To begin with, I don’t know the answer to that question, so it is asked earnestly. I know that there is a kind of liberal Christianity — of the Sea of Faith variety — to which I was at one time greatly attracted — which has dispensed, or at least largely dispensed, with the supernatural apparatus which is central to most religions. I also acknowledge that there are some cultural traditions, commonly called religions, which do not, at least in some of their forms, depend upon belief in a god or gods, though supernatural figures are often attached to them in practice, such as Buddhism and Jainism. But my question is a much more exacting one. Can there be a religion, including all the practices normally associated with religions – such as ritualised symbolisms and communities, without superadding the supernatural?
This was a question to which the Anglican theologian Maurice Wiles addressed himself in a fairly well-known popular book, God’s Action in the World (which apparently I no longer possess). One of his concerns in the book was so to describe God’s action in the world that it would be both intellectually — that is, theologically — respectable, and religiously compelling. This is a very difficult balancing act to achieve, as anyone who has tried it over a number of years with a congregation of Christians would testify. I’m sure that many members of the Clergy Project would acknowledge, for, as disbelieving clergy were heading in the direction of unbelief, many of them went through a period of trying to accommodate their religious language with what they were increasingly learning from science, philosophy, biblical studies, and the sheer bewildering variety of positions on any topic you care to mention respecting religious belief.
My own process was gradual, and, towards the end, proceeded at an almost breakneck speed. When I read some of my homilies during this period I wonder that people were content to hear me any longer, since I had moved so far and so fast away from anything that might be considered traditional faith, that, when the time came to say a few words at my wife Elizabeth’s secular memorial service, having in the meantime become an unbeliever, people who expressed concern about members of the congregation hearing something so threatening to belief were answered with: “He hasn’t said anything here that he hasn’t already said in church!” This actually came as quite a shock to me, since, though I had promised from the start of my ministry in that place that I would not tell them anything that I did not myself at the time believe, I did not think that I had travelled quite that far, and that fast.
One of the things that precipitated my move towards disbelief was my reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I find it surprising now that I had been able to have been already in my 60s before I read a book which had played such a vital role in defining modernity. Nor, to tell the truth, did I think it would have been such an interesting and rewarding experience. I was prompted to read it because a local fundamentalist church had circulated pamphlets throughout the community, door to door, expressing the view that one could not be at once a Christian and a Darwinian; and although I had always believed, in the back of my mind, that there was no question about the standing of evolution as a scientific fact, I had no real understanding of it, and, in order to counter the fundamentalist propaganda, I found it necessary to read something about evolution. I started with Darwin, and then went on to Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I also sent questions to a very kind professor at Dalhousie University, who answered promptly and perspicuously. I am afraid I cannot remember his name, so I am unable to thank him personally, but I found his response to my questions a great help in situating evolutionary biology in the framework of contemporary thought.
In any event, not to make heavy weather out of the biographical point, I found, upon reading Darwin, that I had to reassess my whole view of the world, and that included my own fairly loose and liberal conception of religious faith. To tell the truth, at the time I thought I had accommodated it fairly well to the fairly secular Christianity that over the years I had come to adopt, but I think now that Darwin had really reoriented my understanding of faith almost 180 degrees, for it seemed obvious to me then, as it does to me now, that one cannot believe in the common origin of animals and plants and hold, at the same time, the kind of centrality for Christian (or any other religious faith) which must end with privileging human beings over all other life forms with which we share, not only the planet, but a common biological history.
Imagine my pleasant surprise to find this expressed so clearly by William Dembski over at Biologos (h/t Jerry Coyne — for Jerry’s response to Dembski see here). (Note that the article is in two parts.) Dembski mentions Michael Ruse’s attempt to make evolution compatible with Christianity, and, as a result, Dembski says, “essentially has to redefine Christianity.” Of course, this seems inevitable. If I had accommodated Darwinism and Christianity it was because I had over the years already redefined Christianity. What Dembski does is to sort out claims for both Christianity and Darwinism that are non-negotiable. He lists them as follows.
Non-Negotiables of Christianity:
- (C1) Divine Creation: God by wisdom created the world out of nothing.
- (C2) Reflected Glory: The world reflects God’s glory, a fact that ought to be evident to humanity.
- (C3) Human Exceptionalism: Humans alone among the creatures on earth are made in the image of God.
- (C4) Christ’s Resurrection: God, in contravention of nature’s ordinary powers, raised Jesus bodily from the dead.
Non-Negotiables of Darwinism:
- (D1) Common Descent: All organisms are related by descent with modification from a common ancestor.
- (D2) Natural Selection: Natural selection operating on random variations is the principal mechanism responsible for biological adaptations.
- (D3) Human Continuity: Humans are continuous with other animals, exhibiting no fundamental difference in kind but only differences in degree.
- (D4) Methodological Naturalism: The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law.
