John Haught’s “sophisticated” theology: evolution is God’s drama

I’ve often claimed that theology is the art of turning empirical necessities into religious virtues.  Nobody exemplifies that better than John Haught, a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University.  Haught is notorious for his wooly apologetics, his attacks on “new atheists,” and his unintentionally hilarious attempts to show that evolution is really part of God’s plan.   His latest effort, displaying all these tendencies at full bore, is his “On Faith” column in yesterday’s Washington Post, “Darwin, God, and the drama of life”.  It’s worth reproducing in its entirety so that we can, as postmodernists say, “unpack” its message.

Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking. But does it make good sense theologically as well? Not everyone thinks it does. Religious believers who find evolution contrary to faith usually do so because they are focusing on the complex “design” that scientists have discovered in cells and organisms. They insist that life’s chemically and physically improbable architecture points to a divine intelligence that current biology cannot explain. Evolution-inspired atheists, however, usually respond that the architecture of cells and organisms is imperfect, even though awe-inspiring. “This imperfection–the manifold design flaws of life–,” writes David Barash of the University of Washington, “points incontrovertibly to a natural, rather than a divine process, one in which living things were not created de novo, but evolved.”

I propose, however, that religious thought can make significant contact with Darwin’s science if instead of focusing on design it turns its attention to the drama of life. The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.

You can see where he’s going.  He accepts that evolution occurs, which of course makes it anathema to anyone who takes the Bible literally, but Haught’s job is to sell the science to his more “sophisticated” audience.  To do that, he must focus on the “drama.”  And of course he, Haught, will show that this drama resolves all the seeming conflict between God and Darwin.

Religious conservatives have desperately tried to introduce the idea of “intelligent design” into their pre-Darwinian idealization of scientific understanding. But in doing so they have overlooked the grandeur that Darwin saw in the larger story of life. Ironically, contemporary evolutionary materialists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne, for example), are as preoccupied with design as their anti-Darwinian religious opponents. They too have seized Darwin’s rich story of life and bled the drama right out of it.

Umm. . .  .  how is that, exactly?  Are Dawkins’s paeans to the beauty and wonder of selection any less “dramatic” than, say,the last paragraph of The Origin?  Which of us has not recognized and extolled how amazing evolution and natural selection reallly are?  Oh, I forgot — we’ve left out God.

Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution–unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time–that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.

Yep, here it is.  All those things that once made evolution seem non-theistic — the random mutations, the extinctions, the pain, the waste — they’re all part of the drama! Virtue from necessity!  God is just a big playwright, directing a big script that none of us will ever be able to see to its end (or even comprehend), but whose working out surely amuses Him.  And isn’t all that pain, waste, accident, and extinction so much more interesting than the conventional view of creation?

The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over.

To make sense of the drama of life, therefore, we shall have to wait–a disposition essential to any mature religious faith. For if evolution has an eternally sanctioned “point,” we should expect that it would presently be hidden in the narrative depths of life rather than manifested in the always imperfect instances of design that float along on life’s surface. Dramatic stories, unlike complex living systems or elaborately structured molecular states, have the potential to carry a truly deep significance. But it is the nature of stories that they have comic twists and tragic turns, and that they take time to unfold.

As the Church Lady said, “Isn’t that convenient?” None of us will be around to see the point, and even Haught doesn’t know what it is.  But I do!  In ten billion years or so, the Sun is going to swallow up the earth, and whatever life is left is going to die a horrible heat death. Maybe God sees evolution as a sort of Hamlet, in which life’s great tragedy culiminates in a heap of bodies.

This rationale truly shows the intellectual vacuity of Haught and his minions.  What observations, I ask, could convince Haught that there is no god behind evolution? What conceivable turn of evolution could convince him that the process doesn’t carry any divine “meaning”?  He’s already managed to rationalize all the horrible stuff that convinced Darwin and others that if there was a god tweaking the process, it wasn’t a beneficent one.  The extinction of more than 99% of the species that ever lived?  It’s all part of the drama, like the extinction of Willy Loman.  Difficult-to-understand situations, like the Holocaust or the horrible pain of children dying of disease?  No problem: those are just the “tragic turns” inevitable in God’s script.  Don’t try to understand it; just admire it — nay, worship it!

