Marilynne Robinson again embarrasses herself with an attempt to harmonize science and theology

December 5, 2022 • 10:45 am

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!

25 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson again embarrasses herself with an attempt to harmonize science and theology

  1. Another day, another religionist making meaningless lip movements. D*g bites man. Sun rises in the east. (Most) fish swim. (Most) birds fly.

    But, I did find it very interesting that elected officials are rated, in terms of how well they are perceived as acting in the public interest, behind “the military, scientists, medical scientists, K-12 public school principals, religious leaders, the news media, business leaders.”

    Which incites the obvious question: So why are we electing these particular officials?

    1. “So why are we electing these particular officials?”

      Exactly, it’s an indictment of the electorate.

      Sorry, management, for going off topic.

  2. Bollocks!

    In all fairness to Ms. Robinson, however, I didn’t read the original. But judging from what you quote here, I’m afraid that reading the real thing would have damaged my brain.

    Maybe she doesn’t know the difference between scallops and snails. Snails (living in mangroves and elsewhere) have eyes on eyestalks. I don’t know if they are homologous to the eyes of scallops or not. Doesn’t really matter. Both homologous structures and convergent structures are explained beautifully by evolutionary theory.

  3. “…it’s very poorly written—surprising for a Pulitzer-winning novelist.” A reminder that religion makes people say, and write, stupid things. (cf. Seth Andrews)
    “Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic…” This prompts me to comment that my path from theist to agnostic theist (pantheist) to agnostic atheist has now taken me to a position that some have named igtheist or ignostic. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ignosticism

  4. I like her, “But then, Quantum mechanics!” And she just leaves it there, implying that there is something to this. That here is a gap where god fits. This piece, based on what’s shared here, seems very juvenile.

  5. The problem with people like Robinson is that they view science as a religion. They believe that scientists “believe” their theories, while scientists generally try to describe and explain what they observe. You can’t say that astronomers “believe” in the big bang. The big bang theory is an explanation of what astrophysicists observe, and some are aware that they might have to revise this theory as some observations by the James Webb telescope seem to indicate.

  6. Further to Alexander’s comment at 5 above, what Robinson clearly doesn’t understand is that science is not an accumulation of facts, or even a set of bodies of knowledge, but a methodology. As such, if properly applied, it works for pretty well any academic discipline.

    Except theology. As Robinson says she prefers, theologians don’t deal in evidence, unless of course they can put their thumbs on the scales. There is no evidence, worthy of the name, for the existence of the Almighty or any of its supernatural hangers-on, let alone any that could be tested. Science and religion really are incompatible: but not for the reasons she thinks.

  7. Imagine if she and Krista Tippett shared a bottle of wine … 🌈 🦄 🌈 🦄 🌈

    I think that this bit: “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. ” was a reference to pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories like that of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin. Those were larded with mysterious forces, while physics was becoming more materialistic and experimentally understandable. She would be wrong to bring up genetics in that time frame, since that doesn’t go anywhere until after Mendel is discovered.

  8. “…theology hasn’t “advanced” since the days of Augustine the Hippo…” And political science, as it is called, hasn’t “advanced” a lot since Plato. But the extraordinary advance of science has consisted of one surprise after another—from the moons of Jupiter to the existence of microorganisms to electric power to genome sequencing to introns. The reason is that science, via observation and experiment, addresses the natural world, which is filled with mysteries to be discovered and elucidated. The “brilliant” field of theology, and related areas of scholarship, instead address only prior words with more words. The result is an endless flow of word salad, from Hippo to Judith Butler: never any surprises, and the same outcome over and over, from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (1588) to the latest DEI Committee. The Robinson types, not understanding what science is and does, never notice how it keeps turning up things that nobody ever thought of before. Perhaps the Robinsons of the world are incapable of being surprised.

    1. I do understand your point above (I think), but here is a vote for at least some of those fields that “address only prior words with more words. The result [being] an endless flow of word salad, from” Homer to Shakespeare, to Eliot and Proust: . . . “and the same outcome over and over”.

      Love, hate, the same trite topics with nothing but endlessly novel wordplay. Why do we even discuss it? “Please, please tell us something new!” One can argue that it is this quest of the new inappropriately borrowed from the natural sciences that, in its more cultish forms, helped destroy much of the humanities.

      1. “…this quest of the new inappropriately borrowed from the natural sciences that, in its more cultish forms, helped destroy much of the humanities.” A very interesting point, Doug, which hadn’t occurred to me. We are lucky in science, in a way, that we draw on an endless supply of surprises from the the natural world. Come to think of it, the pursuit of the new in music did give us the 12-tone system. Oh… maybe that just confirms your point.

  9. What would convince Robinson that there was no God, or a god but not the Christian God she worships?

    If she’s anything like the Calvinists I used to argue with online, the answer is “nothing.” This, however, is not a problem because God is the necessary foundation of the very possibility of knowing anything at all and therefore outside of any necessity for proof. Even asking the above question demonstrates that you know this, forced to rely upon your implicit recognition of God even as you pretend to doubt His existence.

    A little of this goes a long way.

