Apparently, Sir David Attenborough is going to tell Kirsty Young that there is no inconsistency between evolution and belief in God. He may, perhaps, already have done so, since there is often a time lag between my picking up on the news and the events or anticipated events it records. He’s not confident enough to be an atheist, says Sir David, opening the floodgates of prediction that the shrill, strident new atheism is being replaced by a more genial, accommodating form of unbelief. But, of course, this is sheer nonsense. Those of us who are convinced, on good grounds, that there is no basis for belief in a god of any sort that would be religiously meaningful, have no intention of building atheist temples and listening to atheist sermons, even if, it seems, there are some atheists, like Alain de Botton, who think this is a good idea, and some theists, like George Pitcher, that particularly rebarbative Anglican priest, who begins his piece of Daily Mail pap with words of terrible banality:
There’s something divine in the air. Agnostics and atheists are beginning to nod respectfully in the direction of the Almighty, while still, of course, maintaining that He’s not there.
And he ends with something equally trite:
The shrill voice of Dawkins is gradually being marginalised by those of no more faith than him, but who nevertheless perceive mystery in humanity and, while not accepting the presence of God in the world, are prepared to face in the same direction as the rest of us and stand in awe and wonder.
Has Pitcher really heard Dawkins speak. Shrill?! Come! Come! As for awe and wonder, Dawkins has all along said that there is so much in the natural world to prompt awe and wonder. This he has never denied, and adding belief in a god doesn’t add to the wonder, or precipitate more awe. Just as a swallow does make a summer, a couple of accommodating agnostics do not actually serve to marginalise Dawkins, and Pitcher’s “arguments” are about as lame as ever, though this time he’s gone a bit downmarket and is writing for the Mail. Before his short stint as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s public relations officer (or equivalent), Pitcher was writing for the Telegraph, admittedly a conservative paper, but one of some quality. The Daily Mail, however, is in another class altogether, and given Pitcher’s completely scurrilous attack on Evan Harris, a well deserved demotion for this dislikeable hack. Long may it last!
But what is all the fuss about? Just because David Attenborough says that he doesn’t think that evolution is inconsistent with belief in a god or gods, doesn’t mean that it isn’t. The real question — and one that no one seems to be bothering to ask — is this:
Is evolution consistent with belief in a god that would be religiously meaningful?
That’s the key question, and no one even bothers to ask it. For there could certainly be a god that was consistent with evolution, but that god would be, without a doubt, either evil and cruel, or powerless. And neither type of god would be religiously meaningful.
This was Darwin’s problem. He realised, over the years, more and more, that the theory he had discovered was simply inconsistent with the goodness of god, and duck and dive as they please, no one has suggested how to make evolution consistent with a god’s goodness. It really doesn’t take much imagination to see why. There is only one plausible way in which a god might be consistent with all the pain and suffering that is the direct consequence of that god’s using evolution as the means of creation. First, human beings must be a distinct creation, and, second, the suffering of animals must be irrelevant to the question of the goodness of god. This seems to be the pope’s way out. But it doesn’t work, however plausible it seems. First of all, it is simply impossible for any but a psychopath simply to discount the suffering of animals as irrelevant to any imagined god’s goodness. And second, the claim that human beings are a separate and distinct creation is one which the theory of evolution denies. Human biology is continuous with the biology of all living things. We are one little twig on the tree of life.
The pope and many other Christians, of course, don’t really believe in evolution at all, because they believe that, at some point in the development of life, god directly intervened and created a being with a soul, namely, us. This ontological saltation, of course, is not a part of the theory, but an addition that simply makes a nonsense of the theory. In order to create intelligent, rational beings, who had a ghostly kind of free will, god had to intervene directly in the process, and, as a result, an entirely new order of being was created. This is not supported by the scientific evidence. It is a theological presupposition — made up stuff! The evidence is quite clear. Human beings are animals, like all the other animals on earth, and like them, human beings are related to all of life, including plants and bacteria, amoebae, and even more primitive forms of life. There is no ontological jump from animals to human beings. Given the theory of evolution, there is simply no reason to believe such a thing. We can trace our lineage back to a common ancestor of gorillas and chimps, and further back to the beginning of life, to one-celled creatures just beginning their billions of years’ long journey to the amazing diversity we see in the world around us, including ourselves.
