Small Gods

I came to the conclusion, quite a while ago, that whatever else Richard Dawkins may have achieved with the publication of The God Delusion, the one definite achievement of the book has been its successful exposure of the abject intellectual poverty of the majority of religious ‘thought’. Having long suspected that the study of theology was, for the most part, an academic fraud, the many attempts to respond to and rebut Dawkin’s polemic,together with the works of the other atheist ‘horsemen’ (Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) have confirmed my suspicions.

Theology is, in intellectual terms, and certainly as an academic field of ‘study’, nothing more than a fraud; a point neatly made by the philosopher Anthony O’Hear:

“No theologian within an existing religious tradition has ever regarded himself as finding or suggesting something new. They always regard themselves as uncovering the true meaning of the ancient text or tradition. They are always backward-looking, and, I am suggesting, necessarily so.” – Experience, Explanation and Faith (1984)

Science is incompatible with religion, and particularly with theology. it is incompatible because science is the search for truth, knowledge and understanding while theology is a wholly sophistic exercise in bending the truth to fit in with a preconceived belief that the ‘truth’ has already been revealed, long ago.

I am not a religious person and never will be, for no better or worse reason than the fact that I simply cannot manage the degree of self-deception and intellectual dishonesty necessary to sustain any kind of belief in a supernatural ‘god’ of any description.

So, naturally enough, when I heard, last year, that the Templeton Foundation had awarded a ‘major grant’ to the religious ‘think-tank’ Theos to allegedly ‘rescue’ Darwin, my expectations of such an exercise were extremely limited.

I expected a trite, tendentious and thoroughly sophistic exercise in abject intellectual dishonesty and, as this week’s publication of Theos’ ‘research’ neatly demonstrated, I have in no sense been disappointed by the outcome.

The central premise that underpins Theos’ report is patently transparent on a simple reading of the ‘argument’ it deploys as a promotional device for its full report.

Rescuing Darwin argues that Darwin and his theory have become caught in the crossfire of a philosophical and theological battle in which he himself had little personal interest. On the one side stands a handful of modern Darwinians who insist that evolution has killed God and ideas of design, purpose, morality and humanity. On the other side are their mainly, but not exclusively, religious opponents who, unwilling to adopt such a bleak vision, cite Genesis and Intelligent Design as evidence of evolution’s deficiency.

Darwin is, accorded to Theos, unduly beset on both sides; ‘miltant atheists’ to the left, creationists to the right. It’s a wedge strategy and as with all such strategies it relies entirely on the conscious use of deception to manoeuvre one of the contending parties away from the mainstream in order to create an artifical ‘gap’ into which Theos can insert its preferred wedge.

The deception, in this case, lies in the suggestion that evolution has ‘killed God and ideas of design, purpose, morality and humanity’.

It hasn’t.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has certainly continued the process, started by other scientists – and one thinks immediately of Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Copernicus and Kepler – of pushing back the boundaries of supernaturalism, rendering ‘god’ increasingly irrelevant and it has, admittedly, comprehensively dismantled the idea of supernatural ‘design’ in the process, providing the empirical evidence to support DaVid Hume’s, much earlier, a priori demolition of the argument from design, but the concepts of purpose, morality and, particularly, humanity, are not only alive and well but are afforded even greater value and importance by their havin been seated, correctly, within the realms of human experience and human cultural evolution.

Our sense of the value of humanity is not diminished by the knowledge that we are the product of an untended evolutionary process spanning billions of years, nor do we lack either for purpose or for moral values. in truth, it is the fact that we find our own sense of purpose and sense of moral value, finding our own place in the universe, that provides the greatest affirmation of our humanity. We create ourselves, minute by minute, hour by hour and it when we most engaged in that  perpetual process of self-creation, our unending search for truth, knowledge and understanding, that we are at our most human.

To establish the degree of intellectual dishonesty inherit in Theos’ ‘research’ one need not, fortunately, tackle the entire report head-on. Even by my own standards, 72 pages of fallacious argument and errant sophistry is a bit too much to consider fisking in its entirety.

Instead, it worth picking out a choice examples of Theos’s specious ‘reasoning’:

According to this view, God and evolution are “competing explanation[s] for facts about the universe and life,” (2) the creation stories of Genesis are a form of (bad) proto-science, and evolution by natural selection is somehow able to “solve the mystery of our existence”.(3)

The fact that the answer to that mystery, at least according to Darwin’s more prominent modern disciples, is that there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to life further exacerbates the problem. Being told they are accidents of evolution, “robots”, “survival machines” of secondary importance, whose moral principles are illusory, whose mind is merely a colony of memes, and who inhabit a universe with “no purpose, no evil and no good” has limited appeal to most people.(4)

‘Rescuing Darwin’ (pdf), pp9-10.

