Tag Archives: evolution

Creation vs. Evolution vs. Catholicism

The Barna Group, commissioned by BioLogos, has just released an intriguing new study about sharp divides among “today’s pastors” about science, faith, and the origin of species. The study shows an almost even split between those who believe in Young Earth Creation and those who do not, with the do not group being divided between proponents of theistic evolution and progressive creationism. Young Earth Creationists have their stronghold in the South, while theistic evolution is most common in the Midwest. Most clergy think that questions of faith and science are important, but, at the same time, a majority fear that disagreements are distracting from the greater Christian witness.

There is little there to shock, unless you realize one glaring omission: Catholics. While the survey of Protestant ministers actually excludes both Orthodox and Catholic leaders, the Orthodox have only about one million members in the United States, making their omission excusable (at least from a statistician’s point of view). Catholics, on the other hand, are no minority to be trifled at. As the largest single Christian denomination in the United States–one in four Americans belongs to the Roman Catholic Church–their absence from a survey about the origins of life suggests an array of possible biases, all of them disturbing. It is likely that, in lockstep with history, that Catholics are still being treated as second class Christians or (perhaps implicitly) not real Christians at all. It would not be the first time the self-proclaimed Protestant establishment drew a sharp line between Christianity and papism–even if it can no longer express the dichotomy in those terms in our politically correct age. Equally possible, Catholics may have been excluded because their presumed answers would have tipped the scale away from a picture of conflict between conservative and progressive thought on origins. The Roman Catholic Church never engaged in the kind of systematic anti-evolution campaigns that so many Protestants did at the turn of the twentieth century in response to Darwin. In fact, for more than sixty years the official Catholics position has been that there is no conflict between evolution and Christianity, leading to a de facto triumph of theistic evolution among leading Catholic divines. Admitting Catholics into the dialogue would throw off both the slim majority of Young Earth Creationists and the geography of creationism (with the South and Southwest being an area of significant Catholic presence).

Or maybe the Barna Group just never thought to include Catholics. But would that really be better?

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Evolution is a Myth!

That is the incendiary and intriguing claim of physicist Hugh Henry and biblical scholar Daniel J. Dyke in their joint 2010 article “Evolution as Mythology.” The purpose of their paper is not to call into question the factual accuracy of evolution (as the colloquial definition of “myth” might imply), and both authors accept evolution as a valid scientific theory (without any of the tentativeness that the colloquial definition of “theory” might imply). Henry and Dyke do not examine evolution primarily with the aim of evaluating whether or not it is true, and when they critique the science of evolution it is never with the purpose of debunking it in favor of a more religiously palatable excuse. Instead, the authors are interested only in examining whether or not evolution functions in Western culture as a myth in a sociological sense.

It is prudent here, and the authors recognized the need, to define more clearly how myth is used so as to avoid any confusion which the everyday use of the term might provoke. Henry and Dyke begin simply with a dictionary definition of myth: “A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people,
as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society.” They refine this further by appealing to a definition out of comparative religion: “Myths [are] the symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it. . . . Myths are not falsehoods or the work of primitive imagination; they . . . [form] a sacred belief structure that supports the laws and institutions of the religion and the ways of the community.” Finally, they expand further on these ideas to complete their own definition: “Mythology serves an important sociological purpose. It explains the world-view of a culture or peoples. It validates the thinking, practices, and ideals of a culture. A creation myth explains existence; without a creation myth, a culture or people are without roots and without purpose.” In short, myths are those sacrosanct narrative through which a society orders itself.

