There’s a new Guardian article from the “be kind to little old ladies of faith” school, claiming that there is no incompatibility between religious faith and evolution. The same author also suggested, in a much earlier Guardian article, that, while we may want to approach religion sceptically, we should not deprive people of religious consolation. As the author, Andrew Holding, says:
Should we ignore religion altogether? No, but do not attack it for being without evidence; it is a pointless discussion. Question it, fight it even, when it is used to oppress, control or exert superiority over others. Just do not hurt the individual, the believer who does not want their hopes shattered.
The strange thing is that I used to be told the very same thing back in the days when I was an active priest in the church. I was told to take it easy on my radical theology, because we should be considerate of the old folks whose whole life and hope is tied up in the faith as traditionally understood. It’s odd to be told that unbelievers should also show the same kind of condescending consideration for the old faithful. In those days I thought that by bringing religion up to date, and trying as much as I could to make it consistent with a contemporary understanding of the world, that I was approaching more nearly to the truth, and at that time, like Denis Alexander and Karl Giberson, I’d have been a bit miffed if I had been told that faith and science were incompatible. But I did realise, for all that, that faith had to be redacted pretty radically in order to make this compatibility credible. As it stood, I believed, and still believe, traditional Christian faith is incompatible with science. Indeed, it seemed to me at the time that Don Cupitt was right, and that it was necessary to rethink faith in non-realist terms, if we were to be able to be people of faith (or of “faith”) in the modern world. In other words, we had to accept that the atheists were right, and that religious thought had to be acknowledged to be wholly a human creation, and that our concept of god was, in some sense, a moral ideal that we celebrated in the songs and stories of faith.
However, there’s something very strange in the way that Andrew Holding puts his point. He tells us that we should question faith, even fight it, especially where it is used to oppress, but that we should not dash the hopes of believers “who do not want their hopes shattered.” That’s interesting, because it is hard to see how you could tell whether or not a particular believer wants his hopes shattered. Wouldn’t you have to shatter it first, in order to find out? In my experience, a lot of people are ripe for having their old traditional beliefs, and the hopes founded on them, brought into question. And, in any case, isn’t conveying falsehoods, and unsupported claims, to people who don’t know any better, a form of oppression, whatever benefits they might be supposed to derive from those false beliefs?
In his 2010 article on the same theme, although he doesn’t call them the new atheists, Holding raises a moral point about the new atheists’ attempt to convince people that religion is both without evidential support and dangerous. He says that we
.. have to accept that science does not contain answers for that which cannot be measured. Furthermore, it is inappropriate to apply it to such concepts. There are at least some for whom religion provides a hope of answering those questions that science cannot, and in doing so facilitates the enjoyment of life. I therefore question if it is morally right to take away that hope when you cannot provide a suitable alternative.
The words ‘a suitable alternative’ really beg the question. What would a suitable alternative look like? Could we not have suitable alternatives to the kind of empty hope with which religion plies its trade? Paul said that “if we have hoped for Christ in this world only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (I Cor 15.19) He said that because he had himself raised the question about the resurrection of Jesus. If Christ was not raised from the dead, he says, then we have hoped for nothing, and then we are truly pitiable. Nor should we forget how much hangs on this hope, a whole panoply of rules which have as much capacity to blight the lives of nonbelievers as it does to facilitate believers’ enjoyment of life. And it suggests that people concerned with science and a rational basis for belief have no right to speak about the improbability of the stories on which such faith is based. Perhaps it is not measurable, but the historical claim that Jesus rose or was raised from the dead is one to which critical questions can and should be addressed. For “scientific” history and even “scientific” textual study have things to say about such claims, even if the sciences, strictly understood, do not.
Old religions get away with making claims to be respected and to be placed above criticism, because they’ve developed a context for cultural respect, but Christians, for instance, or, no doubt, Muslims and Jews as well, all take offence at upstart religious groups that are freshly minted out of someone’s fertile brain. I recall how Christians responded to so many of the so-called “cults” of the sixties and seventies of the last century, like Hare Krishna, for example, whose members used to wear saffron robes and hand out leaflets at airports. These new religions didn’t have the respect that time and widespread adherence can provide, and so they were called “cults”, and there were people who claimed to be able to “deprogram” people who had been caught up in the cults, and were ”trapped” by indoctrination into weird beliefs. Of course, Christians didn’t regard their own beliefs as weird in the same way, simply because their religions were ancient faiths, and had the patina of widespread institutional respect that hid the weirdness.
Suppose Christianity was a new religion, and people were going around to train stations, airports, and other concourses where there was a steady turnover of people during the day. They would prominently display the cultic symbols of their new faith, and hand out leaflets telling the public about a good man who had been done to death by the authorities. They would tell stories about how he had appeared to them after his death by decapitation, or injection or the firing squad. Perhaps he wouldn’t have suffered as much as Jesus, but can the truth of Christianity depend upon the cruelty of the Romans? In any event, let’s suppose, believers had seen their leader buried, and then, later, they went back to the cemetery, and the grave was just a hole, and the body was gone. Later he appeared to them in mysterious ways, and they celebrated his death and resurrection and the redemption bought by this sacrifice by eating a shared meal of bread and wine which they believed, implicitly, was transformed by the action of the celebrant of these sacred mysteries into the saviour’s body and blood. How many people would take such beliefs seriously, if they had never heard them before?
