Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Evolution, Ethics, and Theodicy

Michael Le Page at CultureLab wrote a review of a book entitled Inside the Human Genome: A case for non-intelligent design by John C. Avise. The title of the review expresses succinctly what I find to be the most profound link between the debate over evolution and the debate over religion.

The title Le Page chose was, "A caring god would not have designed us like this."

Essentially what modern atheists do is restate the problem of evil in terms of evolutionary science. Look at how much DNA is wasted, they say. Look at what a mess it all is if you really look at it. Look at how much better it could have been if it really had been designed.

Thus the fascination that scientists have toward the human body and its incredible complexity is tempered by a sober realism about the horrible things that can occur naturally, all because our biology is so screwed up.

As N. T. Wright wisely points out, the problem of evil cuts both ways. For the religious, the problem is, "If God is good and God is in control, how can bad things happen?" For the atheist, the problem is, "In light of the immense evil that surrounds us, is all of the good that we experience just a big cosmic joke? Is there any meaning to it at all, or is it essentially random?"

Any self-aware scientist has to feel the tension. We study the world around us because it truly is so fascinating, so beautiful, in all of its complexity. But yet that very complexity leads to many things that cause incredible misery. Should we love or hate the world we live in?

Christians are far from working out this question. Although scripture insists that the world was good, even very good when God created it, the current state of the world difficult to measure from a Christian perspective. Is the universe in all of its complexity still essentially good, or has it experienced fundamental corruption?

And different denominations of Christianity profoundly disagree on their doctrine of the end times, which has significant implications for how we view the universe now. Is God going to completely obliterate all created matter and bring in something totally new, or are we going to see some continuity between the old and the new? Should we spend time caring about this world, or should we be so other-worldly that we think only of the next?

This question, which I maintain is equally unclear for both atheist and Christian, really comes to bear when considering ethical questions we face today. For Le Page, it comes down to this:
Why do we still allow children to be born with hideous diseases that could be prevented? Why do we rightly glorify efforts to cure diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, but still regard tackling the root cause - our dismal, degenerating DNA - as taboo?

Our ethics have been so hideously distorted by superstitious nonsense that we cannot see the clear moral imperative: we need to start sorting out the mess of a genome evolution has left us as soon as we can.

I'm not unwilling to sympathize with Le Page on this point. For him, the problem of evil can be solved by endeavoring to fix it ourselves. I think it would take a certain hardness of heart, from a Christian perspective, to completely shut him down on this point.

Yet I do think it's worth reflecting on where our power to do good is coming from. If all of the universe has been formed out of the oblivion by totally impersonal forces, what makes us think that we have actually accomplished anything by attempting to alleviate human suffering? Will not all of our attempts to solve the problem of evil be swallowed up by death and decay?

If, on the other hand, we believe the testimony of ancient Christians, who claimed that the Messiah was truly raised from the dead, and that God's new creation has begun, there is something to hope for in fighting against the problem of evil. There is power in every attempt to alleviate human suffering, because we have hope that the power of God really is for us, not ultimately against us.

Now if we do rely on such power, then in fact it would be wise to use caution when approaching ethical problems. The urge to just "do something" when faced with problems of suffering in the world has to be tempered by wisdom. That is where religion derives its moral authority in society; it preserves the memory that the best intentions often pave the road to hell.

But if we say that ultimately our hearts our set on the next world and not this one, then I don't really know what we do about the problem of evil. We can hope to escape it, but we can never hope to really solve it. I can see how a scientist would have a real problem with this.

Ultimately I think the way we, both Christians and atheists, need to approach the question of theodicy is by asking the question, "Should we love or should we hate the world around us?" I think this will put us all on more common ground as we consider important ethical questions facing our world.

It's easy for atheists to think, "There just can't be a loving all-powerful God out there because there is evil," and it's easy for Christians to think, "I know why God allows evil, and atheists are just so hard-hearted that they won't accept it."

But if we consider together the more complicated question (all of us admitting that it is complicated) that I have just put forward, we will realize that we have a lot of different values to weigh against each other. One value is of our curiosity about this beautiful and fascinating universe; another is our desire not to see people suffer.

How we measure those values against one another will make an enormous difference for our future. The problem of evil is not some philosopher's game; it is a real, practical matter for all people.

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