So, after all, that, let us return to Plait’s argument. He tells us that the problem is too many people perceiving evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. Indeed, but why do they perceive it that way? Is it a failure of messaging on the part of scientists? Is it because Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers make snide remarks about religion? No, those are not the reasons.
It is because these people have noticed all the same problems the scholars of Darwin’s time were writing about. It is because evolution really does conflict with their religious beliefs, but not because of an overly idiosyncratic interpretation of one part of the Bible. It is because the version of evolution that so worried the religious scholars of Darwin’s time, that of a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought, is precisely the version that has triumphed among modern scientists. And it is because the objections raised to that version of evolution in the nineteenth century have not lost any of their force today.
It is true that what most theists (usually very far from fundamentalists) of the nineteenth century objected to with Darwin’s view of evolution, or rather the popular version of it presented by writers like the anti-clericalist Haeckel, was the implication that evolution was, as Jason puts it, “a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought”. Basically the theist account of intellectual Christians presumed that humans were part of God’s plan, and so the idea that there was no purpose to our existence was, to put it mildly, a stumbling block for the brightest religious of the day. But it was not insuperable.
Almost immediately, theists appealed to a distinction that had a long history in theology: that of a distinction between primary cause (God’s actions creating and supporting the world) and secondary causes (the laws of nature acting as if they were basically mechanical causes. Some, like Asa Gray, argued that God intervenes to make the requisite variations occur (for the causes of variation in heredity were as yet unknown) so that natural selection, a secondary cause, would result in humans, like a cook who regulates the heat in cooking to ensure the right outcome, or as he put it
“that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Quoted by Darwin in his Variation under Domestication (1868) Vol. 2: 432]
Others held that God had foreordained the ways the mechanism of selection would work by choosing the right initial conditions. In effect, God chose this world to make knowing, as he must, that humans would be the result. Much appeal to Matthew 10:29 – that not a sparrow falls with God knowing it – was made.
Darwin, of course, rejected this interpretation:
There is another point on which I have occasionally wished to say a few words.— I believe you think with Asa Gray that I have not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a Higher power.— I have had lately a good deal of correspondence on this head. Herschel in his Phy. Geograph. has sentence with respect to the Origin something to the effect that the higher law of providential arrangement shd. always be stated. But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet.— The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. [Letter to Lyell, 1 August 1861]
and he repeated this argument in the Variations chapter above. But the point to be made here is that some religious were able to accommodate Darwinian blind evolution by natural selection as a secondary cause. Darwin is right, I think, to reject Gray’s irrigator model of a divine intervention from time to time to keep things on track. It is ad hoc and certainly not good theology. But Gray was no theologian. Both are scientists trying to do science (one in the context of prior belief; the other dismissing this as beyond a modified monkey’s brain).
So let us return to Rosenhouse’s claim: that evolution, of itself, challenges religion. Secondary causes were discussed as long ago as Aquinas in the 12th century, and he did not invent the idea (Wikipedia has Augustine, in the 4th century, as the originator of this). His mentor Albertus Magnus, no mean naturalist himself, wrote:
In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass. [De vegetabilibus et plants l.2 tr.2 c.1. Some more on Albert as a scientist here: PDF]
This is very like what Darwin said in the Variation: science addresses how things occur by natural law, not by God’s direct intervention. And note that this rather modern view is seven centuries before the Origin. So it is at best rather anachronistic to assert that “religion” could not adopt evolution, when the intellectual resources were not only there in theology, but were in fact the “default” opinion even since the “One Truth doctrine” had been asserted against the Occasionalists and Averroes in the middle ages. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous for Jason and Larry to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. The use of this notion has even become the standard Catholic approach to the issue.
It is true that much of the debate about Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century was focused on God’s agency and purpose. However, usually the folk doing the debating were public intellectuals rather than theologians. Often they defended a theological perspective that was at best questionable even within their own tradition (as Dewey said, we do not solve philosophical problems, we get over them. This is uneven and cyclical even within a doctrinal community). And it is true that natural selection undercut the purposiveness of living things that was assumed by natural theology and similar traditions. But natural theology was dying out as Darwin wrote (and not because of him precisely) and even the “God of the gaps” theme now so beloved of exclusionists was invented by a religious writer dealing with Darwin. Henry Drummond wrote in his Ascent of Man (1894):
There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps – gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.
If by the accumulation of irresistible evidence we are driven – may not one say permitted – to accept Evolution as God’s method in creation, it is a mistaken policy to glory in what it cannot account for. The reason why men grudge to Evolution each of its fresh claims to show how things have been made is the groundless fear that if we discover how they are made we minimize their divinity. When things are known, that is to say, we conceive them as natural, on Man’s level; when they are unknown, we call them divine – as if our ignorance of a thing were the stamp of its divinity. If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the disorders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. If God appears periodically, he disappears periodically. If he comes upon the scene at special crises he is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-God or occasional-God the nobler theory? Positively, the idea of an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology. Negatively, the older view is not only the less worthy, it is discredited by science. [333-4]
Drummond argues that science’s job is not to final moral purpose in the world; this cannot be done. But its job is to find how things have evolved.
