Natural selection: God’s tool?

March 19, 2011 • 7:31 am

Accommodationists are often schizophrenic:  they want to claim that religion and science are completely separate spheres of inquiry, but at the same time argue that “sophisticated” theology shows scientific processes to be perfectly comprehensible as god’s way of creating his world. And as for the mutually helpful “dialogue” between science and faith, I have yet to hear about anything that faith does for science.  Science, of course, does plenty for faith: it shows that its doctrines are ridiculous.  Do religious people then reconsider their faith?  Well, some of us—as we saw on yesterday’s thread—do: many atheists gave up belief in god because the facts of physics and biology made belief insupportable.  But most religious people simply regroup and tinker with their dogmas.  Ultimately, no facts—even the horrors of the Holocaust—can dispel true faith.

The best example of theology making scientific necessities into theological virtues is Darwin’s idea of natural selection.  As natural selection demolished Abrahamic faith’s most important empirical evidence for god, the faithful simply regrouped and, after a frenzied confab, began claiming that, don’t you know, natural selection was not only god’s tool for making life and humans, but it was in fact a much better tool than simply creating ex nihilo.  It was all natural!  Driven by laws instead of constant intervention! God could just set evolution in motion (making sure, of course, that it would eventually cough up humans), sit back, and enjoy.  Of course, there were all those nasty “natural evils” to deal with: all the suffering, extinctions, and other byproducts of evolution.  This has lead to theology’s cottage industry of reconciling the waste and suffering of selection with the plan of a benevolent god.

These reconciliations are laughable of course, and not convincing to any sentient being.  What appalls me, though, is that some atheists, perceiving these problems, try to help theologians with this reconciliation!  There are two examples this week: Michael Ruse writing at HuffPo, and Josh Rosenau posting on his blog and commenting at Jason Rosenhouse’s website, EvolutionBlog.

I briefly considered critiquing Ruse’s piece, but I couldn’t stomach having to read it more than once, especially after he called Jason and I “junior New Atheists.” (Ruse is the most obviously jealous critic of Gnu Atheists like Dawkins and Sam Harris: he’s always whining about how poorly his books sell compared to theirs.  Has he ever wondered why?)

So, after this long preamble, let me just point you to Jason’s labor-saving critique, “Evolution and the problem of evil,” focusing specifically on natural selection.  Ruse, for instance, argues that god chose to “create through law” (i.e., natural selection).  Jason responds:

I’m afraid I don’t see how this makes any sense at all. Imagine the state of the universe at some moment shortly after evolution has produced modern human beings. God, presumably, could have created the world supernaturally in a state that was identical in every morally relevant way. That world would contain free human beings embedded within a natural world adequate for their needs. Had He done so we would have been spared the millions of years of evolutionary bloodsport that has horrified everyone who has ever considered it. That universe would differ from ours only in that it would lack that awful history, which seems to me a clear improvement over the world we have. There would be no evidence of evolution to erase because evolution would never have occurred.

Furthermore, the whole idea of “creating through law” needs to be clarified. Whatever you think God did, it seems clear that He did certain things supernaturally and allowed certain other things to unfold by natural law. The only question is the balance He employed. In Ruse’s version God’s moment of supernatural intervention ended with the Big Bang. My version simply has God fast-forwarding the tape and letting natural laws take over from a later stage. What theological purpose was served by Ruse’s scenario that would not be served by mine?

I would note, incidentally, that for most of Christian history people thought that humans were created supernaturally and instantaneously, without noticing, apparently, that such a notion was theologically problematic. Ruse, writing a short blog post, can be forgiven for not exploring these details. But if you would care to read his two books on this subject you will find that he provides scarcely more detail in either one of them.


Rosenau, on the other hand, helpfully tells the faithful that their problems are considerably ameliorated if one assumes god isn’t omnibenevolent.  Jason’s response:

But I do think it is incorrect to claim that the problem of evil does not present itself unless we assume an omnibenevolent deity. Such an assumption only seems necessary if you are putting forth the logical problem of evil (that there is a logical contradiction entailed by the statements, “God exists” and “Evil exists”). The inductive argument (that evil is strong evidence against God) can get by with something less. God is often said to be perfectly just, for example, which is not the same thing as perfectly good but which would certainly make us wonder about what justice is exemplified by letting animals suffer simply as links in an evolutionary chain. We could also point to the sheer profligacy of evil and suffering in natural history and argue that any God presiding over this is not only not perfectly good, but is actually downright sinister.

