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Evolution of a Rant

with 10 comments

I’m having one of those weeks, made even less satisfying than it might have been by the fact that my older son went back to college yesterday, which means he’s not going to be around to dump things on when they get overwhelming.  I think about this picture I have of us where I’m holding him–an infant in a singlet–in the air with one hand, and it seems impossible to me that he’s now twenty-two and able to yell at plumbers.

But at any rate, I’m having one of those weeks, and it was only  Sunday when it started, and what I ended up doing was picking up a book I’d been meaning to get around to for some time and hadn’t managed.  The book is The Order of Things, by James Schall, S.J., and before I go into the rant part of this, there are some things I need to say.

First is that Schall is the person I think of first when I hear one of those rants from very public atheists bout how all religious people are stupid, or how the difference between those of us who are religious and those of us who are not is that those of us who are not are thinking, which those of us who are have given up for something called “faith.”

Shall is a Roman Catholic priest–the “S.J.” stands for “Society of Jesus,” the offical name for the Jesuits–and it takes about five pages into any of his books to realize that he had a first class mind and a real knack for, uh, thinking. 

He’s also ferociously well educated, in the way that Jesuits used always to be, with a broad understanding of the Western tradition, a decent understanding of at least one nonWestern tradition, and the apparent ability to read five or six languages, at least one of them “dead.”

The scare quotes are there for a reason.  Latin is not actually entirely dead.   It’s still the language of the Church not only in Church documents, but in a number of  Church insitutions.  Priest-students at the North American College in Rome, which trains clergy to rise into the hierarchy and to be theologians, speak, read and write in Latin as if it were still in use today.

Or they did at least until very recently.  If it turns out that they’ve given that up in the last few years, I’m going to be very disappointed.

One of the reasons Schall cotinues to fascinate me is that he seems to be the only person besides myself to have figured out what I would think would be obvious–if we ever do discover that human beings are “hard wired” (genetically predisposed) to belief in God, this would be at least as good an argument for the existence of God as it would be an argument against it.

But what Schall is, of course, is a reminder that the public face of religion in general and Christianity in particular was not always that of cracker-barrel accented televangelist hawking prayer cloths that have been rubbed in the sand of the Holy Land for nineteen nineety five a pop.

I think it would be hard to underestimate the extent to which the phenomenon of the New (and newly aggressive) Atheism is the result of the the rise of those cracker-barrel voiced preachers to pretty much the only representives of belief in the public square.  We have no Jonathan Edwardses any more, and no Fulton Sheens.  We have Oral Roberts seeing ninety foot Jesuses in his back yard and D. James Kennedy trying to get the “no religious test” clause stricken from the Constitution.

(I also wonder just how much of the “elite” disdain for religion and religious people has less to do with the religion and more to do with the people.  Nobody sneered at Thomas Merton for becoming a Trappist, and his The Seven Storey Mountain was one of the great literary succsses of its day.)

But what struck me about Schall this time was a passage, just about a quarter of the way into the book, that went like this:

>>>The alternative to a creative order is said to be “evolution”, an order presupposed to no order or possible cause.  Though it can simply and legitimately mean a way to classify the differing beings that are found to exist over time both in the cosmos and on earth, “evolution” can mean, and generally does mean, a philosophy of how something comes from nothing.>>>>>

The actual discussion of evolution and “evolutionism” went on for a while after that, and quoting it here would be too cumbersome, but it’s easy enough to paraphrase:  evolution tells us not just how living thngs changed over time, but how they arose from “nothing.”

And two things occur to me immediately here.

The first is that this is a mistaken idea about what evolution actually says.  Evolution does not tell us how life arose on earth–and couldn’t.   Evolution as a fact, and the theory of evolution as an explanation of that fact, tell us only how the development happened once life had already begun to exist. 

Evolution would remain a fact, and the theory of evolution would be equally satisifying as an explanation of that fact, if life arose from nothing, or space aliens brought it, or God planted the first microorganisms in the primordial soup.

What’s more, evolution not only doesn’t tell us how life arose on this earth, it couldn’t if it tried.  Certainly scientists ask the question, but the answer will have to come from some other branch of biology than evolutionary theory.

The second thing that occurs to me is that I understand perfectly why Schall thinks evolution tries to tell us that “something came from nothing.”  Schall thinks it because there are a lot of very loud people out there claiming that it does, and those people persistantly portray themselves as “defending evolution.”

