darwin…Evolution displaced the Creator from His central position as the primary explanation for every aspect of the living world. In so doing, Darwin lent intellectual aid and comfort to anti-religionists everywhere.” Richard Dawkins, Professor of Science at Oxford and widely published atheist, goes one step further: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
As a result, it has slowly become more acceptable in society to deny belief and to avow the position of atheism.
Nonbelief Vs Religion
If the arrival of the concept of natural selection offered a point of entry for atheism into the stream of human discourse previously heavy influenced by theism, the rise of science in general was seen to strengthen it. Every new finding of the rapidly maturing methods and tools of science seemed to push the idea of God further and further from the center of reality. As Dr. Miller notes, “First Galileo and Copernicus displaced man as the center of the universe. Then Darwinism set aside God as the author of creation. And finally the rise of biochemistry and molecular biology removed any doubt as to whether or not the properties of living things, humanity included, could be explained in terms of the physics and chemistry of ordinary matter. The word is out- we are mere molecules.”
The increasing numbers of those who no longer found it necessary for a ‘God’ to be at the basis of reality began to actively attack religion as an artifact of the childhood of humanity, a childish belief which it was now necessary to discard. Their primary weapon of choice was the concept of evolution.
To make matters worse, as Miller reports from his chair at Brown University, there is today a ‘fabric of disbelief’ in many academic institutions. As he reports, “The conventions of academic life, almost universally, revolve around the assumption that religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated”. While they practice the virtues of free inquiry and expression, “their core beliefs do not allow them to accept religion as the intellectual equal of a well-informed atheism….claiming that evolutionary biology is capable of making a powerful and profound statement on the ultimate meaning of things.” This mindset reflects the Pew poll that shows a strong correspondence between the emergence of an educated middle class and a trend towards less religious affiliation.
The more militant of the “well-informed atheists” go much further. For example, geneticist Richard Lewontin minces no words in his attack on religious belief:
“The problem is to get them (the public) to reject irrational and supernatural explanation of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the lonely begetter of truth. We take the side of Science…because we have a prior commitment…to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations. Morever, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Another ‘scientific’ point of view also belittles traditional religious belief. Stephen Jay Gould, noted evolutionary biologist, argues in his book, “Wonderful Life”, “If the evolutionary tape were played again, human life would not be expected. In fact, even if it were replayed a million times or more, man would not be expected…Man is a wildly improbably evolutionary event…a detail, not a purpose…a cosmic accident.” To Gould, this is good news, even “exhilarating”, since the absence of purpose in life “releases us from responsibility to purpose…offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our chosen way.”
Dr. Kurt Wise, one of Gould’s students (and later noted creationist) summarized Gould’s antagonistic approach, “If ever evolutionary theory has been elaborated to the point of incompatibility with a Christian world view, it is by the pen of Steven Jay Gould in this book.”
The stakes get higher. As Miller notes, “Lewontin, the evolutionist, is shooting for a social order in which right-thinking people (like him) will hold the absolute reins of cultural and intellectual power. His sentiments confirm the worst fears of creationists- that evolution isn’t really about science, but is instead an ideology of belief, power and social control.” Bruce Chapman, former chief of the United States Census Bureau and president of the “Discovery Institute” (a group promoting Intelligent Design) fears a moral dissolution caused by the ‘leakage’ of Darwinism and materialism into the ‘soft sciences’ (sociology and psychology). In their view, the beliefs of Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin might be fine as a basis for behavior of the intellectual elite, but if ordinary people were to toss aside their moral and ethical principles in the “absence of purpose in life”, the fabric of civilization would quickly unravel.
Chapman offers the example of Clarence Darrow getting the sentence of accused murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb reduced due to “evolutionary circumstances”, effectively claiming that deterministic forces made them less than fully responsible for their crimes. He quotes from Darrow’s closing argument, which claimed that they were really helpless agents of their genes, “Nature is strong and pitiless. She works in her own mysterious way, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand and we play our parts.”
It is not just that evolution’s version of history threatens the traditional expressions of religion, such as scriptural integrity, but the prospect that evolution might succeed in convincing humanity of the fundamental meaninglessness of life. In such a humanity without meaning, purpose or absolutes, what would be the reason for existence?
As Dr. Miller notes, “The depth and emotional strength of objections to evolution sometimes baffle biologists who are used to thinking of their work as objective and value-free. The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual.”
The battle lines are drawn.
The next post will summarize the reaction from the far right in their “backlash to evolution”, in the forms of creationism and “intelligent design”.