An Astrophysicist Declaims on Religion
In the opening lecture for his course in cosmology, Professor Gordon Smalley at Mooretown State University routinely includes the following speech:
And now, it is time to share with you The Talk about how atheism and astrophysics get along. More to the point, how they don’t. Some folks believe that religious beliefs and science can be maintained as separate spheres, as “non-overlapping magisteria.” However, these magisteria are not nearly as non-overlapping as some of you might wish.
Theism is comfortable with the sudden creation of the universe. However, a pillar of atheism for centuries has been the notion that the material universe has always existed – – that the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there will ever be. This belief dates back at least to 400 B.C. with the atomistic theory of Democritus, and was carried forward by other classical philosophers such as Epicurus and Lucretius.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it did appear that the universe was a closed mechanical system which had been going on forever. The discoveries of the twentieth century, however, smashed that static picture and sent atheists reeling. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1916, implied that the universe was not static and eternal, but either expanding or collapsing. To try to maintain an eternally-old universe, Einstein added an arbitrary cosmological constant, which he later admitted to be his “biggest blunder.”
In the 1920’s, Edwin Hubble observed that the light from more-distant galaxies was “red-shifted” to longer wavelengths, indicating that galaxies are all moving away from each other. Georges Lemaitre took these findings as evidence that the universe was expanding from a tiny initial point, which came into being at a point in time some billions of years earlier. This was resoundingly confirmed by the discovery in 1964 of cosmic background radiation predicted by this “Big Bang” theory.
The sudden creation of our entire universe suggests the agency of a very powerful something or someone existing beyond our space-time world. Non-theists have been driven to varying degrees of desperation in order to maintain an eternal, uncreated cosmos. Fred Hoyle maintained a steady-state universe, long after the evidence had turned against it. Bondi and Gold proposed an infinitely-old expanding universe, with matter continually being created out of nothing. Several oscillating universe models have been proposed, involving an endless series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches. These models all fail, for reasons we shall discuss. Stephen Hawking has tried to obviate a Creator by formulating the Beginning in imaginary numbers, in order to paper over the singularity there. This is merely sleight of hand, since in the real world, in real time, that embarrassing singularity remains.
A few of his students shift uncomfortably in their seats, but he continues:
Today’s atheists largely cling to the notion of an eternal “multiverse”, which burps out an infinite number of expanding universes. While this is consistent with some fashionable physics theories, these parallel universes are inherently undetectable, so believing in them is an act of raw faith.
Moving from desperation to prevarication, we have the spectacle of Lawrence Krauss on the book and lecture circuit, proclaiming that whole universes can pop out of nothing, such that no Creator is needed. It turns out that Krauss gets all his mileage by equivocating on the definition of “nothing.” We have known for many decades that a vacuum which is devoid of detectable particles is not really empty. There are always fluctuating quantum fields, leading to the appearance and rapid disappearance of pairs of virtual particles. The vacuum is also permeated with “dark energy”, which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.
Even if it were reasonable to extrapolate from the appearance of pairs of particles to the production of a whole universe from the vacuum state, the quantum vacuum is not “nothing.” True “nothing” would involve the absence of the pre-existing quantum fields. This is pretty basic, and a number of scholars have taken Krauss to task here. Krauss also tries to appeal to the Wheeler-Dewitt equation to invoke an even deeper form of “nothing”, but this also fails: this equation deals with a whole collection of spaces, which again are not “nothing.”
Although you atheists don’t have to discard your beliefs in order to inform yourselves about cosmology (or even to pass my course), if you insist on retaining and respecting both, you will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.
“Wait a minute!” you may say, “Is that a fair representation of atheist views of cosmology?” Or, “Why is an astrophysics professor attacking students’ religious beliefs?” Or, “There must be some mistake; this abuse of professorial power does not really happen!” Or, “I’m going to call an advocacy group to put a stop to this!”
A Biologist Declaims on Religion
The example above is fictional, but the scenario below is not. University of Washington biology professor David Barash recently published an Op Ed in the New York Times, “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”, in which he describes how he bullies the religious students in his classes in the same manner as the contrived Professor Smalley above. Here are some excerpts:
Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.