Some of you reading this blog know that St. Martin’s Press published a book of mine this year  called Living Witness, which takes place in a small Pennsylvania town during a lawsuit over the proposal to include materials on Intelligent Design in the school library and a sticker in school textbooks depicting evolution as a matter of opinion which would be countered by these materials.

Okay, that’s a convoluted way of putting it, but that was what in fact happened in  Dover–not, as it was characterized by the media, an attempt by the school board to actually teach Intelligent Desin.

But here’s the thing.  Intelligent Design is not science, but neither is the “evolution proves that there’s no God” and “evolution proves that life arose by chance mutations” mantra.

Evolution is a fact.  We have documentation out the wazoo that includes evolution within species and between species.  We have transitional forms that will take us from reptiles to birds.  Virtually every claim the anti-evolution side makes–there are no transitional fossils! there are examples of irreducible complexity!–is a lie, and most of the people on the anti-evolution side know it.

But the declaration that evolution proves that there is no God is a lie, too, and what’s more it’s the same kind of lie. 

It claims something for science that science cannot deliver.  

Science is the project of explaining natural phenomena by natural means.  It cannot tell us  if anything exists outside the material.   If miracles happen, science could not prove them to be true.   The best it could do would be to say that in this case, it had no explanation of what happened or why.

Enlisting “evolution” in a war of metaphysics does no good for evolution, no good for science, and less than no good for the cause of atheism.  It will convince nobody who isn’t convinced, and it will make an awful lot of fence sitters decide that evolution is less science than it is a form of theology.

Sometimes I think that the problem is that at least some atheists feel a desperate need for certainty of a kind science can never give them. 

If we are committed to intellectual integrity, to accepting as true only those things which reason can show us to be true, then we must be forever in the position of deciding against the existance of God on a negative–since I see no positive evidence of the existence of God, I cannot give intellectual assent to the idea that God exists.

But I can’t know.  

And if you need to know, then you shouldn’t be signing on with the secular project. 

Wheter you know it or not, you’re looking for religion.

Written by janeh

August 31st, 2009 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Evolution of a Rant'

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  1. I liked Lee’s figures in the last blog – that’s the sort of thing I always mean to do when I read claims and rarely actually do.

    I don’t mean to boast, but it occurred to me when I first read reports that the physical source of religious visions and beliefs might have been located in the brain. That doesn’t prove a thing about the existence or non-existence of God.

    Your comments on the public faces of religion reminded me of some older books I’ve read involving English Catholics – I think Monica Balwin may have written one of them; she wrote both a novel and a biography about nuns leaving convents. The mutual incomprehension and distaste some highly educated and intellectual Catholics had towards the (usually Irish IIRC) poor Catholics had something of the taste of the relationships between a modern atheist and a follower of Oral Roberts. At least, the intellectual Catholic knew perfectly well that she had to struggle against these feelings and try to treat the other as a sister or brother, but Oh! Those garish statues and dubious relics and superstitious practices!

    It’s never quite as simple as a cool, calm, totally unbiased analysis of the facts, is it?

    And I’ve given up on trying to explain what science is and is not to members of the public who think that theories are facts, and that if someone in a white coat says ‘science proves…’ that ends the discussion, because Sciences Has Spoken and Science Gives Certainties. Science has and will create generalizations about some things that are probably as close to certainty as we’re going to get, but mostly, we don’t get certainty in science, and the more we study things – basic things, like what is matter and how a few cells become an organism – the more we find we don’t know. Perhaps that’s what you mean when you say that if you need to know, you shouldn’t be looking at science and secularism.

    Cheryl

    31 Aug 09 at 8:37 am

  2. I think you are straw-manning, Jane. Either that or I hang around with really smart, well-educated atheists.

    I think there is definitely a class issue involved in the anti-religion stuff in the US. The upper classes, if not atheists or agnostics, are at best nominal Episcopalians or something, and the evangelicals are pretty lower middle at best. The contempt has more to do with “taste” and class than religion.

    Cathy

    CAFiorello

    31 Aug 09 at 9:11 am

  3. I’m also having one of those weeks. 3 days sitting at home waiting for a chair to be delivered. The store says it was picked up by the delivery company and the store is now trying to track the shipment.

    I don’t want to refight the battle of Dover but the claim that speaking the words “Intelligent Design” aloud in a classroom was “teaching” intelligent design had me staring in disbelief.

