Sunday, January 15, 2006

"Is God an Accident?" A Response

Unlike the media and those Christians determined to wage a perpetual culture war, I try to expend very little mental energy on the evolution/creationism (or ID) debate, which has always seemed like a false conflict to me. I have often thought that if both sides simply understood the respective roles and limitations of science and faith, then we could all live in relative harmony. Usually, it's Christians that cannot abide by this uneasy truce, but there are also plenty of examples of scientists who cross the line. A prime example of the latter is found in the December 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The very title of the article, "Is God an Accident?" by Paul Bloom, alerts the reader that trouble lies ahead. Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale, specializing child development. The article begins by noting that just about all humans everywhere believe in God (or gods, or angels, or something else supernatural). This is the case not only in the developing world, but is also true in "advanced" countries like the U.S. Even in so-called secular Europe, most people pray and believe in an afterlife, although most have fallen away from organized religion. Moreover, recent studies of infants and young children seem to suggest that they are born with a crude belief in God, even if their parents are atheists. For instance, "four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose... When asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism - and belief in God - is bred into the bone." (at this point, a theologically-minded person like myself wonders if this is the "point of contact" that Barth and Brunner debated in the 30's).

Up to this point, Bloom is on solid ground. In fact, a religious person could be quite pleased that their beliefs are so ubiquitous. However, Bloom now takes a startling leap. He says that "enthusiasm is building among scientists for the view that religion emerged not to serve a purpose - not as an opiate or a social glue - but by accident. It is a by-product of biological adaptations gone awry." There you have it! God is an "by-product" of natural selection, much like the useless appendix. Blooms explains that, early-on in life, we develop a mind-body dualism that makes it easy for us to believe in souls, an afterlife, and a creator, and we retain such notions even when they are no longer useful later in life. Thus, the idea of God is an accident, but we are not likely to shed this useless idea anytime soon because it's part of human nature.

What amazes me is that Bloom is entirely blind to his own presuppositions. As science cannot legitimately invoke God (a position I support), the origin of religion and of God Himself necessarily lies within the human being. The outcome is determined in advance. What makes Bloom's argument different than other atheistic explanations of religion (like those of Marx and Freud), is that he doesn't think religion serves any practical purpose, and thus it's purely an artifact. But here's the thing - where a scientist like Bloom sees only an accident, the eyes of faith see the work of God. The fact that belief in God is so widespread maybe means that there's something "real" about this God. Bloom never entertains this possibility.

While the arrogance of this article initially made me angry, it gradually occurred to me that Bloom's article actually works in favor of God and religion, although Blooms doesn't realize it. Science has apparently proved that, from the moment we're born, our hearts are restless for God, as Augustine would say. And this "restlessness for God" will never go away, no matter how technologically advanced we become or how much the culture changes, because "the universal themes of religion are not learned. They are part of human nature." This last sentence was written by Bloom but, properly understood, it's fully compatible with Christian teaching. For as Paul said, "what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made."

1 comment:

Al Rodbell said...


This is interesting. I also disagree with Bloom's article, but from the oposite perspective.

Here's the letter I sent to Atlantic:

Re: Is God an Accident (article and letters)

In this country, the perennial battles between church and state show no signs of subsiding. The central geo-political conflicts of our time are shaping up not between secular ideologies, but rather forces defined by, or associated with, religions. This makes it all the more important to identify the most fruitful paradigms to better understand this subject.

Atlantic, given its audience and prestige, influences what perspectives, what disciplines, and what analyses will become most accepted in exploring this subject. This warrants a deeper consideration of the unstated assumptions and conclusions of Paul Blooms article.

Bloom overstates his case on the ubiquity of religion, giving an impression that because it is rooted in biology, it is normal. Normal, is very different than being the norm-- a differentiation that is lost in Bloom’s approach. He starts by reporting “Just about everyone in this counrty-96% in one poll-believes in God.” He then says that scientists are less religious, “but not by a huge amount.” Not a huge amount? 40% for scientists, his words, on the same measure of belief in God. He avoids more fine grained correlations between education and religious belief, such as the highest levels of achievement, Nobel Prize winners, where a mere five percent believe in God.

He writes of the attempt of religious authorities to “explore and reach out to science, as when the Pope “embraced evolution.” He concludes that it is not the religious institutions that are resisting rationality, it is the inborn needs of individuals that reject their ecclesiastical authorities efforts to “lead religion away from the supernatural.”

The Pope never “embraced” evolution, he accepted it, reluctantly, and not as a force of nature, but as a tool of God. Dr. Bloom’s statement on the ubiquity of religious beliefs, “nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things…..” ignores the third of the world that had been communist, where these beliefs were not integrated into society and thus are much less common.

These are not random errors. He overstates the immutability of biological drives, while minimizing the importance of religious establishments in promoting and benefiting from this need. And this is where his approach has implications that are beyond merely the academic. He presents religion as an inexorable need, a hunger that must be fed, rather than one option among others that flow from the developmental predilections that he describes.

The most serious criticism of his article is that it is not an accurate description of the world. Those who relied on this article for an overview of this subject would not expect that there are many people living full and happy lives while completely rejecting religion. This is far less likely when true biological needs. such as food, sex and companionship, are absent.

We have a President who is an ardent evangelical Christian, legislators who storm out of their chambers to shout, “under God” on the steps of Congress, and a Supreme Court that is on its way to tacitly following strictures not written on parchment but in stone. This is no time for an avatar of enlightenment to endorse a picture of the biological inevitability of belief in God, especially when it just isn’t so.


I may expand on this letter on my own blog, and if so I will reference yours also. Religion is a powerful force in the world. For me, it is how this force is chaneled that is important. Is it used to inspire people to a go beyond their self interests to create a better society, or is it used to perpetuate ignorance.