At a recent discussion of faith and evolution, I was all prepared to ask my favorite question. Then something I never expected happened. One of the panelists, Dr. Francisco Ayala, answered the question I was about to ask, and it was a good answer.
Here’s the question. Gorillas (Dr. Ayala used baboons, but I prefer gorillas because they have something of a reputation these days of being gentle giants) are infanticidal. When a male gorilla takes over a troop, the first thing he does is go around to all the nursing mothers, rip the babies from their mothers’ arms, and kill them. This is a sensible thing for the male to do from a natural selection standpoint. It sends the mothers into estrus so that he may mate with them and produce his own offspring, and of course it eliminates potential competitors who are not carrying his genes. So if you decide that “evolution is how God did it,” aren’t you giving God some pretty nasty attributes?
The reason I ask this question is perhaps a devious one.
Eugenie Scott, also on the panel, has an opposite view from mine. She stated that many times in her classes, when students learned what evolution was, they were pleasantly surprised. They’d always been told, Scott reported, that evolution meant you couldn’t believe in God. They were relieved that all evolution meant was that animals change over time.
I hold a different view. I’ve encountered many people who have no problem reconciling faith and evolution. That seems to be the popular, consensus-building, politically correct thing to do. Before last night I would have said it is misguided. I still think it is unnecessary, but Dr. Ayala’s statement made me see that, with careful (VERY careful) thought, it is possible to do so, if you really feel the need. But you have to do it just so.
Most people aren’t nearly as careful as Dr. Ayala. For most I’ve encountered, the reconciliation of faith and evolution comes from a misunderstanding of evolution. And so I feel it is important to point out just how cruel, arbitrary, and wasteful evolution is. Is the creator of this mess really the diety you want to worship? Look the natural world straight in the eye, realize that it not only has no need for a creator, but in fact shows absolutely no sign, not the slightest whiff of evidence of such a creator. Instead, it looks at every step exactly like a universe without a plan.
The alternative, I think, is dangerous. It leads to magical thinking. It leads to the idea that Mother Earth will provide. It leads to the thought that the universe would never be designed so poorly that we could be wiped out by an asteroid, or a giant volcano. It leads to the crazy idea that parents should be allowed to deny their children medical care because of religious belief. It leads to the idea that there’s some plan. But what if the only plan is the one we make ourselves?
OK, so what was Dr. Ayala’s answer. He brought up the example of babboons committing infanticide. He asked, “How could God condone such behavior?” His answer was that babboons and all other animals are not moral agents. Humans are moral agents. God gave us that, and made us different from all other animals.
It’s an interesting argument, but I don’t buy it. In some societies it is considered just fine to kill baby girls. Many cultures have practiced genocide against their neighbors. We humans have done some thoroughly nasty things.
Once again, religion has an answer. The Fall from Grace, the need for salvation. Just as with Dr. Ayala, yes, you can make the argument, but why? Why go to all the trouble and effort, to in the end get to a place where all you can say is that you believe in something for which there is (and can be) absolutely no evidence?
Science can’t disprove the existence of God. I’ll say it again. Science can’t disprove the existence of God. God could very well exist, and science could never touch her. If she can take any form you want, have any set of attributes you choose, then there’s nothing science can do to show she isn’t there. But what good is that?
The fact that I have to ask, I guess, shows that I just don’t get it.
Here’s my problem. I don’t have many skills. I’m not particularly good at math, I’m certainly not athletic, and I’m hopeless trying to fix anything. The one thing I can do is remember. In particular, I remember exactly what it was like to be eight years old. (In fact, I rather suspect that I’m still eight and that this is all just a dream from which I’ll wake up any moment now. OK, not yet.)
When I was eight, I was saved. I grew up in a family of southern baptists. One day in church, I got up and went to the altar to get saved. It felt good. But even then, deep inside, I knew. There was part of me, that deep spark inside that is the same spark I still have now, that said, “Come on! You know better than this. You know this is isn’t the way the world works. You know there’s nothing there.”
I fought it off for a while. I tried to convince myself, but deep inside I still knew. I remember so vividly the feeling, knowing that I didn’t really believe. Finally I gave up, let myself be myself.
So here’s the thing. I could go through all the arguments, I suppose. I could convince myself that, despite all the evidence that the universe is an unplanned mess, there really is a well-hidden designer running the cogs. But I still wouldn’t really believe it. And isn’t that what belief means?