In Never Mind The Bedrocks – part 1 I began to get into the discussion concerning evolution vs. creationism. To summarise the previous post, I made the following points: Intelligent Design is creationism in disguise, and it is not science. There is overwhelming evidence that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old; that life has existed in many and varied forms over hundreds of millions of years; and there is excellent scientific data concerning the origins of the solar system. I have also said that there is a near-phobic Fundamentalist Christian response to evolution and science in general, and that some of the claims made by Christians of this stripe are completely insupportable either by Biblical teaching or social observation.
I’m going to carry on now by looking at the use – the dangerous use – of the concept ‘need’.
This idea cuts to the very heart of the debate. It’s right in the middle of a Dawkins statement with which I agree – “You do not require God to explain the complexity of the natural world” – and implied in a statement with which I do not agree – “Christianity exists to answer the question of our origin”.
Let’s take the latter first, because it impinges on the former. The response in both cases boils down to the same answer: You require God to explain the existence of God.
At first glance this seems tautological. It is not. It is the same philosophical point as is made in the statement “I see a chair before me, therefore chairs exist.” So this is the first hurdle to overcome in a fundamental (not Fundamental!) miscommunication between Science and Christianity. I know no Christian, none at all (and, not to boast or anything, but I know several hundred), who is a Christian because they said “I find the Darwinian theory of speciation abhorrent: I will therefore become a Christian, since it offers an alternative.” Christianity is not in the business of explaining humanity’s origins: Christianity is in the business of explaining humanity’s relationship to God. The committed (as opposed to nominal) Christians I know are almost infinitely more concerned with their relationship to Christ than their relationship to primates. So that is my first objection, my first perception of a category error in the debate: Christianity takes as its symbol a fish not because it spends endless hours worrying about whether or not fish were the ancestors of all land animals but because the letters of the word ‘fish’, in Greek, could be rearranged to form the word ‘Christ’. Evolutionary science and Christianity have completely different focal points.
I should take this opportunity to expand on this point, and to answer the criticism that could be made of my ‘chairs’ analogy: “Yes, but we can all see chairs. We don’t have to have faith in them”. (My comments here, I hope, will also go some way to answering the charge that there is no ‘evidence’ that supports the adoption of a religious position). It is not the case that there is no evidence in favour of the existence of God, or more specifically the Christian God: it is simply the case that all the evidence that does exist is anecdotal. This is an important distinction. It is a question of subjectivity. If someone says to you “I believe in buses because I rode on one once”, that is a rather different statement to “I believe in buses because it comforts me to believe in buses”. In neither instance can you see a bus to prove the assertion that buses exist; but we must surely have to take the former argument for their existence rather more seriously than the latter. This is where Dawkins, in The God Delusion, comes badly unstuck. In it he takes the Bible (in my analogy, a bus timetable) and arguments of the latter, consolatory type and concludes that there is no such thing as a God. He dismisses arguments of the former type as mere delusion. And while I make no claim for the objectivity of the former claim, there is something more compelling than Dawkins is willing to admit in the similarity of millions of shared God-experiences of the type to which Christians routinely refer. In other words, if millions of people say they have ridden on buses, and the descriptions of those rides overwhelmingly agree, it is more persuasive a position to conclude that buses may exist in the manner described by people who believe they have ridden on them than to conclude that these people have, in their millions over two thousand years, invented the same delusional experience.
Note that I am only talking, at this point, about the Christian God. If we broaden the terms of our engagement to incorporate God as a divine figure alluded to in other world religions (in the Middle East there are nearly a billion believers in trains, while in India they have many forms of taxi) then the case for the existence of public transportation becomes almost overwhelming (I fear I may be enjoying this metaphor too much!). But all the evidence is still subjective, i.e. it is not susceptible to wilful replication under laboratory conditions. This is the great disconnect between the scientists and the religious. “If you wish to convince me of the existence of God, then show Him to me,” says the scientist – and despite what certain Fundamentalist groups might say, that is not an unreasonable position. But the scientists do not appear willing to accept the utter reasonableness of the religious person’s response: “God is greater, holier, and far more powerful than I. How on earth do you expect me to instruct Him to do anything?”
For many years Architeuthis Dux, the Giant Squid, was an animal for which a great deal of subjective evidence existed in the form of anecdotal reports and eyewitness observations – but the animal was not formally known to science until examples washed ashore and they could be scientifically examined, thus demonstrating with unarguable solidity the reality of their existence. It was only in 2005 that the first live Giant Squid were filmed and photographed at a depth of 3,000 feet 600 miles off the coast of Japan. The position of the Giant Squid now is that it is an accepted scientific reality. The Christian is in a similar position, though, to one of the old squid eyewitnesses before the animal was formally identified by science. And he faces the same problem: he knows what he saw and he also knows science will not accept it unless it is presented with an example to dissect and examine. And that is completely fine. That is how science is meant to operate. It is also why Dawkins says he is not an atheist so much as a teapot agnostic. His problem is that someday, like a fisherman walking along a beach in Japan or New Zealand, he might stumble across something that forces him to rethink his whole position on the existence of something he had not hitherto believed in.
