Thursday, May 22, 2008

Science and Religion 3

It may help to have read the previous posts.

I finished the last post considering the Big Bang theory. Christians like me are often criticised by more conservative Christians for a blind adherence to theories such as this and Evolution. There could be few statements further from the truth but it does illustrate a basic misunderstanding on their part of scientific theory.

I have already clarified that all science is provisional: there may be further paradigm shifts when new experimental results reveal cracks in a once satisfactory theory. In turn further advances reveal new problems until the original premise becomes untenable. Those assumptions which gave rise to the established theory are re-examined and a new model emerges and what might be a centuries old tradition is eventually overturned. This happened for me as, side by side with my critical academic study of the Old Testament, belief in a literal creation became untenable with the paradigm shift that brought in an understanding of the Big Bang and Evolution as a guided process. It may happen again, but my sense is that if it does it will further erode, not enhance a theology of Creationism while further enhancing not eroding a science based cosmology.

So, is the New Gospel cosmology and evolution, not God? Are we, therefore, sons and daughters of ancient bacteria more than we are sons and daughters of God? Has an understanding of the processes of soulless DNA pulled the rug from under God’s feet and given us a truer understanding of our place in the cosmic scheme of things?

How then do we deal with evil or the dichotomy of good and evil in evolutionary terms if there is no moral creative force? If the problem of God is the existence of evil, then the problem of random, unguided evolution is the existence of good. If Darwin is right then the survival of the fittest is driven by the “selfish gene”. So where do the moral virtues such as altruism, humour, innate talent etc. exist in genetics? Or is there something beyond the genes?

If science can’t explain it then….God? Or is our science simply not good enough?

Some argue that moral values within natural selection can be explained away as either nepotism as we look after our own or expediency as it suits our purpose to be like this in a given situation. Others argue the opposite: that natural moral virtue is the starting point and brutish or selfish behaviour is both corrupt and learned behaviour.

Ought we to be starting with emotion, humour, moral values etc. as a given rather than explaining them away as cultural outcomes? Surely survival of the fittest needs to be seen side by side with sexual selection and therefore all these innate qualities are part of that process. But sexual choice and attraction elaborates those traits and amplifies them in an evolutionary context. Is there, then, any role left for God?

The biologist Dennis Alexander thinks this a bad way of doing both science and theology as however scientifically knowledgeable we become, it is both a step too far and an unnecessary step to posit no God. For him, as for many, Christian Theism is a more credible starting point than Atheism. Others on the other hand argue that the religious perspective is both mentally degrading and an ongoing falsehood.

Falsehood may not be bad of itself if it offers comfort, but it becomes bad when that falsehood claims to answer questions when it doesn’t. Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God choose the suffering of the weakest (evolution) as a means of His will?

John Polkinghorne (Physicist and Theologian) sees traditional Christian teaching as presenting the choice between God as puppet-master or disinterested spectator and this has also long been my objection. Neither is good enough!

The theological problem of suffering disappears, of course, if we accept that while God is creator and Omnipotent, He has voluntarily relinquished some control and is no longer Sustainer in quite the way many Christians assert. This is not a particularly radical view and it argues that God gave up a degree of control when He gave free-will, and evolution gives sufficient distance (epistemic distance) between creator and created to allow for our acts to be completely free. Evolution may have made us rethink the controlling God of The Old Testament, and an altogether more subtle God has emerged, one who works in more discrete and enigmatic ways. For thinkers like Polkinghorne, God interacts with the world but voluntarily limits his control. As I said, not particularly radical - perhaps even quite conservative and certainly within classical theism. After all, how can God give humanity free will and retain total control? This is not, after all, to diminish God in any way as He remains Omnipotent. It is a voluntary relinquishing of control, not of power. Thus far this is quite a conventional theology. Modern Christian scientists and other thinkers - and I dare to include myself in that category - have gone on to recognised the place of scientific understanding in that theology. As Lemaitre said: “There were two ways of arriving at the truth. I decided to follow them both.”

Evolution is the perfect tool, then, for God to create thinking, learning, free-willed creatures.

Evolution becomes the agent of God.