Even on this theological supposition, what are we to do with the billions of years of suffering of so many animals that have come to be and then lost the evolutionary fight, and were replaced by more successful forms of life? Billions of years of meaningless, pointless suffering, with no one around to respond with awe and wonder, as human beings can. It is simply intolerable to believe that there is a god who used this method for creating us, for bringing us into being. It is a completely mechanistic, algorithmic process, set in motion billions of years ago, and just by chance, happened upon beings like us who can think about the universe and our surroundings, and find it full of things at which we can wonder, and consider with awe. The entire reason for the stridency of the new atheism lies right there. There is no reason to believe a god necessary for the production of this evolutionary process, and any god that was responsible for it would have to be a monster.
There is another point. It only took two cases — just two! – of accommodationism (or apparent accommodationism) for people to go all ga ga about the apparent reasonableness of belief in a god. This is a dramatic point. Just two examples: Alain de Botton and Attenborough, and everyone is all agog! The new atheism is to be replaced by a kinder cousin! But we can’t let go now. We have to keep up the pressure, because if that’s all it takes to give religious people a new lease on life, a sense that there’s going to be relaxation in the religion wars, just imagine what would happen if all atheists began to say the same kinds of things! There would be a return to religion in droves! People would be falling over themselves trying to get back to church and make it up to the big guy upstairs, and all the tawdriness and paltry claims of religion would begin to be made again without restraint!
No, this is nonsense! It’s time to draw a line, and hold our ground. Alain de Botton’s atheist temples and sermons be hanged, and the same with Sir David. If he doesn’t want to offend his audience, I understand, but that’s not a good reason to send people back to their Bibles and Qu’rans and Talmuds, their Gitas and Granth Sahibs, and all the rest of the pathetic crew, nor is it a good reason to give comfort to the religious. I notice that the Mail has gone searching for the grumpiest looking pictures of Dawkins imaginable, and they’ve put it side by side with a silly, grinning de Botton. But the new atheism is the way to go. This is no time to make up to the religious. Religions are a menace! This was the point of the new atheism. Religion is a menace, and a danger to society, and a subversion of reason.
Based on what we know about life and the universe, all gods are palpable falsehoods. This is no time to nod respectfully towards any supposed gods, of any shape, size, power or predilection. For life, however joyful and wonderful some parts of it may be, is, taken all together, a suffering thing, nasty, brutish and short. Certainly, let’s make the best of what life has to offer, but let’s not pretend that there is a silver lining to all of this. That would be the cruellest joke of all. To find, after years of suffering and sorrow — and that is, I suspect, the experience of most people a good bit of the time — that the god who designed all this could have done a much better job, right from the start. Hume was right. Speaking to Philo, in Part V, of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he writes:
In a word, CLEANTHES, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions; but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.
The point simply is, once you think that there is a god behind the design of things, there are all sorts of ways in which even we, imperfect as we are, can suggest improvements. Christians already believe, as do many other religious believers, that god has something awaiting us that is far more perfect than this, so we’ve already thought of improvements ourselves. Then why not start off with the perfect? Surely, this would make more sense, than to allow billions of years of senseless suffering, and then say that god intended it all. If Sir David thinks that believing in god is not inconsistent with this, then he has an incredibly warped sense of what a god might be, but he doesn’t, and that’s an important point. As Jerry Coyne points out:
Attenborough is known for being nonconfrontational, and his unwillingness to declare overt atheism on Desert Island Discs can hardly be seen as a harbinger that The New Atheism is becoming The New Agnosticism.
And he includes a marvellous video in which Attenborough says quite clearly why he is so cautious about what he has to say in public about religion. He wants people to watch his programmes and learn about nature and evolution, which he finds much more awesome and wondrous than the idea of creation. And he knows, as he makes clear in this video, that there is just too much pain for there to have been a good god. He knows this, but it’s not something he’s going to broadcast on Desert Island Discs, which is not, perhaps, the appropriate occasion for being controversial. Sir David knows the answer, but he’s not going to make an issue of it. But the new atheists will continue to make an issue of it, because any other course is closed. Religion is too grave a danger to the world. Somehow, reason must prevail. ____________________________________________________________
I have added the Attenborough video for those who want to see it now, before visiting Jerry’s website. As you will see, he knows that evolution and the goodness of god are incompatible, whatever he might say on Desert Island Discs. There is no religiously interesting god that is consistent with all the pain and suffering in the world. Even religious people know it, because they believe there is something better to come. But, as C.S. Lewis so eloquently said in his book A Grief Observed, if there is a god, then, given what we know of this world, why should we expect another world, created by the same god, to be any better? Of course, Lewis answers by speaking about Jesus. But can the suffering of another man really do the trick?