With this definition in mind, Henry and Dyke attempt to offer a number of characteristic features of myth which may offer parallels to the way the theory of evolution functions in society. They begin with the most common unifying feature, that of a inexplicable or transcendent guiding force. With its tendency to foster atheism, naturalistic theories of evolution would seem to preclude any deity which might fulfill this criteria. Yet, the authors see in the process of natural selection–all-determinative and yet never fully grasped–the kind of godlike entity that gives evolution its mythic character. The authors observe that “whenever something cannot be explained, natural selection is cited with reverence, as if an omnipotent miracle worker.” Lest this seem like a polemical exaggeration on their part, they offer up this quotation from evolutionary zoologist Pierre-Paul Grasse: “Chance becomes a sort of providence, which…is not named but which is secretly worshiped.” And another from the venerable godfather of abiogenesis, Harold Urey:

All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.

Henry and Dyke suggest a number of other parallels with varying degrees of success. They suggest that, like many other governing myths, the theory of evolution has a profit an Charles Darwin. More convincingly, they note that belief in evolution functions in our society as a social and intellectual shibboleth, distinguishing the orthodox from the heterodox in American culture. While the parallels to the Catholic persecution of Galileo are strained (particularly since those stories are themselves more myth than history), they offer more potent allusions to political or academic disaster resulting from criticisms of evolutionary theory, not to mention a broader fear of being ostracized that accompanies even everyday doubts about evolutionary theory. The authors add, from science historian Marjorie Grene, “It is as a religion of science that Darwinism chiefly held, and holds, men’s minds. . . . Darwinian theory has itself become an orthodoxy preached by its adherents with religious fervor, and doubted, they feel, only by a few muddlers imperfect in scientific faith.”

Somewhere between the credibility of the argument that evolution has a prophet and that it is a social creed is the authors’ suggestion that professional evolutionists function as a kind of intellectual clergy for Western culture with a “secret-knowledge-known-only-to-a-select-few.”

When inconsistencies and problems with naturalistic evolution are raised, they are frequently countered with ridicule, giving the impression that the scientific aspects of the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution are highly complex and can never be understood by ordinary people: not by a physicist like the author and not even by a Nobel laureate such as astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle. The terminology sometimes seems deliberately incomprehensible as if to emphasize that the fundamentals of neo-Darwinism can be understood only by a few great men and women of science.

Pierre-Paul Grasse states: “We rarely discover these rules [which govern the living world] because they are highly complex.” Probability arguments such as those outlined below, which seem compelling, are often countered with flip comments such as “Biologists don’t find that a problem”—as if to cite a higher authority. Fundamental questions, such as the evolution of the eye, are answered with speculation but with scant supporting facts. (One example is the PBS documentary on that topic, which is available in the PBS online library.) Such attitudes are more appropriate to clerics than to scientists; inconsistencies and problems in other branches of science are countered with scientific evidence, not mere rhetoric. Scientists are taught to distrust nebulous calls to higher authority and distracting arguments; as Hoyle once said about the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution: “Be suspicious of a theory if more and more hypotheses are needed to support it as new facts become available, or as new considerations are brought to bear.”

Having shown the ways the theory of evolution conforms to the sociological notion of myth, the remainder of the article attempts to illustrate how evolutionary theory falls short by science’s own self-imposed strictures. Not being a scientist, and not really caring whether or not evolution is good science, I will leave those arguments for anyone who wants to track down the article. What is striking to me is how compelling the overall thesis of the article is, regardless of the strength of the individual arguments. It is hard to look at evolution and not realize just how thoroughly it functions in our culture much in the same way that creation myths have in all cultures previous. It has become “an article of faith and a test of orthodoxy” from which no one in our society can escape. The myth of naturalistic evolution is a necessary construct, whether factually accurate or not, for justifying the naturalism and materialism that prop up Western notions of politics, science, and ethics.

