Test of Faith: Of False Alternatives and Straw Men

Test of Faith

Not long after I wrote about how creationists got paleontologists Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine to appear in the anti-evolution film Darwin’s Dilemma I received a message from someone at the Faraday Institute. Conway Morris had done an interview with them about science and religion for a miniseries called Test of Faith, they said; would I be interested in receiving a copy of the DVD? I said “Sure” and the film came in the mail last week. I cannot say I was very impressed.

For those who have not heard of it before, the Faraday Institute is a John Templeton Foundation-funded group concerned with reconciling science and religion. The think tank has produced such papers “Creation and Evolution not Creation or Evolution” by R. J. Berry and “Human genomics and the Image of God” by Graeme Finlay. I did not find this surprising given the objectives of the John Templeton Foundation and the fact that I was already familiar with Conway Morris’ favored brand of teleological evolution, but I was hoping that the video would refrain from attempting to jam Christian theology into science. Unfortunately, that is precisely what it tried to do.

After watching the three-part series I became convinced that the Faraday Institute is not so much concerned with reconciling science and religion as finding a refuge for God in the moments before the Big Bang, the machinations of evolution, and inside our own brains. Even though the film explicitly criticizes advocates of intelligent design for using “God of the Gaps” thinking, or trying to make room for a deity in natural phenomena that are not yet well-understood, the series frequently employs the same technique to give hope to believers that God truly is out there somewhere. If there is something we do know, God is behind it, and if there is something we don’t know then that might be a sign of direct action by Providence.

The creators of this series recapitulate this argument three times; once using physics and cosmology, once in terms of evolution, and finally by looking at neuroscience. The same basic flaws run through each, but given that I am not an expert in physics or neuroscience I will focus my comments on part 2 of the series, called “An Accident in the Making?” It is perhaps the most schizophrenic of the installments.

“Are we made with any purpose? Or is life random, utterly ruled by chance?” asks the narrator at the beginning of the episode. These questions frame the 30 minutes that follows, and they are designed to invoke strong emotions in the viewers of the program. You see, I am not the target audience for this series. The Test of Faith website makes it clear that the film and accompanying resources are designed for church small groups. This is not insignificant.

The intended audience of the film is already predisposed to answer “Yes, I am was made for the purpose for which God called me into being.” Anything uncertain, random, or “ruled by chance” is therefore anathema. “Purpose” and “chance” are words that carry baggage, especially in modern Christianity, and are generally assumed to be already understood by the viewers. Another example comes in another episode when physicist Katherine Blundell says that there are “truths” in the universe that science does not detect. For the viewers this is to be understood as the “Word of God”, but if you are not already on-board you are left hanging as to what these other truths may be and how we may detect them.

It is important to keep this in mind as the documentary presents itself as being “open minded” (something many people seem to value for its own sake) while it trades in codewords that reveal its preconceived notions. “God did create us and did so for a purpose,” is the message as best I could understand it, “now let’s see where we can ferret out some kind of scientific evidence to support this idea.”

Those who are not paying close attention might miss this. The show starts with an interview with Paul Taylor, a top Answers in Genesis employee from the UK. Our old friend William Dembski also makes an appearance. Both are used as examples of Christians “doing it wrong” when it comes to faith and science. Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris are juxtaposed with these more creationist stalwarts to extol the way in which they find God in nature.

The problem is that some of the talking heads on the show are doing just what Taylor and Dembski are, just not as directly. They bend science to fit in with what they already believe. Early in the evolution episode Simon Conway Morris states that evolution must be embedded in some kind of personal “metaphysics”, which he presents as a choice between Christianity and atheism. He then states that we should choose between these alternatives by asking “which is the one that is the most exciting, which is the one that has got the most promise, which is the one that makes your fingers tingle.” As Stephen Colbert might say, we must think with our guts and choose whatever feels best. “Nihilism?” Conway Morris then asks incredulously. “Uh, well, no thank you,” he curtly answers. I have heard the same argument made by hardcore young earth creationists as to why their view of nature is superior.

Conway Morris is allowed to get away with this because the viewers are already on board with the message. Atheism is equated with nihilism, or total anarchy to the point of self-destruction (i.e. disobeying the Supreme Authority). Who would choose such a hopeless outlook? Instead we must select at least some form of theism, an “exciting” religion filled with “promise” and that makes your “fingers tingle.” Our understanding of evolution is then shaped by whether we choose hope or ultimate destruction.