Thanks, Jason, for saving me a lot of work.  It’s bad enough that accommodationists dip their toes into theology by repeatedly arguing that evolution can be easily reconciled with faith, and that many denominations agree. But it’s far worse for them to try to help the faithful reconcile God and science by propping up their theodicy.  Why on earth would atheists engage in such puffery?  Only, I think, so they can appear “reasonable.”  It’s a betrayal of their own beliefs, and a form of intellectual cowardice.  After all, there are presumably reasons why these people are atheists.

I swear, when you read this kind of stuff coming out of the mouths of professed atheists, you finally want to ask, “Why don’t you just go to church?”

60 thoughts on “Natural selection: God’s tool?

  1. “Let me say that I am not sure that the problem of evil — how could a loving, all powerful God allow evil — can be solved.” — Michael Ruse

    How can a self-professed atheist even SAY such a thing?

    That’s equivalent to saying “Let me say that I am not sure that the problem of bi-location — how can Santa Claus be observed in BOTH the local school AND the downtown mall, at the same time — can be solved.”

    1. Why don’t I just simply SOLVE this problem for self professed atheist Michael Ruse:

      Q: “how could a loving, all powerful God allow evil”

      A: “premise error: there IS no loving, all powerful God, hence there’s nothing to allow”

      Or is this too complicated for our philosopher?

      1. Is he even that?

        Honestly, how in the heck did he gain ANY traction in ANY community of rational thinkers?

        This type of mush-brained illogic seems clear evidence that Ruse has nothing to offer…period.

    2. That’s Ruse – I first discovered him when he was (more or less) defending Dembski (or Behe, I forget) back before Dover. He was supposed to be on the other side of the debate, but every time he spoke I wondered if he really was supporting evolution. Apparently he had nothing but good things to say about creationists and creationism. It seems to be his shtick.

      1. It is interesting how first impressions can play out. I first encountered Ruse when I picked up his, But is it Science? from a second-hand book shop. That is not a bad book and it led me to Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea which Ruse discusses very sympathetically.

        I pegged Ruse as a ‘good guy’ after that, but have watched since as he has reactively slipped into his current indefensible polarized position. Because of that first encounter, I still have a soft spot for him. I see him as a tragic figure. Very sad.

    3. .. I should have added, for clarity, that that last proposition was uttered by someone who has clearly identified himself as someone who does NOT believe in Santa Claus.

      For a Santa-Claus faithful, that statement surely IS a huge problem.

  2. There is no end to the anthopocentric backslapping of proposed theistic interventions in nature. It’s such a tranparent projection of the human desire to assert control and agency in lieu of a fluctuating environment.

  3. The only difference I have seen between fundamentalist theology and “sophisticated” theology is that the former consisted of making stuff up to try to explain how the world works; and the latter consists of making stuff up to try and explain away the science that shows how the world really works.

    They are both equally unconvincing and utterly devoid of any evidence whatsoever.

    As to what motivates accommodationist atheists, god only knows. I doubt there’s a human on the planet who has ever said “I really wanted to believe in evolution but I could only do it after I found out that those atheists respected my religion”. People either accept the evidence of science or they do not. No amount of woolly special pleading is going to convince them.

    1. What will convince them is seeing the atheists at the gate, waiting to guide their children away from the faith if they continue to deny the evidence.

      1. Ken – maybe. Ken Ham and Al Mohler don’t see atheists at the gate, they see BioLogos!! I think that they will deny the evidence and attack anyone presenting any evidence until there is no longer anyone listening to their fantasies. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen any time soon considering the successes of AIG, the Creation Museum and next, the Ark.

        1. How much does Ken Ham charge to ride the dinosaurs like our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Yes, I know that the real dinosaurs weren’t coin operated.

    1. When I first asked about this in front of a believer, I was told that this debate was really about where the answer was “infinite” or “not infinite”. I now have an image of theologians trying to decide if angels are bosons or fermions or if there’s a spiritual version of the Pauli Exclusion Principle. (My friend didn’t appreciate my laughter and I didn’t explain it ’cause, really, particle physics jokes are even less funny than theology.)

      Poor theologians, life is so much easier when you can just gather data and settle these things.

  4. On Josh’s blog, John Wilkins (who is generally more astute) write:

    I think evil is incompatible with tri-omnism. Hence I agree we must decide which tine of the tripartite fork to abandon. Personally, I think it is best to abandon omniscience, since there are good reasons for thinking that is incoherent independently.

