I used to like Marilynne Robinson‘s fiction (she won a Pulitzer for her novel Gilead), but over the years she’s increasingly pushed her Christianity into her fiction and, more notably, into her essays. (See here and here for her rants on “scientism”.) And she is a pious Christian; as Wikipedia notes, she even preaches:
Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin, have been important in her works, including Gilead, which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: “I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker.”
And now she’s in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). This magazine, under editor Bob Silvers, used to be a paragon of literary thought and quality, but since he died it’s come down in the world—though for some reason it always published Robinson’s lucubrations. In the article below (if it’s paywalled, join free for a short time), Robinson tries to derive a theology from science. She fails, not only because you can’t do that, but because she really doesn’t understand science. It’s embarrassingly bad—”dreadful” is too kind a word!
Not only is it really a sermon, not an essay (it’s full of passages from the Bible), but it’s very poorly written—surprising for a Pulitzer-winning novelist.
Her goal is to “rehabilitate” the antagonism she sees between science and religion. She appears to effect this reconciliation by adducing the wonders of science and evolution as evidence for God, though she spurns the idea of even needing evidence for God (she is of course a believer, but doesn’t need no stinking evidence). She also appears not to understand science.
Her using biological complexity and consciousness as evidence for the Divine comes perilously close to Intelligent Design, though she rejects that idea, too. After all, God doesn’t need to be buttressed with evidence of any sort. But then then proceeds to give that evidence—drawn largely from evolution and quantum mechanics—for many boring pages.
I could quote her at length, but I don’t want to damage your brain. Here are the first three paragraphs laying out her thesis (bolding is mine):
I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century. For the next one hundred years and more science flourished, applying its model of rationalism to every question, while increasingly religion struggled to find any way to justify its existence in the face of triumphant demystifications of reality. Then an odd thing happened. With one brilliant advance after another, science burst out of the constraints of rationalism and found itself in the terrain of quantum theory, which everyone says no one understands, but which is very robust and has been put to all sorts of practical uses. Rationalism had been choking out religion for generations as it proposed etiologies for the creatures to refute creation myth and ethics for human beings that often ran directly counter to the traditional teachings of religion. For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.
More recently certain stalwarts of nineteenth-century truth and reason were sure they would at last deliver the death blow to religion. But they lost heart or retired or went to their reward before that mortal blow was struck, if it ever could have been. They may have noticed that science as it advanced did not much resemble their conception of it, but their views never moderated. In the meantime religion was damaged and science was, too, so far as their reputations are concerned. Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant. It is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.
In light of the fact that science and religion are two major pillars of our civilization, it seems there should be some effort at rehabilitation. I haven’t noticed any. Science has felt the consequences of all this in budget cuts and controversies in schools and the refusal of important segments of the population, in critical matters of public health, to accept the views of scientists as offered in good faith. Religion, meanwhile, has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism, the very antithesis of theology, whatever it might have to do with faith. At the end of this hard-fought and meaningless struggle nothing was resolved, but there was grave loss on all sides.
First, theology is not a “brilliant field of thought”—not unless you consider embellishing fairy tales a “brilliant” exercise. My contention is that theology hasn’t “advanced” since the days of Augustine the Hippo (yes, I know the name is a joke). By that I mean that although Biblical exegesis has become less literalistic and more sophisticated, has changed, and has even gotten more “inclusive”, it hasn’t brought us one iota closer towards understanding the nature of God and the divine, much less giving us any evidence for God’s existence or true nature. How could it? It’s all MADE UP STUFF. Science, on the other hand. . . . well, you know what it’s accomplished.
Look at the first paragraph above, where Robinson mentions “etiologies for the creatures” that refuted creationism with rationality. “Etiologies” here means EVOLUTION, but for some reason she doesn’t say that. She’s trying to show off, I guess. In the next sentence, Robinson just gets things wrong:
For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.
In fact, nineteenth-century versions of evolution became highly modified as our understanding grew, and took a great leap in the 1930s, when the Modern Synthesis fused the young science of genetics with evolution. I’m not sure what the “sundry determinist implications” are, either. Evolution is no more deterministic than is physics; that is, it is deterministic save for any truly indeterministic quantum-mechanical influences (perhaps in mutation?), but I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about. And Robinson is just dead wrong in assuming evolution is less subtle than “physics, genetics, and other fields”, but she’s not even wrong when she says that evolution survived in the face of findings of other fields. In fact, evolution incorporated genetics soon after it was rediscovered in 1900. Truly, I don’t think Robinson knows what she’s talking about here. What is the sweating writer trying to say?
She’s right in saying in paragraph two that “religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven”, though not all religionists are fearful; but if science was damaged by being seen as “atheistic and arrogant”, I haven’t seen it. In fact, as belief in God is waning, public confidence in science is increasing. Below are some data from a 2019 Pew poll. Compare scientists on the top line with “religious leaders” on the bottom. Scientists win!