I defy Haught to describe any possible evolutionary scenario that he couldn’t rationalize as part of God’s plan.  A theology like this is not worthy of anyone’s respect.  Again the words of Orwell are relevant: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Haught goes on:

So whatever meaning the drama of life may be carrying cannot become transparent to our present intellectual efforts or scientific observations. Again, we have to wait.
A theological reading of evolution, I am suggesting, looks for an alternative to the rigor mortis of perfect design, and this is why Darwin’s ragged portrait of life is not so distressing after all. Theologically understood, biological evolution is part of an immense cosmic journey into the incomprehensible mystery of God. Any possible meaning it has will reside at a level of narrative depth unfathomable by the mathematical nets of physical science, by armchair observation, or by minds fixated on design.

Ah,  the obligatory New Theological slur on science.  There is “narrative depth” that we armchair scientists simply can’t fathom (and in that we’re like intelligent-design Christian), but that theologians can.  When Haught says “theologically understood” above, what he really means is “theologically rationalized.”

According to a biblically inspired theology of nature, beneath life’s diversity, descent, and flawed design, stirs an evolutionary drama that has been aroused, though not coercively driven, by a God of infinite love. The cosmos is called continually into being by a Creator who wills, but does not force, truly interesting outcomes to emerge in surprising new ways. God, as scripture suggests, is the one who “makes all things new.” The drama of life and its evolution is a response to this invitation.

– John F. Haught, Ph. D., is Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

This is the part that really gets me.  In the paragraph right above this one,  Haught sees God as an “incomprehensible mystery.”  How, then, does he know that God is a “God of infinite love”?  Why couldn’t He be a “God of infinite jest”?  The main failure of all of this “sophisticated” theology is its characterization of God as incomprehensible on the one hand, combined with an eagerness on the other to tell us what God is really like, and what his plans are.  Do people really fall for this stuff?  Apparently they do, so eager are they to find sophisticated ways to see God’s working in the world.

I swear, I don’t understand how somebody can get paid to churn out pieces like this, much less how the stuff garners any respect.  This, my friends, is what people call sophisticated theology.

We all know that Dawkins & Co. have been criticized for presenting and destroying theological claims that are not very sophisticated, and failing to deal with the subtle arguments of intellectual theologians.  One example is Allen Orr’s attack on The God Delusion in The New York Review of Books:

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

Well, if Haught exemplifies “meticulous reasoning” and “sophisticated expressions of belief,”  give me snake-handling any day (now there’s real drama!).   In reality, there is no sophisticated theology — there is just sophistry, evasion, and rationalization.  When this is performed by intellectuals, it’s called “sophisticated”.  But Haught’s arguments are not sophisticated — much less coherent.  They’re just a bunch of post facto rationalizations, born of a desperate faith that must see every possible observation as confirming God.  And that is pathetic.

_________

UPDATE:  See Jason Rosenhouse on Bertrand Russell on accommodating theology with evolution.

62 Comments

  1. Posted December 3, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    It’s a post oak bluff where he produces 30x of kenosis to insure 10x of cataphaticism.

    • ennui
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      Of course, but surely you must admit that the linguistic construction of post-capitalist hegemony asks to be read as the historicization of linguistic transparency, and that the eroticization of praxis is homologous with the authentication of the gendered body. This would seem to imply that the epistemology of history as such opens a space for the fantasy of the public sphere.

      • Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        I concur. The postmodern generator explicated (writ large) that it’s the verities of vestigial versimilitude, the apex and the vertex of romantic realism. This, nonetheless, requires 40x of apophatic interpolation.

      • ennui
        Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Ah, well played, from the pre-Bayesian vantage of asymptotic non-zero values for the tripartate. I concede the point.

  2. Sigmund
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    This sort of argumentation reminds me of Ray Comforts recent reply to the question of why the bible says the earth is immovable (the reason Galileo was silenced by the catholic church).
    “The above question is typical of the skeptic. He reads those verses and somehow comes up with the thought that the Bible is saying that the earth sits “immobile” and “fixed in the sky.” No doubt this comes from a list of so-called contradictions and mistakes in the Bible, on some atheist site.

    Skeptics love to twist Scripture just a little to make their point. They clutch at the weak straws of metaphors or figures of speech to try and prove that the Bible says that the sun revolves around the earth, etc.

    So let’s look closely at what the above verses actually say:

    “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.”
    “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable …”
    “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable …”

    The Bible says that the earth is immovable. It cannot be moved. So now is your chance to prove your point. Run outside and move the earth. Perhaps you and your friends could jump on it, or find a rocky outcrop and push it together.

