Sunday, April 10, 2016

Two Evangelicals and a Fundamentalist

Denis Alexander
At the end of my visit to Denis Alexander's talk at Norwich Cathedral I purchased a copy of his book Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? This book is largely meant for Christians and is more or less Alexander's attempt to justify his position before that audience.  I've only read the first 42 pages but I would like to make some remarks on the story so far, particularly on his chapter The Biblical Doctrine of Creation.

In the first sentence of chapter 1 Alexander rightly identifies himself as a creationist.

All Christians are by definition, creationists. We cannot come to know God personally by faith without also believing that he is creator of all that exists. p21

He goes on to make the usual (but needed) comments about the way word usage has meant that "creationist" is now strongly associated with six day Biblical literalism. In many ways Alexander's comments are paralleled in what Sir John Polkinghorne said when he visited Norwich Cathedral in 2010. The point is that these Christian establishment scientists see themselves as intelligent design creationists, but they would probably be very wary about the use of such terms given the shift in their societal meanings. 

So, with that introduction clarifying Alexander's position let me say something about the chapter entitled The Biblical Doctrine of Creation. On this subject I would say that Alexander is in line with my own views on the subject, views I have expressed frequently in this blog regarding the eminence and immanence of God.  Anyway, quoting Alexander:

An understanding of God that depended only on the notion of transcendence could easily degenerate into the deistic idea of a distant and remote God who winds up the universe at the beginning and then occasionally returns to intervene or meddle around with it. Such a scenario is disallowed by the Biblical insistence that God is also immanent in his creation, meaning that God is intimately involved in continued creative activity in relation to his cosmos. p37

Alexander provides Biblical support for this point of view. However, for my purposes I'll just be stating some of Alexander's conclusions and in particular his view that the concept of a quasi-autonomous "natural world" is bogus:

Once we grasp the Biblical teaching on the immanence of God in his creation, we can then understand why the Bible has no concept of 'nature' in its contemporary sense of referring to the 'natural world', for the simple reason that the term is redundant; instead it speaks of 'creation'  to refer to the complete panoply of God's activities that we as scientists struggle to describe so inadequately. 

The notion of 'nature' as a quasi independent entity was an idea inherited from Greek pagan philosophy and promoted by the eighteenth century deists. p40

I hardly need say that this has very much been my own theme in this blog. In particular I have turned round and criticized the de-facto IDists who seem stuck with a God verses nature paradigm and whenever they attempt to clarify God's involvement in creation they seem trapped by God-of-the-gaps ideas. They have encapsulated this implicit theology in the epistemology of the so-called explanatory filter. See the links at the end of this post for more on this topic.

Alexander's suggestion that envisaging only a God's of transcendence promotes a degeneration into a tinkering deistical God is borne out by an anonymous comment on one of my blog posts, a post  where I was trying to get to grips with God's immanence. What I suspected, rightly or wrongly, was that the comment had been added by a de-facto IDist: Here's the comment:

Anonymous said...
Well it could be worse, we could be dealing with Pandeism, which proposes a God that is a quite logical and scientific entity which engineered a Universe that is truly random, and lacking in any of that unacceptable tinkering....

Reading between the lines of this sarcasm I infer that in the mind of this person the concept of immanence has given way to a tinkering deistical God who occasionally messes with the "natural forces" of "chance and necessity". ("Chance and necessity" by the way is an ID cliche that is about as bogus as "natural forces"). Moreover, I suspect also that this person doesn't really understand the nature of randomness; randomness is in fact a very sophisticated form of patterning. To achieve true randomness requires (by definition) computational resources beyond those that are humanly possible.

What I would like to do now is to draw attention to the words of an evangelical atheist and a Christian fundamentalist.

Larry Moran, Darwin fan with
cuddly Darwin toy,
First the evangelical atheist, Professor Larry Moran. In this blog post of mine I made note of the good professor's enunciation of a very, very, very general definition of evolution. So general was it that it shied away from committing to any detailed mechanism of evolution; In fact so much so that even if evolution is a product of intentional and teleological forces it would still fall within Larry's definition! Of course it goes without saying that he would vehemently deny that any such forces are at work. Anyway, in my final paragraph of the post I summarized the situation thus: 

That’s intriguing; so Larry accepts that the detailed engine/mechanism of evolution is a theory and not a fact! Too true! But the definition of evolution he has given is so general that it could also include changes due to the tinkerings of a homunculus intelligent designer or anything else for that matter! 

And that anything else could conceivably include my immanent visions of searching and "back loaded" information!. Presumably somebody like Alexander would have little difficulty in exploiting the scope for reading into this generalised form of evolution some means of delivering God's providence. 

