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Adomaswillkill at DeviantArt

Once you cast doubt on man’s place in creation, the entire Biblical story of salvation history, from original sin to Christ’s incarnation, is also threatened.
–TULLIO GREGORY, Libertinisme Érudite in Seventeenth-Century France and Italy

As I may have mentioned, I’m up to my neck in fun and fascinating work right now, including an anthology project called Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics.

I was invited to write this book by an editor at ABC-CLIO, a publisher of beautifully-produced and researched reference works in a variety of fields. The final product will be 45 documents by atheists and agnostics — letters, diary entries, essays — each with an intro, framing questions, historical context, and additional resources. It differs from other freethought anthologies by being strictly limited to atheists and agnostics, meaning no heretics (Spinoza, Montaigne), no deists (Paine, Voltaire, Jefferson), and no one whose position can be taken as mere skepticism of the local gods (goodbye to Socrates and most of his chums). I’m also casting a wider net culturally than usual (China, India, Persia, Uganda), filling that annoying 1200-year gap between the Romans and the Renaissance, and aiming at high school and early college readers. Due out August 2012.

When I said last month, “I’m in the research phase for some really engaging writing projects right now…while I’m overturning cool rocks, I always find some fantastic tangent wriggling underneath,” THIS is what I was talking about.

While doing background on the clandestina (several compelling anonymous atheist booklets circulated secretly in 17th c. France), I came across the Gregory line at the top of the post, which reminded me of Darwin’s Autobiography, which reminded me that I hadn’t touched the blog in weeks.

So here’s my bit on the problem posed by evolution for traditional religious belief.

Evolution was the most recent in a series of discoveries knocking us from our central and special role in the scheme of things. The Abrahamic religions are all premised on our central and special role in the scheme of things. It’s hard to think of a more foundational assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam than the special relationship of God and Human. Every major assumption, from sin to soul to savior, relies on the idea that we are separate and distinct from other animals.

Millions of Christians accept evolution. But the implications for belief are almost never dealt with, since they require an incredibly radical rethink. Instead, many say that God created life, then used evolution to create the diversity of life. And I’m left wondering whether to push the point.

Analogy: Suppose the 2012 election approaches. I very much want Barack Obama to continue in office. A friend of mine expresses deep and fervent support for Obama, saying “I just really love the idea of a Muslim president.”

Do I push the point…or pat the back, glad for the ally, and whistle my way on?

The first question I ever asked Richard Dawkins was about Catholic support for teaching evolution. Do we push the point that evolution creates serious, arguably fatal problems for some of the defining tenets of Christian belief, or be happy for allies against evangelical opposition?

“You’ve asked a tactical question, I suppose,” he said, grinning. “Not really a tactical fellow myself. So I think it depends on whether you are Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.”

Since only one of us was either, this didn’t entirely help.

He went on to say that he would certainly push the point, and does, since that’s what inquiry is about. The very idea of withholding challenge to protect a pet hypothesis is anathema to Dawkins. Gould was more tactical and strategic, taking allies where he could find them.

I’ve struggled with years over which is pragmatically best. When I bring up the problem of reconciling evolution and Christian belief even to extremely intelligent and progressive religious friends, they get really tetchy, mumble foolish things about our inability to know how God works, then huff at me for…what, I dunno. I feel terrible for forcing them to suddenly sound so silly, and I never get around to saying why I find the positions incompatible.

So here’s why.

Evolution was not aimed at making us. Thinking otherwise guts the whole enterprise. The countless blind, reckless, wasteful, weaving paths and dead-end alleys of the history of life on Earth make it plenty clear that, clever and handsome as we (currently) are, we are merely one of these side streets, impressive in our way and to ourselves, but otherwise unremarkable. The process that created us is necessarily unguided on the large scale, and is only guided locally by the ever-fickle demands of natural selection. To make evolution a tool God used to create “Man” requires either a complete upheaval in the concept of evolution, or a complete upheaval in the concept of God, neither of which is forthcoming in the mutterance Goddidit.

I’ve always granted evangelicals a point for noticing the problem (if for little else).

Saying God had us in mind from the start does violence to what we know about evolution. Saying he didn’t have us in mind does violence to the conception of an all-knowing God. Take your pick.

Also problematic is the idea of the soul. If other animals are without this lovely thing, God must have chosen a moment in evolutionary history when we were “human enough” to merit souls. Since evolution is an achingly incremental process, there was no single moment when we crossed a line from “prehuman” into “human.” And even if there was, we’re left with the odd prospect of a generation of children who are ensouled but whose parents are not, or some similarly strange scenario. I’d be very happy to hear an argument for ensoulment (of the species, not the individual) that makes more sense, but have not yet.

There’s also the fact that the astonishing wonder of evolution is that it works entirely without a puppeteer. That’s not a reason for accepting it, but so much wonder is lost, so much color and beauty drained, with the introduction of those divine strings.

There are many other reasons, but they all boil down to the decisive dismantlement of human specialness wrought by evolution properly understood. One can apparently be Christian and accept evolution — millions do — but I’d love just once to hear someone acknowledge the profound revolution of Christian belief that is required.

So we’re back to the tactical. It’s easy to wax rhapsodic about inquiry courageous and pure, but the longer I think of this, the more I seem to choose to make but not push the point, at least not uninvited — to allow those who wish to keep their compartment walls well-spackled to do so. Most people forced to choose between doing violence to science or to their conception of God will have little trouble making up their minds.

But I’m wide open on this one. What do you think?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.