Science is practiced as an “atheistic” discipline—that is, one that doesn’t need or invoke the supernatural in making explanations—but is it really seen as “arrogant”? It surely is by Robinson, who’s been banging on about “scientism” for years, but if science’s reputation is eroding because of that, well, religion’s is eroding faster. And nobody is more arrogant than someone like Robinson who strongly believes in the Christian God, and claims to know His nature—without a lick of evidence! At least scientists can test other scientists’ claims and then show them to be wrong. What would convince Robinson that there was no God, or a god but not the Christian God she worships?
Robinson is, of course, making up a scenario here: there’s no evidence that the public has less trust in science than in religion, and to say that theology isn’t obscurantist is wrong. In fact, Robinson’s whole piece is obscurantist, as is most modern theology (try reading Alvin Plantinga or getting a lucid explanation of why God allows innocent people to suffer physical evil).
Below, Robinson raises the something-rather-than-nothing question to buttress her harmonizing of theology and religion, but then denies that the question constitutes “proof” of God. Again, bolding is mine:
Science has pondered the evolution of the eye as a special problem. In the case of the scallop, that morsel so much a staple of our menus, the emergence of the eye seems to have happened twice—once as a fringe along the shell for ordinary scallop business, and again as two stalks that look straight up so that the creature can find its way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest. This is charming. This is delightful. A courtesy, a solicitude. What an uneconomic deployment of possibility. But that phrase could be applied to humankind, to the whole of creation. After all, why is there something rather than nothing?
First, I didn’t know that scallops evolved eyes twice independently, particularly as two stalks that “help them find their way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest”. Five minutes on the Internet yielded no verification of this, but I’ll let readers see if she’s right there. What’s more important is her last question: a staple of “sophisticated” theology. Why is there something rather than nothing? Clearly Robinson thinks that means that there’s something because God wanted something, but this question isn’t evidence for God, much less of her Christian God (see Sean Carroll’s take here). And even if it were, then we would have to ask, “Well, why is there a God rather than no God?” Theologians will do some fast-stepping there!
But Robinson quickly explains that she doesn’t need no stinkin’ proof of God. I’m wondering why she believes in the first place, then:
If I seem to be proffering a version of intelligent design, I want to make it clear that I reject any argument that presents itself as a proof of God’s existence. I think there is a degree of irreverence in the very idea of proof. At the same time, whether or not His existence is a factor in the nature of the world, there is a glory in creation to which the hyperbolic celebrations of Scripture are uniquely appropriate. The Book of Job describes creation as the moment when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” In the long final speech from the whirlwind, God names the beasts and the natural forces and luxuriates in their power and strangeness, in overwhelming reply to the questioning of His justice. Granting that this is a difficult teaching to absorb, it can only mean that the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself. Let us say, therefore, that it is recommended to our attention. And it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention, as the arts and the sciences have demonstrated.
She says she’s not offering proof, but she sure as hell is adducing “evidence”! She just euphemizes “proof” with other words: “let us say that it is recommended to our attention”, and “it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention.” What she’s saying is that the natural world, and our ability to understand it, points towards God.
I really can’t go on further, as I can’t figure out what the sweating author is trying to say, and her essay is so poorly written that I wonder why the NYRB, once a bastion of good writing, printed it. After all, it’s not a thoughtful analysis of anything, but is simply a sermon couched in what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”.
I’ll just leave you with her quantum woo. She reads into quantum mechanics, which we don’t fully understand nor have a good physical picture of, some divine mystery that also points towards God. Physicists may be amused by her invoking the observer effect (which I think is pretty much defunct) and other quantum stuff that she incorporates into theology. If this is Sophisticated Thelogy®, it is obscurantist, wordy, and impenetrable.
Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic and have tended to limit their conception of His awareness by a standard of the possible that imagined a vastly heightened but basically humanlike consciousness. Now we know that the nature of things is negotiated moment by moment at the level of quantum indeterminacy, that from a subatomic point of view the clay is still in the potter’s hands. We know that an observer, literal or other, can effect this openness to possibility, can cause the indeterminacy to de-cohere, to become one version of the array of possibilities present in any instance. This underlies what we experience as a great constancy.
. . . Then again, if the hypothesis is correct that time and space emerge from quantum phenomena, which are therefore in some sense prior to them, then I find myself failing to imagine Being that is not spatially or temporally local and yet is generative of these conditions for and of our existence. I find myself thinking of the intuitions of the ancient people that there was a time when the world came into being. In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat, a giant, raging serpent. He slices her corpse in two and uses half to form earth, half to form sky. Scholars have claimed to find evidence that a tale like this lies behind the serene, magisterial creation in Genesis. And there are glimpses in the biblical creation of the suppression of a primordial chaos, tohu va-vohu in Hebrew, “without form and void” in English. The prophet Isaiah says God will punish “Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
In the end, Robinson’s views are risible, and an embarrassment to both her and the NYRB. And to think that she won a Pulitzer Prize before she went off the rails and began writing stuff like this!
How low the NYRB has sunk!