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Sep 01 2009

The accommodationists try again

Robert Wright is a science writer and one of those accommodationists who is disturbed by the new atheists, people who say that science and religion are incompatible. He, like many accommodationists before him, wants to build a bridge between science and religion.

He has written a book The Evolution of God in which he argues that our image of god has evolved depending on the needs of society at any given time. For example, when times seemed to require that a tribe ruthlessly destroy its perceived enemies, the god that emerged was the jealous, vengeful, murderous, genocidal god so favored by Pat Robertson, John Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell, and the assorted end-timers. When times required peaceful co-existence, god became the love-thy-neighbor type now propagated by mainstream religions. Hence religious texts like the Bible that are accumulations of texts written over various times contain all these contradictory views of god.

All that is fine and dandy and uncontroversial. Once you accept that god is a human creation, it makes sense that the nature of that creation will sway with the prevailing political and social currents.

But Wright, like all accommodationists, shrinks from going all the way with this idea of god as purely a human invention. He wants to retain an independent existence for some kind of god but also wants to retain his scientific credibility. So he adopts the usual accommodationist strategy of blaming ‘extremists’ on both sides for creating a split between science and religion: On the one hand are the religious fundamentalists who insert god into those areas that are supposedly the proper domain of science, and on the other are the new atheists who say that the idea of god is totally superfluous and can be dispensed with.

As he says in a New York Times op-ed published on August 22, 2009:

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

Oh, these silly extremists, always causing trouble by being so stubborn. But not to worry! Wright has the solution, which he announces with great fanfare: “I bring good news!” The problem, as he sees it, is that both sides make the common mistake of underestimating natural selection’s creative power. All it requires to reach a consensus solution is for the extremists on both sides to each make some teensy-weensy concessions. What are they?

Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism.

Let’s see how Wright unpacks these two prescriptions for peaceful coexistence, starting with what he requires of religious believers:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever.

If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic. (emphasis added)

So as part of this grand bargain, he wants religious believers to give up the idea that god intervenes periodically in nature to create organisms or moral sensibilities or anything else, and instead accept that natural selection can do all that heavy lifting all by itself, and was designed to do so right from the beginning.

In other words, Wright is postulating a teleological (i.e. goal directed) view of evolution. He seems to be saying that this far-sighted god inserted into the natural selection algorithm itself everything that was necessary to eventually and inevitably produce some sort of sentient beings at least approximating humans that would have something like our moral sensibilities that gave us the ability to perceive what we now do about the existence of god. This is why the world seems to work perfectly well as if there is no god but god still exists.

This idea is not new. The lack of directionality and intentionality of natural selection was troubling back in Darwin’s time and led to the theory of orthogenesis, which suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983). But that view has long been rejected by almost all biologists as being incompatible with what we know about how evolution works, which is by natural selection acting on random mutations as a result of selection pressures. One does not need to postulate a hidden greater purpose or a hidden mechanism to produce the results that evolution did, so Wright’s requirement that god had to insert that mechanism is superfluous.

What Wright is postulating is something between strict deism (where god created the universe and its laws without any idea of what would happen subsequently, letting the chips fall where they may), and intelligent design creationism (where god has to directly intervene and nudge things along at critical intervals to get the results he wants). In other words, Wright creates ‘intelligent design lite’ that (to him, at least) tastes great and is less filling.

I suspect that most religious people will find that Wright’s compromise, as far as they are concerned, tastes lousy and not at all satisfying because he requires religious believers to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god. As biologist Jerry Coyne says in the course of a detailed critique of Wright’s article:

[T]his scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on, what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

But I’ll leave those problems to the religious people to deal with. In the next post, I’ll look at what he wants from us new atheists. (Sneak preview: Wright is wrong there too.)

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why ignorance is bliss

God tries to persuade Lucy (Lucifer) that it is good that people take solace in believing in magic, and why knowledge is bad and curiosity about how things work is to be discouraged. Note at the beginning that Lucy is reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

1 comment

  1. 1
    RBH

    I bought and started reading Wright’s The Evolution of God several weeks ago. I ran aground on page 4 where he wrote

    On the one hand, I think gods arose as illusions, and the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some sense, the history of an illusion. On the other hand: (1) the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the “illusion,” in the course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it closer to plausibility.

    That’s plain nonsense. An illusion doesn’t become plausible by becoming more refined; it merely becomes a refined illusion.

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