The Darwinian Universe

Isn't there room for God?


Religious skeptics and critics of theology are increasingly turning to Charles Darwin. Freud and Marx have lost much of their former luster, and the remaining disciples of Nietzsche, Sartre, or Derrida are not interested in getting the seal of science anyway. But for those who still think that science is both authoritative and essentially ruinous to religion, Darwin has become more compelling than ever. A sensational example of this Darwinian turn is a new book by anthropologist Pascal Boyer immodestly titled Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, 2001). Similar in tenor to Daniel Dennett’s materialist manifesto Consciousness Explained (Little Brown, 1992), Boyer’s book attempts to give a completely naturalistic-and for him this means Darwinian-account of religion. Not only does Boyer believe that we can dispense completely with ideas of God, revelation, and the sacred when trying to explain why people are religious, we can now also see that even cultural causes are secondary to biological factors in the genesis of our long affair with the gods. A convert to the ideas of evolutionary psychology, itself a derivative of sociobiology, Boyer judges the puzzling persistence of religion to be the consequence of natural selection designing brains that allowed our Pleistocene ancestors to adapt to a world of predators. A brain molded by evolution to be on the constant lookout for hidden predators is likely to develop the habit of looking for all kinds of hidden agencies. And it is just this kind of brain that will eventually start manufacturing images of the concealed actors we refer to as gods. Boyer’s explanation-presented to us as much more "scientific" than those of Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud-attributes the origin and persistence of religion to a survival mechanism that evolved over the last 2 million years for the single purpose of human gene survival. Even though our own historical situation is quite different from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, Boyer points out, we still have the same kind of brains they had. And so, if we want to know the real reason why we continue to entertain religious ideas-at a time when we should know better-it is simply because of the kind of brains we have. And, don’t forget, we have these brains only because they allowed our ancestors’ genes to survive into subsequent generations. Although this sort of Darwinian naturalizing of religion is still in its infancy and is predictably dismissed by many scientists, social scientists, and historians, not to mention theologians, it has begun to attract more than a little attention in academia. Among Darwin-inspired religious skeptics are scholars like the classicist Walter Burkert, psychologist Robert Hinde, linguist Steven Pinker, and even the philosopher of religion Loyal Rue. Their neo-Darwinian debunking of religion follows, of course, in a long line of post-Enlightenment claims that religion is "nothing but" this or that. If Boyer and others are giving us the ultimate and adequate explanation of religion, then of course we should acknowledge that our piety is pure fiction. And all lovers of truth, no matter how much sadness it brings, should abandon their precious illusions. But Darwinian debunkers of religion are generally not terribly ruffled if we continue to ignore the truth they have uncovered. Perhaps they realize, by the logic of their own arguments, that if our hunter-gatherer ancestors had faced the nasty "truth" about the universe head-on, none of us would be here. Without the woolly comforts of religion, our human predecessors, who lacked our modern technological ways of coping, would never have adapted and survived. Pleistocene gene transmission led our forebears to develop brains that were inclined to create phantasms of gods because only such delusive concoctions would motivate them to survive-and thus lead to more gene transmission. Some Darwinian anthropologists consider this human capacity to evade truth to be one of our most biologically adaptive characteristics. To philosopher Loyal Rue, it is also one of our most endearing. Rue has even argued that our future survival as a species demands that we cultivate our genetically based capacity for the kind of lying and self-deception that we find in our religions (By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs, Oxford University Press, 1994). From a biological perspective, the propensity for guile can even be viewed as a kind of saving grace, since it makes us think (erroneously) that life is worth living. Among animals, Rue notes, natural selection has favored the deceivers, while those not up to the skill of deception have not survived to reproduce. According to Rue, the scientifically awakened human mind must now embrace nihilism as the only truth that faithfully reflects the real world. But, thank goodness, we have also been gifted by evolution with a capacity, especially in our religions, to spin noble lies that allow us to deny this truth and keep it out of view! Others will argue that once we realize that we have been tricked into our false states of belief by the crafty evolutionary mechanism of gene survival, perhaps we can look for more "realistic" reasons to go on with our lives. Of course, this may not be easy. But if the biologists of religion are correct, then, as Holmes Rolston III has craftily put it, the scientifically minded, "those who get it right" and have to face the truth, are most likely to die out, "and those who continue the traditional mythologies, and get it wrong, will out produce them" (Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History, Cambridge University Press, 1999). ————————————————————————————————————————