    And I agree with Jane that evolution is compatible with belief in God. Certainly an omnipotent God could produce a mutation as needed to give random processes a nudge.

    jd

    31 Aug 09 at 7:01 pm

  4. Militant atheism is just as much a religion as any other, and even more offensive, and potentially dangerous, than most – a fact clearly demonstrated by both Soviet Communism and German Nazism.

    As for the compatibility of belief in evolution and a belief in God, my Catholic high school teachers (De La Salle brothers) had absolutely no problem with the concept, just as they had no problem with the concept that the Biblical seven days of creation were not literally seven 24 hour days of the modern earth.

    Mique

    31 Aug 09 at 7:58 pm

  5. I agree with Mique. Militant atheism is best viewed as a religion. And evolution is a central part of their dogma.

    There is a scientific theory of evolution which I accept. But I consider the Dover trial as a battle between the religion of evolution and a heresy.

    jd

    31 Aug 09 at 8:51 pm

  6. There are always people who want to have opinions, or beliefs, without thinking too much about them. Doesn’t really matter if the source is religion, science or Fox News, as long as they can parrot what they heard from somebody else, they’re satisfied. It also doesn’t really matter if they get their second-hand beliefs correct.

    Evolution as sound-bite explains why a lot of people get it wrong. They don’t have a good foundation in sound science, couldn’t explain the scientific method or define a theory to save their lives, and just kinda meld it together from stuff they heard somewhere and the opposite (whatever that might seem like to them) of what people they dislike have said.

    Lymaree

    31 Aug 09 at 10:22 pm

  7. I’ll leave the public image of religion for another time, but I think two things are worth noting:
    First, no branch of science other than that concerned with evolution seems to feel obliged to proseletize. For that matter, economists don’t write popular books explaining Gresham’s Law for the masses, even though (a) it obviously is true, and (b) it’s painfully evident that many people don’t believe it. Clearly something other than scientific certainty and a desire to promote knowledge is at work.
    Secondly, some of the people who are right about the basic truth of evolution are capable of believing the most astounding nonsense otherwise, from conspiracy theories and errors in the physical sciences to economics even Marx would have laughed at. Didn’t Chesterton say something about going from disbelieving in God to believing anything at all?

    robert_piepenbrink

    31 Aug 09 at 10:29 pm

  8. Robert, I don’t really think the proselytizing evolutionists are concerned in the least about evolution’s position as a branch of science. They think it’s a great weapon to hammer the religious with, and sadly, there are plenty of religious people who think that evolution is a challenge to religion who are right ready to hammer back.

    I strongly suspect that the people who really do deal with evolution-as-a-branch-of-science don’t give religion a second thought unless they practice one, and in that case, they’ve presumably come down on the ‘evolution and religion can co-exist’ side of the fight. Probably back in their undergrad years, or even in high school.

    They’re far too busy trying to get funding to do more excavations and quarreling over the exact classification of obscure prehistoric mollusks to bother with proselytizing. Hasn’t there been a big change in the biological classification of dinosaurs since we all went to school? No more brontosaurases (brontosauri??). That’s where their scientific passions lie, not in the religion/science debate.

    Cheryl

    1 Sep 09 at 5:54 am

  9. Do you folks really only see popular science books about evolution? I read a *lot* of science–evolution, physics, economics, etc.–they are all out there. It’s not proselytizing, it’s educating. There are practicing scientists, and there are science popularizers–they seldom overlap, but sometimes do.

    I am an atheist activist, and really, I don’t think I’m an asshole. What they were trying to do in Dover was pick out one tiny piece of what was being taught and cast doubt on it because of religious objections. Those of us fighting it don’t treat the theory of evolution as dogma, and it’s not a religion! But it is science, and should be taught as such.

    Of course, as Lymaree said, there are a lot of people on every side of any debate who believe anything just because they heard it from someone they trust.

    CAFiorello

    1 Sep 09 at 9:54 am

  10. I think there’s a big difference between an “atheist activist” and a “militant activist”, Cathy. I see Dawkins and Hitchens, say, as militant atheists, ie those hell bent on the same sort of missionary work as proselytizing Christians – only in reverse. Fighting for the separation of church and state is another thing altogether.

    But I don’t see a lot of difference between those who try to shut down the debate between evolutionists and intelligent design proponents and those zealous proponents of anthropogenic global warming who spend their waking hours trying to shut up the so-called skeptics.

    But we’ve all been around these buoys many times before.

    Mique

    1 Sep 09 at 11:00 am

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