What complete and utter rot. Conway Morris presents a false choice in which the wrong answer is clearly delineated. Even if we are shallow enough to believe or not believe in something on the basis of how it makes us feel, though, the more important question is whether the evolutionary science has a solid basis. It absolutely does, but the way some evidence for evolution is interpreted can be influenced by the beliefs folks like Conway Morris subscribe to.

This choice is restated halfway through the episode. The narrator warns that atheists are continuing their “assault” on theistic evolution. Were we created by God through evolution, or was the evolution of our species a the result of “a random throw of the dice”? To answer this they return to Simon Conway Morris who states that the “received wisdom” among evolutionary biologists is that evolution is “completely open-ended. You can go in any direction you like.”

I was shocked by this. I had first heard of Conway Morris through his public disagreement with Stephen Jay Gould over the idea of inevitability in evolution. Conway Morris has long argued that evolution is moving in some sort of definite direction, thus making something at least human-like inevitable, while Gould stressed contingency and chance involved in the way life on earth has evolved. (Personally, I think Gould was correct.) Gould certainly did not argue that evolution can go “in any direction.” In fact he spent a lot of time thinking about biological constraints based upon contingent events in the history of evolution. For Conway Morris to say that most scientists see evolution as having infinite possibilities without constraint is a flat-out falsehood.

Conway Morris erects this straw man to quickly knock it down with his own view that evolution can only go in a few, well-traveled directions. Again, this is not about scientific evidence, but a false personal choice between the hope of faith or the despair of unbelief. Conway Morris tries to handle this delicately, saying the evolutionary convergence is a sign that the universe is structured by something. In the light of this pattern we must consider a deity, he suggests, but this qualification is not convincing, especially since he states that what we see in nature should be “congruent” with “traditional religions.” (If we are to go down this road, why couldn’t nature be the work of a god who is more concerned with fashioning beetles than smiting unbelievers? See Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent for more on this.) Neither is it considered that the pre-existing beliefs of Conway Morris and other scientists presented in the series shape the way in which they view the natural world.

I would not have been so aggravated with the program if it presented scientists who said something akin to “I am a Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/Pastafarian/&c. I believe [insert belief system here] on the basis of faith, and I feel what I have come to understand about the nature of the universe is consistent with the faith I practice. Rather than make nature conform to my beliefs, however, I would rather understand the world as it is. If it turns out to be inconsistent with my faith then I will have to question what I believe.” I could at least respect that. Instead the Test of Faith series trots out scientist after scientist who believe that they have some special glimmer or proof of God in nature; it is going at the whole thing backwards. The impression the series gives is that the natural world justifies and supports a particular religion, Christianity, rather than stating that some liberal forms of that religion could accept the science of evolution. (Whether evolution is reconcilable with religion depends on what brand religion we’re talking about.)

Test of Faith is a beautifully-produced series that uses gobs of imagery to drive home the theme of each episode, but I am not so much concerned with its cinematography as the arguments it presents. On the one hand I am glad that there is a series aimed for the use of church small groups that does not peddle young earth creationism or intelligent design. On the other I was disturbed by the way in which the series attempted to establish that a Christian vision of nature and science is superior; God and the Devil are truly in the details. This is not freely admitted, but the message that non-Christian scientists are trying to dehumanize us by pushing God out of science is impossible to miss. The series plays lip service to science and even deals in the language of science, but in the end the message is that science is revealing the true nature of God despite the protestations of atheists.

I wish, just for once, that people who attempt to “reconcile science and religion” would be honest about their faith. The impression given in programs such as Test of Faith and books like Islands in the Cosmos is that science has provided many reasons to believe when, in truth, these scientists are interpreting nature according to the view that most makes their “fingers tingle.” I might disagree with them about their conclusions, but I would at least respect that they were being honest about how their cherished beliefs shape how they see the world. As it stands now, however, programs like Test of Faith borrow the playbook of intelligent design. They attempt to find some refuge in which a god can be safe from science while still having their effect on the world felt by those tuned in to the right spiritual frequency.

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