This reminds me of Pascal Boyer’s story in Religion Explained:
I was mentioning these and other such exotica [such as witches flying over villages on banana leafs] over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Catholic theologian, turned to me and said: “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” Which left me dumbfounded. … The Fang too were quite amazed when first told that three persons really were one person while being three persons, or that all misfortune in this vale of tears stemmed from two ancestors eating exotic fruit in a garden. [297; italics in original]
The problem that I would like you to see is that all religions are composed of made up stuff. As J. Anderson Thompson and Clare Aukofer say in their book, Why We Believe In Gods, minimally counterintuitive yet memorable beliefs are strengthened by hijacking certain central features of human cognition and sociality such as our hyperactive agency detection system, decoupled cognition, the attachment system, ritual bonding, and other mechanisms, beliefs that are all, when looked at objectively, weird and improbable. We just do not notice this strangeness of beliefs familiar to us, because they’re culturally embedded, but we do notice how the religions of others seem weird and implausible.
Which leads me back to my concern with Andrew Holding and his article suggesting that evolution and religion are perfectly compatible, and to a new Biologos coinage: evolutionism. Evolutionism, according to Biologos, is the belief that “every aspect of life will one day be explained with evolutionary theory.” Instead, Biologos adheres to what they call “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation.” (And I suggested, for fun, in my title, ”creatolution.”) Of course, from the Biologos point of view — and very likely the view of the accommodationist, Denis Alexander, of the Faraday Institute, whose views Holding discusses in today’s article – evolutionism is correlative to scientism. This attempt to create pejorative ‘isms’ for what believers or accommodationists deprecate is quite curious, really, since the practitioners of evolutionism or scientism would simply be (following general rules of English word-formation) evolutionists and scientists, just as the adherents of communism are communists, and surely evolutionists and scientists would not take exception to that. This should make us suspicious of the intentions of those who use these terms, and who claim, as Holding does, that religion and evolution are rationally compatible. In answer to his question: “So can evolution and divine creation co-exist as beliefs?”; he replies, with altogether too much confidence: “Certainly; even rationally, in the case of many religions.”
Holding has already played the historical card, telling us in today’s article (as though it were uncontested fact) that:
Natural philosophy had its origin in the teaching of the church. Individuals such as Isaac Newton often stated that it was not possible to understand the mind of God, because that was beyond us; we should therefore open our eyes and investigate the world around us, rather than just philosophise.
This is altogether too simplistic. No doubt, as has been pointed out many times, the reintroduction of the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, along with Muslim commentaries, and their scrupulous study by the scholastic philosophers of the medieval period, provided at least one of the preconditions for the scientific revolution of the 17th century. However, simply the fact that the natural philosophers of the 17th century were Christians, and spoke about Christian belief, and tried their best to justify their empirical study of the world in terms of their religious beliefs, does not justify the claim that science originated in the teachings of the church. Had natural philosophy and church teachings been so closely allied, the early church would not have closed down the philosophical schools, nor would Aristotle, Plato and other Greek and Roman philosophers have been missing from the Western philosophical canon for so long. Of course, 17th century scientists spoke in terms of faith, since faith was nearly universal at the time, and unbelief, even doubt about the doctrine of the trinity, could be exceedingly dangerous. So, yes, of course, they spoke in Christian terms, but speaking in Christian terms does nothing to suggest that the origin of natural philosophy is to be found in the teachings of the church. Indeed, the fact that there was so much intellectual turmoil in the Europe of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and that at the same time a rebirth (a renaissance) of classical learning was in progress, is much more likely to have been the impetus that set the scientific revolution in motion.
Even if, as is true, the first response from a clergyman to Darwin’s theory of natural selection — Charles Kingsley’s — was positive, it does not follow that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Indeed, from the pope’s point of view, they are not. The pope (assuming he agrees on this point with Pope Wojtyła) subscribes to the belief that there had to have been an ontological leap from animal to man, and that, whereas animals have no souls, at some point God intervened in the evolutionary process to endow human beings with souls. We are not, according to this, as Darwin said, created from animals; we are, instead, created directly by God; and to ignore this is simply to ignore far too much.
Also, the idea that evolution fit in quite nicely with Christianity because there were evolutionary ideas around before Darwin discovered the mechanism of natural selection, simply won’t wash. Creationist views did not just develop in the second half of the twentieth century, as Denis Alexander suggests. William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, which Darwin had read and digested thoroughly, is essentially a creationist work, and throughout the Origin Darwin himself compares and contrasts what we should expect based on belief in creation, and, on the other hand, belief that the emergence of life, and eventually, of human life, was due to a wholly natural process of evolution by natural selection. And it is quite clear that Hume, though in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion he seemed to be approaching an evolutionary view, simply could not give a satisfactory explanation of the complex design of living things, and had to acknowledge that some creative intelligence may, for aught he knew, be responsible for their existence — although he did add that in many instances the design seemed very faulty.
The picture is not so simple as Holding suggests. The suggestion that religion and evolution are compatible, and that we should simply accept that there is a whole range of things to which science simply does not apply, because it is not able to be measured and observed, and leave religion to deal with that dimension of being human, simply ignores the fact that religion wants much more than that. It wants to play a large part in public life, especially in legislation regarding the things that religious convictions determine to be contrary to the law of god. And if being concerned, as Holding thinks we must be, about the consolation that some people derive from religion, means that we have to give religion the license it seeks to determine whether or not a woman can have an abortion, or whether someone suffering grievously should be allowed to receive help to die, then I say to hell with the consolation that religion brings. For that consolation is bought at too high a price to others, something that Holding ignores altogether. If consolation is the quid pro quo which is used to get believers to accept a whole train of other claims that are oppressive and dehumanising, then they have no right to have their consolations protected from attack. Watching the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, making a fool of himself over the issue of marriage for gay and lesbian people, is just the tip of the iceberg of negative beliefs which have an oppressive effect on people, even those little old ladies whose hope we are supposed to treat with so much care and consideration, and Holding’s impossibly tenuous grounds for claiming the compatibility of religion and science are simply not sufficient on which to ground his pusillanimously blinkered scepticism and unbelief.