    Maybe after that little experiment you will concede that the earth is immovable. So is Scripture. You can push, twist, pull, and jump on different verses, but the Word of God isn’t going to move. It is a rock. It cannot be broken (see John 10:35). It will judge you on the last Day (see John 12:48). You only twist it to your own destruction (see 2 Peter 3:16).”
    There really are some individuals who are either too far gone to be reached or are too heavily invested, in terms of reputation or career, to admit they are wrong. Our only option is to publicly point out their mistakes in the hopes of convincing others who have not reached a similar point of no return.

    • BaldApe
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      A perfect example of the kind of argument that merits no reply.

    • homosoicus
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      I assume this comment is sarcasm. At least I found it funny. But I’ll go along anyway, for the fun.

      In fact, we do move the earth – every time we launch a rocket, build a dam, etc. When I was back in school I could even do the math. Maybe someone else will post it here for me.

      Fifteen-second Google search.
      “Nasa geophysicist Dr. Benjamin Fong Chao found evidence that large dams cause changes to the earth’s rotation, because of the shift of water weight from oceans to reservoirs. Because of the number of dams which have been built, the Earth’s daily rotation has apparently sped up by eight-millionths of a second since the 1950s. Chao said it is the first time human activity has been shown to have a measurable effect on the Earth’s motion. “

    • Wrysmile
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      You’ve never felt the earth move, that’s a pity

  3. s. pimpernel
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I agree. Having to admit in the face of ever mounting evidence that the emperor is indeed naked, somehow, in a way which is not understandable to our puny minds, nakedness is part of the devine drama of life. Total sophistry.

    • Your Name's Not Bruce?
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      It’s not that the emperor is naked; there is no emperor.

  4. Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    What Ray Comfort’s answer shows but this post seems not to get is that even those who claim to be taking the Bible literally are not in fact doing so. The so-called Biblical literalists who boast in taking the days of creation literally do not take the dome mentioned in the same chapter literally, nor the reference to the Earth’s immobility.

    I don’t particularly care whether you agree with Haught or other theologians. But I do wish you’d stop accepting the claims of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists uncritically at face value. It gives them a “high ground” that they do not in fact deserve.

    • Sigmund
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      James, some of them do take certain aspects of that seriously (I think Kent Hovind used to take the dome literally) – but its fairly obvious that virtually nobody takes ‘everything’ in the bible literally (Peter is the rock upon which the church was to be built?).
      How I personally interpret Ray Comforts point is that I think he is showing that he thinks the bible is literally infallible. What this means does is gives him permission to interpret every single line in whatever way he wants in order for it to be true- which obviously means some parts will be seen as literal and some as figurative (and some, like the immovable earth section, plain nonsense – I mean what on earth is the point in the God of the bible telling us that the Earth is heavy!).

      • MadScientist
        Posted December 3, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        I agree; it’s not that long ago that I was rolling on the floor laughing at Eric Hovind’s ignorance as he spoke about how the Great Flood came about and so on. Apparently the sky is a fixed sphere full of water, the water cascaded to earth because god wanted it to, and then went back into the sky where it has remained since.

  5. Damian
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    “Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking.”
    The rest of the article can be deleted!
    The only reason to wade through the rest of the murky article is for dissection purposes.This is to understand(if that is possible) the mind(mush) of a theologian

  6. Rebecca
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    You know, I write fiction as a hobby, making me like a creator-god in the world of my novels. One of my guideposts, and one I’ve seen many authors live by, is if the characters ever met me on the road, and knew who I was, they’d punch me in the nose (or whatever way they would express Extreme Displeasure). Because I am doing it for The Drama, which makes me not a benevolent deity at all. I wouldn’t expect them to worship me — maybe try to bribe me into writing them some good turns, or get me to just let the story stew on my harddrive instead of writing more misery for them. I most certainly wouldn’t expect them to love me, even if I adore them.

    I guess you could believe that life was just some setup by an artist deity composing some masterpiece for his inner muse, one who loves his work, but I don’t think I’d be thankful to be in this guy’s work.

  7. Eric MacDonald
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    One of your best, Jerry! This really takes ‘serious theology’ seriously, and shows that, at its heart is a vacuum sucking away like mad until there is no sense or meaning, purpose, understanding or reason left. Well done.

