God, Darwin, and David Barash: A Response to Dan Horan

This morning I read a very intriguing blog post written by my colleague and a friend of many here at Daily Theology, Dan Horan, O.F.M., of the blog Dating God: Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century.  The post was titled, “The Ignorance of Some Scientists,” and was written in response to a recent New York Times editorial entitled, “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class,” written by Prof. David Barash, a Professor of Psychology at University of Washington.  Working quite closely in the realm of theology, philosophy, and science myself, I enjoyed Dan’s back and forth response to this made-to-be-controversial Times editorial, in which Barash discusses something he calls “The Talk” that he gives to his undergraduate students every Fall.

It’s a reference aimed to make us all chuckle–in the adult version of “The Talk,” however, we’re not opening our eyes to the reality of the birds and the bees, but to the devastating effects of science upon our naive religious beliefs.   Barash highlights three or four problems with religious belief (depending on how you read the article): (1) science and religion can’t be purely independent; (2) creationism/intelligent design doesn’t work; (3) humans are just animals, really, with no scientific proof otherwise; (4) “unmerited suffering” exists through evolution, which also creates humans, so a benevolent God doesn’t work.  It’s consciously a bit over the top.

Barash is no stranger to selling books on related topics.  His latest books are, Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science; Peace and Conflict Studies, 3rd Edition; and Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature.  (These books, I’ll note, were all published in the last two years, which is just impressive.)  One should note from the titles that Barash is no Richard Dawkins.  Barash does not write books directly about “atheism,” he does not blame religion for the evils of the world, he doesn’t believe that theologians are the cause of all the injustice in the world.  So that’s a start.

So, back to Dan Horan’s intriguing reaction to Barash’s piece. Horan agrees with points (1) and (2)–as we all should–and then deftly critiques points (3) and (4).  The point of my response to Horan’s response lay in these two critiques.  As always, we at Daily Theology welcome debate and dialogue, so I welcome Fr. Horan’s response to my response of his response…whew.

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In response to point (3), the centrality, or uniqueness, of humans, Horan writes,

“While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, no way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!””  

On the one hand, of course Horan is right.  “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  Just because God has not been found, this does not prove that God cannot be found.  But I also want to defend Barash on this point.  Many good Christians believe quite strongly that humans are categorically different than the rest of the animals in many, many ways.  But, simply put, we’re not!  The existence of a vast technological and material culture (that is, the existence of stuff like computers) tricks us into thinking that we are something that we are not–we are not aliens from another world.  In short, evolutionary biology has done precisely what Barash wrote:

“Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.”

Horan takes Barash to task on the “no literally supernatural trait” line, noting that “It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been ‘literally no whales  ever found in space.'”  As in, of course biology hasn’t found something supernatural!  But I find this reading of Barash to be one that dismisses the history of Christian theologian’s investigations into the human body.  People really did look for the existence of the soul in the time of Da Vinci….and they continue to physically look for the soul today.  We contemporary theologians think that these searches are rather silly, and they might be, but I’m not convinced.  If God has healed people as both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures claim and as our own Church attests today, how can biology and theology really ask that different of questions?  For someone who believes that science and religion are not as separate as they might seem, Horan seems to backpedal: “Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing.”  I think the answer is messier and more interwoven than either Horan or Barash points out.

And come now, what’s wrong with being a perfectly good animal in God’s creation?

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In response to point (4), the problem of evil, Horan writes, “This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.”

He is responding to Barash’s age-old but succinctly put argument: “Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.”

Horan responds with a line that talks of the “moral quality of the process.”  If you are familiar with the works of Teilhard de Chardin, this essentially means that evolution should not be seen as an instrument of destruction, but as an instrument of Gift and Love.  Evolution brought beauty from creation, brought love from rocks, brought life from nothing.  Evolution, both on a astrophysical and biological level, is astounding and theologically significant.  I disagree with Horan on this line of argument.  I still think the process of human creation is miraculous and amazing, but I feel that I’ve learned too much biology and biological history to disagree with Barash’s argument.  Evolution tells of us that the story of humans is one that came from trillions of deaths of other species before ours, and–as recent studies show–several humanoid species who competed with each other before Homo Sapiens emerged.  Evolution, broadly conceived, must include the horrors of famine, plague, earthquakes, asteroid impacts, not to mention old age, disease, etc..  And as much as I love the writings of Teilhard de Chardin (and I do), I’m afraid the scientific research does not speak in his favor.  While evolution increases in complexity and beauty, it also increases in the ways in which death and destruction is produced.

