Atheism and Evolution
Atheism is not a religion; it is a philosophy. That means that atheism does not regard truth as a property of a group; rather, truth is the property of a proposition regardless of who is espousing that proposition. In that way, atheism follows from the philosophical tradition of Socrates, who abandoned the Pythagorean view of seeing philosophical truths as a secret that was held in community in favor of the agora where disputation would provide its own truths, though Socrates was traditional enough so that he did not allow his allegiance to philosophy, this new kind of truth, to interfere with his loyalty to his political community.
The overt and defining characteristic of atheism as a philosophy is the proposition that the concept of God is an untenable concept. If looked at closely, the concept doesn’t mean anything because it is a jumble of a number of things: love, justice, a powerful creator, an intervener in history, the “father” of a “savior”, and so on. And even if there were a non-composite creature that covered some non-contradictory number of these claims, there is no evidence that anything resembling such a creature exists, which is good enough reason to think that there is no such creature, just as the lack of evidence that little green spiders make the atoms move is sufficient evidence to say that there are no such little green spiders.
Needless to say, atheism is under attack, as it has been ever since Socrates said ideas and not the gods are real. Less sophisticated religionists, like the Muslims in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, regard atheists as filled with self loathing, the slightest hint of suffering rushing them to reestablish their bonds with religion. (Atheists are probably no more given to self-loathing than other sets of people, though one thing to be said for them is that they do not turn self-loathing into a virtue, which is close to the essence of the Christian message: you need to find Christ because you deserve whatever you would get
otherwise, worm that you are.)
Television evangelists, who have no sense of humor, decry cartoon programs for their covert homosexuality and also decry the lack of Christ in a highly commercialized Christmas. Protestantism thereby suffers its own version of the Donatist heresy in that it has a ministry a significant number of whose members are people who simplify everything and so cannot provide much guidance to a sense of salvation based on understanding and appreciating the meaning and message of Jesus as savior because they have simple minded views of what salvation would entail. They have upended Kierkegaard: only those people who fill the pews for the wrong reason of earning public approbation for doing so are going to find their way to heaven. The Social Gospel, which at the end of the nineteenth century was supposed to save Christianity from becoming a pool of superstitions, no longer seems to have theological force. Everyone follows Karl Barth in that religious knowledge is knowledge of the nature of the experience of faith, everyone entitled to the faith experience of choice, that privilege extended in America even to unbelief. If you have faith in intelligent design, that is proof enough. Such a view of faith is different from St. Augustine’s view that theology makes plausible what is known through faith. Faith, for St. Augustine, is about something other than itself and is true in the sense that propositions arrived
at differently are also true.
The Catholics have their hands around the real issues, though they have so moved sexual sins to the center of their agenda that their moral and philosophical imagination with regard to other matters is not what it might be. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, knows exactly what divides him on the matter of evolution from secularists (a more inclusive term than atheist because it includes religionists who claim that the secular and religious understanding can coexist).
Pope Benedict has no trouble with the idea that one species morphs into another, or that we can track this unfolding process over geological time periods. What troubles him is that the process of evolution, as it is understood by atheists, regards the evolution of the species as purposeless, no species having had to be here other than because circumstances allowed it to arise and persist. For Pope Benedict, every species has to have a reason and not just a cause for being. According to the evolutionists, however, species evolve for no reason other than the coincidental fact that some feature of a species allows that species to be more adaptable to its environment than some other species competing for the same niche. There is no essence to a species other than whatever it is that makes it adaptable to a niche. This purposeless is an offense to the religious imagination.
The purposelessness of evolution happens to be Darwin’s view of the matter, not just the view of those who have taken Darwin over for their own atheistic purposes. Darwin distinguished between natural selection and unnatural selection, which was what happened when agronomists selected some varieties of wheat or other crops and planted them because some quality or other of the variety selected was useful to them: it was heartier; it tasted better. Natural selection, on the other hand, was done without purpose, and this idea is so foreign to the pre-Darwinian imagination that it could be best defined by what it was not: it was the opposite of purposeful selection. There is no obligation, therefore, for evolution to have produced mammals or people, and evolution need not even have resulted in intelligence or consciousness except insofar as that trait meets the test of helping a species to survive, which is the only test that there is. (“Test”, like “selection”, gives away our predilection for purposive action, the defining characteristic of people but not, according to Darwin, of nature.) Morality has nothing to do with it; that people can be moral is a consequence of their intelligence, not the reason for which they were given intelligence. So the Genesis story that has the crucial even in human history turn on Adam and Eve learning about good and evil because of a prior capability to arrive at a good or evil intention (never mind that that leads to an infinite regress of capacities to develop capacities) is not much to the point however revealing it is about why knowing the difference between good and evil is attractive (it allows you to be like the gods). People came to morality because they could project into the future, into what had or had not yet happened, and they could do that because they had developed advanced intelligence as a survival mechanism.
Atheistic evolutionists are not indifferent to morality. T. H. Huxley, the leading popularizer of Darwin during the Victorian Era, and a major proponent of introducing science into the English school curriculum, argued that morality existed as a superimposition upon a nature whose history is written in tooth and claw. Morality was a human system that expressed how people were different from the apes from which they descended. People may have had survival benefit because of improved eyesight or an opposing thumb or standing erect, but what made them distinctively human was precisely that they could reason about what was right and wrong. Morality is what makes them different from nature. My ancestors may have been apes, but that doesn’t mean that I am one.