Many of the parallels Henry and Dyke draw are strained, many will find suspect their assertion that evolution is more myth than science (which is really unnecessary to the claim that evolution functions sociologically as a myth), and it is hard not to be critical on a number of levels of the conclusion that “the existence of a Creator-God has much more evidence than the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution.” Yet, these deficiencies notwithstanding, Henry and Dyke make an important contribution to Western self-understanding with this article. “Whether it is right or whether it is wrong,” naturalistic evolution has proved a powerful myth–arguably the governing myth–in Western culture. This ought to allow us not only to open evolution to more careful scientific critique, which seems to be the authors’ aim, but also to cultural critique. Understanding evolution as myth and embracing the iconoclastic postmodern programme, it is paramount that contemporary society begin to reevaluate evolution as a test for orthodoxy in politics, academia, and culture at large. The time has come to consider again the claims of philosopher of science Wolfgang Smith and to actualize their implications:

The doctrine of evolution has swept the world, not on the strength of its scientific merits, but precisely in its capacity as a Gnostic myth. It affirms, in effect, that living beings created themselves, which is, in essence, a metaphysical claim. . . . evolutionism is in truth a metaphysical doctrine decked out in scientific garb.

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The Imago Dei and a Cure for AIDS

My professor just proposed this hypothetical for demonstrating, against those who think evolution rules out any concept of the imago dei, that we all have an inherent sense of humanity’s particularlity:

Let’s say that we find a plant in the Amazon that will cure AIDS, but to get it we would cause irreparable harm to the plant. Most people would side with humanity in this case. We have a tendency as a species to recognize our specialness over against all other life. We allow experimentation on animals, etc.

That is a paraphrase, though as close to remembering what he said verbatim as I can. The problem with that, the absolutely glaring flaw, is that the kind of species chauvinism he is speaking of fits quite neatly into the evolutionary perspective, which imagines the perpetuation of the species as the driving force behind animal behavior. It does not separate us from animals. It reveals our animal brutality, the willingness to disregard the rights of other living creatures in order to perpetuate our own species. I think it would reveal the particularity of humanity more to point out the times when we refuse to press the rights of our own species against the rights of other species.

All of that, of course, is said without comment on the actual ethics of killing plants to cure AIDS.

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The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, pt. 2

This is a continuation of my quotes from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. (See also, Part 1)

“Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.” He elaborates, “At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

Continuing on skepticism, he predicts its inevitable end: “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.'”

Standing at the cutting edge of the evolution versus creation issues that still plague us: “If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

“It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.” To this criticism, he adds this suggestion: “It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

“Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.”

Concerning who was greater, Nietzsche or Joan of Arc: “We KNOW that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.”

“Man is something more awful than men; something more strange.”

“It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Expanding on this principle he writes, “It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad…Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”

“…the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads…They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.” I disagreed with this at first, thinking that he meant it was somehow necessary that two and one make three. He explained, however, that the difference was only in the human mind’s ability to comprehend that two and one should not make three. He concludes, “That we cannot imagine it is a limit of imagination not possibility.”

On the problem of induction and the discovery of purpose behind what is observed: “…But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince…The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.” Of those who appeal to laws of nature, he chides, “It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic.” He concludes, quite masterfully, “Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together.”

Of the thrilling nature of creation: “…when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” He adds, “I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash. Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”

“And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited.”

Regarding so-called “sexual liberation,” he explains, “I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself…Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman…To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.”

“Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.” He states this more aphoristically later: “We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”

“Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree. But Herbert Spencer, in his headlong imperialism, would insist that we had in some way been conquered and annexed by the astronomical universe.” He adds later, “The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it.”

“An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.”
He adds later, “Therefore in dealing with any historical answer, the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it was given in answer to our question.”

“It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came, a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them. They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk.”

He writes at length about the beautiful work God has accomplished in creation:

“And the root phrase for all Christian theism was this, that God was a creator, as an artist is a creator. A poet is so separate from his poem that he himself speaks of it as a little thing he has “thrown off.” Even in giving it forth he has flung it away. This principle that all creation and procreation is a breaking off is at least as consistent through the cosmos as the evolutionary principle that all growth is a branching out. A woman loses a child even in having a child. All creation is separation. Birth is as solemn a parting as death.”

“According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free.”

“God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”

I will conclude this entry with this surprisingly poetic statement about the value of transcendence in theology: “The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.”

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