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Monday, September 14, 2009

Evolution and "Modern" Religion

Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, was asked to write an article about evolution for The Wall Street Journal. They also asked a scientist [Man vs. God]
We commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to respond independently to the question "Where does evolution leave God?" Neither knew what the other would say. Here are the results.
Most us have heard what Dawkins has to say, so let's concentrate on Karen Armstrong's defense of religion in the light of modern science. She starts off with ...
Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.
That seems to be the inescapable conclusion. Religious people who want to accept science have no choice but to fall back on a wishy-washy kind of religion where God plays no direct role and life has no purpose.

What kind of religion is that? Well, you'll have to read the rest of her article in order to appreciate the kind of mental gymnastics required to "evolve" a "modern" religion that doesn't conflict with science. Here's a taste ...
The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.
This is typical of so-called "modern" and "sophisticated" theology. It's so "sophisticated," in fact, that the only people who understand it are those who practice it. Those people are completely incapable of explaining their version of spiritualism and mysticism to the rest of us because it's a very personal feeling. It's that feeling you get when you appreciate natural beauty or the awesome knowledge that comes from science.

Problem is, Richard Dawkins also has that feeling, and so do I. If the "God" feeling is indistinguishable from that of atheists then what's the point? Why not just cut out the middle man?

[Photo Credit: Reuters]

It seems like I'm not the only one who recognizes a vacuum when I see one.

Jerry Coyne: Dawkins 17, Armstrong 0

PZ Myers: Saving gods by making them even emptier of meaning


  1. Obviously, she's not talking about mainstream Christianity. I'm not sure how talking to the fringes of a movement say much about the movement itself.

    Incidentally, I'm pretty sure there are extremely few examples of people "loosing their faith" because of science.

    Darwin himself shifted from deist to agnostic his whole life.

  2. P.S.: by "few examples" I meant the historical record from evolutionists, from Darwin onward.

    But my source is Michael Ruse, who Larry doesn't like much.

  3. Problem is, Richard Dawkins also has that feeling, and so do I. If the "God" feeling is indistinguishable from that of atheists then what's the point? Why not just cut out the middle man?

    How can anything scientific or objective "feel" anything at all? From what we know about physical processes - even neurological ones, they all have external, objective properties that are verifiable by many observers. But as far as we know, no physical process that we can understand has hidden subjective properties. That would add something entirely new to physics. No lesser intellect than Liebniz thought and wrote about this problem. Of course, that doesn't necessarily imply that there's a "God" or a "soul", but it means that current science is obviously incomplete and missing something important (or at the very least, explaining it piss-poorly), and you can't blame folks for questioning that.

  4. The way I see it is that science is black and white. Everything else, meaning mythology, spirituality, and the unknown are gray (or coloured). The parameters may change and new discoveries are made.

    More items, ideas, and scenarios are converted to black and white understanding everyday. But we will always have gray. We will never be able to compute absolutely everything in this universe into 0 and 1s unless you are God of course.

  5. I think you will find that Armstrong follows Wittgenstein in positing that silence is the wisest course in the face of the ineffability of the experiential and the irreducibly first person*: “Of which one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” said Wittgenstein. Armstrong’s formal expression of religion in terms of engaging in religious ritual and ‘God-language’ seem less to do with a belief in God than it does a kind of I want to play ‘let’s pretend there is a God’ because I like playing magic and mystery games and because this best expresses my sense of mystery and awe.

    Thus, as far as the human ability to articulate reality in formal terms (i.e. via language) is concerned, I think you will find that Armstrong is effectively an atheist. She is therefore no threat to atheism and there is no reason to get uptight. At the risk of sounding partisan let me say that she’s “on your side” Larry; after all, it is very tempting to construe your visits to the Chautauqua institution as a subliminal seeking for spirituality. So before you say “bah humbug" .... one day you may feel the need to connect with your mysterious inner spiritual self. Now you now know where to go! Karen Armstrong is the atheist’s chaplain!

    * footnote: Interesting to note that even the “external and objective” neurological physical processes referred to by Jeff above are, in the final analysis, only known to us as constructions of first person perceptions and thoughts; basically; what Jeff refers to as “observers”! So just where is the “external” world?!]

  6. When superstition is presented as anything else than nonsense or fantasy, it is oftenmost labeled religion.

    We all are in awe of things important or spectacular we don't understand, but some of us want to know what it really is. The rest put it down as a religious experience.

    And Marc, from what I have seen of Larry so far, it is not a matter of not liking, but a matter of not respecting, which seems well founded.

  7. Timothy wrote

    Karen Armstrong is the atheist’s chaplain!

    What a great line!

  8. see, the other chaplaincy job she was interested in was being covered by Richard Dawkins.