Robert Wright on God and Darwin

It’s probably a mistake to wade into such a controversial topic, but anyway, here are some thoughts on Robert Wright’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s NY Times.  Wright’s clearly a thoughtful guy who knows about both science and theology.  I haven’t read his book, but I have read a number of reviews of it, heard interviews with him, and read his guest blog posts on Andrew Sullivan. He seems to be someone worth paying attention to. But …

The  headline of the piece is “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.” The goal seems to be to lay out a stance that will turn down the heat in the evolution wars and help everyone to get along.  An excerpt:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them [religious believers who have problems with Darwinian evolution] to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely €” that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

Essentially, he’s proposing Deism, justified by a sort of God-of-the-gaps approach.  I’m sure he would say that’s an oversimplification.  Read his piece for yourself and see whether you think I’ve characterized it fairly.

I have two thoughts on this attitude (neither original, I’m sure, given the vast amount that’s been written on these subjects):

  1. If presented with such a bargain, I would strongly urge my fellow scientists to accept it.  By this I mean not that you have to believe in it: go ahead and be a hard-core atheistic materialist if you want.  But don’t put any significant effort into convincing Deists that they’re wrong.  They’re not doing science any significant harm, and if you try to persuade people like this that believing in science means giving up all notions of religion, you’re going to do far more harm by hardening them against your point of view.
  2. But this thought experiment is completely irrelevant to the battle as it’s being fought in the US.  The forces of good (i.e., science) in this battle are not confronting Deists.  If you think that the defendants in the Dover case, or the anti-evolution folks running for school boards around the country, are anywhere near being persuaded of Wright’s Deism, you just haven’t been paying attention. Try telling any of the anti-evolution activists that God’s “role in the creative process” of human development ended 14 billion years ago if you don’t believe me.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Robert Wright on God and Darwin”

  1. Just a thought from another theologically minded scientist. Wright’s misstep in his article was stating that God’s “role in the creative process” ended 14 billion years ago. What he should have said, if he wanted a proposal anti-evolution theists could (potentially) agree with is that God’s proposed way to work (in this case) is through evolutionary methods. It’s different than saying that God is taking a 14 billion year break from interference, but rather it’s saying that evolutionists have identified the method which God actively shapes life.

    I personally never understood why theists don’t say this automatically, because theology points this way in almost all other circumstances. Theists don’t, for instance, start huge fights over whether or not the sun is a hydrogen ball–they simply acknowledge that it’s God’s way to “let there be light.” The fact that science explains it, in this instance, isn’t seen to take away at all from God’s active involvement.

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