    I’ve just been reading John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love. Hick (without being aware of it) makes a very telling assumption. The problem of evil is, he says, a subject, a <branch of theology! But at the same time he also tells us that this problem lays upon faith a “perpetual burden of doubt.” Which, of course, is bizarre, as bizarre as Haught’s idea that theology is – who’d have thunk it?! – better than science, because it deals with the drama of existence, instead of with the rigor mortis of perfect design! Never mind that it is often a tragedy, this drama. This is just what the perpetual burden of doubt at work on faith is, no doubt -just part of the drama! But notice, doubt doesn’t really question faith, which is presupposed, just as mystery doesn’t seem to make definite knowledge about God inaccessible.

    Yes, people actually take this drek seriously. They expound upon it in books. Sermons are preached about it. Bible study groups wrestle with it. The religious gather together and solemnly talk about the problem of keeping faith in a suffering world. They say to people who are ‘angry with God’ for all the suffering they have endured, “That’s okay. God can take your anger.” And all of this taking faith and theology seriously is part of the drama too!

  8. Occam
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Don’t be so cross (pun intended).
    This is Haught’s way of saying ‘nolo contendere’ without throwing in his theologian’s badge. After all, we’ve all got to stick with the jobs we’ve got, in the current economy.

    He’s mastered the maxim “if you cant beat ‘em, join ‘em”. Make allowance for a little face-saving horseplay. After all, he could still be useful, in the next Dover trial.

    (Cynicism flag raised, for those with a high irony threshold.)

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      It does seem that Haught aptly demonstrates Nulla In Verba although for him the emptiness of words is the basis of his beliefs rather than a starting point for inquiry.

  9. Michelle B
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Orr: But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    _____

    Yes, it is. Next.

  10. Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Yes, this is about as good as religion gets. Pathetic, isn’t it?

    When I was a Christian, I used to read a fair amount of this stuff, hoping to find something that could answer the big questions. All one ever gets is wandering nonsense like this or else assertions that contradict the available evidence.

    In many ways, I prefer to engage the fundies who at least try to defend what their holy book(s) actually say, instead of “theologians” who seem to make up a new religion with every article, believed by no-one but the writer.

  11. Gingerbaker
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I got vertigo from the final Haughty bit, the tortured prose as the Abrahamic god is crowbarred into an acute centripetal arc back to his thesis.

    But his reentry has missed its coordinates, since he spent the whole previous corpus justifying the cruelty, not the “infinite love” of his supreme being. Any of the 10,000 or so deities which preceded his ‘loving’ god would have fit the bill very nicely.

  12. PGPWNIT
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Lack of evidence of God is proof of God.

    Love it.

  13. Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Oh, gawd – that is truly desperate. The drama of life – viewed dramatically – the narrative depths of life – dramatic stories that carry truly deep significance – comic twists and tragic turns. In other words, shit happens, and there’s no getting around that, so let’s dress it up as God playing Euripides!

  14. Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    “He’s already managed to rationalize all the horrible stuff that convinced Darwin and others that if there was a god tweaking the process, it wasn’t a beneficent one.”

    Well they have to, don’t they – it’s that or give up and get a respectable job, like maintaining the sewer system.

    But that is what they’re reduced to, the poor dears – looking at the horrors and then coming up with some pile of words that can make it all seem pretty and full of ‘meaning.’ It’s a mug’s game, if you ask me.

    • Posted December 4, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      Actually, he’s just said he should indeed give up his job:

      So whatever meaning the drama of life may be carrying cannot become transparent to our present intellectual efforts or scientific observations.

      See? We should just give up already, and just sit back and wait for the drama to unfold.

      • Posted December 5, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        I love that “cannot become transparent” kind of thing – it’s such a good excuse for talking any old nonsense.

  15. Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Well, if Haught exemplifies “meticulous reasoning” and “sophisticated expressions of belief,”

    It seems safe to assume that a piece in the Washington Post doesn’t exemplify the most “sophisticated expressions of belief”; it seems safe to assume that more “sophisticated” versions can be found in professional journals of philosophy. But it also seems safe to assume that the actual content, as opposed to the verbiage, is not in the least more sophisticated, because if it were, Haught would have presented it.

    In other words, ‘sophisticated’ theologians probably say [the kind of thing Haught said here] in more convoluted jargony pseudo-impressive language, in the journals of their guild. But convoluted jargony pseudo-impressive language doesn’t make the actual substance one bit more convincing or justified.

  16. Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    Congratulations, Allen Orr, you got the point of the book!

