How misunderstanding the relationship between science and religious belief ultimately harms both
Let me be clear from the start, I am of the opinion that making the claim that you either have to choose science or religion is a false dilemma. I come to such a conclusion by understanding the fact that science is one category of knowledge and religion is another. It’s equally related to someone claiming that I can either be a Christian or a Baptist, but I can’t be both, while ignoring the fact that what “being a Baptist” means is dependent upon what Christian belief is. In other words, in order to understand what one is it is necessary to understand the other.
CHRISTIANITY is in danger of being dismissed as ‘fake news’ unless its leaders start to engage with science and the debate on evolution, one of the world’s leading theologians has warned.
I have to wonder if this “leading theologian” has been paying attention because that’s all that Christians have been doing since science has become a thing. I mean, modern science only exists because of Christians. More than that, Christians have been engaging with evolution. So, has she just been in a cave for the past…oh…150 years?
The book in question, Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who Is Love, was written by Dr. Niamh Middleton a lecturer at Dublin City University, who has only published like 4 journal articles and a book chapter prior to this book, so I’m kinda wondering if the publisher is fluffing her credentials a little.
The aim of the book is to, “[reconcile] the Biblical story of creation and the concept of ‘original sin’ – Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden by eating forbidden fruit – with the latest scientific thinking.” And therein lies the problem: assuming that one category of knowledge can have any relevance to another category of knowledge without providing grounds upon both can be meaningfully related. Dr. Middleton is a Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholic epistemology tends to be a little “wonky” to begin with.
As I’ve stated before in my dealing with the question of a historical Adam, I don’t necessarily think that there’s a way to necessarily harmonize between scientific conclusions and historical conclusions, because they’re dealing with two different subjects. You simply cannot prove through biology that a specific person or action occurred. For example: you cannot demonstrate through the study of the relationship of molecules of hydrogen and oxygen that two atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; however, in understanding the relationship between hydrogen and oxygen you can discover how to build an atomic bomb. Now, we can scientifically confirm that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that confirmation only serves to buttress the historical facts.
In another article related to her book, Middleton writes,
It is a common misconception among Christians that the greatest challenge posed by evolution to Christianity is to the biblical teaching on direct creation. Even as far back as the 19th century there were many biologists who were able to reconcile belief in evolution with the emerging theological concept of a God who creates through natural processes.
Indeed, there are many Christians who look at the scientific research and have no problem reconciling the “science” with the theology, because they recognize that the writers of Scripture had a particular worldview and that while our worldview is different from theirs, what they were trying to convey in their cosmogony was a religious one and not a scientific one. That means the problem lies elsewhere, and Middleton hits the nail on the head:
The real threat, and the one that caused Darwin himself to lose his faith, was the new challenge posed by evolution to the Christian explanation for evil.
That problem seems, at least by me, to be resolved by realizing that we often confuse what is “good” and what is “evil” mean in different contexts. Further, we make certain assumptions that the text just doesn’t allow for, often making fallacious arguments from silence.
Middleton continues in regard to Darwin’s breakdown at theodicy,
He lost faith in the theistic God depicted in Christianity as he confronted the probability that evil might be an inevitable result of evolution by natural selection in the human species.
If that were the case though, then there is no standard by which to judge any action or behavior in moral terms. Even our beliefs about those things would be determined by our evolutionary past. But again, the fact that we can even make such a consideration flies in the face of the assumption. “Evil” simply doesn’t exist in materialistic, evolutionary terms; rather it only exists where there is an immaterial reality. I mean, if we take the position that, “…traits such as greed, aggression and the lust for power, … are solely the result of evolutionary processes…,” then we simply don’t have any grounds upon which to say that there’s anything “wrong” with them in moral terms. If being greedy and aggressive improves my chances of getting my genetic material into the next generation, which is “power” in evolutionary terms, then there’s nothing “wrong” with that because my aim—determined by my genetics—sets that in motion. If all that we’re doing is “dancing to our DNA”, to paraphrase Dawkins, then why should we attempt to interfere with its song or even care?(1)
“Well you’ve got this group over here which is generous and passive…”
Okay…and? What follows from that?
If you’re going to make some kind of moral claim about the two groups—perhaps one is more desirable or, dare to even say, better than the other— you’re assuming something about their behavior that cannot be explained by simply observing the behavior of two different people or even groups. That’s something that cannot be proven biologically.
Middleton highlights something important about those who take such a position,
Even more alarming are their claims that genetic engineering and other artificial means will be necessary to mitigate human aggression and otherwise upgrade the morality of our species.
Think about that statement and ask a simple question: what does that statement assume?
It assumes that there’s something wrong with “aggression”. But if it’s a behavior determined by a person’s DNA, then there’s nothing wrong with it. How does the person saying that something needs to be done about it assume that their actions to do so aren’t determined by their own DNA? Aren’t they the ones being aggressive, just in a sneaky way? Further, how do they know that the morality of our species needs to be “upgraded”?
These aren’t questions that can be answered scientifically, and to try to answer them scientifically only winds up begging the question: scientists necessarily assuming what they haven’t proven.
Middleton asserts that such scientific claims seem to prove certain biblical claims, especially in regard to the concept of original sin, a subject that I’ve touched on. I see such as not necessarily true, at least in a scientific sense.
If sin were something genetic—that is, it has some material aspect that is present in our physical body— then we could breed it out. If you know something about the Deuteronomy 32 worldview, then you know that is something that the forces opposed to God tried to do: to either corrupt or eliminate a particular bloodline to prevent the birth of the Messiah. The problem was that, if you know something about the genealogy of the Messiah, then you see God pulling in outside bloodlines to relate Jesus to the rest of the world. His connection is further demonstrated by tracing him all the way back to Adam, who is seen as the common father of all humans. That means that sin isn’t something material, it’s about our relationship to God.
In short, scientists need to stay in their own lane. Philosophers and theologians need to remind them of what they can and can’t speak to, and everyone will get along just fine.
1. Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Orion Publishing Group. London, UK. 1995. p.133