So Greta Christina wrote a piece pointing out that even the vaguest, waffleist, broadest version of God is incompatible with the science, and then my favorite tech and media pundit, Andy Ihnatko, wrote a critique of her article. It’s a decent attempt, but really, it falls into the same trap Greta is talking about.
I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.
I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:
You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.
In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.
I’m saying that this position is untenable…
I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.
Ihnatko goes on to say much more, and in particular I’ll say his discussion of Intelligent Design creationism is spot on; ID is particularly vile for its calculated and disingenuous attempt to hide its religious foundations for marketing reasons. But I have to agree with Greta that science and religion are incompatible, and that sending your god off into the distant past and a tenuous and murky relationship with reality is not a good strategy for convincing anyone of its relevance…which is exactly what Greta is saying. This by Ihnatko, in particular, is not a defense of god:
Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.
Let’s dissect that.
First of all, science isn’t in the business of proving anything, ever. It’s a process for developing knowledge about the world, and we don’t talk about proofs, because knowledge is provisional and changes as we learn more. We tend not to say “Prove it!”. Rather, we’re more likely to say, “What’s your evidence for that?” or “How does it fit into this other body of hard-earned knowledge?” We’re also much, much more likely to ask how you know something, what process you followed to arrive at your conclusion, and to ever-so-awkwardly point out errors in your logic or observations.
We don’t consider such questions vulgar. They’re necessities for assessing a claim. I wouldn’t flatter believers by suggesting that they’re “secure enough in themselves” — I’d be more likely to say that they’re arrogant to think that they don’t need to answer simple questions about their process, and that what they’re doing in their obstinate refusal to think about the mechanisms of their beliefs makes them more similar to a dishonest used car salesman trying to pass off a lemon by hiding its repair history.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. It was a Catholic philosopher, Pierre Abélard, who said that “By doubting we are led to enquire, and by enquiry we perceive the truth”. Honest inquiry is what scientists expect. Stonewalling the conversation by pretending inquiry is vulgar makes us very, very suspicious.
The heart of Ihnatko’s argument rests on assuming that there is an exception to Greta’s argument, that she has failed to sufficiently address deism or the Watchmaker God idea — that maybe there is a sufficiently non-dogmatic, non-specific version of the god concept in which it is a being that just started the natural world and stood back and let it play out. You can’t disprove that, he says.
I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).
I’ll repeat, science isn’t about proofs. You can’t disprove the idea that Superman built a time machine, traveled back 13.7 billion years ago, and used his super-strength to create an exploding singularity, either. But science doesn’t care. We just ask what your evidence is that such a being exists, how do you know that he did that, and when you cite some back issue of Action Comics, we know to dismiss your claim on epistemological grounds.
It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.
But how you choose to define god is the important question! “God exists, as long as you don’t ask me to say what God is” is not a good answer, but is an evasion. It makes it impossible to evaluate your explanation.
You could argue that religion and science are compatible as long as religion simply accepts whatever science says about the nature of the universe (which was basically Gould’s argument in Rocks of Ages — I thought it was a cop out when an atheist said it, and I still think it’s a cop out when a deist says it). But that should not be a reasonable approach to someone trying to defend religious belief, because it cuts religion off at the knees. It really says that those holy religious texts are nothing more than the imaginative speculations of human beings, which are to be superseded by science. That’s fine by me, but then be consistent, and follow through and discard the religion part.
There’s also an implicit bias in the language: “God” implies a conscious being, an entity that is actively doing something — it may be as generic as triggering the Big Bang, or as persistent as something that constantly tweaks the human genome to shape us. But there’s no reason to think that what created the universe was aware, or human-like in its purposes, or even deserving of personal pronouns. You could argue that nucleosynthesis is god, for instance; that the process that assembled larger atoms from smaller ones is the divine creative purpose. But you’d be silly to call nucleosynthesis a “he” or “she”, or to address it in your prayers, or to think your conglomeration of carbon is a holy act. Yeah, you can go ahead and call it “god” and make a “First Church of Nucleosynthesis”, but it would represent an absurd anthropomorphosis of a natural physical process.
I think there’s a fundamental property of the human mind that tends to do these sorts of silly theological exercises, and here’s how science gets appropriated. This is Jacob Bronowski’s definition of science:
Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature — or more exactly, in the variety of our experience.
We are typically successful in finding that unity, and then the human mind tries to call it God, bringing in all the cultural baggage that that word carries. It’s not helpful. It obscures more than it enlightens. We should reject the whole notion of “god” because it fails to clarify.
As Ihnatko says, though, you can make it work by not pretending that it has anything to do with science, or that your church can provide any insight into the nature of reality. Sure, go if it makes you feel better, but put away the pretense that you actually learn anything about reality there. You’re engaging in a social behavior that makes you feel good, which is fine, but not something more.