Oct 14, 2012. This is the 30th in this series of blogs on evolution, science, and religion. Its time to pause and reflect a moment on what we’ve been discussing.
A Three-fold Perspective
Everyone has a perspective – a background, an upbringing – and it flavors our preconceptions, our assumptions, what we think worthwhile, and what decisions and judgements we make.
Mine is that of a classically-trained Ph.D. physicist with an experimental background in quantum optics, years of experience doing scientific research in Japan and the United States, and years of experience working in the high-tech semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.
My perspective is also strongly informed by the Enlightenment vision of science, reason, and empiricism as the necessary antidote to superstition and as the means for humanity to progress. The tradition of radical doubt and Socratic questioning that is part of that tradition was taught to me by my parents, and it led me to an embrace of the Bahá’í Faith, the newest of the world religions.
I accept and agree with the tenets of the Bahá’í Faith – including the basic ones of the oneness of humankind, of the equality of women and men, of the oneness of all the world’s religions, and of the oneness of science and religion. The last, which resonates especially for me, is the reason for this blog.
This combination of perspectives gives me a very skeptical take on evolution’s metaphysical side, whereas the scientific side presents me no problems whatsoever. I distrust any and all pronouncements on religion from avowedly secular thinkers with an axe to grind or a fanatical embrace of the Enlightenment’s now antiquated anti-religious stance. And I have a strong sympathy for evangelicals distrustful of what strikes me as a biased, unscientific secular worldview being pushed onto them in the name of scientific evolution, even though I know it is wrong of them to reject the science.
The Two Sides of Evolution
What has become abundantly clear in these 30 odd blogs is that modern evolution has two sides.
One side is scientific, closely allied with molecular genetics, and part of a dynamic, powerful, and hugely successful scientific endeavor that is finding increasing application in wide number of diverse areas, including today’s hot topics of epidemic prevention and empirical studies of our origins. Darwin is the scientist who firmly put this side on the map.
But there is another side of evolution, and therein lies the problem.
The other side is an all-purpose, all-pervasive set of stories, narratives, myths, urban legends, metaphysical explanations, and just-so stories. It serves as our modern creation myth, and just like the creation myth of the ancient Judaic book of Genesis, itself a modification of an even older creation myth of Mesapotamian origins, it is a catch-all, anything-goes, often entirely non-scientific hodge-podge of stories, ideas, and anecdotes. And Darwin contributed in a major way to this side as well.
This other side is invariably presented – even in it is most egregiously ridiculous forms – as if it were validated by the very essence of science itself.
The determinedly non-scientific side of evolution is widely used as a kind of cudgel to wield against all forms of religion. This has been done so frequently and so consistently over such long periods of time that it is widely assumed by many people – even professional scientists who haven’t examined the facts carefully or impartially – that evolution shows science and religion to be in contradiction.
Not surprisingly, many evangelicals, and now increasing numbers of religious people of all faiths around the globe, are rejecting even the sound scientific aspects of evolution. They readily recognize the dogmatic anti-religious worldview of the non-scientific side of evolution and naively believe – as they are so often told by those supposedly speaking in the name of science – that the science side is in total agreement with the non-scientific side. So they reject the scientific side as non-scientific, false and dogmatic.
They throw out the baby with the bathwater as the old adage goes. Evangelicals reject valid evolutionary science because they believe it to be anti-religious dogma.
Here is a typical – and very revealing – recent example of an attempt to use evolution to bash religion from a blog by Victor Stenger in the Huffington Post (Oct. 6, 2012) of this year. It is called Is Evolution Compatible with Religion?
Here is his argument against religion. According to Stenger, Darwin argued that:
the specific outcome of the human species, or any species for that matter, came about by chance. Humans evolved due to luck ….
Now, as any physicist – or any scientist with his thinking cap on – knows, it is that luck and chance are not scientific explanations. Stenger, wielding this clearly unscientific explanation, claims it to be
… fundamentally destructive to what every religion teaches about humanity.