The referenced quotations in the above passage are all taken from the published works of Richard Dawkins…

2. Richard Dawkins, “A Reply to Poole”, in Science & Christian Belief 7 (1995) pp. 45-50.
3. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Longman, 1986), p. xiv.
4. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), p. 155.

…and, in each case, Dawkins’ remarks are supplied to the reader outside of their original context and in the absence of any supporting arguments.

The first quotation, which describes god and evolution as ‘competing explanation[s] for facts about the universe and life’ derives from a public debate, in the form of an exchange of letters, between Dawkins and Michael Poole, a committed Christian, science educator and visiting research fellow at Kings College London, which crystalises the fundamental nature of the dispute over Darwin.

Dawkins, quite correctly, argues that, thoughout human history, the direct intervention of a supernatural agency of some description, has been routinely been advanced as a means of explaining the existence of certain natural phenomena, where the actual mechanisms underlying those phenomena we not understood by those experiencing them at the time.

Humans have believed, at various time, that a variety of supernatural agencies; whether these were gods and goddesses, ancestral or animal spirits or the spirits of inanimate objects, were both responsible for the creation of the earth and all the life, or at least that portion that the individual could observe in the particular environment in which they lived, not to mention for making it rain, making the sun rise in the morning, making the earth shake, violently, and all manner of other things. This is an incontestable fact, and one for which we have ample evidence within religious text, folk tales and in the beliefs and traditions of cultures that have only, relatively recently, in terms of human history, come to the attention of our own civilisation.

The concept of ‘god’ has served humans, throughout recorded history and, almost certainly, beyond as a form of proto-scientific hypothesis, one which our ancestors used to try to make sense of the natural phenomena they saw and experienced. The history of science is very much that of the rolling back of the boundaries of this ‘god hypothesis’ through a series of discoveries that prove that natural phenomena are simply natural phenomena, things which take place without the  intervention of any kind of supernatural agency. As a means of explaining how and why things happen in the world around us, god has proved to be a very poor hypothesis and which each successive discovery, the role undertaken by god in the natural world has diminished as a matter of material fact. ‘God’ does not make the rain. Apollo does not drive the sun across the heavens in a celestial chariot and volcanos do not erupt because the  ‘spirit of the mountain’ is somehow angry with the people who live on its sides.

As science has advanced and we have come, as a species, to understand the natural world, so religion, the people and institutions that rely on belief in supernaturalism for their influence, authority and – let’s not beat about the bush here – wealth, have responded, initially with repression and violence; Galileo was compelled to recant his discovery that earth was not, as the Catholic Church claimed, the centre of the universe and Giordano Bruno was burned as a heretic for refusing to back down, and ultimately with a retreat into metaphysics and into the construction of series of elaborate fictions designed to preserve, for themselves, a realm of public ignorance and uncertainty from which to sustain their privileged position in the social hierarcy.

If you like, we can call this the ‘Vroomfondel Defence’:

“I am Majikthise!” announced the older one.

“And I demand that I am Vroomfondel!” shouted the younger one.

Majikthise turned on Vroomfondel. “It’s alright,” he explained angrily, “you don’t need to demand that.”

“Alright!” bawled Vroomfondel banging on an nearby desk. “I am Vroomfondel, and that is not a demand, that is a solid fact! What we demand is solid facts!”

“No we don’t!” exclaimed Majikthise in irritation. “That is precisely what we don’t demand!”

Scarcely pausing for breath, Vroomfondel shouted, “We don’t demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts. I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel!”

“But who the devil are you?” exclaimed an outraged Fook.

“We,” said Majikthise, “are Philosophers.”

“Though we may not be,” said Vroomfondel waving a warning finger at the programmers.

“Yes we are,” insisted Majikthise. “We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!”

“What’s the problem?” said Lunkwill.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is mate,” said Majikthise, “demarcation, that’s the problem!”

“We demand,” yelled Vroomfondel, “that demarcation may or may not be the problem!”

“You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

“That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, chapter 25.

Evolution doesn’t actually ‘solve’ the ‘mystery’ of our existence in the sense that religious believers conceive of the existence of such a ‘mystery’, or rather, as it would be more accurate to say, it doesn’t solve the ‘mystery’ that they’ve been led to believe by the religious institutions that rely on the belief in such mysteries for their own status and survival. The mystery that evolution addresses itself to is that of the natural processy which humans, and all other life on this planet, evolved, but, in doing so, it also rolls back yet another boundary from behind which it was mistakenly thought that a supernatural agency might be operating.

This creates a problem for those who rely on religious belief for the position and status in human society, and it is that which has created the contention surrounding Darwin’s ideas. Evolution removes supernatural agency from the ‘how’ of life on earth, and if such an agency played no part in the how then its make no sense whatsoever to suggest that such an agency has any bearing on the ‘why’ of life either.

