God Has to Re-train

Well isn’t B&W up to date. Yes, it is. No sooner do I find Daniel Dennett’s comment on the Kitzmiller decision in my email and rush to post it, than I find a Spiegel interview with Daniel Dennett on evolution and ID.

Spiegel asks why evolution is so particularly troubling to religious people, compared with other scientific theories.

It counters one of the oldest ideas we have, maybe older even than our species…It’s the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.

And then pesky Darwin gummed up the works.

And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators — very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people’s sense that life has meaning…We are the only species that knows who we are, that knows that we have evolved. Our songs, art, books and religious beliefs are all ultimately a product of evolutionary algorithms. Some find that thrilling, others depressing.

Spiegel asks about Michael Ruse…

Michael is just trying to put the implications of Darwin’s insights into soft focus and to reassure people that there is not as much conflict between the perspective of evolutionary biology and their traditional ways of thinking.

Then they get on to the implications for religion and the deity.

One has to understand that God’s role has been diminished over the eons…When God is the master of ceremonies and doesn’t actually play any role any more in the universe, he’s sort of diminished and no longer intervenes in any way.

Spiegel offers the usual bit of boilerplate. ‘Natural science talks about life whereas religion deals with the meaning of life.’

Yes but does it? (I would have said had I been there, elbowing Dennett aside in my impatience to talk.) Does it really deal with the meaning of life? If so, how? If none of its truth claims are true, then what does it bring to the discussion of the meaning of life, or the dealing with it, that non-religious ideas can’t bring? That’s what no one who offers that bromide ever really seems to explain. At least not that I see.

So then Spiegel says the thing about moral standards – the other bit of boilerplate.

If that’s what religion does, then I don’t think it is such a silly idea. But it doesn’t. Religions at their best serve as excellent social organizers. They make moral teamwork a much more effective force than it otherwise would be. This, however, is a two-edged sword. Because moral teamwork depends to a very large degree on ceding your own moral judgment to the authority of the group. And that can be extremely dangerous, as we know.

Indeed we do.

At B&W he put the matter this way:

Gods have been given many job descriptions over the centuries, and science has conflicted with many of them. Astronomy conflicts with the idea of a god, the sun, driving a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses – a divine charioteer. Geology conflicts with the idea of a god who sculpted the Earth a few thousand years ago – a divine planet-former. Biology conflicts with the idea of a god who designed and built the different living species and all their working parts – a divine creator. We don’t ban astronomy and geology from science classes because they conflict with those backward religious doctrines, and we should also acknowledge that evolutionary biology does conflict with the idea of a divine creator and nevertheless belongs in science classes because it is good science.

The deity is just going to have to find other work. If steelworkers and blacksmiths have to, why shouldn’t the deity?

I think that what the expert scientists may have meant was that the theory of evolution by natural selection in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine . . . prayer-hearer, or master of ceremonies, or figurehead. That is true. For people who need them, there are still plenty of job descriptions for God that are entirely outside the scope of evolutionary biology.

There’s also the thing about turning up on cinnamon rolls and old pieces of cheese on toast. That’s good honest work, and the deity is just the right person to do it.

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