Saving Darwin from Frederick Crews


Not every skeptic who has made the Darwinian turn is so cavalier about the question of truth. We find a throwback to the old school of critics of religion in Frederick Crews, a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently published a titillating two-part essay on God and Darwin in the New York Review of Books (October 4 and 18, 2001). Crews is best known for his relentless pounding of Freud, whom he has not hesitated to call a fraud and charlatan. What Crews has never questioned, though, is Freud’s materialist metaphysics. Although he chastises Freud’s hypocrisy in failing to live up to the "empirical attitude" essential to good science, he clearly shares with the Viennese sage the unshakable belief that beneath life, consciousness, and culture there lies only a mindless, meaningless swirl of purely physical stuff. For Crews, the tragically indifferent universe that Darwin uncovered is the ultimate truth to which we must now resign ourselves. In his new essay, Crews has made his philosophical leanings clearer than ever. Ironically, in cozying up to the most radically materialist contemporary interpretations of Darwin-those of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett-Crews has also demonstrated that, at least on the question of ultimate "reality," he is really not far removed from his old enemy Freud after all. Crews announces his new romance with Darwinian biology by scanning ("reviewing" would be too strong a term) eleven recent books dealing with God and evolutionary biology, including one of my own (God after Darwin). He not only dismisses creationists and proponents of "Intelligent Design" (those who think the complexity of life points directly to a designing intelligence), but also attacks theistic interpretations of evolution as "evasions" of the truth. His commentary on the question of Darwin and God is witty and, if one is willing to put up with the expected dose of hyperbole, more than occasionally incisive. It is not hard to agree with him, for example, that "anti-Darwinian fervor has as much to do with moral anxiety as with articles of revealed truth." "Creationists," he comments, "are sure that the social order will dissolve unless our children are taught that the human race was planted here by God with instructions for proper conduct. Crime, licentiousness, blasphemy, unchecked greed, narcotic stupefaction, abortion, the weakening of family bonds-all are blamed on Darwin, whose supposed message is that we are animals to whom everything is permitted," he goes on. This is "the ’fatal glass of beer’ approach to explaining decadence. Take one biology course that leaves Darwin unchallenged, it seems, and you’re on your way to nihilism, Eminem, and drive-by shootings." Likewise, Crews is on target in rebuking conservative publications such as First Things, Commentary, and New Criterion for shiftily ignoring the overwhelming and convergent evidence for the scientific truth of evolution. Whenever Darwinian science appears to challenge the benign cosmological assumptions underlying much rightward-leaning journalism, it is easier to announce that Darwin is wrong than to reexamine the assumptions themselves. Crews finds it remarkable, for example, that Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, gives the following endorsement of Darwin’s main present-day opponent: "In all the vast literature on Darwinism, evolution, creation, and theism, one will likely not find a treatment so calm, comprehensive, and compellingly persuasive as Phillip Johnson’s" (quoted on the dust jacket of Johnson’s latest attack on evolutionary biology, The Wedge of Truth, InterVarsity Press, 2001). However, Crews may not be so willing to acknowledge that his own annoyance with Neuhaus and others is no less ideologically motivated. Throughout his articles he enfolds his own understanding of evolutionary science within an avowedly materialist belief system. He asserts, for instance, that the evolutionist philosopher Daniel Dennett has "trenchantly shown" that Darwin’s thought leads logically to "a satisfyingly materialistic reduction of mind and soul," and that evolutionary theory entails a "naturalistic account of life’s