Hello all. So this is the third post in my series “The Anal MBA responds to the Atheist Authors”. I realize now that this series is a bit misnamed. Not because I shouldn’t use the word ‘anal’ when writing about religion (although there’s probably a decent argument to be made in that regard). Rather, because I realize that I am really responding to both sides of this debate – the theologians who have been defending religion as well as those who’ve been attacking it. A case in point is the theologian John Haught’s God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, in which Haught continuously points out that God is the “infinite divine mystery”, only to then go on and make a number of quite specific claims about that mysterious entity (God is “Ultimate Truth, Goodness, Beauty”, etc.). Here’s my problem with this way of thinking:
If we embrace the idea that God is mysterious and ultimately unknowable, how can we be so confident that we know exactly what God is like?
With that in mind, let’s continue with the discussion of the atheist arguments for why, purportedly, biological science and specifically evolution has proven that there is no God.
First – I’d like to make an observation about people’s perceptions of God’s role in their personal life. I have noticed that for many religious people, when they think about God it is mostly about how He plays (or they wished He’d play) an active role in their life. I’ll regularly hear people say things like “the fact that this wonderful thing happened in my life against all the odds…I can’t believe that it just happened by chance. It must have been God at work”. The classic theist understanding of God is exactly that: God plays an active role in our individual lives. Intercessionary prayer (when we ask God to help people who are sick or troubled) is completely based on this understanding of God. I also want to emphasize that the alternative “God-less” explanation of these events is ‘chance’ or ‘luck’. Random events occur in our lives and we can either explain these events by attributing them to luck…or to God.
Now – let’s switch over to the natural world. A frequent atheist argument is that with the advent of evolutionary theory (and all the data that has backed up that theory) God has been left with ‘nothing to do’ in terms of the creation of the world’s flora and fauna. As Woody Allen put it: “The worst you can say about God is that he’s basically an underachiever”. Intelligent Design proponents try to respond to this argument by pointing out the current gaps in the evolutionary record, including the origin of life, and use this as evidence of God’s work. However, both atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) and scientist believers (Francis Collins) point out that this is ‘worshipping a God of the gaps’ – in other words, a God that becomes tied to temporary gaps in scientific knowledge. As those gaps become filled by new scientific discoveries, there becomes less and less for God to do. I agree with both Collins and Dawkins that worshipping a God of the gaps is to commit to a God that is doomed to die.
However- what about the fact that embedded in the theory of evolution is the element of chance? The advantageous (and disadvantageous) mutations that occur in species are random. The reason that certain mutations survive is NOT random – that has a clear rationale behind it –namely, those mutations that are most effective at helping species survive will be those that are retained. But there could potentially have been more than one mutation that would have been equally advantageous – or, to put it another way, there could be more than one way to solve the survival problem for a given species. For example, if we rewound time, perhaps humans would mutate into having three noses, and it would turn out that that mutation would be an equally advantageous means of surviving (OK, so I’m sure that’s not a good example – but cut me some slack, I am not a scientist).
There have been some fascinating studies that illustrate the role of chance in the evolutionary process. In a yet- unpublished manuscript by Jeffrey Laurence, (a leading AIDS researcher), he writes about studies conducted by Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan University. Dr. Lenski put twelve genetically identical groups of E. Coli bacteria in twelve identical clear plastic flasks. After each group reached a certain level of growth (2000 generations) he modified the environment in which the bacteria were growing (changing their environment from a glucose-based broth to a maltose based one). He then observed how well each colony adapted to this environmental change. Just as we’d expect, some colonies fared better than others, but there were survivors in all 12 flasks. However, as Dr. Laurence puts it: “..the DNAs of bacteria from each of the twelve flasks changed differently, using very different genetic mutations to accomplish the same goal, their survival”.
So – what does this all have to do with God? Chance. Why did a certain mutation occur in a species? Chance. Or maybe it was God. If we attribute the random events in our personal lives to God, why is it that we wouldn’t consider that God could be the driving force in the random events in nature as well? I do NOT see this as proof of God’s existence. As I wrote in my last post – I think such proofs are a waste of time. But it is an interesting way to think about God – and it certainly would give God plenty to do.
I am sure most folks will strongly dislike this argument – either because you are an atheist who is annoyed at yet another ignorant believer trying to find a role for God in the universe; or, more interestingly, because you are a believer who likes to think about God as being the beneficent designer of the natural order, not the force behind the random events in nature that bring us all sorts of ‘bad’ things (such as hurricanes) as well as ‘good’ things (such as fluffy puppies). I am going to explore this issue of the connection between our perceptions of God and morality in later posts, but for now, I’d just like to bring this back to the point I made at the beginning: if we are going to posit that God is ultimately unknowable (a key and crucial response to any atheist critique) then how can we be so sure we know exactly what God is like? All we can do is the kind of stuff I’m trying to do in this blog: explore different ways of thinking about God, and see which of them seem to make the most sense.