Just one God? No. There’s me, and I know I’ve met others…

Ha, ha! It’s always fun to kick off a blog post with a little blasphemy, eh, sensation-seekers?

I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.

I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable…

I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff, and you should glean her intent from the actual thing she wrote and not from my interpretations. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.

“Maybe there’s a God who had a hand in all of this” versus Intelligent Design™

Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

But Intelligent Design™ is a separate thing. In its specific, pseudoscientific form, is vulgar and offensively fraudulent. Its proponents desire the credibility of a scientific argument…specifically, a free pass to teach the Bible in public schools. But they don’t want to have to pay for that, in the hard currency of science: they need to present an argument that’s backed up by factual evidence, and that argument needs to be so strong that it repeatedly stands up to unbiased scientific scrutiny.

Here’s a less-controversial example. I have a belief that Audrey Munson, a popular figure model of the early 20th century, posed for a certain public sculpture here in Boston. The resemblance is uncanny, and she worked with the sculptor (Daniel “The Lincoln Memorial” Chester “in Washington, DC” French) many times, at the height of her posing career. In fact, she posed for one of his most famous works (not Lincoln).

But the timing is iffy. If I’m right, she would have posed for “Bread Upon The Waters” near the very end of her career. It was worth looking into.

The other night, I finally found a biography of Audrey Munson that included some dates. Dagnabbit: the sculptor started work on this piece a year or two after she contracted the serious illness that almost certainly ended her career as an artists’ model. It’s extremely unlikely that she could have live-posed for this sculpture.

Well, that’s the gamble of presenting a factual argument. You bet your beliefs against the house. If you lose, you’re intellectually-obligated to either abandon your belief or adjust it to suit the new facts that disproved your theory. I have to accept that I was wrong. But when French was creating this statue, Munson’s face was still in his studio, in the form of past works that she’d posed for. I know this because the studio is preserved as a museum just as he left it, and look! There she is. I now wonder if she posed for it indirectly.

Until I find something in his letters that confirms this, though, that’s just something I choose to believe. It’s not fact.

If you’re not willing to adjust or abandon your beliefs in the face of contrary objective evidence, then you’re just using the veneer of scientific argument to lay claim to a kind of credibility you haven’t earned.

That’s Intelligent Design™. It’s appropriate that I first encountered this slimy phrase in an episode of “Touched By An Angel,” back when I thought watching TV shows I hated was a worthy use of my time.

The story was pretty ghastly stuff. Adorable Christian Girl is confronted with Darwin’s theory by an Evil Atheist (not the character’s name, but on this show, the first word is implied by the second). Adorable Christian Girl brings these questions to her science teacher after class. Science Teacher urges her to do a Science Fair project on “Intelligent Design,” a tidy ziploc baggie full of bunkum that points out God’s fingerprints over everything. “See? Spiral in a seashell, spiral in the pattern of buds in a flower, spiral in DNA. Case closed: it’s all the work of the same dude. Print those photos out, glue them on posterboard, and consider the matter closed.”

Aside: The teacher is, of course, one of God’s angels in human guise. An Angel of Death, in fact, which I suppose explains his lack of accreditation as a science teacher.

I never understood how the story editor of this series made this idea of a moonlighting angel of death work. He collects the souls of the recently-departed, and also has time for light housekeeping? Is he teaching science in his spare time? Or is he like a city employee who (according to an explosive Action News 6 At Eleven Investigation) was helping his brother-in-law build a backyard deck during hours when he was supposed to be anywhere else, inspecting a bridge?

“Touched By An Angel” promoted some weird-ass kind of theology, even given that it was already a show about super-secret-agent angels who tool around in a vintage convertible. Every story had the same basic arc: person is experiencing a crisis; angels arrive, undercover as humans; at the peak of crisis, one or more of said Angels reveal themselves to the crisis-ee, reminding them that God loves them and that they should have faith that He will see them through. Ah. But why would these people still need faith? They’ve just been presented with conclusive proof of the existence of a classic, theist god who benevolently directs their daily existence!

I only got one positive thing from this show: the entertainment value of country-music guest stars who were performing as actors for the first time, and who were both unprepared for, and tragically under-intimidated by, the work that lay ahead of them. I think the director came up to them at the start of shooting and said “Acting is all about pretending to cry. And the more you’re crying, the more you’re acting. You should act as much as you possibly can. Put it this way: if we don’t have to change your shirt after every take, you’re probably not acting hard enough. They won’t give you an Emmy unless it’s obvious how darn hard you were acting…”

How To Hold Tea And No Tea Simultaneously

So let’s all have a good laugh at Intelligent Design™ in this, its classic and dangerous form: as an attack against evolution.

But! This doesn’t mean that belief in God and belief in evolution (or, more broadly, science in general) are incompatible.

Christina seems (again, I could be wrong) to be trying to make this point, making the assumption that everyone who believes in God has bought and brought home a “Touched By An Angel”-model God:

  • God built the world as He wanted it to be;
  • Everything happens according to God’s plans and intentions;
  • God cares about me, personally, and is standing by to intervene if my ten-year-old boy is diagnosed with that kind of cancer that keeps him looking healthy and adorable until the very end and the kid thinks he won’t get into Heaven unless I write and perform a country/gospel song for him at his bedside.

That’s definitely the “iPhone” of gods, here in the US. But it’s by no means the whole range of Gods available. Even a Christian sect can’t keep its understanding of God in production for more than a hundred years before somebody forks the distro.