So when we read this comment by Jason, I am left wondering what the reference class of the term “religion” is for him and Larry, and others. I am sure that they would not wish to adopt the parlour trick of Richard Dawkins and say “we are not talking about the god of the philosophers, but the god of ordinary religion” and then slip in conclusions applying to all religion based on arguments against that type only. That would be disingenuous indeed. Certainly that was not how Darwin or Huxley approached the matter.
“Religion” is one of the more slippery terms in modern discourse.The dictionary will not help, as dictionaries are maps to common usage, not a technical definition (unless they also give one or more such technical definitions). And being slippery, one can elide from a more inclusive definition to a specific, and back again, in one’s arguments. This is known as the fallacy of ambiguity. As religious anthropologist James Dowe noted
“Religion” is, in fact, a folk category in Western culture. Comparative analysis can flounder on efforts to use folk categories in scientific analysis. [A scientific definition of religion, p5]
Religion is a collection of behavior that is only unified in our Western conception of it. [p7]
To aver that religion is necessarily opposed to evolutionary theory, when there are so many instances of it not being, is a category error. Jason and Larry might reject the idea that this view is “religion” as they understand it. That would be to put the folk definition in a privileged position, when even the scientists who study the phenomenon do not. But allow that these philosophically minded views are part of religion, at least historically, and you find the claim untenable.
What we need to do is to specify the degree of religion that finds evolution impossible to reconcile with belief, for there surely is some, and a lot of it. I think of a particular religion as a series of concentric circles. At the most broad, one’s religion is label and a set of rituals (including statements of belief) that includes anything that falls under that rubric. “Christian” includes folk beliefs in demons and spirits as well as theologically refined views like Drummond’s or Aquinas’. But folk religion is rarely what the more educated people think, and so the superstitions of religion fall away as you move inwards. The average educated believer knows that somehow religion and evolution are not at odds, but they probably do not know how, and take it on faith the two are consistent. More refined thinkers find ways to reconcile the secondary causation of science and the primary causation of God. A few theologians, not all by any means, give the arguments; the extent of their approach is restricted, but logically coherent.
Now any religious community consists of many theological and philosophical traditions, and they are often at odds. A strand of the Christian community appeals to Aristotelian notions of causation and teleology against what they see as the soulless and mindless actions of natural law in modern scientific theories, to be sure. These thinkers strive to show that Darwinian selection is incomplete, or simply wrongheaded, and apply all kinds of arguments like irreducible complexity or design. But they are not the entirety of the tradition, nor are they, at least outside the United States and Turkey, the majority of religious thinkers. They use the resources of secondary causation to deal with things, and their problem is not whether or not natural selection works, but how it reconciles with providentialist theology (I wrote a paper on this very topic, by the way, giving at least one way this might be done, using Leibnizian multiple worlds). How they do it is not my concern, but the fact that they do do it is itself a counter instance to the claim Jason and Larry make.
Few theologians of any note are literalists, no matter what the tent preacher might assert. Nor is religion necessarily superstitious (unless one holds the a priori view that belief in any deity is superstition, a position I am not inclined to defend). At the least, there are varieties of religious belief that are not anti-scientific. Accommodationism is not yet dismissed. Evolution is inconsistent with some religious views, no doubt about that. But it is not inconsistent with “religion”. To say otherwise is to equivocate. Plait is right, and Jason and Larry are not.
I think this is due, in large part, to the media presence of the fundamentalists in north America, something that is not the same throughout the world. I have never understood why Dawkins adopted the “folk religion is religion simpliciter” approach in The God Delusion. He’s British, for Darwin’s sake! In Britain and other countries like Australia that noisy minority is, in fact a small minority, and forms of religion are not so straightforward as he made out. Larry and Jason I can understand. The “metaphysical purpose with a cup of tea” approach of British and Continental religions is rare there. I used to find comforting the older British style Baptists, and like Larry and Jason I decry the obsessive and combative attempts of the Southern Baptist style of fundamentalism to control public debate. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the majority of theists are not literalists, and they can rather easily find the resources to accept evolution, real evolution including unguided natural selection. It takes a while for traditions to change and catch up, that is all.
Mind, ask me about the problem of evil, and you’ll get a different answer. But we aren’t discussing that here.
Late note: I am mostly arguing against Larry, here, but Jason has cited a number of religious sources where authorities have attacked evolution, and historians have interpreted this. I am particularly fond of Artigas, who he cites, on Catholic trends. My argument, however, is that religions are not of necessity opposed to evolution. His argument is that the reason why evolution is problematic for religion is the loss of moral purpose in nature. We are both correct, and it is not Dawkins’ or PZ Misty’s fault that this happens. We are at one.