Astute readers will have noticed that Beliefnet runs two blogs that deal with evolution on a more or less frequent basis but in very different ways: this blog and Science and the Sacred, where former Human Genome Project head Francis Collins and other contributors from the BioLogos Foundation share their thoughts. An Evangelical Christian, Dr. Collins would like to find a reconciliation between Darwinian evolution including its randomly driven, unplanned, unguided mechanism of natural selection, with Biblical religion, which is premised on God’s creative guidance of life’s history.
I wish Dr. Collins all the luck in the world. He’ll need it. An Orthodox Jew, I find his to be an impossible quest, though attractive to believers who find it expedient to dodge the radical challenge to theistic religion posed by Darwinism.
Part of the appeal of “theistic evolution” lies in the prospect it holds out to Christians and Jews of being respected and accepted by the prestige academic world. In that world, Darwinism and atheism have a way of melding. Alas, the fondly wished for respect is often cruelly withheld. Prominent Darwinists like P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne
have been amusingly contemptuous of the BioLogos concept — “full of fluffy bunnies and pious weasels
to reconcile science and faith” — which Dr. Collins also elaborates on a website of that name
and in his book, The Language of God
Of course, they are unfair to Dr. Collins and his collaborator Karl Giberson. I enjoyed Language of God
, and reviewed it favorably in The Weekly Standard
, though I did note that Dr. Collins, who disdains intelligent-design theory, gives no evidence of having kept up with the latest that is being argued and written on the subject. His critique suffers from superficiality.
For example, Dr. Collins lays great stress on the purported evidence for Darwinian evolution from so-called “junk DNA.” But see the latest knock-down
of the argument by my colleague Richard Sternberg at Evolution News & Views.
Fundamentally, when it comes to Darwinian evolution, the conflict isn’t between faith and science. It’s between faith and unfounded science. Bad science. Who would think Judaism or Christianity can be reconciled with any and every science-flavored theory of how the world works that happens to come along?
Without going into a lot of details about what separates our perspectives, I think readers deserve a sort of thumb-nail explanation of where Dr. Collins and I part, and why we do. Interestingly, the contrast between our two ways of thinking about faith goes way back. It was noted more than a century ago by the great psychologist and philosopher William James.
In the Postscript to his book The Varieties of Religious Experience
, James wrote about two species of “supernaturalism” — meaning, in general, an openness to recognizing a reality beyond our natural, material world. The opposite would be naturalism, which denies the existence of such an unseen and unseeable realm. James distinguished between a “refined” or “universal” supernaturalism, which views the supernatural as being unable or unwilling to exert a meaningful guiding influence over material reality, and a “crass” supernaturalism, which perceives the invisible world as intersecting with the visible.
James himself identified as a crass supernaturalist. Religious but not a Christian, he found that refined supernaturalism “surrenders…too easily to naturalism.” BioLogos is tempted by the refinement and the prestige of universal supernaturalism.
James wrote: “In this universalistic way of taking the ideal world, the essence of practical religion seems to me to evaporate. Both instinctively and for logical reasons, I find it hard to believe that principles can exist which make no difference in facts.” Under refined supernaturalism, the “universe become a gnosticism pure and simple.”
I particularly like the part about “surrendering” to naturalism too easily. That’s exactly what BioLogos, a/k/a “theistic evolution,” does. With it, practical religion is put in danger of evaporating.
James also gives an insight into why refined supernaturalism appeals to so many otherwise faithful believers. It seems refined, sophisticated, worldly, whereas the crass version seems crass. The latter “finds no intellectual difficulty in mixing the ideal and the real worlds together by interpolating influences from the ideal region among the forces that causally determine the real world’s details.” How backward and old-fashioned! Why it almost sounds like intelligent design. That would never go down in the faculty club.
Like William James, I’m happy to be crass. It’s not bad company to be in.