Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 7, 2011

Christopher Lane has recently released a book, The Age of Doubt, on doubt and agnosticism (surprise!). He’s adapted a chapter for New Humanist (UK), which I’ve excerpted below. But first, for those who saw my last post, an update on my sister, Carol.

Carol had her surgery yesterday, and the news post-op is much better than we thought. The colon tumor has been removed, and the ??? in her ovary was not, in fact, cancer. It was removed and her ovary is still intact. No other new signs of cancer were found, so that’s good news too.

She’s walking around a lot today, as that’s a requirement to aid the healing of the colon. Apparently it heals very fast, perhaps in 48 hours. In a couple of weeks she’ll be starting chemotherapy to get the small tumors in her liver. So all in all, the news is very positive.

That’s the hope. Here’s Christopher Lane on doubt:

Our culture has become impoverished by certainty. In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty; yet the crises that preoccupy us – including religious extremism – demand that we tolerate increasing amounts of it.

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

Ironically, it was the Victorians, often dismissed as prudish and uptight, who led the way to an open-mindedness and engagement with ambiguity that stands in stark contrast to the impoverishment of contemporary thinking about religious doubt and belief.

Fifteen years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the Scottish editor, writer, and publisher Robert Chambers anonymously brought out a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In it he argued that the progressive evolution of species was fully compatible with God-given laws. Vestiges reached a transatlantic and cross-European audience far larger than David Hume could secure with broadly compatible claims in the mid-18th century. Among Chambers’ fascinated, sometimes horrified, readers were Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Darwin. The book became a widespread topic of conversation across Britain in particular.
[Interesting: Darwin wasn’t the first to have a concept of evolution, only one of the first to come up with a successful model of how it might work. Apart from Chambers, there was another chap who’s often regarded as a co-inventor of evolution, whose name escapes me. Can anyone remind me?]


[As a sociologist, I find Herbet Spencer’s inclusion illuminating:] One of the most prominent thinkers to advance [the agnostic] claim was Herbert Spencer. The polymath sociologist, philosopher and biologist argued in First Principles (1862) that religion and science must grapple with “the Unknowable”, a blind spot in human understanding that faith had once seemed to fill.

Despite his forceful defence of Darwin and agnosticism, however, [Thomas] Huxley did not embrace full-blown atheism. He acknowledged “a pretty strong conviction that the problem [of existence] was insoluble”, a position that asks doubt and intellectual inquiry to replace hedging, complacency and anything resembling easy acquiescence.

A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Lane’s full essay is here and the book The Age of Doubt is at Amazon.

Even in the last day I’ve had new subscribers to this blog– thankyou. It really flatters me that forty-five people value my thoughts enough to want to be updated when there’s something new. If you haven’t yet subscribed, it’s easy, just enter your email in the box at the left.

Doubt, Hope; let me conclude with the trivial. Today we hired a car seat for the impending arrival of baby (7 weeks or so away), test played the new board game my son Master T is working on and I bought some new clothes. It’s strange how new clothes can make one feel so much better. Not that I was feeling bad, I’m refreshingly happy these days. (Note to self: Get new depression meds on Monday.) Sometimes maybe it’s best to ignore the big picture and enjoy the small things in life.

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Split Enz | Poor Boy

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Evolution, Creation and Christianity

Posted by spritzophrenia on July 24, 2010

I had to laugh at this genuine tweet from today, “The Theory of Evaluation is a lie that is passed off as TRUTH.” A comment on a YouTube video also amused me: “Brian, do you realise how creationist your idea is?” Oh noes – A new insult!

Evolution and God cartoon

Do you groan when the so-called creation versus evolution debate comes up? I do. What pushes my buttons most is the popular impression there is only one Christian perspective on science and the Bible.

This post is a plea for charity, and a plea for awareness that there are multiple views of how God might have generated the world, held by genuine people of faith[1], and by genuine scientists. I’m tired of having the alternatives shouted down. Hopefully it’s only a minority who proclaim that if you’re not with them, you’re not a true believer ™ .

While I often call myself an open agnostic, today I’m wearing my “Let’s assume Christianity is true” hat. If you’re not really interested, just stop reading here and enjoy the music:

La Roux | In For The Kill (Skream remix)

***

I’ve never accepted the earth is young. There is a grandeur to the thought of the Spirit brooding over the eons of Earth, patiently coaxing her into life, exulting in each step and life form. Billions of years for God’s work of art to coalesce. Mainstream science teaches an ancient universe, but there are also many deeply committed Christians who agree.

Evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm wrote of his “conviction that the fundamental problem of Christianity in biology is not really evolution but a philosophy of biology” [2]. I suspect many secular biologists could also do with a good philosophy of biology, an area too easily neglected in the grinding process of long lab hours while earning one’s PhD. While now over fifty years old, Ramm’s “epochal work” is still worth a read as a foundation to thinking in this area.

So what are some Christian views on science and scripture? Years ago, I concluded there are about seven major approaches that are held, depending on how we categorise and name them. Each have theological views about how to interpret Genesis and scientific views about how the natural world came to be.