Evolution may not tell us, conclusively, whether or not ‘god’ exists, but what it does tell us is that even in there is some kind of universal supernatural agency out there, somewhere, the existence of such an agency is absolutely no relevance to the lives of us humans, living here on an utterly insignificant blue-green planet, orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun located far out in the backwaters of the western spiral arm of a wholly unremarkable galaxy.

There is no ‘ultimate mystery’.

It, like Apollo’s chariot and the Great Green Arkleseizure, is a mere work of fiction, a human fabrication. It is a failed attempt to explain what once seemed utterly inexplicable, one that many people still cling to for fear of confronting the truth and taking on full responsibility for their own existence and, particularly, their own, entirely human, limitations, and one which a privilege few continue to promote and defend because it provides them a status and a position of authority within human society that they might not otherwise have attained by honest means.

Evolution exposes religion for what it is, a fraud of almost unimaginable scale and breathtaking chutzpah, and it is precisely the fear of that exposure that prompts some to seek to repress Darwin’s ideas and others to attempt to artifically limit their scope and/or suborn them to their own cause.

Rolling back the boundaries of ‘god’ create a problem for religion because the less that ‘god’ is seen to do in the universe, the fewer bargaining chips religion has available to it to buy the loyalties of its followers. It actually pretty easy to sell people the idea of propitiating an unseen supernatural being if you can convince them that, if they don’t, the sun might not rise in the morning or the mountain they live on might spew out molten lava and destryo their home and family. Pulling off the same trick when all you’ve got to sell is the vague notion that, for discernable reason, the universe in which we live is all part of some unfathomable ‘grand plan’ in which we can never understand our own part, is an altogether different proposition but one that was at least moderately sustainable back in the relatively days when most people lived in communities that we’re more less isolated from even their nearest neighbours and everyone had to rely on word of mouth to find out what was going on in the world outside their immediate environment.

Selling people the idea that a supernatural agency was still actively intervening in the world remained fairly easy for as long as the majority of people had rely on stories told by others – you only had to tell them a miracle had taken place somewhere else and rely on the fact that they were almost certain never to encounter an eye-witness to the supposed event, not to mention, of course, that if you were quick enough off the mark then even a local event that was sufficiently unusual and seemingly inexplicable, could be sold to the ignorant and unwary as proof of either divine intervention or, more commonly, retribution.

The threshold of the miraculous was once extremely low, until science started pushing up the evidential bar and advances in transportation and communications technology meant that most people no longer hand to rely solely on uncorroborated and unreliable third-hand accounts of far-away even in lieu of factual news reporting. The absence of the miraculous from everyday life is perhaps the least surprising thing of all about modern religious experience and the most obvious indicator that something is amiss with the claims made by orthodox religion, or it would be were it not for the fact that, as it always does when the real world intrudes on carefully protected sphere of ignorance, religion responded by redefining its view of the miraculous in terms of abstract sensations, e.g. joy, ‘rapture’, and away from tangible events of a kind that could be investigated by rational means.

And if even that fails to stem the tide of rational scepticism? What then?

Well, you can always lie about your opponents, twist and misrepresent their arguments and, if that’s still not enough, resort to outright fearmongering and threats of eternal damnation in order to keep the faithful from any kind of corrosive exposure to new, rational ideas.

Theos, naturally, leaves the fearmongering and threats of damnation to its own religions ultra-conservative, creationist fringe, which also serves a useful purpose by providing and extreme position against which it can juxtapose and attempt to triangulate the views of its secular opponents, creating a false picture in which Dawkins, in this case, is presented as being in polar opposition to the creationist position and, as such, occupying a position in the overall debate that is no less extreme.

This is complete and utter rubbish, and a wholesale misrepresentation of the truth.

Dawkins may give the outward appearance of having adopted an extreme position in the debate due to his willingness to engage in polemical debate and his unwillingness to abide by the boundaries that religion thought it had safely established and believes itself, wrongly, to be entitled to but as a scientist and a Darwinian his views on evolution and its philosophical implications are absolutely within the mainstream of scientific thought. He does, admitted, have his share of opponents within the scientific community who are not, themselves, out and out creationists.

