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Lamarkian theology January 2, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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It struck me today that one of the reasons that so many theologically-minded writers are so enamored by teleological thinking when it comes to evolutionary theory—whether it be Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, etc—is that they are so accustomed to thinking teleologically.  What I mean is that because theologians seem to simply make stuff up*, they have the freedom and malleability to fit whatever environment they find themselves in, so they are always thinking about designing their ideology to fit the world.  This, on the surface, might seem like what one should do, except they also hold onto the core nonsensical propositions while doing so—while reinterpreting them!

The very process of doing theology is exactly backwards to how science works, which is part of why the conversation between theologians and scientists often goes so wrong; their methods are in opposition.  The idea of theistic evolution (that god created the world and subsequently guides evolution) is at odds with scientific ideas about how evolution works.  There is no need for guidance for it to work, so (for example) the official Catholic Church’s acceptance of evolution as a fact, though guided by god (an idea shared by many people as well) is not the scientific concept accepted by evolutionary biologists.  Similarly, Intelligent Design, the cultural political attempt to sneak creationism into us with the guise of “science,” has similar themes underneath.  It all is about keeping the idea of design or purpose in a mechanism which needs none in order to work.

And what this reminds me of, this predilection for shaping oneself into the hole it finds itself sitting in, is Lamarkian evolution.  You see, early in the development of evolutionary science, there was some debate about how changes in species occurred.  One idea, which is now rejected by the scientific community since we know how genes, mutation, and other forces work, was that some organism would change according to the environmental pressures it finds itself in and passes along those changes to the next generation.  A common example used to illustrate this is a giraffe that finds its neck too short gets a longer neck (or at least the idea of one), and passes this change onto its offspring.

Natural selection, of course, works nothing like this, but theology does work this way.

If some theological idea does not fit with the world, a newer theologian comes along and proposes a new way to see things; a new way to “interpret” the scriptures or the tradition in order to fit better.  And as the progress of science has marched along, theology has followed and changed its spots to fit to not be too egregiously out of style with the current scientific consensus.  But it is done in such a way as to just change enough to not be noticeable to most people.  It changes slowly, little by little, such that the theological concepts talked about seriously now in universities don’t seem to most people to be absurd or too far from their original tradition (which they define, of course).

But take a sophisticated theologian from 2012 (happy new years, btw) and send him to even a comparatively liberal and open-minded seminary from 1000 years ago, and they would be cast out as heretics, unbelievers, atheists even!

But it isn’t really their fault; they have to change to survive.  It’s just a shame that they can’t get rid of the core absurdities of their theologies.  You know,m stuff like gods and other supernatural crap.

I’ll say it again; theology is intelligently designed, but not intelligently enough.



*”Some time ago, when Jerry Coyne was preparing for his debate with John Haught, I recommended a book of modern theology in which a number of different theologians explained the very different ways in which Christian theology is done nowadays. The result that I hoped would derive from reading the book is what happened to me when I read it: that it would become obvious that theology in fact makes things up; that there is no basis for agreement between theologians, and that the bases for theological positions are as diverse as the positions themselves. That is, there is no basis for doing theology. Theology is like a mood that people have in the presence of sacred texts and the history of thought about them. It has no rational ground.”  –Eric MacDonald (source)


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