Evolution? Please leave God out of it

Evolutionists weaken their case by bringing God's existence into the discussion.
Patrick Gilligan | Sep 23 2009 | comment  

It was not exactly unexpected: a review in The Economist of Richard Dawkins latest book, The Evidence for Evolution, in which the reviewer praises the lucidity and extent of the evidence marshalled in support of evolution, and sighs at the wrong-headedness of unbelievers. The reviewer, like Dawkins, had completely missed the point: the evidence has become almost irrelevant in this debate. I sighed loudly, but my wife, a veteran of my frustrations with the public discussion of this topic, ignored the bait, leaving me with no choice but to go on silently provoking myself by reading the rest of the review.

Despite prolific work by Dawkins -- until recently Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford -- and others, the public understanding of evolution has not exactly increased in the past few years. Only a minority of Americans, for instance, accept evolution, a fact which causes much hand-wringing in the scientific journals. The alternative is generally creationism, the idea, based on a literal interpretation of Genesis, that God created the world in six days of 24 hours each. This is sometimes taken as evidence of the threat that religion supposedly poses to reason and science.

It is true that Evangelical Protestants often see Genesis as a literal account (probably part of a wider tendency to tacitly deny that Scripture contains allegory, parable or symbol), and this is an important factor in their rejecting evolution. But there is no necessary reason to interpret Genesis as they do; scripture contains plenty of allegory and metaphor (such as Jesus' parables), and it is not obvious that the author of Genesis intended it as a literal natural history. Indeed, given that the evidence for evolution is beyond reasonable doubt, the obvious thing should have been to conclude that interpreting Genesis as literal was a mistake, and that it was rather intended to convey religious, not biological, ideas.

So why have Evangelicals ended up espousing creationism? To write off a whole great chunk of the populace as stupid is hasty and prejudiced, to say the least. The Evangelicals I know (not an altogether tiny number) are not stupidly, dogmatically incapable of reasoning this out. So why have the majority not?

It seems quite plausible that an important promoter of creationism is Dawkins himself. When he is addressing a like-minded audience, Dawkins is charming, scholarly, clear, and articulate. On the other hand, when he gets on to his pet topics of acceptance of evolution, atheism and religion, he is often shrill, nasty, and ludicrously intolerant. Worse, he often talks as if evolution proves atheism. If you are trying to sell a difficult message, it is not generally a good idea to bundle it with a pet dogma like this -- you tend to alienate people who don't share your dogmas, such as, in Dawkins' case, Evangelicals.

Besides, bundling evolution and atheism is gratuitous and irrational. In his calmer moments Dawkins explicitly acknowledges that evolution cannot prove that God does not exist. This is an important point and can be seen in a number of ways. For instance, since God is, ex hypothesi, not material (composed of matter) he cannot be weighed or otherwise measured, and it is therefore impossible for science to gain any knowledge of him -- for example, whether he exists. Since biology is a science, and evolution belongs to biology, evolution cannot prove that God does not exist.

Alternatively, many evolutionists talk as if evolution is a sufficient explanation for the existence of life, and that science in general sufficiently explains all natural phenomena; consequently there is no need to invoke God to explain anything, and no reason to suppose that God exists. However, the only way to show this empirically -- by experiment -- would be to remove God, and see if evolution can still produce life in his absence. And yet, this can only be done by first assuming that God does not exist -- in other words, by making the argument circular: "We know that evolution proves that there is no reason to suppose God exists, because evolution can explain life in the absence of God, and we know it can do this, because it works, so God does not exist, and we know God does not exist, because evolution proves it." The trouble is that the proposition, "God does not exist", is a metaphysical proposition, not a scientific one, and does not belong in a scientific argument -- any more than the opposite proposition, "God exists", does.

Talking as if evolution proves atheism also makes Dawkins look careless and irrational to many people. And this is not wildly unreasonable: atheists have always been in a minority and God has most of the more rigorous philosophy on his side. Also, assuming that God does not exist seems to lead to odd conclusions. For instance, if God does not exist, then there cannot be sins, which is pretty much the same as saying that people cannot do evil, which is absurd. Faced with an absurd conclusion it is natural to suppose that there is a flaw somewhere in the reasoning. And unfortunately, for many people, it appears that evolution is the most doubtful part, and the most likely to be wrong.

This is why the strength of the evidence for evolution is almost irrelevant. Evolution is perhaps not the simplest bit of science to explain. To really critically assess the evidence often requires grasping quite a bit of data, and having a fairly deep knowledge of some branch of biology; in other words, years of study. A large part of the public probably has to take the word of the scientists. Therefore scientists who wish to promote public understanding of evolution should be plausible and not encumbered with doubtful metaphysics and dogmas -- disciplines in which they are seldom experts, while Evangelicals often are.

Dawkins is often feted, as in the review mentioned above, as a communicator of science. The terrible shame is that he has not only missed out on the wide and beneficial impact his fine mind and hard work deserves, but he has probably harmed the communication of the wonderful science he loves so dearly, and has worked so hard to explain.

Patrick Gilligan works as a molecular biologist in Singapore.

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