The Religion-Science Debate Is Theological
On the flight over to Calgary (for Br. Scott’s nuptials) I read Bob Wright’s new book The Evolution of God. I’m wanting to do a post or two on that book, but I was having a hard time getting it together. Yesterday I was watching this Bloggingheads diavlog between Bob and a man named Karl Giberson–a scientist trying to do one of these reconciling acts between Christianity and evolution.
So in the comments to that diavlog, someone mentioned an article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic as a sort of definitive takedown of this whole reconciling religion/science effort.
I’d have to say it’s less than definitive in my estimation. Now I’m about to head out into these turbulent waters again, so I want to one point crystal clear. I am only trying to make one tiny tiny (but I think crucially important and totally neglected) point relative to this whole debate. So if the comments start flying I would ask that we try to hew to debating this one point. Not the stupid God exists, no God doesn’t, religious people are stupid, no they’re not kinda thing that usually happens.
The point I’m making is more a process one. It has more to do with the presuppositions and the space from which the argument is being had in the first place–then the God/no God part of the debate itself. If you know the former well you can basically predict the latter positions and where the conversation will (not) go as a result anyway.
My point is that whenever someone enters this debate they have to become theologians. Whether they be scientist, New Atheist, religious scientist, believer, philosopher, whatever. And (and this and is the hinge) the majority of these people are really bad theologians. Now to be a theologian does not require one to believe in God. You can easily be an atheist theologian. Or if you like an atheological theologian. It only requires basically learning how to discourse in the humanities. Questions about hermeneutics (how to understand texts), what texts are relevant, how to read, how to dialog. That’s about it really. But generally that minimum threshold is not met. For example, if someone is worried about The Bible (or Quran or whatever) having too much influence as a text of revelation, then that person can approach the text in the same way–as having been granted a deep legitimacy by a community of readers–as say playwrights read Shakespeare as a kind of canon. Again it requires some learning but just basic humanistic capacity really.
Otherwise how can we have a religion-science debate when half of that equation is not properly understood?
I mean if I participated in a religion-science debate and made some argument based on Lamarckian evolution theory I would be (rightly) ejected from the room because that’s debunked and I would have shown myself up to be an idiot on this subject. Why then is it okay to make equivalently (or in fact much worse) mistakes in terms of theological understanding and get away with it?
Once a person enters the domain of theological/religious argumentation–as a humanistic discipline–then they no longer get to play the science card as trump. Even an agnostic is attempting to make a theological argument/point.* They enter a different domain with its own rules of discourse, modes of argumentation, and the like. That makes those not from within that discipline vulnerable which is why at their worst, some individuals will cover over that vulnerability by just attacking their opponents. Fundamentalist religious believers do this in the reverse relative to science–which again once the debate is more in the scientific side they are out of their understanding. I might add that fundamentalists are also really piss poor theologians so they are double losers in this debate :(.
Now I should say going in Jerry Coyne is by no means the worst offender of this type. [That award probably goes to Richard Dawkins]. Actually in some ways Coyne is much smarter on a theological front than others (e.g. the aforementioned Dawkins and PZ Myers). So the fact that Coyne is in fact so confused about religious terminology does not bode well for this whole enterprise. If Coyne is this bad, how much worse then the others.
Here’s an example. Coyne writes:
The easiest way to harmonize science and religion is simply to re-define one so that it includes the other. We may claim, for example, that “God” is simply the name we give to the order and harmony of the universe, the laws of physics and chemistry, the beauty of nature, and so on. This is the naturalistic pantheism of Spinoza.
Now I agree with him that it’s easy to redefine one term to include the other. Unfortunately Spinoza was not a naturalistic pantheist. Again notice we are already into theological waters, so that point is not incidental.
Pantheism is basically equating God with the natural world. Which is precisely what Spinoza did not do. Spinoza’s God was transcendental to this world. Transcended this world. Spinoza differentiated between God as Natura naturans (the Nature of all natures) and natura naturata–nature as we normally conceive of it (her?). Unfortunately in English translations both of those terms are translated Nature which led to the misinterpretation that Spinoza argued that God was nature. Actually he said God was Nature, capital N not God was nature, lower case n. Lotta difference in that one letter let me tell you.