…There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values… If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms …But here’s the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of [my students] might wish.
…As evolutionary science has progressed… it has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God…. A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on…
Barash is annoyed that most of his academic colleagues, like Gould, believe that there is no fundamental conflict between science and religion. He fails to mention that far more eminent scientists than he, such as chemist Henry Schaefer and geneticist Francis Collins, are evangelical Christians. Perhaps the looniest paragraph in his essay is:
I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.
The last sentence is completely delusional. What are the “mental gymnastic routines” which “science” is being asked to do here? Is Professor Gould asking that biologists withhold experimental data which might offend religious sensibilities? Are pastors coming to Professor Barash and asking him to do their thinking for them and provide a theodicy?
In a moment, I will note that his “demolitions” of religion are illusory. But a more basic issue is, why is Barash ranting on theological matters in a biology classroom? As a biologist, he has no special metaphysical insights. He is merely spouting his opinion and using his position of power to cram his religious views down the throats of his students. If they wanted to hear a professor hold forth on theodicy, they would have signed up for a philosophy or theology course.
Obviously there are some students who disagree with him, “shifting uncomfortably in their seats”, but they will not dare challenge the master blowhard in his domain. This is hardly the stuff of liberal education. Among his reviews at Rate My Professors we find this acknowledgement that he does indeed push an atheist agenda in class, from a student who seems to find it entertaining:
He is definitely an atheist and has an agenda to push, but he has some great points and is overall interesting.
Other students are less amused:
…Does not have any sympathy for any other beliefs and tries to throw dirt on those who believe in anything other than his “marvelous” theories.
He has a clear agenda to push, as he’s always rambling off topic about how biology proves that God doesn’t exist and requires his books as reading but are useless.
University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne is an atheist who takes every legitimate opportunity to trash theism. However, even he recognizes that what Barash is doing is not legitimate. While Coyne agrees with the content of Barash’s talk, he writes:
…There’s one thing about his piece that bothers me: Barash’s article is about how he tells his animal behavior class that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, he’s making theological arguments at a public university….
But in fact, and this is my beef (a small one, like a filet mignon): Barash may not be accomodating science with religion, but he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university. One could even make the argument that he’s skirting the First Amendment here, mixing government (a state university) and religion. After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?
The Crude Ideas blogger is more pointed in his critique:
My understanding is that David Barash works at a public university. Splendid.
Then David Barash should be fired.
More than that: David Barash’s firing should be demanded by anyone who insists that religion and religious claims must be kept out of the (public) classroom and out of science. He can believe whatever he wants about religion, God, science, theodicy, philosophy, metaphysics and more. What he cannot do is take on the role of a teacher on the public dole, inserting his religious beliefs into a science class.
Both Coyne and Crude point out that if Barash is allowed to present his arguments against religion in science classrooms, then surely Intelligent Design proponents, or more credible theists, should be allowed to present their arguments for religion in those same science classrooms. However, if Intelligent Design or anthropic fine-tuning is discussed favorably by a college science instructor, a lawsuit is often filed against him, or he may face dismissal, denial of tenure, or other harassment. A number of cases could be cited here. On the other hand, in recent years I am not aware of atheist professors being reined in from pushing their views on students. There appears to be a double standard in academe.
Assessing Barash’s Claims That Evolution Has Demolished Pillars of Faith
We now turn to the three devastating blows to traditional religion delivered by evolution to traditional religion, according to Barash.
(1) Defeat of the Argument from Complexity
The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.
(2) Dispelling the Illusion That Humans Are Not Part of the Natural World
Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.
These are examples of debating trickery, of putting up weak “straw man” versions of your opponent’s position and then knocking them down. Most scholarly theologians long ago forsook the God-of-the-gaps argument exemplified by Paley and by today’s Intelligent Design proponents. For example, while in a Nazi prison in 1944, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of “…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
The Roman Catholic Church, representing some 1.2 billion Christians, has been on board with evolution for decades. In Christian Belief in a Postmodern World Princeton Seminary philosopher Diogenes Allen explained why inserting God into physical gaps is not only bad science, but bad theology: “This is theologically improper because God, as creator of the universe, is not a member of the universe. God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature. According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature.”