Many of these, like Michael Poole, are themselves religious believers, albeit of a more moderate disposition when it comes to the truth of evolution. Other’s follow a different, primarily secular, credo but arrive at broadly similar outlook due to their being influenced by positivism and/or one of many ideological offshoots of which Marxism is one of the more obvious ‘players’. What all these outlooks share is a belief, whether founded on religion or ideology, in the perfectibility of humanity and in the inevitability of ‘progress’. The belief that we are all, as humans and as members of a human society, evolving inexorably towards a ‘defined’ endpoint or goal, be that a religious goal – salvation – or a socio-political one, an enlightened, utopian future. As such their objection is not so much predicated on a dislike of the biological implications of NeoDarwinian evolution, providing these are not expressed in strong deterministic terms when discussing the relationship between biology, evolution and human behaviour, but on a deep seated dislike of the application of Darwinian ideas outside the realms of the biological sciences, i.e. as an explanation for human social and cultural evolution, which they believe to be directed by some kind of ‘higher’ force, by that a fully supernatural agent or an abstract belief in ‘humanity’ and ‘progress as inherently benevolent social and cultural forces.

Dawkins offends such sensibilities simply because he points out, quite correctly, that evolution in no sense provides and guarantee of directionality. We are, quite literally, an ‘accident’ of evolution in the clear and simple sense that from the very earliest beginnings of life on earth, the first organic chemical compounds, the first amino acids, the first nucleic acids and the first proteins, there is nothing whatsoever in the process of evolution that offers any guarantee that it will arrive, in the fullness of time, at us – human beings.

We are the most recent end-product of long series of accumulated random events. some biological, some geological and some even cosmological, and its this that demonstrates the fallacy of postulating the existence of nominally non-interventionist but omnipresent ‘god’ who’s role in ‘creation’ was somehow confined either to fine-tuning the conditions at very beginning of the universe or who, somewhat more recently in cosmological, set in train thed process of life but then stepped back and allowed evolution to carry out all the donkey work leading up to us. The NeoDarwinian synthesis, alone, may not absolutely rule out the existence of such a hypothetical supernatural agent but the combination of evolution and quantum mechanic, specifically Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle does.

The uncertainty principle precludes the possibility of any entity that is not ubiquitous in its knowledge, understanding and control of the universe right down to the sub atomic level generating the precise arrangement of random events necessary to arrive, after the space of either 14 billion or 4.5 billion years depending, on your preferred starting point, at the existence of a small blue-green planet orbiting a yellow star on which, at this precise moment, a human being is explaining precisely why the idea of  non-interventionist god who takes a direct interest in the human race is entirely meaningless.

The uncertainty principle is the clincher in the sense that it places a clear limit on the nature of ‘god’ if one wishes to believe that such an supernatural entity exists. If we reject the creationist view that the earth, the universe and everything in it was created out of nothing in its more or less present state, give or take 6,000 years or so of wear and tear, then incredibly complex sequence of events necessary to get from the ‘creation’ of the universe via the Big Bang to where we are now can only have come about via either, from our point of view, an entirely fortuitous sequence of random events any one of which, had it spawned a different outcome, might mean that I wouldn’t be here to write this, and you wouldn’t be here to read it or because the entire universe and everything in it, to a subatomic level, is being directed but a truly omnipotent and omniscient supernatural agency.

Thanks to Heisenberg, there is no middle ground and no room for compromise. We must either have the god of Calvin and a universe in which nothing occurs but by the will of god, in which case we might as well forget all about any ideas of free will, moral agency and, if you believe in such things, salvation…

When we attribute prescience to God, we mean that all things always were, and ever continue, under his eye; that to his knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present, and indeed so present, that it is not merely the idea of them that is before him (as those objects are which we retain in our memory), but that he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection. This prescience extends to the whole circuit of the world, and to all creatures. By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.

Institutes of Religion, Book III, Chapter XXI

…or we can, at best, argue for a wholly non-interventionist deist ‘god’ who takes no active role and, for all we can sure of, no interest in our tiny little corner of the universe, and if that is all there is by way of a supernatural agency moving on the face of the universe then why should we be the slightest bit concerned as to their motives, purpose or opinions.

Such a ‘god’ might as well not exist for all the difference their existence makes to our own and, as such, their existence or otherwise is a complete irrelevance. We gain nothing whatsoever from harbouring a belief in such a god and we lose nothing but an unnecessary and irrelevant superstition if we take the view that no such entity exists.

It is precisely the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory, and because it has such profound philosophical implication, that even relatively moderate Christian theologians and think-tanks, like Theos, are now becoming increasingly desperate in their attempts to confine evolutionary theory into a neat list scientific box and limit is scope solely to the domain of the biological sciences. This is alluded to in the third quotation cited above but made much more explicit in Nick Spencer’s article on Comment is Free, which accompanied the launch of the report:

But most people do not actively reject evolution – they are simply sceptical about it. And the reason for their scepticism appears to lie in the fact that too many encounter Darwinism not as an elegant, parsimonious and well-evidenced scientific theory, but as a quasi-metaphysical one, an outlook on life that has become inextricably linked, through the purple prose of its most eloquent modern proponents, with reductionism, nihilism, atheism, and amorality.

