My last post showed the prevalent, and crippling, metaphysical bias of those who assess the evidence for evolution with a materialistic prior commitment. Richard Lewontin makes the case eloquently. Despite the popular rhetoric, though, theism as such has very much less at stake in the matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, God could have created using evolution, or in pretty much any other way. In practice things are not that simple, if we look at specific examples.
Those who approach the matter with a historically literal view of Genesis, such as American Fundamentalists, are naturally going to be drawn to a Young Earth Creationist scheme in which the days, the individual divine fiats, the Flood and the principled immutability of species may inform their theism. That in itself would actually put them on a par with the atheists in their degree of bias, but one has to factor in the possibility of anti-scientism in some cases, and the fact that they consider they have a positive source of authority in (their interpretation of) the Bible. This is commonly presented by their opponents as a unique case of pitting superstition against the evidence, but actually it’s just rather more visible than the denialism of atheists, which simply suppresses or ignores evidence against its position, and gets to write the textbooks. Creation Science is bad science, but how would one know if mainstream science was, in the light of Lewontin?
More mainstream Biblical Christians, particularly in the Arminian tradition, may well have problems with the usual formulations of evolution too, for there is a tendency for them to go along with the division of the world into “natural” and “supernatural”. If one believes that the world carries on by law and chance until God intervenes, to answer prayer and so on, then the naturalist claim to rule out God’s creatorial role runs counter to ones prior commitment. This may either lead to rejection of, or indifference to, evolution, or often to a rather soft form of theistic evolution – “Well, maybe it happened, but God moved the pieces.” This may be the position of most committed Christians. The same, I think, would be true for the Catholic tradition of accepting mainstream science where possible whilst drawing lines in the sand when necessary. It’s a prior commitment openly stated, unlike that of most biologists.
There is an interesting confluence (scarcely accidental, in my view) between the naturalistic prior commitment of atheists, and those of more considered theistic evolution in the BioLogos mould. As I have said at length before it is curious how so many of those Christians very supportive of mainstream evolution have voiced support for far-from-mainstream theologies like Open Theism and Process Theology. One reason, I think, is that these are the only forms of Christian thought that sit comfortably with the absolute commitment to naturalism of the atheist biologists. In these theologies, God is for whatever reason committed to non-intervention, so that nature is effectively as unguided as any Richard Lewontin could wish. To me, this says less about the evidence than about the sociology: if one comes from, and/or identifies with, the community of those for whom design is anathema, then it is more comfortable to share their prior commitment, albeit from different metaphysical foundations. Maybe that accounts for why many of the same weak arguments, and the same debating tactics, are shared by both groups, and why ID is such a target for hostility. This should remind us of the possibility of sharing a prior commitment by proxy – an orthodox Christian may simply adopt the bias of his scientific colleagues with insufficient thought, just as someone of unsettled religious views might. Similarly many theists will tend to adopt the attitudes of their faith-communities without serious investigation.
For my own part I started to rekindle my interest in evolution and faith partly because retirement was approaching with more time to pursue it, and partly because it suddenly began to look more resolvable. I’d position myself well within the classical Reformed tradition (by choice, not upbringing), which takes the Bible very seriously, but not literalistically. For some reason it had not occurred to me that the Biblical doctrine that God governs chance as well as everything else in the world, by his sovereign power, applies to creation, too. Intrinsically, there was no reason why even straight Neodarwinian evolution should be incompatible with Biblical faith, provided one could resolve some issues like natural evil, the historical status of Adam and Eve, and so on.
Pretty quickly, once I started looking, I found answers to most of these that satisfied me, at least, whether or not they’d please anyone else. Random mutation and natural selection would pose no problems to my world-view. On the other hand, nothing in my theology precluded God’s direct involvement apart from the feeling that it would be unlikely to happen gratuitously or deceptively.
Somewhat to my surprise I found that I wasn’t that common a beast – I guess Reformed Evangelicalism has always been a minority, and as my friend Penman testifies, many Reformed churches here and in the US have thrown in their lot with Young Earth Creationism, maybe by a process of “prior commitment by proxy” with the Fundamentalists, as above.
Also to my surprise, as I examine my own prior commitments I find am probably less suceptible to metaphysical bias than many others in considering the evidence for evolution. I think I’d be on a par in that respect with that equally rare animal, the genuine agnostic, who has no particular fear of being convinced that God does exist.
If I’m right in my self-examination, then my attempts to assess the evidence for the ruling paradigm are at least as dispassionate as anybody elses’s, and more so than many. And the fact that I find that evidence gravely wanting has more to do with my reasoning than with my metaphysical commitments.
Of course, one is always somewhat blind to one’s own world-view, and it may just be that I’d really love to see the New Atheists eat humble pie during my lifetime!