This claim is decidedly and laughably wrong – luck and chance are totally the opposite of scientific explanation. They explain nothing and certainly aren’t destructive to what religion – or anything else for that matter – teaches about humanity or anything else. Yes, chance and randomness are always present in real world situations, but only as components of otherwise law-driven process. By themselves, they explain nothing.
There is a powerful and valid reason, of course, for explaining evolutionary change as driven by chance mutations, but that is not the explanation that Stenger gives. And for good reason too. Because randomness is omnipresent in all aspects of the world, and because it is a normal and expected component of any and all law-driven dynamic change processes, chance variations and natural selection are completely compatible with religion.
Evolution as a Special Form of Creation
The example above, because it is so obviously off-kilter, illustrates a problem with evolutionary explanations in general. An that problem is that again and again we see descriptions of evolution that hold it to be some very unique and very special form of creation, thereby radically expanding the boundaries of science into previously unknown territories. Chance, for example, is oftentimes portrayed as a whole new mechanism for evolution that drives creativity and creation. And evolution itself, according to people such as Stuart Kauffmann and Ursula Goodenough, has a godlike capacity for creativity and creation.
Now, evolution did expand science into previously unknown territories, but it didn’t do so by breaking previously known rules. Rather it pushed well-established scientific methods – proposing hypotheses and testing them, for example – into new territories. None of this invokes previously unsuspected forms of creation as many people want to think, only a powerful explosion of scientific results from the study of life’s growth processes.
Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
What he meant by that, he later explained, was that before Darwin, the only logical alternative explanation of life was that God created it by miraculous intervention. But of course that was not the only form of explanation before Darwin. Scientists all along assumed that natural law was responsible for life. So Dawkins’ view ignores the whole course of the development of law-based science and its sophisticated philosophical, empirical, and religious roots.
One of the things that our blogs have uncovered is that there is a definite propagandistic sense that there is a special form of creativity in evolution, as if evolution has a power that can’t be contained by regular science. There is – the explanations of Stenger, Dawkins, Kuaffman, Goodenough, Monod and many others omnivariably suggest – something unusual and earth-shaking going on in this special form of creation.
What our blogs are pointing at as the source of the sense of evolution as a very special form of creation is the Enlightenment Vision of Science and its antagonism towards religion. If you are going to reject religion, you have to have a bigger better creation story. That bigger and better creation story is evolution.
The Enlightenment Vision of Science
I subscribe to major parts of the Enlightenment Vision of Science.
That vision, now more than 250 years old, has played a tremendous role in the development of the modern age and the world we are so lucky to live in. At its heart is an embrace of science, rationality, and empiricism as a means for progress for all, as well as a moral vision of benevolence, kindness, and selfless effort.
But that vision has grown old, and its faults are evident. Certainly, its antagonistic stance towards religion, especially the great religions of the world with which it saw itself in competition, is a major one. Born in an age when conflict was the air that everyone breathed, the Enlightenment Vision of Science made religion into its enemy and the denunciation of religion its battle cry.
But, what it kicked out the front door, it snuck back in through the back door. The Enlightenment kicked out God, but kept the myths. One of those myths was its vision of evolution as a special creation – one which contained a mysterious force able to repel and ward off religion – i.e., evolution as a creation narrative.
The Enlightenment Vision of Science is now old and tottering, its youthful energy gone. What I am suggesting is that the Bahá’í Faith, with its vision of reason as the core value in both science and religion and with its forward-looking vision of science and religion working together, can rescue, repair, upgrade, and restore that aged, faltering Enlightenment Vision of Science, bringing it back from dysfunctionalism.
Rather than an antagonist stance against religion – a stance born of violent European political conflict hundreds of years ago and the then religious stranglehood on many aspects of political life, education, land and governance – the new Enlightenment Vision of Science – should we call it Enlightenment 2.0 ?? – will welcome religion and work with it to better the world.
And we can go to work, cooperating together to build a better future!
Next week, we will get back on track and detail the Bahá’í view on the uniqueness of man as found in the writings and talks of `Abdu’l-Bahá and contrast them with those of Darwin.
This is the 30th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.