According to this understanding of Darwinism, morality (in as far as we can still talk about it) becomes calculating and fundamentally self-interested, ethical systems arbitrary, agency an illusion, human beings accidental and irrelevant, the human mind “a habitat for memes”, the universe no more than “blind forces and physical replication”, and God a nonsense.

That’s quite a litany of misrepresentation to unpick but let’s give it a go.

To put this issue in its proper context, the relatively recent development of the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary neuroscience, and the realisation that human culture and society is, itself, a powerful evolutionary force, are the main cause in the breakdown of moderate Christianity century old accommodation with Darwinian evolutionary theory. Evolution as pure biological force is fine and became entirely unthreatening no soon as the major Christian churches succeeded in moving their own goalposts, yet again, and decided to treat the creation story in Genesis as a metaphor rather than as a literal account of an actual historical event.

They genuinely thought that they were safe… until biologists began to take an interest in the role that evolution played in shaping human behaviour, the way in which we think, see the world and interact with each other and got over their initial crude fascination with Herbert Spencer’s now long discredited idea of ‘Social Darwinism’.

This is the ‘quasi-metaphysical’ side of Darwinian theory that Spencer would rather we didn’t contemplate and against which he lays out the usual, well-rehearsed but ultimately shoddy lines of argument.

It is not, Spencer contend, the Darwinism that Darwin himself espoused – to which the answer is ‘so what?’

Neither, in purely biological terms, is the full NeoDarwinian synthesis, which integrates Darwin’s ideas with our modern understanding of genetics, which was unavailable to Darwin at the time he wrote ‘On the Origin of Species…’

Darwin’s original theory is incomplete because he lacked any concrete knowledge of the unit of heredity, the gene, that provides the complete picture of evolution found in the NeoDarwinian synthesis, although Darwin statute as a scientist makes its a certainty that had he had access to the work of Mendel or Crick and Watson, at the time he set out his own theory, he would have arrived at what we, today, call the NeoDarwinian synthesis.

To seek to reject, outright, the philosophical implications of the NeoDarwinian synthesis simply because Darwin, himself, lacked the additional information necessary to arrive at the same conclusions as modern evolutionary biologists, like Richard Dawkins, is akin to rejecting Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity, which account for gravity in terms of the curvature of space-time, for no better reason that the fact that Newton hadn’t thought of them.

Its a thoroughly ridiculous line of argument based on the most abject form of intellectual dishonesty. Its also an argument that is entirely in keeping with the backward looking nature of the theological mindset identified by Anthony O’Hear. Having found a way to accommodate Darwin’s original theory in their archaic ‘revealed truth’, theologians now demand that scientist cease their exploration of the implications of Darwin’s ideas and confine their inquiries only to those areas of Darwinian theory that fit in with their own accommodation. Having created their safe little box to put Darwin’s work in, they now demand that everyone else work exclusively within that box and avoid any further encroachment on the protected realm of ignorance that they rely on to sustain their faith.

Spencer’s claim that Darwinism has been linked, through its modern proponents with ‘reductionism, nihilism, atheism, and amorality’ is no more than a pick’n’mix exercise in lighting strawmen.

Reductionism is used here in the slippery and tendentious sense identified by both Daniel Dennety and Stephen Pinker, i.e. as a means of expressing a personal distaste for application of Darwinian ideas in intellectual inquiries that extend beyond his personal comfort zone rather than as a coherent criticism of NeoDarwinian evolutionary theory. Scientific reductionism is a perfectly respectable scientific methodology, albeit one that can sometimes prove problematic if taken too far. Used inappropriately, scientific reductionism can act  to limit our understanding of complex systems and this is a valid criticism were it the actual context in which Spencer were using the term, but in this case its perfectly apparent that the term is being deployed in the manner suggested by Dennett, as a way of salvaging some sense of a higher purpose to life in the form of a supernatural intervention.

The association with atheism is, as I see it, less a flaw in the presentation of Darwinian ideas and more, as I’ve already explained, a feature. It is what comes of developing a full understanding the implications of NeoDarwinian theory and what it tells us about our own origins and those of Life on Earth.

As for associating Darwin with nihilism and amorality, this is mere slander, not to mention a rather breathtaking display of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty on Spencer’s part.

I’ll give Spencer, he’s got some balls throwing that argument into the pot when he must know, perfectly well, that any association between Darwinism and nihilism/amorality is both a matter of guilt by association with atheism and the sole and exclusion product of slanderous accusations and misrepresentation promulgated by those members of his own faith who routine dissolve in paroxisms of existential horror at the mere suggestion that human being might be capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong, or facing the universe with an optimistic disposition, without their believing, also, that the ‘right kind’ of incorporeal sky-fairy is watching their every move on his celestial CCTV system.

