Sunday, February 1, 2009

Reviews of Reviews, Books About Books

Jerry Coyne has written a readable but lengthy review of books by Ken Miller (Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul) and Karl Giberson (Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution; previously discussed on this precious, precious blog here). As Giberson's book amounts to little more than a restatement of the Courtier's Reply expanded to book length, it's unsurprising that Coyne's review includes this standard and effective rejoinder:

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a “middlebrow” book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.
Huzzah! Shockingly enough, universal unanimity does not appear to have been achieved on the point judging from Jim Manzi's caustic criticism:
By about the year 400, Augustine described a view of Creation in which “seeds of potentiality” were established by God, which then unfolded through time in an incomprehensibly complicated set of processes. By the 13th century, Aquinas — working with the thought of Aristotle and Augustine — identified God with ultimate causes, while accepting naturalistic interpretations of secondary causes. Today, the formal position of the Catholic church, incorporating this long train of thought, is that there is no conflict between evolution through natural selection and Catholic theology. So, in this example, we’re describing an orientation supported by those esoteric theologians Augustine and Aquinas, and promulgated today by that so-liberal-he’s-practically-an-atheist Pope Benedict in that weirdo minority Roman Catholic sect. You know, “unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.”
Manzi has summarized the hair-splitting legerdemain through which Catholic theology and evolutionary science can coexist, and fair enough. It is to the credit of the Catholic intellectual tradition that its standard-bearers have largely refrained from demonizing evolutionary science.

But this hardly salvages Manzi's takedown of Coyne since Coyne's point applies well beyond evolution: Catholic theology holds, among other things, that wine and wafers used in communion become the literal blood and flesh of Jesus, that Mary was a pregnant virgin, that saints have performed all manner of physically unexplainable feats ("miracles") over the centuries, that unobservable beings hear and respond to silent prayers, and so on.

All of these are matters of unsubtle, folksy, down-to-earth belief. They are also (a) elements of official Catholic dogma and (b) irreconcilable with science. For all their unwashed manners and unabashed failure to read every word of theology ever published, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers and the other "new atheists" are right: science and faith coexist harmoniously right up until they don't. Sooner or later, bridgeless fissures form between them.

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