As we have learned more about the nature of the universe, our appreciation for the wonders of God’s creation has increased, not decreased. What seems like solid matter is found to be mainly empty space, a product of the interaction of probabilistic quantum fields. We now know that this universe had a creation point some 13 billion years ago, with exquisitely tailored physical constants that allow the existence of matter and life, including the intricate story of evolution. More glory for the Creator: A billiard player who can rack up the balls up at the start, give one mighty crack of the cue, and have all the balls ricochet around and then sink in order is far more impressive than the player who works by sinking the balls one at a time.
Barash claims this evolutionary process to be “undirected”, but his biology lab has no instruments for detecting “directedness”. That claim is metaphysical speculation, unconnected to physical science.
Dialing back to New Testament times, Jesus himself stated that “no miraculous sign” would be given to skeptics, apart from his resurrection. An implication of this statement is that the fabric of operations of the physical universe will appear to be seamless. Thus, thoughtful Christians would expect that the development of organisms will occur in conformance with natural regularities.
But Barash ignores this serious theistic position on creation, and instead bashes the uninformed type of design argument held by many lay folk who have been misled by the Young Earth creationist and Intelligent Design organizations. In this view, naturalistic processes cannot account for the development of today’s diverse life-forms from primeval cells, and so God (or a comparably capable Intelligent Agent) may be invoked to fill in this apparent gap. Barash is correct that the findings of evolutionary science show this argument to be untenable. But, as explained above, the God-of-the-gaps design argument is not a “potent pillar of religious faith” for most educated theists in the West.
Similarly, the finding of evolutionary science that humans are physically related to other species does nothing to threaten belief in God. All it threatens is the simplistic interpretation of the Genesis narrative which was known from geology by 1840 to be incorrect. Humans were categorized by classical philosophers and Christian scholastics as “animals”, long before modern science. The “image of God” in humans was not thought to be located in some alternate bodily metabolic pathway which could be discoverable by biologists. Human exceptionalism is alive and well, though of course its boundaries shift with time as our knowledge grows of humans and other animals. No other species, for instance, has been observed to write Times op-eds.
Barash’s announcement that, “no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens” is just silly. Christians who reflect on the rationality of nature and on Jesus’ saying about “no signs” were not expecting some supernatural trait to be exhibited in humans. Even if some rare miracles did occur in the human body or brain, they would fall outside the sphere of detection of science, which is concerned with repeatable regularities.
(3) The Problem of Evil and Suffering
Barash’s third big blow against religion is:
Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.
Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
This, too, is ridiculous. Theists have known about “predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death” for thousands of years before Darwin. Evolution adds nothing of significance here. Modern science tells us merely that this state of affairs has been going on for millions, not thousands of years.
So, how does a theist cope with the suffering that is “built into the nature of things”? On one level, it is elementary: From the propositions (a) that God is all-good and (b) that God is all-powerful, it is straightforward to infer that He has a morally sufficient reason for the evil and suffering that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. So the alleged “problem of evil” poses no logical challenge to theism at all.
Unbelievers may complain that God has not explained His purposes to their personal satisfaction, or they may try to embarrass theism by calling attention to particularly distressing instances of suffering, but that is emotional propaganda, not rational argument.
This intellectual resolution does not, of course, experientially remove our suffering and our distress over the pain of others. Pain still hurts. That said, for the believer it is comforting and centering to know that beneath all the random, scary, and painful events of life run the good purposes of Almighty God.
The extent to which God is revealed in the natural world is discussed at length in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology . Without trying to summarize that whole article, it is worth noting that in the New Testament perspective this physical world is indeed a place of seemingly unmerited suffering, where nice things and nasty things happen to good people and to evil people with about the same probability. However, all the experiences in this world, which press so heavily on our current perception, are like a blink of an eye or a puff of vapor compared to the intensity and duration of the afterlife.
Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity. If a man chooses to cut himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself.