I read an OpEd in the NY Times the other day by David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. In it he describes what he calls “The Talk” he gives students in his evolutionary biology class. The Talk is his take on why evolution and religion, specifically Christian religion, do not get along. I’m always fascinated when people make assumptive statements like his as they reflect a common misunderstanding about Christianity, in fact a common misunderstanding about religions in general. Of course, we are all guilty of making assumptive statements. Here’s what I mean.
His first assumption in The Talk is that, while there is the argument that evolution could be the process by which God produced God’s creation, the evolutionary science has progressed to the point that “It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith, and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.” (Barash)
The two pillars are complexity and centrality. The former argues that the complex nature of creation demands a supernatural creator and the latter claims humans are distinct from all other life-forms in creation. Barash argues that, since Darwin, we see that, despite the complexity of creation it is possible that random variation plus natural selection provide all that is needed for non random creation to take place. Creation, according to Barash, can, and probably is entirely a mechanical process. No God needed here.
He then argues that Homo sapiens are simply animals, indistinguishable from any others. But wait, there’s more! He adds that the critique of theodicy (the righteousness or justice of God), when held up to the light of unmerited suffering in the world undermines the notion of a benevolent, controlling creator. That is to say that bad things happening to good people means if God was benevolent and caring, God would prevent such calamities from happening, but those things do happen, so therefore there is no God. Are you with me so far?
So, here we go. His first argument, the one about evolution demolishing the pillars of complexity and centrality assumes certain Christian theological premises. The more fundamentalistic Christian doctrines might be demolished, but they do not account for 20th Century theologies such as Process Theology, Feminist Theology, Liberation and Ecological Theologies. In other words Christianity is evolving too. Remember that at one time we thought the earth was the center of the universe, that the world was flat and so on. Those beliefs were support in large part by the Church who condemned and excommunicated those who disagreed. The Church evolved. To think that we have always known all there is to know about God is naive at best and dangerous at worst. Our understanding, as Paul wrote, is like staring through a glass dimly, but eventually we will see clearly. So why can’t religion function in the same way biology functions? With all due respect I think it does. I mean, do you still believe in God the way you did when you were six years old?
Secondly, his claim that we are simply animals like all others has some merit. The creation story says we were created just like all the others. Made of mud (clay) with the Breath of God breathed into us, bringing us to life. So that leaves us with the unmerited suffering argument to which I say, “Are you kidding?!”
The whole basis of our Christian faith is the unmerited suffering of Jesus. To question the theodicy of God fails to understand the Christian scriptures. Now, I agree that we are all entitled to our opinions, and Professor Barash has his own. So do we all. Another way of saying this is we all interpret the world differently.
I just happen to like a Christian interpretation better.