OK, so that's the evangelical atheist; let's now turn to the Christian fundamentalist who makes his appearance in the comments section of the Network Norwich and Norfolk article on Alexander's visit to Norwich Cathedral. This fundamentalist, a certain Andrew Holland, speaks in the familiar spiritually incriminating terms toward those Christians who don't accept his views: Viz:

 It is a pity that Dr Alexander, a very intelligent scientist, and his 200 or so followers offer themselves up to the atheistic altar of evolution without even querying its validity. All they are doing is destroying the faith of Christians in the reliability of the Bible, God's timeless Word for humanity. …… unfortunately these people prefer to bow to their atheistic peers rather than stand against the crowd, because to do that would cost them their reputation and possibly their job.

....the historical parts of the Bible, such as Genesis, should be taken at face value, otherwise it is tantamount to calling God a liar! Thus the account of creation, Noah's flood and Jonah's adventures are accurate and can be completely trusted. They are all verified in the New Testament

What he's essentially telling us is that those Christians who don't accept the divine authority of his opinions are, without putting too fine a point on it, blaspheming the name of God. And yet even at the admission of an atheist we can see there is huge scope for interpreting generalised evolution in teleological and intentional terms. 

But here's the real rub. In the West a theological dualism reigns whereby God is set over and against his own creation. Given this theology any attempt to analytically unpack evolutionary mechanisms are seen by the Christian right** as courting mother nature rather than Father God and therefore tantamount to heresy, if not blasphemy. Unless the Christian right see God performing "supernatural magic tricks" contravening the "natural" canon of nature, such as God speaking stars into existence or tinkering around with biology, these people find it difficult to identify God's work or God's presence; for them that presence is primarily signified by spiritual fireworks and discontinuities in "nature".

Fundamentalists, by definition, are so sure that the validity of their anti-evolution, anti-old cosmos views speak for themselves that they find it difficult to accept there are expert Christians out there like Alexander who genuinely see things differently; they cannot credit that Christian scientists who must be very familiar with the evidence, can disagree with fundamentalism with intellectual integrity. Therefore, the only conclusion the fundamentalist can come to is that these scientists can't be authentic and must hide ulterior motives and/or a bad conscience.

But if we think about it this suspicious paranoia looks to be an outcome of fundamentalist epistemic arrogance. If fundamentalists like Holland believed that Alexander isn't just protecting his job but holds his views with intellectual integrity, that then puts a question mark over fundamentalist certainties. For if bright guys like Alexander can believe in the inspired word of God and yet according to yer-average-fundie get it all wrong, why shouldn't fundies also get it wrong? For may be Holland, who is far less clever, has also erred. So in order to protect their certainties and prevent undermining confidence in their own epistemology the fundamentalist is drawn toward the conclusion that many Christian scientists must knowingly be harbouring their error. The actual complexity of the evolution debate never enters the heads of the Hollands of this world; they live in a fearful world of black and whites where shadowy malevolent figures are operating behind the scenes; this is fertile ground for conspiracy theorism.

Although I tend to hard cop the likes of Holland, in the final analysis there are mitigating circumstances that need to be taken into account. The fact is we are in puzzling times as we have been for a long while (* See also my footnote on The Cosmic Perspective)  In stages, starting with the Copernican revolution and the fall of the Ptolemaic cosmos, (wo)man has had increasing difficulty in making anthropocentric and spiritual sense of the cosmos. In fact by the twentieth century the philosophical elastic had been stretched too far for some Christians. Consequently, fundamentalists attempted to reinstate man's physically central position in the cosmos, at first by shortening cosmic time scales to human historical times, thus placing humanity in a central position in the temporal sense. However, things started to go further: Out of the Young Earth stable came cosmologies like that of Russell and Lisle (of AiG) that moved toward geocentrism. Some fundamentalist Christians even went as far as to reinstate full blown geocentrism or flat earth. There has also been a recrudescence of a kind of Christian dualistic gnosticism - that great strategy which provides an existential fix for spiritual angst via an escape from the perplexing outer cosmic world into the inner light of the soul where the soothing touch of God is sought  These are coping strategies for an ostensibly problematic scientific picture which superficially at least puts man's anthropocentric ego on the back-foot. In this context fundamentalists like Holland are bad news as their lack of grasp of science is made up for by their willingness to engage in spiritual recrimination and by impugning the consciences of Christian scientists.

* The Cosmic Perspective:

** STOP PRESS: Read this comment on a UD post to see evidence of the connection between de facto ID and the extreme libertarian right. This rightwinger is borderline conspiracy theorist (But let me acknowledge that Hilter's anti-Christian fascist paganism did use, or abuse, the concept of "natural selection" to justify the holocaust)

Links on De Facto ID
De facto ID's God-of-the-Gaps (Small sample)

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