In short, I agree with Horan that Barash’s argument about the problem of evil is nothing new.  In fact, it’s one of the oldest problems in the history of the world (See: Book of Job, Book of Genesis).  The evolutionary spin on the problem is a fairly recent one, but I think that theologians who approach this problem should be careful not to step into the trap of relying too closely on the evolutionary framework in order to argue for the righteousness of God.  The theory of evolution is vast, profound, and powerful, but it cannot be turned into a tightly-framed argument for the overarching benevolence of God, despite that fact that evolution was the process through which humans became human.  God may have employed “evolution” to bring humans into existence, but I do not think the answer to Barash’s argument is to flip the morality of evolution into something that will transform humanity into God’s perfect species.

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While I very much appreciated all the writing that Horan does, both on the blog and in print (as well as the few conversations we’ve had in person!), I found him a bit too quick to jump over Barash in this article. Considering Barash’s own ventures into Buddhism and his published works on peace and non-violent studies, he is probably one of the more amenable scientists to many things religious.  Indeed, his last paragraph says as much:

“Despite these three evolutionary strikes, God hasn’t necessarily struck out. At the end of the movie version of “Inherit the Wind,” based on the famous Scopes “monkey trial” over a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, Spencer Tracy’s character, fashioned after the defense attorney Clarence Darrow, stands in the empty courtroom, picks up a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in the other, gives a knowing smile and claps them together before putting both under his arm. Would that it were so simple.”

I love the lament in the last line–a lament that opens the author to the possibility of that popular Oh If It Were Only Possible But Its Clearly Too Good To Be True Divine Being.  I like to categorize this stance as a contemporary agnostic scientific malaise that seems to be increasingly prevalent in the academic world.  For these social-justice minded intellectual, it is not that God absolutely does not exist, it is simply that, within a scientific and philosophical framework, there seems to be no hope for the God of all hope and love.

Call me an optimist, but I’ll take an atheist like Barash over an atheist like Dawkins any day of the week.

5 responses to “God, Darwin, and David Barash: A Response to Dan Horan

  1. Hi John, I didn’t read Dan’s point about the supernatural to be an affirmation of human centrality or uniqueness. Dan seems to be defending a theological trait to human existence, which Barash rejects, but he never states that it is only human beings who possess some sort of supernatural characteristics. Just a thought.

    • Hi Jessica, I appreciate your note about Dan not limiting supernatural characteristics just to humans…he certainly does not say this. And I do see what Dan was trying to do there regarding a theological trait. I guess my argument against Dan was more along the lines of not giving up the biological ground so easily…there are quite a lot of human traits that leave biologists and psychologists simply making up theories with little proof. There are many traits of animals that fall into this category as well. Vast theories, but very little proof as to “why.” I agree that Barash is mistaken, and I agree that there are theological traits that biology will never find, but I also think that theologians may have more ground within biology yet. Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: The Ignorance of Some Scientists | Teilhard de Chardin·

  3. One thing I would like to take issue with in this discussion is the relationship between humanity and animals. Theologically, I don’t think Christians would claim that the “existence of a vast technological and material culture” is what makes us distinct from animals. Rather, there seems to be something about the claim that humans are created in the image of God, a term which is not used to describe the creation of the animals. This “image” seems significant for Christian anthropology.

    This is not to oppose seeing great continuity between human beings and animals, nor is it to suggest that evolutionary biology is not challenging our understanding of what “imago Dei” means. But we ought to be careful about so advocating for the closeness and interdependence of humanity and other animals that override any sense of distinction between the two.

    • Quite so, Steve. It’s a difficult space to walk, especially since biological account of evolution tend to increasingly emphasize our connectedness to other creatures–largely, I think, from an ideological lens of differentiating evolution from previous accounts of human history where animals were simply “other.” It’s a point I didn’t nuance well in my argument, but I was attempting to say that theology need not vacate all claims to the biological presence of the divine–or, at least, in the physical world. Clearly, one cannot have the imago Dei without some sort of appreciation of the difference between humans and other creatures, but I do think there is much value in the closeness between us and the rest of creation. Similarly, I would never argue that our culture is what actually separates us from animals, but simply why people continue to assume just how different we are from the rest of creation (which is what I was attempting to do, using the culture reference, above).

      So, then, the point is two-fold. One, I fully agree with Dan that there is a necessary realization of the theological argument above and beyond any argument biology can make. We will never, more than likely, be able to explain the Incarnation or the Imago Dei via scientific discovery. Two, largely because of the Incarnation, I believe that theologians need not stand contrary to evolutionary arguments that link us so closely to the rest of created beings on earth. It is in these similarities, as well as in the obvious differences (complex language use, for example), that the image of God can be seen.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

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