Spinoza’s God, it is true, was not a God who took sides or desired to move the creation in certain ways or directions. Spinoza’s God was not “personal” or “theistic”–more on those freighted terms in a second.
Spinoza’s God however was active in this world. Spinoza’s God had an infinite number of attributes only two of which participated in this world–so uh not exactly pantheistic by a long shot. Those two attributes are/were thought and extension. So all of nature existed within Nature but not the reverse–like a Russian nesting doll. Spinoza’s emphasis on thought and extension as the only two immanent attributes of the transcendental God (Nature) account for his (imo) excessively deterministic view of things, but that’s another (theological) argument for another day.
But one could hold a position religiously very similar to Spinoza’s though different in important respects. One could hold to the same basic formula of transcendental source that embraces immanently all of creation but have different attributes as immanent. Those might include goodness, inspiration, love, all kinds of things. Also Spinoza felt that one came into “devotion” or “contemplation” of this God through rational thought whereas I’m of the school that you come into contemplation of God via higher forms of meditation which reveal higher intuitive cognitive and emotional capacities.
To say that everything is in God but God is more than everything is called pan-en-theism (all-in-God), a term which nowhere appears in Coyne’s article. Not surprisingly. Spinoza would be a pan-en-Naturist (all-in-Nature).
Now this Spinozistic jaunt was not have an argument about Br. Baruch, just to say that from the beginning look how off Coyne is on a very basic term in the debate: pantheism. As I said before this does not bode well.
Here’s Coyne again:
A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas’s board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take “religion” to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism.
I’m totally with him on that first sentence. Yes, absolutely, amen, let’s treat science and religion as they are actually practiced by human beings. On the second sentence, again total agreement. Science is not supernaturalistic.
But WTF is this third sentence? You can not take “religion” (in scare quotes no less) to be the philosophy of liberal theologians? Um, the philosophy of liberal theologians is not their philosophy but rather their religion. Hence the theologian part. i.e. How those liberal “philosophers” are actually practicing their religion which Coyne correctly just said two sentences prior was what we should really focus on. But then he tries to (re?)define religion to the terms he wants to support his argument. This move is a classic one in science and religion are at war arguments.
iow, Back to my thesis: Coyne is making a theological argument. Except he doesn’t know theology very well. Or really much at all. If he were in my theology class, this gets a D-.
Liberal theologians do not necessarily “frown” on a personal God (i.e. theism). They might understand personality differently. Like the following–which by the way since we are in theological argument here I’ll reference is the actual traditional way of understanding personhood relative to God in Christianity theology (like from the 4th century on, not some new fangled “liberal philosophy”).
In the ancient Christian understanding God is considered the real person–or rather the Real Godhead of Three Persons. Humans are less than persons. The Godhead is the only one who is simultaneously truly personal because truly relational (3 in 1, 1 in 3). Humans are less than persons because we are less than truly relational and versa vice (we are less than relational because we have not come to our true personhood).
In the modern world person-hood is defined by the autonomous egoic self. I would say that’s a nice fiction we’ve created for the purposes of political tolerance and peace. i.e. Our individual inner selves is the source of the argument for human rights which I’m in favor of.
Existentially however I would say that that fiction is ultimately a lie, however necessary it is to play that game for political-social purposes.
So to say God is a Person is therefore to project our assumptions from modernity onto God. Question: Who’s the real liberal philosopher masquerading as a theologian now? When we project our individuality self-sense onto God then we get what Alan Watts called God as “The Big Ego in the Sky.” Which is ludicrous and which sadly too many Western theists believe.
The idea that we are not fully human and therefore that sin is de-humanization is a radical idea that critiques–religiously, philosophically, humanistically–are ideologies in the modern world. Of the separate self sense as totally dominant. The corollary of that traditional Christian belief is that to become truly human is therefore to be divine. As Jesus Christ was truly both. As St. Irenaeus said: “The Glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
The Glory of God, is theological code, for the immanent presence of God on earth. God’s radiant presence (doxa=glory) on earth. God’s immanent presence is the human being fully awakened. God on earth is the mystical awakened human. That seems to me worth pondering for a second. And it can be true (or false) regardless of the status of Darwinian natural selection.
Whatever else that traditional view I just laid out is, it’s certainly a way to have a theism that is not supernatural. Supernatural defined as some outside God intervening. But of course we won’t hear that from Coyne now will we?