beginning." Many of us are quite certain that materialism and naturalism are really philosophical assumptions, not science; but for Crews these belief systems are stitched seamlessly into biology. Crews sarcastically titles his essay "Saving Us from Darwin." But, the closer we look at Crews’s mixing of materialism and evolution, the more we might wish to save Darwin from Crews. For Crews, the real "truth" in Darwinism is clearly nothing other than philosophical materialism and its attendant notion of a purposeless universe. While Rue appreciates the adaptive value of illusions that shield us from the horrible truth, Crews-sounding once again remarkably like Freud-wants us to grow up and face the indifferent world head-on. If the evolutionary psychologists are correct, however, Crews is advocating a nonadaptive posture, one not destined to leave many survivors. It is not certain that Crews catches the irony, though, since he endorses without reservation the kind of explanation of religion we find in Boyer and other new biologists of religion. Darwin, Crews claims, has given us "a more plausible framework than divine action for guessing how the human brain could have acquired consciousness and facilitated cultural productions, not excepting religion itself. It is this march toward successfully explaining the higher by the lower that renders Darwinian science a threat to theological dogma of all but the blandest kind." Notice here that in accounting for religion Crews would force us to choose between evolutionary and theological explanations of it. We may follow either Darwin or the theologians, but not both. Yet this is exactly the same forced option that creationists and defenders of Intelligent Design (ID) try to thrust upon us. Disappointingly, Crews has failed to carry the important contemporary discussion of Darwin and religion any further than where Dennett, Boyer, IDers, and creationists had already left it. There is no consideration, for example, of the possibility that there may be both theological and biological explanations for religion, each operating at a distinct level of understanding. Crews considers all attempts to reconcile theology with evolutionary biology as "evasions" of what he now knows to be the "truth." And his understanding of truth is not significantly different from the one articulated by the despised Freud: Truth is that which we arrive at by following the "reality principle." But to educated people, embracing the reality principle means, above all, following the spirit of science. It is disappointing that our critic would lead us back to a now discredited, though still extant, scientism as the cradle of his sense of the real. Yet this is where we end up. Since for Crews contemporary biology means materialist naturalism, he insists that evolutionary scientists and philosophers such as Stephen Jay Gould and Michael Ruse be uncompromising with this "truth." Both are nontheists, and both-correctly according to Crews-have previously claimed that Darwinism implies materialism. Yet their recent books (Gould’s Rocks of Ages, Random House, 1998, and Ruse’s Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?, Cambridge University Press, 2000) display a disappointing failure of nerve. Neither of these respected evolutionists wants to press the decision between Darwin and God so imposingly upon us as do Crews and the creationists. Ruse, for example, allows that a Christian can be a Darwinian (since, after all, there have been a good number of them); and Gould is now telling us that science and religious belief can get along quite well if they just stay in their respective corners. On the question of God and evolution, Gould is happy to report that even he and Pope John Paul II can sit down comfortably together. For Gould it’s OK to believe in God, even though all reasonable people know, especially after Darwin, that such belief is nothing more than a fiction. It is this condoning of illusion that so aggravates Crews, and he cites Cornell evolutionist William Provine’s declaration that in order to accept both Christian faith and Darwinian biology, "you have to check your brains at the church-house door." ————————————————————————————————————————


