Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Man, God & the Wall Street Journal

One of the top stories in the Wall Street Journal this week is "Man vs. God," which asks Karen Armstrong, a religious writer and Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist to answer the same question:

"Where does evolution leave God?"

Leave aside for a moment the intriguing notion that the WSJ (whose readers tend to worship at the altar of Mammon) ran this story the week we commemorated both 9/11 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Let's look at how faith and biology influenced the answers of the two writers...

Karen Armstrong starts out with a bang:

"Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful."

For Armstrong, evolution has killed the Christian God as we once knew him.

(However, in that the Bible shows a history of pain, death, slavery and the tortured extermination of God's son, it is not intuitively obvious that people who follow the Bible necessarily believe in the existence of a benign creator. A creator, yes, but one not always appearing in the Bible as "benign.")

Armstrong, author of A History of God, provides a summation of that history in this column, noting that premodern religion was heavily dependent on symbolism.

"St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history."

Science created an environment where proof of God's existence became more necessary than faith. Armstrong notes:

"Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously 'very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.' Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity."

Darwin's theory of evolution created a fissure in the cast-iron certainty of God's existence.

"Darwin made it clear once again that — as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the "God beyond God." The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words."

For Richard Dawkins, evolution is clear evidence that there is no God at all.

"Before 1859 it would have seemed natural to agree with the Reverend William Paley, in "Natural Theology," that the creation of life was God's greatest work. Especially (vanity might add) human life. Today we'd amend the statement: Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated. Evolution, to quote a T-shirt sent me by an anonymous well-wisher, is the greatest show on earth, the only game in town."

Life itself is remarkable on its own, not at all for being the gift of a divine being. For Dawkins, it's physics - and physics alone - that determines everything. The scientist looks at the world through a prism created out of physical laws.

"Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information."

But that question remains - who turned on the switch? Who created the clay that molded earth and sky and stars and humans? How did that primal protoplasm, from which everything evolved, get here? For Dawkins, it is not God who is the creator; it is the Universe.

"Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex — statistically improbable — and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe—the miracle-free zone that is physics.

"To midwife such emergence is the singular achievement of Darwinian evolution. It starts with primeval simplicity and fosters, by slow, explicable degrees, the emergence of complexity: seemingly limitless complexity—certainly up to our human level of complexity and very probably way beyond. There may be worlds on which superhuman life thrives, superhuman to a level that our imaginations cannot grasp. But superhuman does not mean supernatural."

In fact, Darwinian evolution is proof that there is no God at all.

"Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip.... God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place."

For Dawkins, the lineage of the Universe does not stretch back to God - such a possibility is "statistically improbable." His faith centers around the immutable laws of physics.

The religious writer sees evolution as proof that faith matters, as it has always mattered when contemplating the existence of God. The evolutionary biologist sees evolution as proving God was never a presence in the creation of the world.

What is clear - evolution will never deter those who believe in God away from their belief. And those who believe evolution completely disproves God's will never bow their heads in prayer.

An eternal divide exists between believers and unbelievers.

There is one thing, however, that can be utilized to bridge this division between two groups: compassion. As Armstrong notes:

"In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart."

In this world, there are those who seek enlightenment through their belief in God. And they live everyday with people who find their form of transcendence in examining the physical world. But the desire to "cultivate new capacities of mind and heart" is not limited only to those who head into church every Sunday. Compassion is something that can be claimed by all, regardless of faith.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

Rocky Humbert said...

The only thing more volatile than a political discussion is a religious one. So I'm not going to comment, except to say that you are unfair to the readers of the Wall St. Journal. Cheers. Rocky