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Revealed Religion
Posted January 20, 2002

Hello, you're listening to Mostly Mozart on CJLY in Nelson 93.5fm, Kootenay Coop Radio. My name is Tom Clegg. Mostly Mozart is sponsored by Tom Clegg.


Last week I talked about the reported failure of public schools to teach evolution. I mentioned a few bits and pieces that my teachers left out -- bits and pieces like Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Before I had even finished talking, I got a phone call from someone who totally disagreed with me. Not only was he resistant to the ideas of evolution and natural selection, but he resented the fact that his school presented evolution as a well established fact, without even considering creationism.

This caller gave me several classic examples of arguments against evolution that used to be popular before Charles Darwin. He also demonstrated a few very pervasive misconceptions about evolution, and science in general.

The only problem with answering his questions, is deciding where to start!

Fortunately, I had some more guidance in the intervening week, in the form of Radio Free Nelson. You see, Mostly Mozart is a real trend-setter for KCR; when I talk about evolution, all the other hosts start talking about evolution too. In fact, David Beringer was even playing Mozart yesterday on his show. So, following my lead, Radio Free Nelson devoted a few seconds to evolution, and something that the philosophers call "revealed religion." So that's what I'm going to talk about today.

Revealed religion refers to worldly evidence of the existence of a Creator. In short, if you find something that could only have been done by a creator, then there is obviously a creator. This sort of argument works really well until someone offers an alternate explanation.

In the case of natural selection, that means you used to think that sudden, spontaneous Creation was the only possible explanation for the existence of humans. But then, someone told you about natural selection, which is a different explanation for the same thing. You can't accept both explanations because they contradict each other fundamentally. If natural selection makes sense to you, then you need to revise your definition of God, to remove the contradiction. Of course, revising your definition of God is a very hard thing to do. Especially if you've held the same rigid definition of God for your whole life. It's even more difficult if you've been told that spontaneous creation of humans was the only reason why you should believe in God at all.

Looking over the last two thousand years, you could say this as a fundamental flaw of revealed religion: it always turns out to be wrong, because those pesky scientists are always explaining things. These days, if you want to believe in God, you need a better reason than "who else could possibly have designed the human eyeball?"

Let's try an example of this that happened 500 years ago instead of 150, so we can look back on it with clearer hindsight.

The Earth used to be at the centre of the Universe. The sun and stars were in a complex orbit around the Earth -- an orbit that changed its orientation with the seasons. That the orbit was complex was evidence of the greatness and incomprehensibility of God (or the Gods, depending on where and when you lived). But more importantly, the fact that the Earth was in the centre of the Universe made it possible to believe that we were the special creation of God. After all, where else would God put us, but at the centre of the Universe? The Universe is here for us to observe, and perhaps to explore in other ways; but the Earth is the fixed starting point.

The orbit of the Sun was not all that unusual, but the other planets were in even more bizarre orbits. In fact, the motion of the other planets around the earth was extremely difficult to keep track of. Sometimes they're close, sometimes they go away for a while, sometimes they even go so far that they end up on the far side of the Sun. This was all confusing, but very real, until someone like Galileo worked out the orbits of the planets from a different perspective. When he put the Sun in the middle of the Universe, and mapped out the motion of the planets around the Sun, he found that the orbits of all of the planets were very simple.

This, of course, is where Galileo gets in trouble with the Pope. To make a long story short, Galileo was allowed by the Pope to publish his idea of what the solar system looked like, but only if it were worded in a purely theoretical light. Something along the lines of, "it doesn't work this way, of course, but it's interesting to talk about what would happen if it did work this way." The idea of the Earth's special place, and therefore humans' special place in the Universe, was so dear to the Pope and to God-fearing people everywhere, that it was downright offensive to think about it being any other way.

It took a long time for people to give up the idea that the Earth was the centre of the Universe, basically because it was offensive. Part of the very definition of God, as he was understood in the 15th century, was that he created the Earth, and the Universe around it. If the Earth was not in the centre of the Universe, then that God did not exist.

I don't know John Paul's opinion on the solar system, but he's very progressive as Popes go, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was with Galileo on this particular matter. But in Galileo's time, there was no question that the so-called "solar system" idea was heretical. Un-Catholic. Evil. It contradicted a very popular worldly belief, which in turn justified a religious belief in a Creator.

The state of cosmology in the 15th century, in Galileo's time, is very similar to the state of biology in the 19th century, in Darwin's time.

By the time Darwin published his theory of natural selection in 1859, there was already a raging debate in biology about evolution and creation. It was closely related to an idea from the field of geology. The geological question was whether the world's unusual geological features arose suddenly, guided by unknown forces; or whether they formed slowly due to the effects of familiar things, like cycles of heat and cold, and exposure to wind and water.

Charles Lyell, whose first name is coincidentally the same as Darwin's, was the champion of the second of these ideas. He called it "vera causa," which translates from Latin to something like "real cause." Lyell thought it made sense to appeal to familiar things like earthquakes to explain the formation of mountains -- rather than to propose the spontaneous sudden creation of a mountain, which nobody has ever seen. This makes sense simply because it doesn't require the spontaneous invention of possibilities in the past that don't exist any more. In effect, to say that mountains were created suddenly, even by giant cataclysmic earthquakes, is to defer the problem -- now we have to explain why these giant cataclysmic earthquakes were able to happen in the past, but not today.

It's a bit like explaining to a police officer that it is OK for you to drive drunk, because you were trying to get away from someone whose wallet you had just stolen; you couldn't run any more because you were so drunk, so you had to drive. You've just dug yourself into a hole; now you have a half-believable explanation for the first problem, and no explanation at all for the second problem you just created.

If you apply this geological philosophy to biology, as Charles Darwin did after applying it successfully to geology, you can't accept creationism as a theory of the origin of species. Nobody has ever seen Creation happen, and it's certainly not because we haven't been watching for it. Moreover, you don't need the theory of Creation to explain the workings of the world from day to day. Therefore we have no good reason to believe that Creation ever happened.

Of course, having no good reason to believe it won't stop you from believing it if it's the only theory you've got. But then along came the theory of evolution. Before Darwin, most people's arguments against evolution were either (a) revealed religion; in other words, they had been taught that God's existence is inseparable from the spontaneous creation of species; or (b) nobody could say how evolution actually happened; that means it just deferred the argument one step further, so it's no better than proposing a Creator. Especially since the proposition of a Creator is handy for explaining other things, like morality.

The reason that the religious people stopped listening to the scientists in 1859 is that Darwin put all of these ideas together and explained how evolution actually happens. According to the principle of "vera causa", he couldn't just claim that "it must have happened;" he more or less had to watch it happen, and explain how the little things he saw would result in the diversity of species we see around us.

I'd just like to make one more point today about religion and evolution. They are not incompatible. Just as many people believe in both God and the solar system, many people believe in both God and natural selection. For one thing, what is Nature, if not God? We can just as well call it God selection, if we want to remind ourselves that God determines how Nature works. Or, if you want to accept the idea that Nature and hence natural selection is predictable while God is not, then you could simply say that God created Nature. Since Darwin's time, we've had explanations of how inheritance works -- which Darwin didn't need to know, but which surely would have warmed his heart to hear about -- but there is always another mystery.

Or, in short: only God could have created natural selection.