I agree that the resurrection of Jesus must be strictly non-negotiable for Christianity, although I used to think differently about this. I used to think that the resurrection could be understood in an eschatological sense (which I won’t get into at this point, though, for those who are interested Reginald Fuller’s The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives provides a benchmark analysis of how this kind of bait and switch can work), but now I think (as my parenthetical note suggests) that there is a clever bait and switch play being made in situations like this. The liberal believer speaks of the resurrection or the incarnation, of redemption and divine forgiveness, but clouds the issue with subtle analysis and suppressed premises. In the end there is no clarity about what has been achieved and what has been lost, and much Christianity depends upon this lack of clarity.
Of course, one of the problems with Dembski’s analysis is that he takes Darwin’s position as normative for evolutionary biology, as though, for example, The Descent of Man is somehow holy text. Thus, he points out that Francis Collins doesn’t accept D3 (where ‘D’ stands for Darwinian Non-Negotiable, just as ‘C’ stands for Christian Non-Negotiable), yet The Descent of Man presupposes it. (This is not a comment on Collins, since I have no idea what Collins thinks.) I think evolutionary theory generally does presuppose common descent and a denial of human exceptionalism, so far as I understand it, so this may not be a problem, but it displays the scriptural cast of mind that Dembski brings to his project that he should consider Darwin’s books to be in some sense sacred scripture.
This said, it seems to me that Dembski’s analysis is correct. The fact that Darwinian evolution is understood to be non-teleological does exist in tension with the idea that the life world, and human beings in particular, are creations of God and declare his glory. If, in fact, the acts of God in creation are not detectable, and the process of evolution can get by without the god hypothesis, then it is not clear how creation declares the glory of God. As Dembski clearly states (and the clarity of his presentation is especially helpful):
Given that science is widely regarded as our most reliable universal form of knowledge, the failure of science to provide evidence of God, and in particular Darwin’s exclusion of design from biological origins, undercuts (C2).
The revelation of God’s glory in creation should be evident, and of life evolves simply by means of natural selection, then, while we might be misled into thinking that nature is a remarkably complex and puzzling phenomenon (since most of us do not know the specifics of the evolutionary history of the living forms that we see) which simply cries out for explanation in terms of a supervising intelligence, science is in contention with this claim, even if it does not logically contradict it. In other words, it’s possible to go on believing that God is guiding the process, but there is simply no evidence in the things themselves that there is any such supernatural invigilation.
Dembski ends his two-pronged attack on accommodationism (from the Christian viewpoint), by opining that the evidence for Darwinism is not “incredibly well established” (in his words), claiming that
the evidence for common descent is mixed and the evidence for the creative power of natural selection to build complex biological forms is nil.
– an astonishing bold claim! However, can religious believers consistently say anything else? I am more and more of the opinion that they cannot, and that, in the end, they will not. This will put religion under increasing strain, and belief will become not only much harder to justify, it will make it less emotionally compelling. It is important to note that contemporary fundamentalism, though not entirely modern as is sometimes claimed, has been deeply motivated by the advancement of science, and as scientific conclusions become more secure, fundamentalism inevitably becomes more shrill in its response.
Sometimes people suggest that there will be a reformation in Islam, for example, which will make it more compatible with modernity. However, it has to be said that Salafism and Islamism simply are the reformation in Islam. In Renaissance Europe this kind of return to sources led the intellectual world back behind Christianity to ancient Greek and Roman classical literature, philosophy, and science, and this fed into the scientific revolution in the 17th century and the Enlightenment of the 18th century. It seems very unlikely that the Muslim reformation will have this result, for it is precisely the growing openness of European thought to which the Islamic reformation is a response. Islam can see what the generous openness of Europe has wrought, and, by and large, Islam has rejected it. Those few who think that there can be an Islamic reformation that includes freedom of thought and belief are almost all of them under armed guard, for fear of their lives, as Paul Berman points out in his useful The Flight of the Intellectuals.
The problem with liberal religion is that it no longer has the emotional power of traditional religion. It cannot provide comfort in times of trouble, nor conviction upon occasions of doubt. All the roads of rational thinking lead out of religion, Dembski notwithstanding. Religion needs the supernatural. This is what provides it with motive power. The task unbelievers have is to provide an alternative motive power that can not only drive science, but can drive a world civilisation. This, I fear, is not quite as easy as some people seem to think it. Keeping people religiously motivated to common tasks is itself an unending religious task. Without elaborate symbolism, ritual and subordinate community, it would be impossible. As religion undergoes transformation in the fires of science, however, it will be important both to limit the damage that disintegrating religion can do, as well as to provide alternatives for community and meaning. It is not evident to me that either of these important tasks are being attended to in a systematic way, and at the moment I have no suggestions as to how this can be done. Perhaps, after all, I need to read Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, for at least he seems to be considering the problem head on.
Apologies for my spotty presence over the last few days. I was helping a member of the family move, which involved a lot of travelling and heavy lifting. And although this post is a bit rushed, I should be a little bit more on track now for a while.