Keeping science and religion separate (not)

My attention was drawn to an article by philosopher of science Stephen Dilley, in which he examines just what a surprisingly prominent place is given to theological arguments in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. I must acknowledge upfront that I found the downloadable version of the article on Hump subscriber Ian Thompson’s Theism website, so he’s covered this issue already. But it does no harm to spread the information wider, I guess.

One might suppose that Darwin would have to engage with theology negatively to show the weakness of the “special creation” position against which his book is primarily directed, but Dilley shows that there is a great deal of positive theological argument in the book too. Though he gives some discussion about Darwin’s own religious position at the time of writing Origin and later, this does not matter much: the fact remains that Darwin uses theological arguments extensively as support for his theory. And as Dilley documents, the religious arguments are themselves unsupported by theological evidence and are, in several places, internally contradictory.

The position Darwin argues is, broadly, “Semi-Deist,” and mainly take the form “any decent God wouldn’t/would act is such and such a way.” So, for example, there is a broad assumption in Origin that God is far more likely to act by general laws than by particular purposeful acts. The idea here seems to be that it would be beneath God’s dignity, or too much like hard work, for him to dirty his hands with small details, which is actually a rather low view of omnipotence.

But along with this are repeated arguments that this hands-off approach must be the case because of the supposed inefficiencies and evils seen in nature: a good God wouldn’t do such things. He passes over two thousand years of theodical argumentation about why God might, actually, do such things: he is in fact presenting his personal (and confessedly muddled) opinions about God as scientific evidence. Anyone considering this argument will realise that an omniscient God, foreseeing what his laws would produce, is no less responsible for natural evil than if he had created it directly – a fact Dilley shows Darwin acknowledged in private correspondence, but not in his book.

One irony is that he uses contradictory arguments where convenient: for example, he piously criticises “special creationist” explanations of why God might leave particular kinds of evidence, on the grounds that it’s presumptuous to pretend to understand God’s ways. Elsewhere, though, in attributing homology to evolution, his argument is that human designers do not restrict themselves to adapting old designs to new purposes, and God must equally be expected to act according to our ideas of parsimony.

There’s much more detail in the article, but when this kind of theological argument is brought to ones attention, one realises just how prevalent it remains even in these secular times, not only in Anti-theist propaganda like the recent case of David Barash, but in the mainstream of evolution texts.

Dilley is keenly aware of this, and examines it in considerable detail. In another excellent article he examines, in detail, the famous piece by Theodosius Dobzhansky in which the “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” quote appears. Dilley shows how a high proportion of his argumentation about what “makes sense” depends on the same kind of positive (but unsupported) theological claims about what God would or would not do. This might not be too remarkable if Dobzhansky were selling evolution to the religious public (he was Russian Orthodox himself, though it didn’t make him orthodox enough to believe in a personal God), but the essay was in fact his presidential address to the American Society of Zoologists. Despite the avowed atheism of the majority of biologists, nobody seems to have objected to the relevance of God-language in this case.

Again there are internal contradictions – as in Darwin great play is made of the fact that God would not deceive scientists into perceiving that the evidence indicates unguided evolution (which is nothing but a claim to understand God’s character as keen to prioritize science). At the same time, the rather more universal impression that living things are wisely designed is ignored – it’s quite OK for God to deceive the human race in general over that.

In Dilley’s Darwin article, he points to just how prevalent such positive theology – the unsupported use of particular claims about God as evidence for Darwinian evolution – has become, so much so that we scarcely notice it now. In one footnote he cites examples from Jerry Coyne, Francis Collins, Stephen Jay Gould, Elliott Sober, Francisco Ayala, Kenneth Miller, Philip Kitcher, Michael Shermer, Douglas Futuyma, Arthur Peacocke, Jean Pond, Howard Van Till, Ian Barbour and John Haught. I could add to that, off the top of my head, Richard Dawkins, Karl Giberson, John Polkinghorne and Darrel Falk, and I’ve no doubt you could add some of your own. If these theological arguments were stripped out completely, I think the evidential landscape of evolutionary theory would look strangely unfamiliar.

Apart from the fact that theological arguments are supposed to have no place in science, the key point is that they are always treated as foundational, rather than being argued as theological conclusions before being applied. I’ve done a good deal of work myself in critiquing those foundations biblically and historically, whether that be the Deistical assumption of a merely law-giving and sustaining, rather than imminently active, God; the myth of kenotic free-process creation (invoked largely to justify the divine non-involvement that Darwin assumed on Enlightenment principles); or its daughter Open Theism (which gives a highly artificial account of God’s voluntary non-omniscience to bolster his non-responsibility for natural evil). The common thread of “evolutionary positive theology” from Darwin onwards is that the writer’s personal prejudices about God’s character and ways become scientifically evidential.

When I was in church leadership, I regularly used to throw into adult services a particular children’s ditty, between weighty hymns old and new. When challenged (as I often was), I pointed out that though children knew its message so instinctively that they really didn’t need to sing it, adults almost universally only pay lip service to its Scriptural truth, and instantly ignore it when it comes to the pastoral or theological crunch. The song went:

Your ways are higher than mine
Your ways are higher than mine
Your ways are higher than mine
Much high-er
Your ways are higher than mine
Your ways are higher than mine
Your ways are higher than mine
Much high-er
Higher, higher, much, much higher
Higher, higher, much high-er
Higher, higher, much, much higher
Higher, higher, much high-er

Got the message? If you prefer it neat, try Isaiah 55.8-9. Perhaps it should be pasted into the flyleaf of every biological textbook, seeing that theological considerations seem to be so central to natural science.

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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2 Responses to Keeping science and religion separate (not)

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    One main purpose of my website is to gather material for readers like you.
    I provide there more documents than commentary.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Well, thanks for doing it, Ian.

      So much good work goes unnoticed. Sometimes I think the discussion generally is more restricted than it’s ever been, despite the Internet, when you consider the diversity and richness of philosophical and theological discussion by scientists in former years (I’m just reading Alfred Russell Wallace at present, whose complete divergence from Darwin appears even in the flyleaf).

      It’s almost as if crass materialism has become such a hegemony in science that many are afraid even to think alternatives, let alone write about them.

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