However, after much wrestling with this post, I decided to abandon any attempt to create the Mother of All Summaries, and concentrate on a few ideas that interest me right now. There’s a useful comparison table here which unfortunately still neglects some views. Here’s another useful summary.

Let’s start with
Old Earth Views
Putting it simply, the evidence from geology and a number of other sources for dating the universe is overwhelming. For the purposes of this post I’m going to take this as a given. One of these Old-Earth creation views is:

Theistic Evolution
There are plenty of Christians who accept biological evolution in some form, and reconcile it with their faith. Even Bible-believing born-again types. See for example, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?, Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin, many of the eminent scientists in this book and an increasing number of other books. There are some common responses concerned with the outcomes of theistic evolution – for example, Does it destroy belief in a literal Adam and Eve?, and Doesn’t Genesis teach there was no pain and suffering until the fall, and therefore evolution cannot have been the mechanism? I don’t think these need be problems (see here), and I was skeptical about evolution for many years. I’m sure you want to know whether I’m still skeptical now, right? Let me know if you want me to post about this. Keepin’ this short, remember?

Some will immediately demonise anyone who even suggests theistic evolution, and argue for some kind of atheist conspiracy theory. I’m not an atheist, remember? A few of these people are probably in the Intelligent Design movement. I hesitate to mention Intelligent Design as I’m out of touch with it. It may be better categorized as a social-political movement rather than a distinct new interpretation. Broadly speaking, Intelligent Design proponents believe in an old Earth and may not require literal interpretations of Genesis, which is at least a step in the right direction, in my view. Speaking of which, …

Non-Literal Interpretations
I once hosted a talk by a friend who is both a working scientist with a PhD in chemistry and a Pentecostal minister. He proposed that a good look at the literary forms in Genesis reveals interesting things. These approaches can be loosely lumped together as the Literary Framework view.

This view says that Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 give a figurative framework— a topical and non-sequential account of creation—but not necessarily an historical account of the order of the creative process. And so it tells us we have structure— we have order in the account of Genesis Chapter One, but the structure does not correspond to the historical order. We are not to take the structure literally, yet we are not to hear a non-literal or a mythological reading of the text.” from Dr Guy Waters’ Four Prominent Interpretations .

I want to mention UK physicist Alan Hayward‘s “Fiat creation” idea because it hasn’t had enough attention in my view [2]. I’d prefer to use another name as “Fiat creation” is also used by other viewpoints. Also, I can’t help thinking about Italian cars.

Fiat car

Maybe we could call it
Spoken Word Creation?
I’m writing this from memory and summarising Hayward’s more elegant prose. As I recall, Hayward notes that the original Hebrew of Genesis doesn’t have punctuation (and certainly not verse numbers) and so scholars infer where to put punctuation as a part of the translation process. This also includes deciding where poetic or liturgic language appears. Modern translations usually lay out poetry in a slightly different format to indicate this – see the Psalms, for example.

Hayward suggests it is conceptually possible to read Genesis 1 as if it includes parentheses. For example:

And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.
(God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness he called night. )
And there was evening, and there was morning— the first day.

And God said, Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.
(So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse sky. )
And there was evening, and there was morning— the second day.

And God said, Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear. And it was so.
(God called the dry ground land, and the gathered waters he called seas. And God saw that it was good.)
Then God said, Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds. And it was so.
(The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.)
And there was evening, and there was morning— the third day.

The phrases in bold above are what God spoke over the six day period. The passages I’ve put in parentheses are a comment on the fiats, so to speak. There are much more elegant treatments of the poetry in Genesis 1, but hopefully you get the point.

This interpretation focuses on the idea that what God speaks, will inevitably happen. It does not require the outcome to occur immediately. In other words, the Genesis account is focused on God’s speaking (“fiats”), not on how the results of God’s spoken will are worked out through history. Interestingly, this view allows a believer to affirm that God created in a literal six days. It is the six days of God speaking that is the focus, the details of how it actually came to be can be left to science.

In the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I got to say about that”.

***

This post is a plea for charity, and a plea for awareness that there are multiple views of how God might have generated the world, held by genuine Christians, and by genuine scientists[4]. I’d like to hear your opinion. Here’s my comment guidelines.

Notes
1. My apologies to Jews, Muslims and other theists, I’m limiting myself to Christian creation views here. Many of the theistic creation views held by Jews and Muslims seem to be comfortable with an old earth and evolution. All three faiths have Genesis in common, although it’s reported many Muslims regard Genesis as a corrupted version of God’s message.
2. Ramm p 179
3.Alan Hayward | Creation and Evolution: Rethinking the Evidence from Science and the Bible (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005) seems to be a reprint of Hayward’s 1995 work which I understand did not receive the attention it deserved in the USA because he heavily criticises young earth creation theories. Though slightly out of date now, I still believe it’s one of the best books written about this topic.
4. You could look at the UK Christians in Science Association and the far-too-short Wikipedia list.

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