Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Karen Armstrong and/vs. Richard Dawkins on "Evolution"

Essays in the WSJ...

Karen Armstrong is a Christian with liberal theology, not always within the pale of orthodoxy. Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous contemporary atheist. (At the least, it's a nice cottage industry). Both were commissioned to respond independently to "Where does evolution leave God?"-- without either knowing what the other would say.

First, excerpts from Armstrong:

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

She gets off to a slow start, including the rhetorical pigeon-holing poke at "fundamentalists". One might draw comfort in noting that her overstatement (and thus, ignorance) about what Evolution can "explain" is paralleled by the flaws in her theological views.

But Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited... the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact....But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol...God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence....

Symbolism was essential to pre-modern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality...analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words....This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history.

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity....

Some useful nuggets here, within some weirdness: the evolution of religious thought and the (largely negative) impact of empiricism, realism and modernism on contemporary theology.

Then, Dawkins:

Before 1859 it would have seemed natural to agree with the Reverend William Paley, in "Natural Theology," that the creation of life was God's greatest work. Especially (vanity might add) human life. Today we'd amend the statement: Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated....

Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place...

Some nice lines in there. For style purposes, I'd rather read Dawkins than Armstrong. But on his substance...

If Evolution, then yes.

If God used/uses Evolution, then no.

If Evolution turns out to have far too little punch, then no-- not even close.

In any case, Evolution isn't even close to laying out that "explanation" (vs. a nice story) at the present time-- and thus, credibly making that claim.


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