  17. H.H.
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Theologically understood, biological evolution is part of an immense cosmic journey into the incomprehensible mystery of God.

    So if we really understood things, we’d realize it’s all an incomprehensible mystery. But then wouldn’t that mean that Haught must necessarily have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about?

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Oh, but he does – he’s special, god lets him know what god wants. We see that sort of behavior over and over again with many doomsday cults: the world is going to end, Mr. X is god’s special envoy and god says give him lots of sex, especially from barely pubescent women.

      • H.H.
        Posted December 3, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        It’s just so…vapid. “Theologically understood…biology is incomprehensible.” Then I guess that means theology is a useless explanation, which is what atheists have been saying all along. Who falls for this crap? How are people within arms-length of Haught not smacking him on the back of the head when he says stuff like this?

  18. Karel de Pauw
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Lucid and succinct, as always, Jerry! But didn’t David Hull in his review of Phillip Johnson’s ‘Darwin on Trial” (Nature, August 8, 1991) say it all?

    ‘What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomized by the species on Darwin’s Galápagos Islands? The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror.. Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural history may be like, he [sic] is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not a loving God who cares about his productions. He is not even the awful God pictured in the Book of Job. The God of the Galápagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.’

    • Occam
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      On the Eighth Day, the Lord proudly showed Lucifer around.
      The more Lucifer beheld, the more he shook his head.
      In the end, he couldn’t take it any longer:
      “This your first world?”

  19. Notorious P.A.T.
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking. But does it make good sense theologically as well?”

    Who cares?

    To paraphrase Charles Pierce: that’s like saying “treating an infection with antibiotics makes good sense medically, but does it make sense artistically?”

    • jdhuey
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Well, on the TV show House it can.

  20. newenglandbob
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Haught is nothing but a drama queen who uses oxymoronic terms and a tossed word salad to rationalize the irrational and to hide the fact that he has no arguments.

  21. Norm
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s the ultimate Panglossian cop-out: Instead of having to repeatedly draw new lines in the theological sand under the steady onslaught of science, you simply expand your theology to include … everything! Give me what you got science – it’s all part of God’s mysterious (and loving) plan … even if it doesn’t seem like it.

  22. Dave J L
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    “I propose, however, that religious thought can make significant contact with Darwin’s science if instead of focusing on design it turns its attention to the drama of life.”

    That bit’s my favourite, ‘I propose’. You propose what, exactly? It’s not a scientific proposition, because you’re not going to go on and use any actual evidence or logic, let alone actually acquire any new knowledge. But then neither is it properly philosophical, in the manner of a thought experiment or other way of stimulating logical thought for its own sake, rather than attempting to reach conclusions, because you do seem to be wanting to say something factual about the world.

    What Haught wants to propose, like all the have-your-cake-and-eat-it my-religion-is-intellectually-viable-too theologians, is something in between, something that tries to reach an actual definite we-have-knowledge-of-this conclusion about something through merely thinking about it (thinking in a twisted, religiously-biased assume-the-conclusion way anyway). But it fails like all similar attempts do; there’s no evidence to support a factual argument, nor any logic to make even a coherent thought-stimulus otherwise.

    It is quite literally a stream of empty statements and meaningless drivel.

  23. Damian
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,
    I hope my earlier comments were not misconstrued as being offensive.When it was said that “the rest…deleted” I did not mean “your” entire post but was speaking about the rest of “John Haught’s “sophisticated” theology”. My reason for being so dismissive of theology in general is that it is essentially a “word-spinning act in sophistry” exercise.

  24. North of 49
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Santi: Haught is suggesting that the universe’s story, not having played out yet, cannot be reliably narrated until we know the end.

    That’s the keynote, it seems to me. In other words, he’s trying to buy time for religion by saying that, since we’re still in the middle of the drama, there are still mysteries waiting to unfold. Therefore science can’t say for certain that religion isn’t relevant, since one of those mysteries just might, maybe, reveal the Hand of God. And since the jury’s still out (in his mind), then religion “is too” still relevant, at least until he retires.

  25. bad Jim
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I think I understand how to reconcile atheism and religion. Just as everyone can agree that God doesn’t hear the prayers of atheists [1], we can all agree that God provides and religion reveals the meaning [2] and purpose [3]of life. In Haught’s and similar teaching, unfortunately, the purpose and meaning remain obscure, but there is at least the assurance that they exist.

