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Science and the Existence of God – Summer Reading Group VI

Does science really speak to the existence of God? The standard line of science, or at least that of its most outspoken atheists, is that God is dead and science has taken over. So, unlike some previous bloggers who may come at this from a theological background, I think it is a most refreshing experience to hear from thoughtful and preeminent scientists who are actually considering the interplay between science and religion, and, in this chapter, the existence of God.  

Giberson and Collins begin this chapter with a short list of common arguments for the existence of God.  However, they do not dwell on these, because, as they say, “the grand project of proving or disproving the existence of God in any final sense is a project from the past, an exercise for a generation with more confidence in human reason than most of us have today.” They do believe, of course, that these issues can still be discussed. For example, one point of discussion is found in morality as an argument for the existence of God. The authors conclude that “without God undergirding the moral order, there is little reason to think of it as a moral order at all. Morality cannot be grounded in atoms and molecules.” Nothing new here, although I believe many atheists might take issue with this statement.

The focus of most of this chapter, however, is on the problem of evil.  The problem of evil, as most of us know, can be summed up in this way: “How can a loving, powerful God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” This is a common argument against the existence of God. The authors propose that an evolutionary point of view can make a contribution to this debate. And I must admit that this surprised me at the outset.  How can evolution contribute to the theological problem of evil? The authors’ explanation is quite simple and straightforward—it’s all about freedom.

This should strike a chord with most readers, as Christians are commonly told that the whole reason there was a tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden was so that Adam and Eve would have the freedom to choose to obey God or not. And God did not immediately zap Adam and Eve following their disobedience because that would demonstrate that freedom to choose really did not exist. True love and obedience cannot exist without free will, which opens the door for people to make poor choices which result in much evil and suffering. This is standard theology, and I don’t think the authors add much to this.

Where Giberson and Collins do make a contribution to the discussion is on the issue of natural evil. This natural evil they speak of is what we experience in nature gone awry—hurricanes, floods, plagues, tripping down the stairs, etc., events which cause so much grief and heartache. Why can’t a good God who made this world control it! They suggest that, just as people have freedom, so does nature. This freedom in nature often leads to natural disasters that we cannot control, and neither can God, for the very reason that he couldn’t zap Adam and Eve. This freedom in nature is part and parcel of the process of evolution.

At this point it might be best to pause and discuss the concept of freedom. After reading the last post, I believe some might take issue with the authors’ working definition of freedom and prefer to restrict freedom to only the human realm. A scientist would give freedom its most basic definition the ability or possibility to do more than one thing . Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law defines freedom as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” (I’m not sure why this is only a legal definition, as it seems to me to cover all bases.) So Giberson and Collins argue that nature in its most fundamental forms appears to have freedom. From a human standpoint, we might call it unpredictability. For humans, electrons appear to have freedom—we can’t predict their motion. All humans appear to have freedom – we can’t predict their actions. But to God, all might be predictable. Isn’t God omniscient? But, of course, that leads to other theological issues.

Let’s get back to evolution and natural freedom. Giberson and Collins suggest that evolution might be the best explanation for natural freedom as seen in natural disasters and diseases, in large part because the other common alternatives don’t make sense, at least from a scientific point of view. The alternative explanations for evil are:

     1. God did it. This is immediately ruled out because our understanding of God is that he is a God of love—a good God. There is no way that God created animals with the intention of torturing their prey or bacteria to inflict plagues. Likewise, a cursory reading of the Old Testament might make one wonder if God’s frequent commands to slaughter thousands are really consistent with a good God. I believe Giberson and Collins’ recommendation to consider cultural context might be relevant here. But, once again, this is another aside.

     2. Satan did it. This would imply that Satan is not merely a creature, but also creator. Somehow this is often overlooked in religious circles, maybe because the creation of “evil” things such as cats’ claws or flesh-eating wasps is okay to ascribe to Satan. But, as is pointed out in this chapter, the creations or changes in creatures following the fall of man would have been quite dramatic and rapid and on par with the creative activity of God.

     3. Humans did it. Eve ate the apple, leading to Adam eating the apple, leading to the fall of the entire human race and the immediate deterioration of all poor unsuspecting creatures around them. Aside from the problem of understanding why a human choice should cause everything else to degenerate, the authors reject this reason for sin and suffering as not consistent with science and the apparent presence of death long before humans existed on Earth. They do not agree that the world could ever have been free of physical death, for the breaking of a tree branch or the crushing of a grasshopper on occasion seems inevitable, even in a “perfect” world.

Rather, the authors suggest, evolution did it. This leaves everyone off the hook, God, Satan, and humans. “God created the world with an inbuilt capacity to explore novelty and try new things…” Because nature exhibits freedom to try new things, it does beautiful things, but also horrible things. 

Is there any difference between God being directly responsible for evil and God creating evolutionary processes that are directly responsible for evil? The authors counter with the freedom card again; as long as freedom exists in nature, creatures will act independently of God. They do admit that this will be threatening to theological traditions that emphasize God’s sovereignty.

In the end, do we have an answer to the question at hand? Does science contribute to our understanding of the existence of God? I think the answer is that science does not prove God exists, but our current understanding of the universe does affirm the existence of God and certainly does not directly challenge a divine creation. Clearly, however, the author’s definition of a divine creation is different than a literal reading of the Bible would provide. Regarding the problem of evil, the role of evolution might provide some sort of intellectual solution, although precious little comfort to those dealing personally with natural disaster or disease. My biggest question remaining is this: What does heaven look like to the authors?

Some time ago I was listening to an interview of a campus chaplain who considers himself a Christian, but who has a very non-traditional view of God—a non-personal force God. When asked the above question about an after-life, he punted by saying “I’ll leave that one up to God.” This is, in fact, the case on all of this. We really don’t know, do we? But most of us are not happy with mystery, and so some choose a literal reading of the Bible and are happy with that. Some choose an atheistic world-view and are happy with that. Then there are some of us who stand at the intersection of faith and science (as described by Dr. Jon Paulien and reported in a recent post by Kenneth Wright, “scientists who are people of faith, but who respect both the Bible and scientific evidence.”), who may just have to live with mystery in our search for the integration of our theology and our science.

—Peter Lyons is a scientist living in New York City.

This is the fifth essay for the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it and join the discussion. Here is the first post: What is BioLogos? The second. The third. The forth. The fifth.

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