All that’s left, by this point, is for Spencer to finish off his dive for the intellectual gutter by fundamental misrepresenting Dawkins both in terms of the direct meaning of his work (and words) and their philosophical implications.

It is, in all respects, a quite fascinating exercise in sophistry and hypocrisy. Dawkins is ‘criticised’ for referring to humans as ‘robots’ and ”survival machines’, drawing on comments made in ‘River Out of Eden’ but nowhere does Spencer acknowledge the fact that Dawkins was, and continues to this day, to use such imagery simply as a metaphor, a means of explaining the world from a ‘gene’s eye view, a position that is necessarily very different from our conscious perception of our own nature.

If we assume that Spencer is not, personally, a young-earth creationist and, therefore, treats the biblical creation myth contained in first chapters of Genesis as a legend and a metaphor, then it would be reasonable to assume that he might well be offended were I simply to assume that he believes in Genesis as a matter of literal truth and historical fact and comment on his views accordingly. He might even complain that such a view of his personal beliefs is unfair and unrepresentative of the truth, particular as he sets up creationism, in this article and in the report, as one of the two ‘extremes’ from which he professes to want to ‘rescue’ Darwin.

That being the case, one might have expected him to afford Dawkins the same basic courtesies and provide a fair account of his opinions, one that acknowledges his use of metaphors and analogies as a means of explaining what may, to some – even those of an open mind – seem to be some pretty counterintuitive ideas.

Unfortunately, courtesies of that kind fail to fit in with the overriding objective of the report, that of trying to preparing the ground for a wedge strategy premised on the entirely fictional notion that by confining Darwin’s ideas to a theologically comfortable box, he is somehow ‘rescuing’ Darwin from both the creationists and the atheists.

But that’s not what this is about at all. The real purpose here is that of trying to ‘rescue’ religion, his religion, from the profound and deeply disruptive implications of Darwin’s ideas.

Spencer claims that Darwinism leads inexorably to a form of morality that is calculating and fundamentally self interested – it doesn’t. In fact few human traits have attracted more attention amongst evolutionary biologists, in the last thirty years, than our capacity for altruism. Humans are fundamentally social animals and, as such, a capacity of for altrusitic behaviour is absolutely necessary both as a aide to survival and a means of successfully navigating the social environment in which we live.

He claims that Darwinism rendered ethical systems arbitrary and agency an illusion – he talking complete and utter rubbish. An essentially ‘Darwinian’ account of the development and evolution of morality and ethics was published more than two hundred and fifty years ago, around a century before  the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. It can be found in the works of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who also managed to bury the argument from design long before Darwin nailed down the lid on it. Hume’s view of ethics and morality is sufficiently compatible with the Darwinian view one arrives at if one considers the full implications of evolutionary theory that one can easy see Darwin as having provided the empirical evidence that vindicates and validated Hume’s view of human nature.

Such a view presents no problems, whatsoever, to those of us who view humans and complex and often contradictory social animals but it clearly gives Spencer an attack of the hives for reasons that become clear in these remarks, taken from his CiF article.

Evolution is perfectly compatible with belief in God, in human uniqueness, and with absolute morality.

Unfortunately, as anyone who’s ever read the Bible should be perfectly aware, if there’s one thing that Judeo-Christian tradition isn’t perfectly compatible with its the idea of ‘absolute morality’.

It was, after all, the same ‘god’ (version 1.0, aka Jehovah) who moves seemlessless through the Old Testament, instructing the Jews, in one breath (and set of stone tablets) that they ‘shalt not kill’ and in the next instructing them to commit genocide – and that’s just when he can;t be bothered to pop down and give them helping hand by orchestrating the slaughter of their enemies himself.

And what of version 2.0, the post-Jesus edition. How did Christianity get from Jesus’s command to ‘love thy neighbour’ to Paul’s revised version, ‘except if they’re gay, in which case feel free to persecute the hell out of them’?

If the Bible provides a guide to absolute morality then the Christian notion of absolute morality must be rather like the pirate code – more sort of guidelines.

Two things are evident from Spencer’s remarks, as from Theos’ report and from every single attempt made, as yet, to rebut Dawkin’s arguments and those of his contempories (Dennett et al) and sources.

1. They don’t understand the NeoDarwinian synthesis, and

2. They don’t want to understand the NeoDarwinian synthesis for fear of the corrosive effect such an understand would have on the belief that they, and others, are somehow guided through life by a supernatural agency.

What they do understand is that the ever evolving NeoDarwinian synthesis is butressed and supported, in part due to the efforts of its opponents to suppress its implications, by a weight of supporting and corroborating evidence of unparallelled depth.