    How does this help us explain things like the Holocaust? We mere mortals aren’t omniscient and several of us picked up on the fact that something horrible was going on and again we felt compelled to act when God did not. If we’re resolving the conflict by weakening God’s mind, I think you have to do a lot more than remove his omniscience, you have to make him deaf, dumb and blind.

    1. Hmm I was actually going to disagree but then I thought more about it and your right, it would have to lose omnipotence as well as omniscience. It could be omni-benevolent so long as it was impotent. actually it could keep omniscients if it was impotent, but then what would be the point.

      1. Of course, Occam’s razor can be applied here.

        The simplest solution: god is imaginary. Hence, has none of the attributes assigned to it.

        Why this isn’t blindingly obvious to the theist is beyond my powers of comprehension. I figured it out when I was 8.

        1. Indeed, but theists’ starting premise is that god exists. Since this premise is not correct in the first place, why is it ever interesting, the weaving and bobbing and sliding the theists have to do to adjust their premise when it collides with facts?

          And when notable accommodationists allow these dolts to continuously get away with their Texas-two-step, it’s not only intellectual cowardice (and, I would add, intellectual betrayal) but also patronizing and condescending to the theists.

          Arguably, the patronizing and condescension of the accommodationists might be the single biggest reason why the word “atheism” is always modified by the adjective “smug” in the religious community.

          1. You are sooo right! When I read people like Karen Armstrong and Rodney Stark (before he became a catholic which I wish someone could explain to me) I felt like they wanted to keep religious people as pets. “Oooh you’re such a cute widdle believer, aren’t you such a cute widdle believer, yes you are!”

    2. We already know the Christian God is hard of hearing, since he’s apparently unable to hear the prayers of schoolchildren unless they’re led in organized prayer by a school official.

      1. It’s obvious – God hates kids. He loves the fetuses and adults, but hates the squishy stage in between.

  5. Rosenau may not think god is omnibenevolent, Wilkins may think that god is not omniscience but it does not matter what they think.

    What matters is what the vast majority of believers think.

    I am also at a loss as to why this is an issue for scientists. The nature of god is the discipline of theologians. Yet Rosenau et al never seem to blame the theologians for the public failing to understand that god is not omni-everything.

    1. Of course, this is why the BioLogos effort is doomed to failure.

      They are basically saying “of course, you can believe in science and religion. All it takes is that you give up your most cherished religious beliefs and substitute them for ours.”

      And they wonder why Albert Mohler (among others) condemns them?

        1. I don’t think they’ve ever really pretended otherwise.

          BioLogos literally translates as “LifeWord.”

          John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

          John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

          It’s simple truth in advertising. They chose to call themselves the JesusYHWH Foundation and their mission statement begins, “The BioLogos Foundation is a group of Christians, many of whom are professional scientists, biblical scholars, philosophers, theologians, pastors, and educators, who are concerned about the long history of disharmony between the findings of science and large sectors of the Christian faith. We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We also believe that evolution, properly understood, best describes God’s work of creation.”

          What more do you want? Flashing neon signs? Skywriting? An idiot with a bullhorn shouting in your ear?



  6. What creationists and other religious liars are protecting is simply their money. THEY KNOW how rediculous the claims to their dogmas are and they will still find any means to make it fit. This will keep the money rolling in and that’s what it all really comes down to … follow the money!

    1. The ones (quite a few) I know really have NO clue about how ridiculous their views are, and they certainly don’t play ignorant for monetary motives.

  7. Why on earth would atheists engage in such puffery? Only, I think, so they can appear “reasonable.”

    More specifically, so that they can appear more “reasonable” and especially nicer than the evil gnus.

    1. Pity they cannot see that such self-deception, puffery and outright dishonesty is neither reasonable nor civil.

      We can add incompetence to the list of the faults of accomodationists.

  8. Joshua Rosenau spends his days defending the teaching of evolution at the National Center for Science Education. He is formerly a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. When not battling creationists or modeling species ranges, he writes about developments in progressive politics and the sciences.

    And, apparently, dabbles in apologetics.

    1. He claims to be a progressive? Seriously? Regressive, I can see. Liberal, yeah. Progressive, as in progress…not so much. Ah well, anyone can claim anything.

