On the 12th, the Wall Street Journal published two essays together that had the author of each answer a seemingly straightforward question: "Where does evolution leave God?" The authors of the essays were Karen Armstrong, who has a book coming out entitled The Case for God, and Richard Dawkins, whose latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth. Given the differences between the perspectives of the authors, you’d expect them to say something very different. And, indeed, they do come to different conclusions. However, in response to the question itself, namely where does evolution leave God, their answers are strikingly similar. That’s something of which to take note.
So, I’m late to the party again. This has already been addressed by Jerry Coyne, Jason Rosenhouse, PZ Myers, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and even Jesus and Mo (you really want to click this one). Even so, I feel the need to say something about it, so here goes.
It will be no surprise how Dawkins answers the question posed to him. After a brief explanation of evolution he says, “Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear.” Entirely expected, of course. How, then, does Armstrong, author of The Case for God, respond to the same question?
Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.”
Yes, at least in terms of the question posed, “Where does evolution leave God,” Armstrong provides a response entirely consistent with Dawkins’ answer. It might strike you as surprising that Armstrong, a writer on world religions, a former nun, and definitely someone who thinks of themselves as a theist, thinks that evolution leaves no room for God to work, at least in terms of humanity being a product of God’s creation. Lest you missed the point, from above: “Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.” I mean, it just doesn’t get much more clear than that.
So, what then, does Armstrong have in mind when she talks about “God”? I’m afraid you won’t get much from her essay. What she says is that “God” is a symbol that is supposed to point toward something that cannot be understood. No holy book is to be taken literally. Rather, they are all myths that attempt to convey some kind of message. Maybe not even that. Maybe she thinks they are merely art. It’s hard to tell with Armstrong. She does seem to be of the opinion that it has only been since around the Enlightenment that anyone has taken “God” to be an actual entity that exists. She writes:
But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton’s Mechanick and, later, William Paley’s Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.
Before that, Armstrong maintains, no one took the notion of God as presented in the Bible (or any other set of holy texts) as actually existing.
In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.
Armstrong is explicit that reason has gotten in the way of understanding this “transcendence,” and that reason was never thought to be applicable to searches for such things before…well, I guess the Rationalists of the the 17th century (Armstrong isn’t explicit). But she is explicit that the early Jews, Christian, and Muslims did not think reason had anything to do with God, and she extends this to the Greeks as well. She writes:
Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity.
Really? Greek thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (not to mention Parmenides, Heraclitus, Leucippus, Democritus, etc) did not all explicitly reject mythology as a means to knowledge and look to logos (roughly “reason”) as the only true route to knowledge? I mean, I could have sworn that that was actually one of the hallmarks of the pre-Socratics, and that logos was at the core of Platonic and Aristotelian thought. And, of course, I am right. Contrary to the claims of Armstrong, the Greek thinkers did not privilege myth as a way to understand the ultimate nature of the world. On the contrary, they were explicit in their rejection of such a thing.
Nor should we take Armstrong seriously in her claims about any other groups doing something similar. It is absurd to say that the ancient Jewish conception of God, whose first commandment is to worship no other gods, is not an actual entity but only a transcendence toward which all religion is pointed. Were that the case, there would be nothing of which to be jealous. Clearly, ancient Jews thought differently, not even allowing the interbreeding of their people with worshippers of other gods. And what kind of sense would it make to kill someone for collecting sticks on any day, if all the believers were merely using the rules as a rough guide to something about which they could not talk but which was understood to be myth. Why would you have rules that would result in death for something you knew was a myth? That’s absurd. Further, there was an enormous amount of conflict in the early Christian church over the concrete way in which scripture was to be interpreted (and even which scriptures would be accepted as true). If all these early Christians were aware that the scriptures were all myth, all equal in their attempt to point to something beyond themselves, why the fighting, killing, and dying over it? Again, absurd.
I honestly have no idea about what Armstrong is talking about when she writes about “God.” It is unrecognizable to me, as I suspect is the case for most everyone else. I think she is as wrong in her description of God as she is on her history of how ancient peoples saw God and their holy books. I think she is pretty much wrong all the way around.
Here is what is funny about the two pieces. Neither saw what the other wrote before penning their own. Yet, here are the last two paragraphs of Dawkins’ piece:
Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."
Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.
Maybe there is such a thing as prescience after all.