They, on the other hand, have only a 1700 year old collection of Indo-European folk tales on which to base their belief in a universal supernatural agency, absolute morality and the suggestion both that the universe – all 4.2 x 1069 cubic miles of it – has a defined purpose and that ourselves and miniscule area of it we occupy are somehow of central importance to this alleged purpose  – a set of stories for which there is no more substantive corroborating evidence for the historical existence of almost all of its main protagonists, including Jesus, Moses and Abraham, than there is for the existence of Gandalf, Tom Sawyer and Luke Skywalker.

Neither Theos, nor the funder of this research, the Templeton Foundation, are genuine interesting in ‘rescuing’ Darwin, they’re merely seeking a way to persuade the public to stick with their preferred theologically-friendly, pre-packaged version of evolution for fear that should the full version escape from the box, it’ll be god they’ll need to trying rescue in a venture that’s doomed to failure.

That’s theology for you, a realm populated by small minds as fully befits a god whose been shrinking for the last three centuries in the face of genuine intellectual inquiry and who, know, looks to be well on the way to becoming no more significant that Terry Pratchett’s ‘Oh-God of Hangovers’ before too long.

15 thoughts on “Small Gods

  1. That last paragraph is such an unacceptable generalisation i felt i had to comment. I believe i’ve made the point before, but theology is hugely more complex and developed than either you or any of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) have given it credit for. But why does that matter?

    Well for starters, it means you’re attacking a straw man, as anyone who’s done so much as a Philosophy AS-level can tell you. When you consider that theology includes people like Don Cupitt – an avowed Christian, but one who does not believe in God, at least in so far as we usually understand the term – and Rudolf Bultmann – who believes most of the Bible is junk of little use to us – it becomes plain that they’re not all trying to defend pre-established beliefs so much as enhance their understanding of what God could and could not be. Granted, most people haven’t done Philosophy AS-level, and it’s always worth taking on the undeveloped beliefs of your average religious believer, but – in my opinion – always in the spirit of open-minded debate.

    The problem with New Atheism is that it tends to limit debate by claiming that the arguments for God are limited to the stuff they engage with in their books. In fact, in academic circles and sixth form classrooms, the debate goes on at a much higher level. If The God Delusion spent 500 pages explaining how unsophisticated your average God debate is and giving a taste of the more complex stuff out there, i’d support it. Unfortunately it doesn’t; Dawkins pretends that he’s won the argument over God’s existence throughout the book, when (considering he had a post at New College, Oxford for a while) he has almost certainly encountered much more sophisticated arguments for God’s existence than the ones he engages with in his book.

    The net result of all this is that the New Atheists and anyone who generally buys their ‘no bullshit’ bullshit simply alienate anyone who’s got even a basic grasp of rigourous philosophy, don’t convince many religious believers (who just dig themselves in further in the face of such attacks) and end up only satisfying themselves.

  2. I haven’t had time to read your post properly, Unity, but why drag in Pratchett? Hogfather is in my view markedly inferior, though in parts funnier, than Small Gods, which is itself a very odd book to nod to given the tone of what you write. Cf. Om’s amused fondness, both as turtle and repowered deity, for Simony. Also, a key plot point of Hogfather is, of course, belief…

    And, though I really shouldn’t need to say this: I’m a nominal scientist and a confirmed atheist. Theism is the least interesting, and for most people the least relevant part, of religion. Arguing against the former to condemn the vices of the latter has always left me a bit cold.

    Oh, and Whig History. (Sorry for the disjointed response; perhaps I’ll return with something more coherent and falsifiable.)

  3. Carrion:

    First, let’s but The God Delusion in its proper perspective. It’s a popular science book and, as such, it provides a decent synopsis of the arguments against the existence of god and a fairly copious set of references for anyone who wants to delve into the real detail and start hitting Russell, Mackie, Hume, Dennett and the others who’ve already done the real heavy lifting.

    As for Culpitt and Bultmann, both exemplify precisely why theology is a complete nonsense.

    Culpitt has described himself as a ‘Christian non-realirt’ on the basis that he adhere to certain Christian spiritual practices and tries to live by the Christian ethical code but doesn’t believe in the metaphysical such as Christ and God, which makes him, what? Atheist? Agnostic? So wedded to his received Christian upbringing that he can’t quite managed the mental leap necessary to leave it fully behind.

    As for Bultmann, his view of Jesus as Hellenic magician points only to something we already know to be true, that Paul and his followers consciously adapted and altered their brand of early Christianity in order to make it palatable to a Hellenic and, subsequently, Roman audience by incorporating mythic elements from the Hellenic/Roman traditions.

    That’s been Christianity’s modus operandi through out its entire history – embrace and extend. It’s succeeded in supplanting other pagan traditions by embracing them, incorporating their festivals into its own canon and by Christianising their deities as saint, after providing a suitably pious cover story. We can still see this process happening today in Catholicism’s assimilation of Voudoun, Santeria and a range of indiginous African cult traditions.