Instead we get an attack on theism. Theism which Coyne defines as such:
No, a proper solution must harmonize science with theism: the concept of a transcendent and eternal god who nonetheless engages the world directly and pays special attention to the real object of divine creation, Homo sapiens.
Now I should say in a weird way I’m more on side with Coyne than a Giberson. I’m not into harmonizing or reconciling religion with science. I don’t think God works in some special way at the quantum level or other New Agey crapola. If you latch God to the science then when the science changes God goes by by with the science. Also for the record, I’m not an intelligent design** person nor a creationist (as that terms is generally understood).
However, contra Coyne, this is some not so good stuff (I’m trying to be charitable here, really honestly I am).
Ok, let’s break that down. Not to sound like one of these “philosophical” liberal theologians but it would help if words like “engages the world” were unpacked. Of course Coyne wants us to take that statement in the most sort of crass-literal sense possible: e.g. “It’s a miracle, The Virgin Mary on my grilled cheese!!!” Alright maybe I’m being a little snaky there, but “engages in the world” means supernaturally.
Coyne’s alternative to supernaturalism theism is (not surprisingly again) naturalistic deism. There’s no natural theism or pan-en-theism. Again, this theological territory, territory he is not particularly adept at. Again I’m not trying to be a jerk or play one upsies here, but this mentality permeates this discourse. Namely that people who really don’t know their stuff get to put it out there as if they did and use the cloak of scientific training as justification for not being particularly on target in a domain outside their jurisdictional competency.
Yes, a whole helluva lot people–especially in the US–believe in a supernaturalistic version of theism. From more sophisticated versions to really pathetically embarrassing ones.
But if we are–back to Coyne’s claim–going to actually deal with religion as practiced then a person has to be to hold in mind simultaneously multiple theological lenses. Again, I’ve referenced this work before, but it’s worth studying James Fowler’s developmental schema of faith mediated by human’s theologically reconstructing/understanding their own belief systems. That would at least be a start.
Why does theism automatically assume God pays special attention to humans “the real object” of divine creation? Of course plenty of theists so believe and plenty of theological arguments are so constructed, but they don’t need to be. Aquinas said God’s primary revelation was Creation itself.
And again all of these evaluative judgments and weighted-terms are just bandied about: what does the real object mean? Concretely? Are their ways to say their could be degrees of real objects? Couldn’t God pay attention to all beings and still have “special” attention to humans?
But even there–what does pay attention mean?
Theism as Coyne is saying it must be–i.e. making his theological argument–is only one form of theism. That’s a theological argument. There’s nothing scientific one way or the other about that argument. There’s nothing particularly unscientific about it either. I might say it’s not entirely rational or open to all data (data understood in the way William James discussed as all kinds of experience). He can make that theological argument but he would have to back it up with deeper logic than he evinces in this essay. He just declares it, assumes it, and then moves on. I don’t think Coyne’s doing that intentionally–i.e. I don’t think he’s cynical or arguing in bad faith. I just imagine this is what he thinks is the case. And this is pretty conventional way of approaching the issue. Probably just picked it up from wherever.
But it’s really flawed and it screws up any chance of a real conversation–whatever one’s views on these matters ontologically–before it even begins. The scientific side–here represented by Coyne–should not get to dictate the terms of the religious debate. Because in doing so they will be making religious arguments without knowing the field. Just as people arguing from a religious perspective obviously don’t get to make claims on the scientific side of things.
Now it’s therefore incumbent on the religious side of the street to hold open as many different perspectives on religion or Divinity as is feasible. Both sides would therefore be rational in the best sense: open to new data, exploratory, and willing to have their propositions tested through discourse.
I’ll end with just one more, much later in the article as Coyne is critiquing Giberson’s work. Coyne writes:
If we cannot prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses. For if we really were the special object of God’s creation, our evolution could not have been left to chance.
Now if ‘special object’ is understood in the way Coyne wants it to be, then yes if human evolution was not inevitable then the reconciliation project collapses. Coyne however might want to consult Alfred North Whitehead on this point, since Coyne is making a theological deductive argument in that sentence. Whitehead allowed for God to be surprised, to take “chances”. God could and actually probably did (still does?) play dice in Whitehead’s understanding.