    1. “…not a problem because God is the necessary foundation of the very possibility of knowing anything at all and therefore outside of any necessity for proof.” Yes, and it’s easy enough to postulate a necessary foundation based in nature (no mind), which makes the whole thing moot…and no proof needed there either.

  10. It often seems to me that the “something vs nothing” mystery is, for some people, like a vacuum that MUST be filled. And because there is no information whatsoever upon which to fill it, it gets filled with religious gibberish. And they need to remain filled so they assert that the gibberish is God’s truth and to question it is arrogant and even blasphemous. Because, apparently God has a deep seated need to be accepted by humans. Which seems like an odd insecurity for an all powerful being. This feels to me like projection by people who need others to believe to shore up the weakness of their own belief.

  11. I, like Barack Obama, am a big fan of Robinson’s, but I have to admit—somewhat affectionately—that she can be maddeningly obtuse over the space of an undetermined number of paragraphs. I also happened to hear her speak once—at the Schnitzer Theater in Portland, OR—and was appalled at what a poor speaker she is—mumbled, didn’t look at (or even seem to be aware of) the audience, was at times impossible to follow. As for the present article, it was originally given as a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, which was founded as a teaching camp for Sunday-school teachers—an audience not exactly in parity with your average reader of the NY Times.

    All that said, my joy in reading Robinson—and I’ve read, I think, most of her essays—is that I know that at any moment I might come across an important insight that I will not find anywhere else. There is a certain joy in watching a quirky, completely original mind at work, and minds don’t get any quirkier or original than Marilynne Robinson’s. Warts and all, I’m glad we have her.

  12. One thing the religionists and post-modernists have in common, they are both proficient practitioners in the art of word salad.

    1. +1000

      Possibly the truest thing in the universe. So true that anytime you hear someone generating such salad you know you can safely stop listening because the probability they are mass producing bovine excrement is something like 99%.

  13. “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.” – Marilynne Robinson

    No, we do not know that, because it’s just one theoretical interpretation of quantum mechanics among other empirically adequate ones such as Bohmian mechanics:

    “In Bohmian mechanics, everything is pre-established as in classical physics: in order to achieve this, one is obliged to postulate the existence of an all-pervasive ‘quantum
    potential’, a sort of wave that carries no energy and has to change instantaneously everywhere when a measurement is made – this is a strongly non-local hidden variable, the non-locality being needed to justify the violation of Bell’s inequality and similar phenomena. In Bohmian mechanics, measurement is not a problem because everything is deterministic.”

    (Scarani, Valerio, Chua Lynn, and Liu Shi Yang. Six Quantum Pieces: A First Course in Quantum Physics. London: World Scientific Publishing, 2010. p. 104)

    “It is widely believed that quantum mechanics is starkly opposed to classical physics, because quantum mechanics claims that the world is governed by fundamentally indeterministic laws. As it happens, this common belief oversimplifies somewhat. Quantum mechanics is a theory that is formulated in relatively mathematical terms, quite removed from concepts of directly observable physical entities. Consequently, there is a great deal of room for interpretation of the meaning of the mathematics. Indeed, there are at least three interpretations of quantum mechanics which are serious candidates for giving an adequate account of how the mathematics relates to reality.
    Of these three interpretations, one of them – Bohmian mechanics – is completely deterministic. The other two interpretations each involve probability, but in rather different ways. So there is no straightforward answer to the question, ‘What is the role of probability in quantum mechanics?’”

    (Handfield, Toby. A Philosophical Guide to Chance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. p. 146)

  14. “After all, why is there something rather than nothing?” – Marilynne Robinson

    The simple answer is that…

    “There is just no alternative to being.”

    (Rundle, Bede. Why there is Something rather than Nothing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. p. 112)

    There is something rather than nothing because there cannot be nothing. Being is because it must be, and being must be because nonbeing cannot be.

    1. Yes but… it seems that nothing is a more difficult concept to grasp than many people believe. It’s difficult even to talk about nothing without implying that it is something. When I first saw that “nothing” was an idea with no reality, that in fact there was no such thing as nothing, I wondered whether that implied that there must therefore be something. I just can’t get clear on whether or not that is necessarily so. I’m not sure that the absence of existence implies the being of nothing.

  15. “…the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself”

    And what a wonderful world too! Who doesn’t give thanks everyday for God’s precious gift of cancer and other poxes? Let’s all join in singing Monty Python’s “All Things Dull and Ugly”:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh5x6dv4LHo

    As for the cosmos, I’m afraid I don’t see how a realm primarily consisting of empty space stands for God’s joy. Unless God himself is empty space too…

  16. Good science is completely value free, however human believes (including my own) are infected with values. We mostly refuse to accept the universe as it really is and refuse to question the validity of our deepest held believes. That’s why science and humans will never have a good marriage and we see all these silly attempts at damage control, necessary to keep our illusions alive.

    People are afraid of the so called “scientific image” of the world because it is not the world they want to live in. Ironically the most scientific oriented countries in the world are also the most democratic (and happiest) countries in the world where irrational believes are allowed to thrive.

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