The creationists and the intelligent design people are silly (and perhaps devious, as the judge in the recent Dover, Pennsylvania case charged). They have not abstracted out the crucial difference between Darwin and a religious account of the world, a matter Pope Benedict has considered. So the creationists quibble about qualifying creationism as a kind of science, while the Catholic theologian just draws his metaphysical line between what is purposive and what is not, whatever are the mechanics of creation.
For otherwise, the Pope might argue, we could as well teach the story of the dinosaurs in Sunday school, treating purposeless as the human condition, invertebrates fighting it out ages ago for a superiority that might have produced a very different descent of the species, even perhaps including intelligent creatures that were nothing at all like us. That would provide us with the deep and scary feeling that the history of life on this planet could have gone unobserved entirely, that it becomes a history only because we observe it in retrospect, as a precursor to our own consciousness filled history. But history that is only sometimes filled with consciousness, otherwise the realm of mindless forces, as those existed from the Big Bang to the recent past, is an affront to the religious imagination, unless one adds Augustine’s insight that God must have been there before He created the world whose history He would thereupon “look” upon.
There are some religionists who insist that Darwin and religion can be reconciled. Darwin says how it happens; religion says why it happened. If however, Darwin is right, there is no need to say why it happened. That it happened is enough. Moreover, the easy reconciliation of the Bible and geology, that each of the seven days was a symbolic rendition of a much longer period of time, is to elide the point that that is not what the Bible said. That interpretation did not arise until the nineteenth century, after the geological discoveries early in the century stretched back the time of the Earth’s origins. That fact suggests the interpretation is lame, a way to avoid facing the seriousness of the image of the Earth as very, very old, much older than the writers of the Bible imagined. If anything, that facile explanation short changes religion because it treats religion as having to be reconciled to what science establishes rather than the other way around. Pope Benedict knows who is boss: he is, and so if there is a conflict between science and religion, it is science that will have to make its amends.
Evolution is one of those things that fills the secular imagination, and so fills the place for a guiding narrative that is supplied for most people by religion. A Darwin scholar asked me once what took the place of evolution in my own mind when I explained that natural selection did not seem to me to be a sufficient mechanism for the origin of species, especially if it relied on the usefulness of anatomical structures such as beaks and claws rather than on features of the endocrine system or the auto-immune system which we do not yet understand. The giraffe’s neck could get that tall only if trees also got only gradually taller over time, their leaves being always just slightly out of reach. I said, first of all, to answer the sometimes unasked question, that I did not have an alternative theory, only that we are at the very early stages of understanding evolution, and that someday we may regard adaptability as only a crude approximation of a complex process, as also happens when we identify social institutions through their functions, as when a judicial system functions to enforce a social morality, rather than because we have come up with an explanation of the process through which people as individuals evolve and people as a species evolved a sense of justice. In similar fashion, we may find out enough about biological change so that it is no longer necessary to think about the points in time when biological features match with or fail to match with their environments. Sickle cell anemia helps people in one climate but not another, which is not to answer the question of how malaria resistance works its way into the blood system or whether or why people also develop or fail to develop evolutionary protections against other diseases, such as tuberculosis, or often insufficient
defenses against cancer.
The more positive answer to the question about what fills the secular imagination is that there are a number of candidates. In my youth, people filled their heads with political doctrines: Marxism, for example, or, as was my case, New Deal Liberalism. Later on, people filled their heads with Feminism or Conservatism. There are also philosophical frameworks: cartesianism or phenomonology, for example. There are also theories of social science that serve as good summaries and progenitors of ways to understand the richness of human life: functionalism and semiology come to mind. Also to be mentioned is pragmatism, the philosophy that tries to put an end to philosophy, which arose at the time of Darwinism and embraced it as an antidote to Hegelianism and all that other thinking which postulated an invisible world, whether of ideas or gods, that pulled the strings that moved this one. Make your selection.
There are other issues than evolution and the nature of science that an atheist would raise with a religionist. They are the perennial but not therefore insignificant or satisfactorily answered questions about why an all powerful and all good God could not have created a world with fewer natural disasters and fewer diseases. If the Pope thinks that every species has a purpose, would he care to spell out the purposes of cancer cells and the gene that gives rise to Huntington’s Corea? Are little babies already worthy of punishment? And if God wants you to believe, why does He not reappear every so often in a chariot in Central Park, and so give scoffers a reason to believe? Instead, He leaves atheists to sort out issues of faith with their reason, in which case, I dare say, faith always comes up short. Why has He arranged the world in a way to give the impression that He does not exist? That seems extremely unfair.
Biological evolution, however, is as good a battleground as any on which to wage the fight between the superstitions that occupy and satisfy the mind during earlier periods of social evolution, and the present, when people can make up their own minds about how to respect their own humanity and how to arrange society to respect all of humanity. Despite Kant, you can have morality without the implicit premise that there must be a God. Biological evolution gives a long view and explains things as lawful in the sense of subject to regularities and abstracted processes rather than lawful because they follow (or violate) some kind of judicial system. Biological evolution allows us to imagine life on other planets and other kinds of morality and art that make use of the circumstances and senses peculiar to those creatures. It is very humbling if we think, as Arthur C. Clarke does, of creatures of a sort we cannot imagine emerging out onto the surface of Europa.
The atheist imagination can be as rich as even that of St. Augustine. There is therefore no need to defer to the sensibilities of religionists as being somehow finer or more profound or wiser just because they are accompanied by gnomic smiles. There are secular psychoanalysts who can also pull of that trick. Humility, a social scientist can offer, can be just another way to manipulate people. The virtues can be known by their fruits, just as evolution is, so far, the discussion of biology in terms of its consequences for the organism and the species, let the chips fall where they may. Nothing is sacred.