Theists working hard to keep God out of the gaps

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my antagonism to the “freedom of nature” school of theology seen in much theistic evolution and, notably, on BioLogos, where I’ve been critiquing it for the last eighteen months and failing to get any reply (at all) to my invitations to justify it. My latest attempt was on a post by Dennis Venema on evolution basics, in the comments of which he posted his clearest “statement of TE faith” to date. It’s here: Dennis’s comment is #76597, and mine #76711, though you should note that comments are now being removed at BioLogos after 180 days, which is a shame as it hides how ideas develop over time, or not.
Some TEs, though, spell out just what they mean by “freedom of nature” all too clearly. Look at this quote from Nature in 1992, by the late philosopher of biology David Hull:

The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, pain, death and horror… Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural selection may be like, he is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not the loving God who cares about his productions. He is not even the awful God pictured in the Book of Job. The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.

Now it may be argued that Hull was not a TE or a believer, as far as I know, being a campaigner for the rights of gay and lesbian philosophers (a minority with which you might not particularly have empathised before). But the passage is actually quoted by Francisco Ayala in the book I mentioned in the last post, Debating Design, as an endnote to Ayala’s own comment:

In my view [the defective design of organisms] is not compatible with special action by the omniscient and ominipotent God of Judasim, Christianity and Islam.

He has just listed a list of such deficiencies and evils in creation including the human jaw and birth canal, chimps’ cruel carnivorous habits, insects that devour their mates and so on. But this concludes a section in which he argues that Darwin’s theory, understood as “chance and necessity”, permanently outlaws the very possibility of final causes/external teleology in biology, specifically limiting God’s “design” to the de novo creation of the Universe. So Ayala’s evolution is not dualistic –  chance and necessity account both for the evil not to be attributed to God, and to the wonderful things seen in life … which are also not to be attributed to God. Hence his approbation of David Hull’s diatribe. This is hardly surprising, for it is actually impossible to sort out “evils” from “goods” in creation if you hold that the whole thing is based on unacceptable suffering, waste and death. So if you happen to like the shape of your spouse’s jaw, don’t thank God for it – for it’s a delusion of the “almost diabolical” demiurge of evolution. And a garden is a lovesome thing only by chance and necessity – and if God wots it, he certainly didn’t contribute to the plan.

Yet Ayala is happy to say that, although evolution, like heliocentrism, requires some theological adjustment, it is quite compatible with Christianity… just so long as your Christianity makes no place at all for God’s purpose within nature after the Big Bang. Ayala is said to be cagey about his own theological commitment, but he seems to be accepted as kosher in TE circles. BioLogos, for example, asked him to write the Noview of Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell which first got this blog off the ground in 2011. Although the comments on that review are now lost, I record that Darrel Falk praised Ayala (whilst politely discrediting Meyer), who characteristically ended his “review” with the claim that attributing the “egregious errors” in nature to God is blasphemous. Since that time, a number of BioLogos folk have affirmed that nature is free to evolve, and that it is full of evils that cannot be held to God’s account, eg Falk (the poliovirus) and Venema (repetitive genetic elements), whilst their silence or agnosticism about the “good bits” of nature certainly do not refute Ayala either overtly or by implication.

At least Ayala’s argument is consistent: evolution is down to chance and necessity, which explain evils, inefficiences and function too without remainder. BioLogos folk who want to retain some place for God’s involvement in evolution (for example, as one columnist wrote recently, “I believe God intended man” – but he didn’t reply to my request to say how he got him) need to be more forthcoming about why Ayala’s stark assessment is wrong – and it would even be helpful to believers to refute him directly, rather than agree with him and accuse the Stephen Meyers of this world of deficient theology. Because, make no mistake, Ayala’s logic means that nothing we see in the living world legitimately calls us to give thanks and praise to the Creator – and I doubt many Christians, still less Evangelicals, would sit easy with that if they fully realised the implication. Jacobus Arminius made this same point centuries ago:

This creation is the foundation of that right by which God can require religion from man, which is a matter that will be more certainly and fully understood, when we come more specially to treat on the primeval creation of man; for he who is not the creator of all things, and who, therefore, has not all things under his command, cannot be believed, neither can any sure hope and confidence be placed in him, nor can he alone be feared. Yet all these are acts which belong to religion.

Lastly, though, partly as a follow up to the previous post, just take a look at that first quote above, from David Hull, and ask how many of the terms he uses for describing nature are objective science, and how many nothing but personal polemic. “Happenstance” and “contingency” merely beg the question of God’s historically accepted sovereignty over chance. “Waste” ignores the fact that, ecologically, one species’ “waste” is another’s survival, and its “incredibility” is merely a matter of psychology. “Pain” and “death” are at least real – but the understanding of non-human pain is, at best, tentative and death is hardly a new discovery (or a particular evil except for humans under judgement). As for “horror” – well, it does appear to lack a universally accepted metric, doesn’t it?

Hull seems to have invented his Protestant God out of whole-cloth (has anybody ever heard that God’s motto is “waste not, want not”?), but Ayala would seem to concur (by using the quotation) that the God of Job did not inspire the Book of Job – which wipes out St Paul too, who quoted it several times. In fact the Bible writers, including Jesus who attributed the world of nature to God’s own hand, all appear to have worshipped a near-diabolical God, as have all the Christians ever since, until TEs saw the light. That’s a slightly bigger revolution that Copernicus’s, it seems to me, but few seem to notice.

Nevertheless, I suppose in the end we students of science just have to accept the assessment of Hull because it appeared in Nature, which is after all a magazine devoted only to scientific truth – the scientific truth that has since Darwin’s time, as Ayala demonstrates and other TEs have not denied, proved that the true Christian God could not possibly have a hand in the natural world.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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