Theology & Truth after Darwin


Much as we may appreciate Ruse’s and Gould’s mannerly overtures to religion, I believe that Crews is fully justified in pointing out the slippage in their logic. In order to appease all parties, these celebrated evolutionists (having previously made no secret of their own conviction that Darwinism goes best with materialism) clearly sacrifice what Crews refers to as "considerations of truth" by allowing the rest of us to go on believing in God. Crews is correct in pointing out that a materialist view of the world is logically incompatible with each and every brand of theism. However, on what basis can Crews himself claim that materialism is the ultimate truth underlying Darwinism? Indeed, what exactly does Crews mean by truth? As in any worthwhile discussion, the underlying issues of epistemology (How do we come into contact with the real?) and metaphysics (What do we mean by the real?) must eventually come to the surface in the Darwin wars. Crews is clear that the "empirical attitude" of science is the only way we can get to truth, and the rock-bottom reality that science finds, especially after Darwin, is an inherently meaningless universe. Only those courageous enough to embrace this ultimately pointless world are in a position to say that they really grasp the "truth" of Darwin’s theory. Logically speaking, though, Crews’s declaration that the "empirical attitude" of scientific method alone can lead us to truth does not fall within the realm of scientific discourse, nor is it susceptible to scientific demonstration. Crews’s starting point is really not different from the shared belief of other academic devotees of scientism. And his directives for getting to the ultimate truth about the universe are no less faith-driven than those on which he accuses theology of being based. Moreover, by itself science cannot give decisive reasons for either asserting or denying that the universe is pointless, even though its findings are not irrelevant to our final conclusions on this question. Pronouncements about the ultimate nature of things, about what is real, or about the fundamental criteria of truth, emerge from mysterious regions of human consciousness that science cannot ever pretend to plumb. The claim that scientific method is the only way to truth is itself one that flows not from science, but from a deep human need to form webs of belief in which to anchor our understanding of things. For theology, I believe the only way forward in this discussion is for it to argue forcefully that its own system is wide and deep enough to embrace coherently all of the relevant scientific information from biology, geology, paleontology, genetics, embryology, comparative anatomy, etc., while at the same time allowing logical space for a God who makes promises to be the ultimate explanation of evolution. Of course Crews would insist that Darwinian science has now taken us as deep into the foundations of life as we need to go. But how does Crews-or for that matter Boyer, Rue, Dennett, Gould, or Ruse-know this to be the case? To declare that theology is superfluous to an adequate understanding of life and evolution would require a perspective that science as such cannot command. Clearly, then, the Darwin wars are clashes not so much of science with religion, but of one kind of belief system with another. Many so-called scientists make philosophical judgments, and they do so allegedly on the basis of empirical observation. They then pass off such claims as purely scientific conclusions rather than composites of science and philosophical assumptions. Crews himself has naively been drawn into this kind of confusion by his idols, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom have consistently alloyed evolutionary biology with materialist metaphysics. The problem with scientific materialism, as Alfred North Whitehead long ago pointed out, is that it is simply incapable of doing justice to what we all experience as the rich reality of actual life. It seeks to purchase intellectual clarity by leaving out the novelty, striving, cooperativeness, relationality, and indeterminacy characteristic of living beings and processes. I would add that materialism also abstracts from life’s inherent openness to the future. By thinking of evolution in mechanistic and atomistic terms, materialist interpretations typically muffle our intuitive sense of life striving toward what is yet to be. Almost by definition scientific materialism leaves out everything that our inherited wisdom and ethics mean by "life." Darwin’s own portrait of nature, on the other hand, is at least able to communicate a sense of real life-with all of its drama, tragedy, and creativity. His story of life, when not swamped by the deadening climate of materialist assumptions, can give considerable depth and richness to our religious intimations of the great mystery into which our religions invite us. Whatever Darwin’s own misgivings about God may have been, evolutionary science is not inherently opposed to the divine. Crews mistakenly assumes, along with other evolutionary materialists, creationists, and IDers, that if there were a place for God in our thought, it would be in the role of a direct designer of life’s complexity. And since neo-Darwinism has shown that design in organisms can be explained by natural selection working on minute random genetic changes over long periods of time, there is no longer any role for a divine designer to play. Therefore, it seems to Crews, evolutionary biology has exposed once and for all the utter godlessness of the cosmos. Once again, he does not say why an evolutionary account of complex design in life would exclude a theological explanation of life at a deeper level than science can articulate. Is it perhaps because Crews’s own notion of divine creativity lies roughly at the same level as that of the creationists? He can only envision divine creativity as somehow competing with natural causation. As with creationists and many IDers, Crews and those he follows cannot get beyond the idea that God is one cause among others rather than the ultimate ground of all causes. According to the Jesuit geologist Teilhard de Chardin, the point is not so much that God makes this life-endowed world as that God makes this world make itself. Unfortunately, however, this way of thinking about God never shows up in the public debates between creationists and evolutionary materialists. Moreover, for the universe to be a repository of meaning, its originator does not have to stamp various forms of design or order forcefully or permanently onto the world fabric. The cosmos, after all, is not just an "order" but a still unfinished process. Science shows clearly that the universe is still emerging into being, even now brimming with potential for incalculable future outcomes. The world, in theological terms, is still being created. In an unfinished universe, each day is still the dawn of creation. The horizon of an unprecedented future stretches magnanimously ahead, and God may be thought of-again in biblical terms-as the world’s ultimate future. For all we know, then, the final truth beneath Darwinism is a world open to the coming of God. From a biblical perspective God may be thought of as the inexhaustible-but also sometimes disquieting-wellspring of novelty in evolution, and not merely an imagined source of fixed order. If we follow some classic biblical texts, God is the one who "makes all things new," and, as the new arrives, the old has to give way. As promise maker, God opens the world to a future that outreaches our own human sense of good order. The point is that Darwinian evolution, without undergoing any editing, can easily find a home on theological terrain. A biblical understanding of God as the power of the future is not only compatible with evolution; it also logically anticipates the kind of world that Darwinian biology is now lavishly setting before us. Beyond both scientific materialism and "intelligent design" there lies a vision of God fully open to the data of evolutionary science as well as to our longing for what is ultimately real.

Published in the 2002-01-25 issue: 

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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