“Science vs. religion” is sort of a big topic. That could refer to a lot of things. It could mean an individual choosing between a philosophy reliant on evidence and an outlook rooted in faith. It might mean Georgia Tech vs. Notre Dame on a fall Saturday.
In this excellent post on evolution over over at Salon (via AlterNet), Greta Christina is not talking about the Yellow Jackets taking on the Fightin’ Irish. But the broad “science vs. religion” in the headline has about the nuance of a football broadcast. Christina’s actually talking about a specific religious response to a specific scientific theory: She takes on those progressive Christians who seek to maintain a belief in God while allowing that evolutionary theory mostly gets the whole “how we got here” thing right.
Their position sounds reasonable, especially if you’re used to believers who discount evolution entirely and say things like this. But Christina’s not having the accommodationism. She presents a number of excellent reasons why God is not necessary for evolutionary theory to work. And I think the version of the “evolution-but-now-with-more-God” viewpoint that sees a supernatural deity tinkering with evolution from time to time is pretty weak. It’s an easy take-down. A universe governed by natural laws that just needs the rare supernatural goosing should really just fall under Occam’s razor, anyway.
But Christina makes no quarter for those who believe in an even more distantly involved God, either. Maybe it just works like this, the faithful but reasonable, say: God sets up the watchworks at the beginning, then the universe runs, a steady little machine, and evolution is a part of this mechanism. I don’t have a big problem with that point of view. It, of course, takes God so completely out of the picture, that he’s basically unnecessary. But is there any harm in that belief?
Christina thinks it’s still wrongheaded. Why? Because, she argues in part, look at the brutality of evolution: most organisms die, and often painfully, in a struggle to survive just long enough to reproduce. This, historically, happened to most humans, and continues to happen to a great many. How, Christina asks, could a caring God who loves us set up such a cruel system?
So, at least for this part of Christina’s argument, it becomes the familiar “problem of evil”: How could a god who is both all-powerful and good let bad things happen? There’s a long line of philosophical and religious argument over this, but it’s sort of weird to see it used here. Christina is presenting scientific evidence — and then gets into a theological argument that predates Darwin. Clearly Christina is attacking a very particular conception of God: the fatherly, magic man in the sky. She even uses the term “magical creator god” several times. That’s why she concerns herself with disproving, specifically, a morally good father figure.
There are definitely people who believe in such a god. But are they the same people accommodating evolution to their faith? It’s a very simplistic conception of God, “the magical creator in the clouds,” and it’s a bit unfair that Christina assumes this is the only option. She basically dismisses any more complicated or abstract notion of god by calling it deism. So, your choices, according to Christina are: atheism, Sunday morning cartoon God, or deism.
What about a God who is more mysterious than that, who cannot be reduced to a human-sized caricature? A God who cannot be logically understood, but who nevertheless has a relationship with existence? I get that this perhaps abstracts things into a hooey that doesn’t end up meaning anything. But I also think the “magic man in the sky” conception is an easy target. And a very specific one.
It’s the one Christina chose to wrangle, though, and she does it with some really interesting and accessible science. It’s certainly not the end-all on “science vs. religion,” though.