Coevolution of Science and Religion?

FemaleStatuetteSamarra6000BCE-dsThe first chapter of Amir D. Aczel’s recent book Why Science Does Not Disprove God gives a brief (very brief!) overview of the development of religion, from the very early fertility representations and cave drawings tens of thousands of years ago to the emergence of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and the like. He points to the many examples of so-called “Venus figurines” found all over Europe and the Middle East and to cave paintings and images and sculptures of bulls thought to be representative of fertility and the forces of nature. The image to the right (from Wikipedia) was found in Samarra, is now in the Louvre, and dates to some 8000 years ago.

As agriculture developed and human settlements became more permanent other forms of religious observance appeared – with many of the most interesting sites located in Mesopotamia, Turkey, and Israel – a number of fascinating sites are found around Jericho and along the Jordan river. Ancestor worship with plaster covered, painted skulls also become part of the picture.

Making the connection with science Aczel turns to Max Jammer’s work in Concepts of Force and sees ancient divinities as “abstractions of forces seen in nature, mixed with human characteristics and an overlay of an emerging morality – punishments are meted out by these forces for “sins” such as theft and murder.” … “Early science – i.e. an understanding of nature and its forces goes hand in hand with the development of spiritual practice and moral code.” (p. 39) The monotheism of the Old Testament reflects a consolidation of the various gods represent local forces of nature into a single deity – as an example, the ba’als (local “lords”) become consolidated into one supreme divine creator.

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Posted in Archaeology, Problems for Faith | Tagged

The God of the Whirlwind

Nasa Photo - Dust Devil WhirlwindRonald Osborn (Death Before the Fall) finds the cosmic theodicy provided by C. S. Lewis as an effort to think through the problem of death and suffering in creation both thought-provoking and insufficient. The conflict with rebellious non-human powers is almost certainly part of the picture, one with strong biblical basis, but it doesn’t provide an answer to the most significant questions – how these powers originated and why God permits them to wreak havoc. Certainly it can’t be because of a fundamental limit to God’s power. Otherwise why should we have any hope for the age to come?

God as creator is responsible for those features of which we approve and those we find troubling. Here Osborn quotes Wendell Berry from the essay Christianity and the Survival of Creation in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays.

“We must credit God with the making of biting and stinging insects, poisonous serpents, weeds, poisonous weeds, dangerous beasts, and disease causing organisms.” “That we may disapprove of these things,” Berry continues, “does not mean that God is in error or that he ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding – that is, we are ‘fallen’.” (p. 151)

Rather than ‘fallen’ (although we are ‘fallen’) I think it means that we are finite – we are not God. Osborn turns to the book of Job to search for a proper approach to the problem that we can have reconciling our understanding of God with the nature of the world we see around us. This is a world where predation and parasites play a natural role and where evil was present from the beginning of human experience. Even in the biblical narrative the snake was in the garden.

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Posted in Creation, Job | Tagged

Does Science Disprove God?

hst_carina_ngc3372_0006 dsAmir D. Aczel argues that the answer is no. Science does not disprove God.

A number of years ago I was browsing at a Barnes and Noble while my brother-in-law was off looking for something or other in particular. On one of the tables near the front of the store there was a book, God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe by Amir D. Aczel, that caught my eye and eventually peaked my interest enough to purchase, read, and recommend. The book is a fascinating history of general relativity, Einstein’s field equation, and the cosmological constant. The book isn’t about God, but rather about the quest to describe the origin and structure of the universe.

Given my appreciation for his earlier work, Aczel’s most recent book Why Science Does Not Disprove God immediately caught my eye. This book is not a defense of religious belief, and certainly not a defense of conservative Christianity (in the conclusion he comments that “the God of literal interpretations of Scripture … certainly does not exist” (p. 252), but is rather an attempt to refute the claim of the so-called “New Atheists” that modern scientific understanding disproves God. He is especially offended by the claim that religion is not only wrong, but also bad, stupid, and responsible for much of the human evil in the world with best-selling books like The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens in the cross hairs. His real gripe is not as much with their mistreatment of religion (although he notes this) but with their mistreatment of science. In addition to these overtly anti-religion books, Aczel also addresses claims against the existence of God made in a number of books with a more specifically scientific focus such as Lawrence Krauss’s recent book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.

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Posted in Science and Faith | Tagged

Jesus Ate Fish and Other Thoughts on Death

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Miraculous_Draught_of_Fishes_(La_pêche_miraculeuse)_-_James_Tissot_-_smalllTo dig a little deeper into the problem of animal suffering Ronald Osborn (Death Before the Fall) turns to C. S. Lewis and The Problem of Pain. There are two ideas that are offered up for consideration.

All Death is not Evil. According to Osborn, Lewis makes a distinction between sentience and consciousness. Sentience is the ability to perceive experiences subjectively while consciousness includes sentience with a greater sense of selfhood and the ability to connect the experiences into a larger picture. Lower animals may be sentient but they are not (in Lewis’s definition) conscious.This makes a difference.

