Atheistic Evolution: The Plausible Myth
In a discussion here a couple of weeks ago, I bemoaned the influence of the theory of evolution with some scattershot comments that never quite said what I meant. I’m going to try to clarify that now.
In my title I mean “myth” in the sense of a story that helps the human mind to make sense of the world. And while evolution may be a reasonably well-established fact in that there seems to be a pretty good scientific consensus that the earth is billions of years old and that its life forms developed from the simple to the complex over a period of millions of years, the atheistic conclusions drawn from those facts, though not in the least proven by them, take the scientific assertion into the category of myth. And that myth has some very strong advantages over the Christian myth. (I’m not averse to using the term in reference to the Christian story—as C. S. Lewis said, it is a myth in the sense I used above, with the difference that it is also literally true.)
The difficulty presented to Christians by the evolution myth is not chiefly the popular “science vs. religion” struggle so beloved of the secular press. It need not be a case of having to choose between belief in the literal story of Genesis and losing one’s faith. It’s not that Christianity can’t be reconciled with the current scientific understanding of the size and age of the cosmos, but that the arguments required for the reconciliation are abstract and require some crucial departures from the way Christians were able to think about origins before the scientific revolution.
I expect that most readers of this blog are Christians, predominantly Catholic, who are at least somewhat familiar and at ease with the way this reconciliation proceeds: the essential philosophical and theological concepts (essential to Christianity) are abstracted from the Genesis story, which is accepted as symbolic in its details but accurate in its principles, something like Jesus’ parables. I expect most are also people who read a fair amount, who like ideas, and who spend a good deal of time thinking about precisely such questions as the reconciliation of faith and science.
But most people don’t operate this way. This may very well leave them better off, if they’re Christians; they may simply practice their faith every day without going to a lot of mental trouble about its intellectual infrastructure. But it may also create a dangerous rupture between what they believe by faith and what they accept as scientific fact, leaving them with a vague sense that religion is only a feature of their emotional life. Or, if they’re not Christians, they may absorb, without really noticing it, a cultural presumption that science has disproved religion, and live their lives accordingly.
Here’s the point I kept fumbling around with in that earlier discussion: the problem of Christianity and evolution in the modern world is not that the materialism of, say, Richard Dawkins is likely to be victorious when pitted against the philosophically well-armed Christianity of, say, C.S. Lewis, in a struggle to the death in the realm of ideas. It’s that the picture of the cosmos given to us by science renders atheistic evolution particularly plausible, especially to people who don’t give it a lot of thought.
Why? Because the spiritual facts presented by Christianity are based on scriptures which assume a cosmology contradicted by science: a human and earthly world only a few thousand years old, created immediately as a paradise, a heavenly realm which is literally above it, a man and a woman, a serpent, a fruit, a literal expulsion from a literal Garden. To reconcile this with scientific knowledge requires an effort. It requires treating as symbolic narratives which give no internal evidence of being intended that way, and which proceed seamlessly from creation story to factual chronicle, culminating in the life of Jesus. It requires some means, not present, or at least not obviously so, in the text of deciding what can be taken as symbolic and what must remain literal. It requires turning the Garden into a metaphor for some condition of perfect grace. We shouldn’t be surprised that heterodox theologians proceed to symbol-ize everything, turning salvation itself into a psychological event or condition (or even a political achievement). Catholics are a bit better off than many other Christians, in that we have a teaching authority which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can make these judgments, and generally makes them in a way that is reasonable to anyone disposed to listen. Still, the tension is there.
No such adjustments are necessary for the evolution myth. A cosmos which is inconceivably large in both space and time in which nothing happens except the interaction of material forces is a picture into which evolutionary explanations for the origin and development of life fit easily. Solar energy causes changes to certain molecules, they begin to replicate themselves, and mechanical procedures insure that these systems will, given enough time—and we have billions of years to play around with—become ever more complex. This picture has three gigantic conceptual holes: it can’t account for the fact that anything exists at all, or for the structure of the system which produces everything else, or for human consciousness. But it seems that the first two are easily ignored, and the last one is assumed to be a byproduct of complexity, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever that such is the case.
I venture to say that for most people the word “evolution” is summed up in that picture that occurs in so many biology textbooks, often spread across two pages: at the left margin is a little monkey, like Curious George, taking a step toward the right. As he walks across the page he gets steadily taller, less hairy, and more erect, until at the right margin he’s walking upright, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. It’s a simple, powerful image, and it can’t be reconciled with the Christian account of Creation, Fall, and Redemption except by some decidedly unstraightforward philosophizing. And that puts us at a disadvantage in presenting our message.
I take comfort, though, in the fact that the Gospel has never been all that easy to believe. The obstacles to its acceptance were different in 100 A.D., having to do with the strange assertion of the simultaneous particularity and universality of Jesus in a world where gods were plentiful. But I don’t know that they were any weaker.