Exactly the same problem about evidential presentation reoccurs with miracles. “If such a thing happened,” says the scientist, “then it ought to be replicable.” But the mistake here is that the scientist, while perfectly capable of studying it, sees the process of the miracle itself as the thing to replicate, while the religious person has to try to explain that it is not possible to replicate the deliberate interference of a supernatural entity in the natural order of things. In other words, scientists will never have a miracle to dissect until God steps in and performs one under laboratory conditions. And God is not subject to the whims of the scientists who would wish such a thing. Therefore, it might be truer to say that the problem is one of definition: the scientist sees the purported miracle as an exceptional process working in the natural world, while the believer sees the miracle as an act of Divine Will. And obviously the latter cannot be replicated by man, thus enabling the sceptical scientist to conclude that there are no such thing as miracles. Essentially, the scientist wants to study a by-product while ignoring the actual source of the phenomenon. Given that the source is not replicable, is it any wonder that the by-product remains absent?
However, that is something of a digression. Let us return to something on which Dawkins and I are in agreement. In fact let’s take two things, because they connect: “There ought not to be unchallengeable ideas at the centre of a religion” and “Atheism is a religious position that has no bearing on one’s patriotism or citizenship.” The connection here is in the spirit of inquiry. And let us be quite clear: the Bible does not condemn this. Job is a prime example. Job asked God some awfully big questions and, in what must count as one of the most terrifying conversations in the whole of recorded history, received some awfully big answers in return. Here is the point: Job was not instructed not to ask. Job was perfectly entitled to ask what was going on. Christ’s disciples regularly queried what He was up to. The idea that “why?” or “why not?” are not permissible questions to direct at the doctrines central to the Christian faith is untrue. It is also dangerous. It encourages precisely those abuses of authority in Christian leaders that detractors of religion gleefully highlight, and by which Christian followers are embarrassed and horrified.
Questions are important. Questioning one’s spiritual leaders helps to ensure that heresy in both thought and deed is avoided; questioning God, as Job discovered, is a route to revelation. And I can think of few better pathways to understanding Christianity than to ask “What does the Bible mean when it says this?” It is by interrogating the Bible, God and my fellow Christians that my Christianity grows. This is why I say there are no Great Unchallengeables. Everything is up for discussion. It has to be. Otherwise, wilful ignorance is all that’s left, and I can’t imagine God being impressed at the deliberate atrophying of the critical faculties He intended us to put to good use. Douglas Adams, much though I adore The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, was dead wrong when he said “There are some things you can’t ask about religion. Why not? Because you just can’t!” I can think of no honest question that dishonours God or Christianity by the asking of it – and I speak as someone who, at one stage, was pretty convinced that if God existed then He was a despicable sadist. This is not a position I now hold, as you can probably tell (!), but I am fairly sure God was not offended by my asking Him to demonstrate that He was something other than the cruel and callous manipulator I thought Him to be.
Neither of these positions has had any effect on my patriotism (such as it is) or my ability to function as a citizen of my country. (I’m from Northern Ireland, by the way, where if anything overly-enthusiastic endorsements of a particular religious perspective have caused nothing but trouble – or Troubles). Patriotism is about sensing one belongs, and being willing to defend that sense of belonging both for other people (‘dying for one’s country’) or oneself (‘killing for one’s country’). Citizenship is about participating in a society and abiding by the ethics it endorses – and although my religion informs my ethical position the two things are not coterminous, which was Bush Sr’s mistake. Human beings have an inherent moral sense – what we call the conscience. It unarguably exists, and though I might believe (as I do) that its existence is an argument in favour of a moral God, such a belief makes no difference to the manner of its operation. In other words, you don’t have to be a Christian to know the difference between right and wrong.
This ties in, again, to the American fetish for a single unified society, united in its beliefs – ‘One Nation Under God’. Bizarrely, in a country where one of the most damning political epithets is ‘socialist’, there is a marked intolerance for independent belief. Good Americans, in this regard, are independently wealthy but not independent thinkers.
As a Christian, I believe in heaven and hell, and I believe in the Great Commission whereby Christ instructed His followers to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. I believe in the need for salvation, because I believe Hell to be a catastrophic reality from which people need to be saved. For those reasons, I believe ‘One Nation Under God’ to be a good thing, because to me it is exactly the same as having written ‘One Nation Saved From Eternal Destruction’. But I also believe that there is a big difference between saying “You ought to believe this” and “You must believe this”. Whatever free will we have in the matter of faith, it is not up to governments to legislate, or majority opinion to enforce, any one position on anyone. As the Bible makes clear repeatedly, God desires to be loved by His creations, and you cannot order someone to ‘love’ anything. (Where love does exist, incidentally, it cannot be proven to exist scientifically!)
However, once again having surpassed 2,000 words on the topic, I think it’s time to take a breather. But this discussion will continue in ‘Never Mind The Bedrocks – part 3’, in which I intend to look at Adam and Eve, what it means to be human, a common misconception concerning Cartesian philosophy, the problem of speciation, the religious imagination, and the concept of wonder. Stay tuned, folks!