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Haught on Theology (1): Evolution vs. Religion

Haught.300px John F. Haught is a Catholic theologian and Senior Research Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University, whose work has addressed theological questions arising out of science, cosmology and ecology. He has been a particularly active voice in attempts to reconcile theology and evolutionary theory, and in connection with evolution he appeared as an expert witness in the infamous Dover school board law suit, testifying that the intelligent design policy in question was inherently religious and not scientific in nature. I was delighted that he agreed to answer some of my questions recently. In the first of two pieces, we discuss theology, evolution and intelligent design.

Chris Bateman: You have shown various degrees of hostility towards Christians who deny evolution. On the one hand, you’ve mentioned a “certain impatience” with such people, but you’ve also called contemporary Biblical literalism “a scandal”. Do you not feel somewhat like a worker crossing the picket line here, in that you do have appreciation for the objections that, say, the Intelligent Design movement has towards tacit atheist theology, even if you feel their specific approach is counter-productive and damaging to the image of Christianity?

John F. Haught: Actually, I don’t have any hostility toward my fellow Christians who espouse creationism or intelligent design (ID). I view them as part of my community of faith, and I sympathize with their negative reaction to materialist interpretations of evolution. I do oppose, however, their rejection of good science and especially Darwinian theory as though it were inherently irreconcilable with Christian faith.

Chris: So your problem is with the argument that evolution and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible?

John: Evolutionary biology is still a stumbling block for many Christians, but even more problematic is the materialist ideology that enshrouds much evolutionary thinking today. Materialism, the belief that “matter is all there is,” is after all not science but metaphysics, that is, a claim about the ultimate nature of reality.

Chris: I talk a lot about metaphysics here on Only a Game, and like you I’m critical of those that present materialism or physicalism as if it were a necessary belief.

John: It’s a way of looking at reality that has been around, off and on, since antiquity, and is by definition theologically unacceptable on any terms.

Chris: Like the philosopher Mary Midgley, you’ve also been critical of the assumption that this kind of perspective is a requirement for science.

John: Yes, I am an opponent of contemporary scientific materialism, or as it is sometimes called, “scientific naturalism,” but, I fully accept the scientific evidence and arguments for evolution. I have no difficulty reconciling biological science, or indeed good science of any sort, with a Christian understanding of God. I reject not science, but scientifically unverifiable materialist metaphysics. In my book Is Nature Enough? I argue at length that materialist philosophy is logically incoherent and self-subversive—hence an unreasonable form of belief.

Chris: Midgley sees this kind of inability to distinguish ideology from science as one of the hallmarks of contemporary debate about the alleged conflict between evolution and religion.

John: The problem is that neither anti-Darwinian Christians nor their adversaries (such as Dawkins and Dennett) are willing to distinguish carefully between evolutionary science on the one hand and their tacit commitment to materialist metaphysics on the other. Both sides unnecessarily mix science with ideology, and in doing so they diminish the stature of science by suffocating it with beliefs that have nothing to do with empirical, inductive method and scientific discovery.

Chris: It often seems to me that neither side is really listening to one another’s arguments – each believes they have the high ground, and the other side must therefore necessarily be in error.

John: By contrast, I am seeking to save science from both sides. I should point out incidentally that the National Centre for Science Education recently acknowledged my efforts and concern for the integrity of science and science education by giving me their “Friend of Darwin” award, which I was happy to accept.

Chris: A great achievement for any theologian!

John: As a theologian who embraces evolution, I have tried to show in my books God After Darwin and, more recently, Making Sense of Evolution that the marriage of evolutionary biology to materialist ideology by people like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett is no less objectionable than the biblical literalist’s interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis as though it were a source of scientific information.

Chris: The ideological distortion of science isn’t exactly a new phenomenon though, is it?

John: Several centuries ago Galileo himself pointed out that Christian faith seems to conflict with science (or with what was called “natural philosophy”) only if one adopts the erroneous assumption that the Bible is somehow a source of scientific information. Galileo objected to the idea that the Bible may be read as a source of scientific information. To do so, he thought, is to trivialize the Scriptures by having them function as mundane sources of knowledge that we can acquire simply by the use of our natural faculties of observation and reason. His firm objection to searching the Scriptures for scientific information (as expressed in his “Letter to the Grande Duchess Christina”) was echoed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 when he exhorted Catholics not to look for scientific information in the sacred Scriptures. Science and the Bible are simply addressing entirely disparate kinds of question.

Chris: Even though many Christians don’t subscribe to this kind of literalist reading of the Bible, in the United States and elsewhere in the world there is still something of this kind of expectation lingering around.

John: Yes, today the literalist expectation that the Scriptures should deliver a scientific brand of truth persists. This expectation, in fact, ironically binds together most evolutionary materialists with Christian creationists: both creationists and evolutionary atheists approach the Bible—since it is supposed to be ‘inspired’—as though it should be scientifically accurate. The atheist evolutionists, of course, conclude after reading it that the Bible is not scientifically reliable, and that therefore we can dismiss it as fiction. Meanwhile ‘scientific creationists’ interpret the biblical stories in Genesis as though these writings are scientifically reliable and thus provide a better brand of science than Darwin and contemporary cosmology have to offer.