    The lesson for any student of philosophy is simple that its never a good idea to confuse complexity and apparent sophistication with veracity – the clues in the word, itself, the Greek root of ‘sophisticated’ is soph

  4. TMCM:

    The relevance of Pratchett, in this case, is simply that his Death books, and Small Gods, are, in their own way, quite profound little satires on the nature of religious belief much as is Adam’s Electric Monk in the Dirk Gently books.

    I’d agree that Small Gods is a long way from his best work – the one-off stories have always been rather uneven for all that Pyramids is one his absolute best. As for Hogfather, its not a bad novel by any means but it rather pales when compared to Mort, much as Lord and Ladies and, particular Maskerade failed to live up to the standard of Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad.

  5. Hi Unity,
    I only read the Holistic Detective Agency last year, and actually found the Monk a nice joke stretched out too much to make a point. But perhaps that’s due to the influence of Adams’ book (the old chestnut about Hamlet being full of cliches).

    We may have crossed wires here. Small Gods is in fact one of my favourites, though it’s not clear if it’s technically his best. Lords and Ladies is much better than Wyrd Sisters, though there’s a case that Witches Abroad has a more powerful central theme and dramatic core. (Of course L&L is about Magrat; WA, about Granny.)

    I brought it up since Small Gods is IMHO a very nice satire on religion and belief, the two differentiated very clearly in the key plot device. Your use of it as a post title made me expect an allusion to that book’s themes, whereas what you wrote should really have been titled Electric Monks.

    I am in a slight devil’s advocate mood as I write, having recently been involved in some fruitless email exchanges with a fellow mathematician who seemed very exercised about whether a certain axiom, established as standard in several topics, was “really true”. Ultimate causes just aren’t a very interesting argument at all, and I personally think the study of belief systems is potentially very interesting. Whether you call it theology, history or anthropology isn’t.

    Incidentally, your quotes puzzle me. F’r instance:

    “And the reason for their scepticism appears to lie in the fact that too many encounter Darwinism not as an elegant, parsimonious and well-evidenced scientific theory, but as a quasi-metaphysical one, an outlook on life that has become inextricably linked, through the purple prose of its most eloquent modern proponents, with reductionism, nihilism, atheism, and amorality.”

    Now without knowing anything about the author, I might be tempted to agree with that sentiment — even if it is tendentious rhetoric. I think that the sentence quoted is in itself not far wide of the mark, at least if you don’t count the Blind Watchmaker as modern. My own personal prejudice is that science shouldn’t be sold as “the thing that eliminates the need for a God” (even if it does that); it should be sold as “the thing that allows people to design and use dialysis machines”.

  6. You are right that he goes on to misrepresent. mind. Who apart from Blackmore still goes on about memes in the original, precise, scientific sense of the word? And the failure by the author acknowledge Mendelian genetics as the engine for what-I-am-not-going-to-call-neo-Darwinism is getting boring as an evasive tactic.

    It isn’t clear what he or you mean by absolute morality, though. Carrion? if you’re still reading, any thoughts? It sounds like a phrase with a very specific cultural/historic connotation.

  7. It’s hardly Whig history to reflect on the fact that Darwin’s ideas have had a similar impact on supernaturalism as those of earlier scientists who’s discoveries challenged established dogma.


  8. Very good article, Unity. One thing…

    “… most people no longer hand to rely solely on uncorroborated and unreliable third-hand accounts of far-away even in lieu of factual news reporting.”

    Unless they read the News of the World…



  9. As with many such questions a lot turns on the definition of the word God. Defenders now generally define it as the guy who created the universe but this is a very Christian & modern definition – neither Zeus nor Odin were the creators. Throughout most of history, including Chritian until modern times the prime atribute of God has been a much more utilitarian one – he/she is the one who answers prayers. People did not pray to the most powerful god (or intervening saint) but to the one most likely to answer.

    Even creationists don’t believe in that one anymore & indeed it is simple to prove there is no such being since any assurance company would refuse to issue life assurance on followers of a religion who had a statisticaly measurable number of prayers answered.

    I have written on why, by Occam’s Razor the scientific working assumption must be atheism, though it cannot be proven in absolute terms.

  10. thanks RJA – it’s about time someone pointed out that Dawkins is hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to theology and philosophy. his rtants remind me of the rants on the other side of the fence – claiming to disprove evolution by saying that Haeckel faked a diagram of foetuses. And so many other notable scientists are completely out of their depth when talking of these things – Hawking for example in his fatuous book. Why don’t they stick to their equations and flashing lights and leave thinking to people with the appropriate equipment.

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