We tend to anthropomorphize the discussion of nature using terms such as “cruel” or “vicious” or “selfish” to describe predation as well as the broader cycle of life and death at work in evolutionary processes. But there is something of a fallacy here. Osborn poses the question:

When an eagle catches a salmon out of a river to feed its young, is it correct to describe the event as “vicious,” “evil” and “selfish”? Or is it we who have invented not only the suffering of the fish by the pathetic fallacy, but also the “cruelty” of the eagle through the fallacy of reading into all forms of predation a kind of moral egoism for which there is no real evidence either? (p. 141)

To put this in perspective he continues parenthetically:

It might seem a very strange thing to say, but one cannot help but recall here that Christ, without being a “vicious” or “selfish” predator, not only ate fish but also delivered to his disciples a superabundant harvest of fish as a miraculous sign of his inbreaking kingdom. God in human form was sinless and he was also an omnivore. (p. 141)

Jesus not only consumed fish, but supplied an abundance of fish for sale and consumption as a sign of his kingdom. There is no indication of any “evil” attached to this event, or any mysterious symbolism in the death of the fish. They are not sacrificed. It is just natural in God’s creation for people to eat fish and a superabundance of fish symbolizes a superabundance of blessing.

Having made this point, however, Osborn doesn’t find Lewis’s distinction between sentience and consciousness particularly useful. There is increasing evidence for a range of animal experience that includes elements that we see as characterizing consciousness. This is especially true in the higher mammals and especially in primates. It is simply unwise to make too much of this distinction.

A midrash on cosmic conflict. Osborn finds some of Lewis’s other ideas more useful in addressing the problem of death before the fall. Lewis advocates a “faithful agnosticism” as there are some things we simply don’t understand fully and offers a cosmic conflict theodicy that Osborn likens to a midrash.

We tend to lose sight of the fact that evil in the biblical narrative predates both humanity and the Fall. There is a personified evil present in the biblical narrative from Genesis 3 on, although here Osborn follows N.T. Wright in that it would be wrong to see this evil as personal as we see Jesus or humans as personal. The ha-satan should be viewed as sub-personal or quasi-personal. Nonetheless, the serpent was in the garden. The idea to disobey did not originate with Eve, but from the serpent.

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Posted in Creation, Death, Problems for Faith | Tagged

The Problem of Joshua

Lately I’ve been listening once again to the early part of the Old Testament. Genesis √, Exodus √, Leviticus √, Numbers √, Deuteronomy … Ah OK maybe, … Joshua … here the problems really take root. Today I am deep into Judges … Wondering what we are to make of this cycle of events.  Many well known stories with heroes (who are not all that heroic), but what is really going on?

JoshuaSun_MartinA few weeks ago I put up a quote from Ronald Osborn’s book Death Before the Fall where he commented on the famous incident of Joshua 10.

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Osborn suggested that in the quest to defend the Bible as the literal truth many fail to  raise the real theological questions found in this incident and, for that matter, in much of the rest of the so-called early Deuteronomistic history … Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges.  He made this explicit in a footnote:

The most pressing theological dilemma in the narrative of the destruction of the Amorites and the other tribes in the book of Joshua for modern readers, for example, is surely not whether or not we can come up with fantastical ad hoc speculations to somehow sustain its scientific accuracy but the disturbing fact of seemingly divinely authorized genocide – a problem that strict literalism only heightens. (p. 70)

Osborn hits a nerve here. The divinely commanded genocide in Joshua (although not really carried out throughout the book of Joshua) causes a real pause for thought.

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Posted in Bible, Problems for Faith

And it Was Good … But Red in Tooth and Claw?

Hawk_eating_voleOne of the more common arguments against evolution is the requirement of death before the fall. Not just death as a fact, but death as a mechanism of creation. It is often suggested that evolution is inconsistent with the notion of God as creator and creation as good. After all evolution relies on death and destruction, competition and conquest for life to develop and to progress … doesn’t it? The picture to the right, from Wikipedia, shows a hawk enjoying its natural meal, although the vole likely did not enjoy it much.

Alfred Lord Tennyson famously addressed the conflict between the love of God central in the Christian faith and the apparent bloody callousness of nature with an image that sticks in the imagination:

In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law-
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed-

(excerpts from canto 55 and 56)

Nature red in tooth and claw, of fifty seeds but one brought to bear, a thousand types are gone. Tennyson wrote before Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), but after the influential book by Robert Chambers Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published in 1844. (Darwin did not, we must remember, drop a new idea in the lap of an innocent and unsuspecting age, he was part of a swirling mass of ideas. He rushed publication of his ideas to avoid being scooped. Darwin had an important new insights, but if he had not published, some one else would have – and soon. )

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Posted in Creation, Death, Evolution | Tagged

Are Only Humans Moral?

Jeeves 2 dsSeveral months ago I began a series of posts looking at the questions addressed by Malcolm Jeeves (emeritus professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews) in his recent book Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience. For many people the most pressing questions at the intersection of science and faith these days have little to do with the details of the days of creation in Genesis 1 and everything to do with the essence of what it means to be human.

In his book Jeeves answers questions about psychology and neuroscience in the form of an e-mail conversation with a fictional undergraduate student. The questions posed by “Ben” represent the cumulative experience of more than half a century interacting with students taking psychology. Many of the questions came to Jeeves personally, others were suggested by friends and and colleagues … questions they had been asked by students and occasionally out of the blue through e-mails from people around the world.

In chapters 9 and 10 Jeeves addresses questions surrounding the uniqueness of humans. Recent studies have pointed to the presence of culture, morality, and even a form of altruism in animals, especially chimpanzees and other great apes. These studies will undermine many popular views of human uniqueness – if culture, morality, altruism and the like don’t make us unique, what does? One popular report just over a year ago Morality: It’s not just for humans, discusses the work of primatologist Frans de Waal. In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates de Waal argues that human morality comes from within as a natural product of evolution.

And this leads to the question that Ben poses:

What do you think about all this? In your opinion, does the evidence of some forms of morality among animals undermine human distinctiveness? And what is the contribution of science to studying human distinctiveness, as compared to the contribution from other disciplines, including the Bible? (p. 116)

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