Chris: This has been a recurring theme in your writing – that positivist evangelists of evolution and biblical creationists have very similar approaches, even if their verdicts are diametrically opposed.

John: My main point is that both sides tacitly share an inability or refusal to read the Bible’s accounts of origins in any other way than scientifically. My own approach is to move beyond literalism to the more serious, challenging and personally transformative (and non-literalist) ways of reading ancient religious texts for a kind of truth that science is not wired to receive, and that grasps us much more than we grasp it.

Chris: This is a point I make often, that the kind of truths we can expect to find in the spiritual literature of the world is very different from the kind of truths that scientific research can hope to uncover.

John: My own belief, which I share with most of my theological colleagues today, is that there are inexhaustibly deeper levels of truth than those that science provides. Evolutionary materialism (as distinct from evolutionary science) flows from another brand of belief, one that I do not share, namely, that science itself can put us in touch with the deepest dimensions of reality, since science is the only reliable guide to truth. This belief is commonly known as scientism.

Chris: I discussed this with Mary Midgley recently, and suggested that ‘scientism’ hasn’t caught on because it can only be interpreted as an insult – no-one willing refers to themselves under this label, which anyway doesn’t conjugate into a noun very easily! She broadly endorsed my suggestion that perhaps the term ‘positivism’ could be rescued for those that are committed to science as their source of ultimate truth.

John: I suppose what I object to more than anything else is the literalist spirit of interpretation shared by both sides. As I develop in Deeper Than Darwin, this is the source of most of the mischief in the so-called Darwin wars.

Chris: Indeed, and I heartily agree with your claim that Dawkins and Dennett end up acting as “crypto-theologians”.

John: Dennett, Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and many other evolutionists function as crypto-theologians by dictating to their readers what they think should pass muster as acceptable theology. Then they show how this brand of theology doesn’t hold up after Darwin. The problem here is that the theology they have cryptically espoused – prior to rejecting it – is indistinguishable from that of their creationist and ID opponents. At best their understanding of God is that of an Elegant Engineer whose work should be perfectly flawless. And since living organisms are not flawlessly designed but are, as evolutionary science shows, full of design flaws, it follows that no Elegant Engineer exists and that the universe is godless.

Chris: Yes, it’s a kind of straw man approach to theology whereby one adopts an overly simplistic perspective on God and then concludes that all theology is vacant, despite not having engaged with the field in any substantial fashion.

John: The tattered fragment of theological understanding reflected in the evolutionary materialists’ writings is of a kind that most theologians that I know would reject as not worth talking about in the first place. Moreover, they usually start with the assumption that all theology is a primitive, now-obsolete attempt at scientific inquiry and that therefore ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ as Dawkins makes explicit. So now that we have scientific hypotheses we don’t need theological hypotheses.

Chris: Auguste Comte presented more or less this kind of progressive image of science, passing from a theological to a metaphysical and then ultimately to a purely scientific state. It’s a deeply mythological perspective. I suppose advocates of this kind of view might counter that questions of theology are legitimate areas of investigation for science, and therefore they are not actually conducting theology.

John: The foundation of this program lies in a commitment to the belief that science is the only reliable road to truth, a belief that Dawkins clearly espouses as the basis of his whole atheistic project. It is his own (unscientific) commitment to scientism that explains why Dawkins tries to trick his readers into thinking that the Designer-Deity is a ‘hypothesis’ that might have had an explanatory appeal during all the ages of scientific ignorance but which can be safely discarded now that evolutionary biology has arrived to save us from the darkness of pre-scientific consciousness.

Chris: Putting aside the strange way that adversarial, ‘enthusiastic’ positivists like Dawkins are apparently restoring theology to the sciences, contra Kant, how would you respond to the claim that since the design argument offers a hypothesis on God that can be tested it is legitimate to draw conclusions about God from a solely scientific perspective?

John: No serious theologian has ever held that ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ and no serious theologian today places theology into a competitive relationship with the natural sciences. The evolutionary atheists, however, have never really read, studied or dialogued with serious theology. In fact the low level of their understanding of theology is comparable to a creationist’s understanding of biology (I provide supportive evidence for this observation in my book God and The New Atheism and elsewhere).

Chris: There’s something dishonest about pretending to conduct theology without actually engaging with discussions in the discipline itself. No scientist would dare conduct something similar in a field of the sciences – pretending expert knowledge without having carried out any research!

John: Again, ironically, this refusal to look at the whole wide spectrum of theological approaches and to fixate obsessively on the Elegant Engineer as though it were the pinnacle of religious thought is a most un-empirical and unscientific way of investigating the world of religious thought. It is comparable to a theologian’s taking the “New Atheism” of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens as though it were representative of the full range of atheistic thought. As a theologian who has spent his career studying atheism, it would be deeply unfair on my part if I were to expose my students or readers only to the so-called new evolutionary atheists and ignore the theologically challenging versions of atheism such as those of Nietzsche, Sartre, Feuerbach, Camus or Derrida.

Next week: Science, Values and Ecology

John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.


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