The Greatest Unknowable is the Thinking of Other People

I’m an agnostic. If you absolutely must pin me down, I suppose I’m an “agnostic deist.” I suspect that something we might call “God” is out there. But if there is, I believe that he, she, they or it is fundamentally unknowable by humanity and s/t/i certainly doesn’t conform to the “Touched By An Angel” model.

Aside: I often marvel that if every act attributable to God were traced categorically to a specific street address, it still wouldn’t settle anything. The nonbelievers would say “See? There is no God. It was Doug, all along.” The believers would say “What more proof of the existence of God can we possibly give you? We’ve given you His name and address!”

But I absolutely insist that there’s an analog spectrum of belief. It’s more accurate for me to just say that I find the questions of a divine being, or a higher order to the universe than that which the scientific method can explain, more interesting than the answers. As a nontheist, I, like Christina, don’t know how to justify a belief in an omnipowerful God for whom worldwide genocide is explained by a “You don’t have to be crazy to work here…but it helps!” poster in the Almighty’s breakroom.

If that concept made sense to me, though, I’d be a theist…actually, I’d be one specific kind of theist. I feel uncomfortable claiming to have spotted objective fallacies in something I fundamentally don’t understand. Something can seem wrong because it’s objectively wrong. But sometimes, it only seems wrong because you can’t make the idea work within your own limited understanding of the concept.

(See: The JFK assassination. It “seems” wrong that a head that was shot from behind would jerk backwards towards the gun. But few people understand how this stuff works, or have even seen controlled experiments reproducing the effect.)

This is how certain theists come to believe that atheists don’t have a moral center. Atheists can be plenty moral. Those theists just don’t understand how morality can exist without a spiritual connection to God; therefore, no god = no morality. Similarly, it seems like Christina can’t understand a belief in a kind of God that isn’t “all knowing, all powerful, all meddling.” If that’s true, it would make sense for her to conclude that a believer thinks every step in the evolutionary process specifically reflects the will of God or a master plan. And that’s not how evolution works, so she’s “proven” that believers don’t really believe in evolution.

The reality, of course, is that a believer is free to think of evolution as a divine form of a “one-click install” for living creatures. God set it in motion (citation needed) or else simply created the circumstances under which evolution could set itself in motion. Then he/she/it/they walked away. Hence, we can have both belief in both God and the scientific definition of evolution.

Weighing The Duck

It seems like sometimes, a member of Group A isn’t satisfied with a simple difference of opinion with someone from Group B, or even with flat-out saying that they think this other person is wrong. They need to create an argument that proves it. They often wind up creating a “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”-style chain of logic which has the cadence and the shape of rational argument, but is based on a whole series of questionable assumptions and is designed to trap their opponent in a corner.

Take this video from Penn Jillette as an example:

In the video, he talks about his definitions of agnosticism and atheism and theism. He introduces a hypothetical situation in which a supposed theist is asked by God to kill their child. In choosing “no” or “yes,” they can only prove themselves to be a closet Atheist or a dangerous nutjob. According to the rules he established, there’s no way for a believer to escape with their credibility intact.

I don’t imagine that Penn intended this as anything other than an illustration of the difference between “I believe” and “I know.” Nonetheless, it’s an example of the sort of argument that I find problematic. The theist has so many other responses available to them, such as: telling God to go stick it, or deciding that the fact that “God” is making this demand proves that it’s not actually God, or saying to Penn “God, as I envision Him, isn’t something that could communicate to me in that way. So your question is irrelevant to begin with.”

And that’s my reaction to Christina’s piece. I kept wanting to interrupt and ask “But what if God isn’t like that at all? Can’t witches float for some other reason than ‘they’re made out of wood’? Isn’t it possible to have an idea of God that’s completely compatible about everything that’s provable about the physical world?”

She has an eminently-worthy target in the Intelligent Design™ crew, but she broadens her aim beyond what that narrow argument can credibly hit. She seems to base her argument on the idea that there’s one kind of belief in one kind of God, and only one view of what the phrase “created the Universe” means. When I turn around, I see a sea of hands raised to ask “But what about…”

Her article fails to make me understand why belief in God and support of evolution are incompatible.

Christ Almighty (or “Just an Influential Rabbi with a Sensible Message of Peace and Love”), This Has Gone On Longer Than I’d Intended

Again, I’ve nothing but respect for Greta Christina…for her, personally, and for her beliefs. She writes and thinks well, and her piece clearly is directed against certain kinds of ideas, not certain kinds of people. I’m presenting this blog post in the form of the conversation after a dinner party, when the guests move to the living room with two bottles of a good, hearty red and and have a great conversation for a couple of hours.

I just believe that this article would have been more powerful if she’d framed it as an essay about why her opposition to Intelligent Design™ extends to all forms of creationism (if indeed that’s what she thinks), instead of writing it as a factual argument that demonstrates that belief in God isn’t compatible with a support of evolution. “She makes some fair points,” I would have thought, instead of launching into 2800 words about God and agnosticism and which artists’ model might have modeled for what figure sculpture in 1923, and an awful, awful TV show.

So in summary:

  • As a formal theory, Intelligent Design™ (as opposed to creationism in general) is clearly bunk.
  • I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything, and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).
  • “Touched By An Angel” is weird-ass theology. But when inexperienced actors are handed melodramatic, emotionally-manipulative scripts, the results can be quite amusing.
  • It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.
  • Catch Penn & Teller’s show if the three of you are ever in the same city, because it’s worth the ticket price.

G’nite.

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