randombio.com | science commentary
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Where are today's Spinoza, Teilhard de Chardin, and Altizer?

What the world needs is some wild and crazy Christianity theorizing.

O f all the sciences, biology most directly addresses what it is to be human. That's why it always seems to be at the forefront of our cultural battles. Although biologists have had to dispel attacks from many directions, such as the claim put forth by LBTGX activists of an implausibly large number of sexes, many of the criticisms have come from religion.

In the 1990s, when religious fundamentalists tried to get creationism taught in science classrooms, it drove a solid wedge between science and religion and sparked a fierce counterattack from radical atheists, who countered that the biblical account of speciation was false, and religion is a mere collection of traditional beliefs with little intellectual content. This point has been taken to extremes by some bloggers.

Sistine chapel
God handing PHS-398 government research grant forms to Adam (Sistine Chapel)

These days the main focus of religious criticism of science seems to be the following: All morality comes from God, and therefore atheists cannot be moral. Science is atheistic, and therefore science threatens morality. In other words, God created the principle of right and wrong and there is no sense of right or wrong intrinsic to the human mind.

This argument has gained traction among religious people because it serves as a justifi­cation for why we would need God. It might also be a reaction to the findings in evolutionary biology that morality, that is to say altruistic and compassionate behavior, is solidly rooted in our DNA.

Science is neither atheistic nor amoral

If people believe that life continues after death, the concepts of ghosts, demons, disem­bodied spirits, possession, and God necessarily follow. They are all necessary parts of the whole. If people stop believing in (for example) ghosts, the entire pantheon is open to doubt.

Science does not say these things are false. Science says that multiplying entities without justification is extravagant, and assuming things to be true without evidence is the path to delusion. This is not atheism, but a challenge to religion.

Many people claim that science teaches that the world is meaningless, cold, and uncaring. But it does not. Science holds that all life is precious and that diseases are harmful and need to be cured. It holds that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that the universe is beautiful, real, and important. Diseases, toxins, and nuclear reactions must be understood, by creating them in the test tube if that's what it takes. These are all value-laden propositions.

When it lives up to its ideals, science questions everything, including itself. These ideals, when imprinted on the human mind, become morality, even if they appear to be cold, hard facts. When science stops questioning, as when it calls something “settled science” or when it forms alliances with political activists, it becomes just another ideology and its authority is lost.

Natural Law vs Divine Law

We all know what natural law is. Aquinas said that good and evil are derived from the rational nature of human beings and are therefore objective and universal. We learn from our interactions with others that they feel pain, happiness, and annoyance.

This is learned empathy. There is strong evidence that empathy has a basis in neuroanatomy. When certain parts of the brain are damaged, people perceive others as mere moving objects. In other words, empathy is programmed into our brain.

The theory of altruism likewise is based on ironclad, empirical logic: if humans have a greater chance of survival in groups than as isolated individuals (for which there is ample evidence), then altruistic behavior would be strongly selected by evolution. Stated simply, groups who care and protect each other have a greater chance of surviving and passing their genes to their offspring.

The mathematics of population genetics tell us that even a slight difference in the number of surviving offspring is enough to ensure that an ‘altruism gene’ would become universal.

Thus, our genetic programming creates a basis for morality. Nature is therefore not value-neutral: whenever conscious beings are formed in nature, they automatically adopt values that reflect nature's laws. It's no coincidence that those values and those promoted by religion are so similar. Natural laws are just divine laws by another name.

There is much we don't know about why societies sometimes thrive and expand and sometimes degenerate into nihilism, crime, and corruption. But a society that degrades people's humanity will die out, not because of the wrath of God, but because of the wrath of the laws of nature. It amounts to the same thing because they are the same thing.

Religion must evolve

Religion has not yet risen to the challenge posed by science. One disadvantage is its unknowability. How can we be sure the entities postulated by religion are real?

All we know for sure is that the societies that held to those beliefs survived, while societies that did not went extinct. This doesn't tell us whether the entire hierarchy of demons, spirits, and gods is real, only that cultures that acted as if they were real survived longer. This makes them worth studying.

Another disadvantage is religion's inability to evolve. Christianity's concept of forgiveness is brilliant. Judaism has many impressive features, including its way of reasoning about right and wrong and its impressive list of various food items one can eat.

But where are all the great theorists like Teilhard de Chardin, who invented a sort of metaphysical theory of evolution, or Paul Tillich, who theorized that existence is not necessary for God, or even Thomas Altizer, who speculated that God transformed himself from a transcendent being into an immanent presence?

Baruch Spinoza, one of the most brilliant religious thinkers of all time, considered our universe as a tiny pattern on the infinite matrix of reality. Other theologists invented the concept of aseity, which is the idea that the universe would dissolve instantaneously if God were not present.

These ideas didn't weaken religion. On the contrary, they helped to give theology an intellectual respectability. Ideas will determine whether a religion can attract serious attention of intellectuals. No one expects the equivalent of M Theory, but if there's anything valuable in religion (and I think there is) it should be possible for it to evolve. Adhering to tradition for its own sake is not enough to guarantee its survival.

Creationists have taken up the challenge. They realized that the only way to convince people was to find physical evidence, so they're scouring the planet for evidence of dinosaurs with early hominids in their stomachs, and similar signs of a young Earth. So far not much success, but if they do rigorous science, science would eventually accept their findings.

Christianity was the seed from which our civilization grew. If it collapses, it will create an emotional and cultural vacuum. In its place, ideas like postmodernism and radical egalitarianism, whose purpose is to undermine our belief in ourselves, will flourish.

Science cannot fill that vacuum. There are exciting ideas in Christianity, but religious people are too cautious and perhaps too intimidated to develop them. If they don't, atheists will be justified in concluding that there is a good reason for it. They would say that thinking about religion is a waste of time because religion has no solid ground on which to build. That would be a shame.

nov 14, 2017, 7:05 am. Revised nov 15, 2017, 4:57 am

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