When Newton discovered the laws of thermodynamics he did not conclude that therefore God does not exist.
When Kepler wrote down the formula for planetary orbits he did not continue to say that his work henceforth made it impossible to believe in God.
And yet, when Darwin discovered evolution, his followers insisted that you cannot accept the science and continue to believe in God.
Then, Darwin’s critics agreed: you cannot believe in evolution and still believe in God.
It's nice to see a meeting of the minds.
Now, with atheism on the rise among the American cognoscenti, a University of Washington biology professor David Barash gives his students something he calls The Talk. In it he tells his students that they cannot believe in evolution and believe in God at the same time.
You might wonder why a scientist would feel compelled to burden his students with his opinions on metaphysics, to say nothing about telling them what they can and cannot believe. You would be right to do so.
Barash tells his students:
… that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.
It is big of Barash to tell his undergraduate students that they do not have to discard their religion. And yet, it’s only lip service. He continues to say that you cannot believe in science and believe in God at the same time.
And yet, since God cannot be measured or tested, it makes no sense to suggest that you can prove or disprove God’s existence scientifically. Perhaps he wants to recruit people to the atheist cause, but what makes Barash an authority on metaphysics?
Barash disparages the late Stephen Jay Gould, but Gould was closer to the truth. Following David Hume, Gould argued that religion set moral values and that science described reality.
Religion is about what you should or should not do. Science is about what is.
Moreover, why should we not believe that God created human beings through the process of evolution?
Barash summarizes the now commonly held view:
According to this expansive view, God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation.
This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms (everything that we know about biology and geology proclaims that the Earth was not made in a day).
In order to refute this argument Barash introduces what I would call a straw God. Anyone who believes in God believes, he says, that God is omnipresent and omni-benevolent. How can a benevolent deity, he says, have allowed so much suffering in the world.
Of course, the same deity has allowed much joy in the world, and no serious theologian has ever held that God is obliged to eliminate all suffering.
Finally, Barash arrives at his conclusion:
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.
One might also say that the universe and the humans who inhabit a tiny part of it are involved in an orderly, not a disorderly process and that this process is intelligible.
As Jacques Lacan once opined, if the planets were following Kepler’s law before Kepler discovered it, and if the law is an idea, where did that idea exist before Kepler wrote it down?If it existed, was any mind thinking it?
In a sense Barash has proved Hume’s point. If you want science to be the gold standard you must eliminate morality. In an amoral universe there is no reason to follow the precept of benevolence. One might say that, in such a universe, cruelty is the order of the day.
It should be noted that not all religions are the same. Not all of them place divine or even parental benevolence at the center of their moral universe.
But if follow Barash's version of science, how can we avoid the conclusion that human beings, if they want to live in harmony with an amoral natural world should act as though there are no rules? Amorality means that there are no rules. Immorality means that there are rules, but that you break them.
[I will note that I discussed the socio-cultural implications of amorality in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. There I also explained the importance of the principle of benevolence, as articulated in Judeo-Christian tradition.]
It’s well and good to debate metaphysical questions, but in the case at hand we can also ask what happens when these different principles are put into human practice. What if you create a perfectly amoral culture, one that rejects the practice of benevolence?
Can we not judge that culture by what it does and does not produce? Regardless of whether religion is going to show you the way to Paradise, it also produces cultures and communities. We are within our rights to ask whether these cultures provide a good life for its people.
In other words, we may judge religious values on pragmatic grounds. How well do they work, how much social harmony do they produce when they are practiced by a culture?
And we know, Judeo-Christian values have produced both good and bad.
And yet, what has atheism done for anyone lately? We are within our rights to examine the track record of atheist cultures, the ones that follow the principles of a supposedly scientific amorality and that reject benevolence. I am, of course, thinking of totalitarian Communism.
Judeo-Christianity has produced both good and bad. Atheistic cultures, such as they are, have produced nothing good, nothing of real value. They have merely succeeded in destroying millions of human lives in a very short period of time.
Barash has shown that when you make science omnipotent, you do what Hume thought you would do: you eliminate morality and produce a purely amoral culture.
It is fair to say that many atheists would disagree, but Barash’s view should still be taken seriously.
Some scientists would say that science should not be judged by the results of putting atheism into cultural practice. They would say that science is not in the business of producing communities.
This is true enough. And yet, if science is to rule our lives; if it is going to hold itself up as a higher authority, doesn’t it need to find a way to bring social beings together in community?
If science merely wants to destroy the attachment people have to their religious congregations, ought it not to be responsible for the ensuing anomie?
Of course, there’s more to social life than attending religious services. And yet, religion seems to function universally as a mechanism for producing social cohesion. The truth is, you cannot have social cohesion without moral principles. You cannot have a community unless everyone is following the same rules. Where these rules come from and why people are inclined to follow them, we might leave open. And yet, we do know that they have not been handed down by science.