  9. If so, then God’s tool was dull, didn’t exactly fit his hands or of poor workmanship ’cause he did a piss poor job of it. It reminds me of the time my father had a new “tinsmith” in town make a new filter for water run off the roof into the cistern. My father told him it bulges like a knocked-up elephant!

  10. I always chuckle when I see the term “sophisticated theology”. It is one of the biggest oxymorons that sentient beings can produce.

    Theology is nothing more than a house of cards standing on a base of making shit up. Don’t Ruse and Rosenau get tired of being clowns that get laughs?

  11. Jerry quoting Josh:

    We could also point to the sheer profligacy of evil and suffering in natural history and argue that any God presiding over this is not only not perfectly good, but is actually downright sinister.

    You know, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this line of reasoning. The problem of evil can be resolved by deciding God is sinister. The problem, of course, is that it will be just as difficult (if not more) to sell this solution to believers as the one that the atheists chose: God is imaginary.

    But hey, shouldn’t we be happy that Josh is saying that God is sinister? Sounds almost like something a New Atheist would say, doesn’t it?

  12. I swear, when you read this kind of stuff coming out of the mouths of professed atheists, you finally want to ask, “Why don’t you just go to church?”

    Rosenau says he’s motivated by justifying what others believe, and the more ridiculous the better. His cheer-leading “sophisticated” theology is so earnest and predictable that he has to constantly remind others that he doesn’t actually believe any of it.

  13. “Accommodationists are often schizophrenic”

    For what it’s worth, people suffering from the terrible mental disorder of schizophrenia don’t like it being confused with “split personality” or, as here, “cognitive dissonance” or “doublethink”.

  14. Accommodationists are often schizophrenic

    Not very fair to schizophrenics, they are the way they are through no choice of their own, the same can not be said for accommodationists.

  15. What bothers me about accomodationism as espoused by scientists is this. The courts (I’m thinking Supreme Court,1987 and Dover, PA, 2005) have drawn a bright line between science and religion. We can’t teach religious ideas as if they were science (alternative science?) in the public schools (First Amendment). Accomodationism blurs this line. I think that’s dangerous. It undoes what we have fought to achieve over many decades. And for what reason? Because some scientists think they can make some religious believers comfortable with science (think evolution).

  16. Biologos states that the bible is the inspired word of god yet creation occurred via evolution. Perhaps I’m still too close to what I learned of the bible (unbeliever for 30+ years now) but when did we sin and god curse us if we came into being via evolution? While that can be passed off as metaphor, there are other parts of the bible that treat Adam and Eve as real humans. How far does one carry the metaphor? If god chose to create us moralistically, why did he need to intervene supernaturally so many times? Or are those metaphors too? Most of the archeology of the bible indicates that nothing in the beginning of the OT is as described. The bible is slightly above the Book of Mormon as a historical document. So did god inspire the writers of the Tanakh or did they make up shit? If they made it up, are later parts of the christian bible that refer to those people, places and things as real also made up? While I detest any fundamentalist, I think they have a point when you try to align what we now know about nature with god’s plan. It makes even less sense than a literal interpretation of the bible.

    1. “If god chose to create us moralistically” hate my spellchecker sometimes. Naturalistically is what I meant.

  17. All internal queries and conundra about accomodationist pandering can be answered by one word:

  18. Shuggy, ah, but accommodationists and theists have a way of justifying their squill like schizophrenics!
    I’m a schizotypal myself without silly notions like being an alien abductee!

  19. Well, the first four words of the first sentence of the post started out fine. But only if you change it to:

    “The religious are often schizophrenic…”. To the extent that they:

    * Believe an invisible entity communicates with them personally.

    * Are disconnected from reality (wishful thinking trumps evidence).

    * Exhibit a paranoia about being persecuted that feeds their narcissism.

    Accomodationists, not so much. Well, maybe from a certain perspective, the second point applies.

    Let’s not cater to the popular misuse of terms like schizophrenia.

    1. “Misuse”?
      You have eloquently alluded to the clear fact that theists strictly adhere to the constellation of symptoms as listed.
      And, as you indicate, not only the second point applies to accomodationists, the third point is most apt to the more vocal amongst them.
      I fail to spot a misuse of the term in any substantive manner.

  20. “… especially after he called Jason and I ‘junior New Atheists.’ ”

    This should be “called Jason and me …”, as the pronoun “me” is the object of the verb.

    1. Hey, buddy!
      I’m the resident grammar-Nazi ’round these here parts.
      To boldly go away with thee!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *