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yesh omrim

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The God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either

8 January 2006

In a much-blogged-about interview with a German magazine, the philosopher Daniel Dennett waxes theological:

Another idea of Nietzsche’s was that God is dead. Is that also a logical conclusion reached by Darwinism?
It is a very clear consequence. The argument for design, I think, has always been the best argument for the existence of God and when Darwin comes along, he pulls the rug out from under that.
Evolution, in other words, leaves no room for God?
One has to understand that God’s role has been diminished over the eons. First we had God, as you said, making Adam and making every creature with his hands, plucking the rib from Adam and making Eve from that rib. Then we trade that God in for the God who sets evolution in motion. And then you say you don’t even need that God—-the law giver—-because if we take these ideas from cosmology seriously then there are other places and other laws and life evolves where it can. So now we no longer have God the law finder or the law giver, but just God the master of ceremonies. When God is the master of ceremonies and doesn’t actually play any role any more in the universe, he’s sort of diminished and no longer intervenes in any way.

I find this argument profoundly unconvincing, and I don’t think it’s just because I believe in both evolution and God. Dennett’s claim can be attacked from a number of angles that the interviewer didn’t address; I want to focus on two.

First, the idea that God is present in activity that seems mechanical or random is not some kind of fallback position. The whole Book of Esther, for instance, is a story of God working to save the Jews of Persia through what a skeptic would perceive as mere coincidences. Dennett considers this a “diminished” vision of God, compared to a God who is constantly intervening in history with overt miracles. But this is like saying that Orson Welles is a lesser director than George Lucas, because the special effects in Citizen Kane are not as impressive as those in The Phantom Menace.

Second, one can find fault with the argument from design even without knowing anything about evolutionary theory; David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were written a century before Origin of Species, and Hume finds several ways to undermine the argument.

It is true that the authority of institutionalized religion went downhill since the theory of evolution became widely accepted, but Dennett is mistaken to believe that the latter is the cause of the former. Ironically, Dennett’s argument is the flip-side of a common creationist claim—-the claim that if you teach people that they evolved from animals, then you teach them that they have no greater moral obligations than animals have.

In the late 19th century, science evolved, pardon the expression, from a hobby of wealthy men to a driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. Once scientific institutions earned credibility by providing the tools that created such staggering economic growth, people who spoke in the name of Science got respect when they spoke about politics, ethics, and morals. Unfortunately, people had trouble distinguishing empirically-well-grounded theory from handwaving, so a lot of handwavey ideas got passed off as serious science. (My favorite handwave is the claim that if a woman develops her brain—-by, say, attending college—-her uterus will shrivel up. This theory is firmly grounded in the Law of Conservation of Energy, one of the great discoveries of nineteenth-century physics; who could deny it?)

As scientific institutions gained influence over public policy, religious institutions could only lose. I would suggest that this resentment over lost status has motivated the fundamentalist movement, in the past and in the present. Accepting the theory of evolution does not require one to reject religion in general. Rather, it requires one to reject a certain kind of religion: the kind that arose as a specific reaction against the modern science-driven world.

via Joho the Blog and Pharyngula