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When Faith Isn’t

August 10th, 2005 · 4 Comments

Writing at Slate, Jacob Weisberg dissents from the chorus of culture war peacemakers asserting that theology and evolution can be friends. It probably is better in in the short term if religious people think that the two are compatible so they stop trying to torpedo public school science curricula (pending the move to a fully voucherized system, at least) for fear of creeping secularism. But Weisberg’s doubtless right.

Sure, evolution doesn’t in any strict, logical sense exclude the possiblity of religious guidance… but it does make it otiose. One might, after all, believe the modern meteorological explanation for thunderstorms while still holding that Zeus or Thor “guide the process,” but it’s no accident that few people do. For someone who’s genuinely accepted a naturalistic explanation of a phenomenon, whether it’s storm fronts or the emergence of complex life, suggestions of divine guidance are apt to be met, sooner or later, with Laplace’s rejoinder: Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.

We tend to use “faith” as a synonym for religous belief, but it seems like for lots of people, at least at the start, “faith” doesn’t have very much to do with it at all. For a lot of people, positing a deity is a pretty straightforward form of inference to the best explanation—and for a lot of our history, given the dizzying complexity of the natural world, it was scarcely an unreasonable hypothesis. Evolutionary theory is seen as a threat to religion precisely because, at least when they’re first forming their views, most people don’t rely on “faith” at all: They’re rational empiricists to a much greater degree than most secularists probably give them credit for.

Tags: Science


       

 

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Glenn Bridgman // Aug 10, 2005 at 11:48 pm

    This is a point I’ve been making for a while, and I feel it’s an important one. That said, I do think this article misses the real thrust of religions antipathy toward evolution. It isn’t just that science demystifies the universe and makes the need for God less urgent, although that surely plays a part; the real crux is that many scientific theories have implied or assumed philosophical corollaries that are hostile to religion. Consider Galileo. The reason he got in hot water with the Church wasn’t simply because his reordering of the heavens demystified the universe, but rather because moving the Earth out of the center of the universe had severe theological repercussions. Evolution is the same, but on a much larger scale. Evolution, while theoretically compatible with religion, posits a “vulgar ontology” that, in practice, is highly toxic to any form of transcendental belief. Such beliefs revolve around giving the world meaning, and the idea that our existence is due solely to the fact that our ancestors were quite good at surviving is obviously going to conflict with them. Religion does have an issue with science in general, but its real beef is with the specific aspects of science which are actively corrosive to religious belief.

  • 2 Dan S. // Aug 13, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    The question of how people *do* first form their views is fascinating, and along the lines of stuff I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I have to read up on this a lot more, and I won’t have the time to . . . There’s definitely interesting work on things like the changing nature of beliefs about creation/evolution as children develop . . .

    I think this is more complicated than you suggest, but geez, fascinating post . . . but then still, evolution is compatible with faith. Indeed, in a sense it’s a vital part of actual faith – Ken Miller’s argument, sort of – the Slate article even links to him making that case!

    Now that’s a twist!

    ” moving the Earth out of the center of the universe had severe theological repercussions”
    I had assumed that this was because Ptolemy’s model had been taken onboard as a part of Christian Platonism, and fossilized into dogma, rather than any deep theological basis – contingency, one might say?

    ” Such beliefs revolve around giving the world meaning, and the idea that our existence is due solely to the fact that our ancestors were quite good at surviving is obviously going to conflict with them.”

    Necessarily, though? I don’t see this – if it’s obvious I must be oblivious (quite possible). Why? And _solely_? Are we having that old methodological vs. metaphysical naturalism (or whatever one wants to call ‘em, I like the alliteration!) problem again?

  • 3 David // Aug 16, 2005 at 1:26 am

    My comment.

  • 4 David // Aug 16, 2005 at 1:27 am

    That was supposed to have a link:
    http://dfryman.blogspot.com/2005/08/misunderstanding-question.html