    [1] This requires the stipulation that atheists never pray.

    [2] Which is to say, none. I don’t mean to suggest that we find our lives meaningless – after all, we can even have meaningful one-night stands – but asking “What is the meaning of life?” is like asking “What is the flavor of dinner?”

    [3] None again. We live purposefully, but we are not tools in the hands of an artificer. Teleological thinking is nearly universal. An educated but unscientific friend once asked me “What good are flies?”

    A Unitarian chaplain related that most of his clients believed that everything happens for a reason. For one patient with terminal cancer, it was reconciliaton with her father. There’s no question that religion offers an inexhaustible supply of rationalizations.

    • bad Jim
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      No less a wise man than Woody Allen noted that God answers all prayers, but the answer is nearly always “No.”

  26. scott
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    and he did manage to call you an:

    atheistic evolutionist

    he doesn’t call you “biologists” or “scientists” … or “evolutionary biologists” but “evolutionists” because your thinking needs to be identified distinctly from that of a “scientist”.

    Just sayin’

  27. MadScientist
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    “give me snake-handling any day (now there’s real drama!)”

    I disagree; there’s hardly any drama in handling serpents. People are just too scared of those critters for no good reason. Even venomous snakes are handled regularly with only very rare incidences of bites. Power tools cause more mutilation and death than the poor maligned serpents.

  28. homosoicus
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Haught admits that he has no idea what he’s talking about.

    “God is incomprehensible, but let me tell you all about it anyway.”

    I’m not saying anything, I’m just sayin’.

  29. Cafeeine
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    Funnily enough, Haught’s proposal that the universe is defined by narrative , is exemplified in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels. It shows pretty much what such a world would be like (including fictional).

    • Iain Walker
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Pratchett is also fond of pointing out that Homo sapiens would be better named Pan narrans – the storytelling ape. We have a tendency to conceptualise sequences of events in narrative terms.

      So when Haught wonders “whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning”, the answer is: Yes, if we choose to make it so. I.e., if we attempt to understand it as a narrative, then in doing so we can impose meaning and significance on it. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just as long as we’re aware that the meaning is imposed and the significance created by us, rather than being some kind of objective “fact” about the events in question.

      What it doesn’t mean is that it somehow makes sense to posit a divine dramatist. Or does Haught also want to claim that the fact that we can count the stars in the sky means that it makes sense to posit a cosmic bookkeeper?

  30. Tim Harris
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Keith Ward, Alistair McGrath, ex-Bishop Harries, the Ineffable Eagleton – the theologians or, in Eagleton’s case, pretend theologians (though there’s not much difference) are all doing the same thing, just as John Henry Newman did: coming up with any old argument to justify what to them is beyond argument. One would have more respect for them if they simply repeated mantra-like the Nicene Creed and asserted their belief in it. What quite clearly the so-called New Atheism has done is to present an unanswerable case, and this accounts to a large extent to the litany of complaints and apologetics that pour from these peole’s mouths and pens

  31. Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    The shorter Haught:

    “God works in mysterious ways.”

    He could have just said that and saved himself a lot of writing, and not left anything out.

  32. Harvey
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    All of this need to find deeper “meaning” in the “narrative” of the Universe is a simple restatement of the believer’s unwillingness to accept the biological truth that we humans are animals, subject to all the same life issues as any other. We exist for no greater “purpose” than to survive long enough to reproduce and then enough longer to nurture those offspring until they, in turn, can reproduce. Religionists of every stripe simply find it unacceptable to realize that there is no “higher” purpose.

    Once one accepts this viewpoint, the need for any deity, let alone one who has any ongoing interest in or impact upon its “creation” drops out of the picture. As our scientific knowledge of the realities of this Universe continue to expand, it becomes incumbent upon believers to either ignore these facts or to go through ever increasing mental gymnastics to allow them to hold on to their “beliefs”.

  33. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution–unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time–that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.

    All bow before the God who is indistinguishable from random chance!

  34. jdhuey
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    These ‘sophisticated’ theologians keep saying that they are different from those ‘fundamentalists’ kick type theists but once the layers of verbiage are peeled back it is simply: pot meet kettle.

  35. efrique
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I defy Haught to describe any possible evolutionary scenario that he couldn’t rationalize as part of God’s plan.

    I suspect the biggest difficulty is that Haught would simply be completely unable to see why not being able to do this is a fatal problem, or even a problem at all. In fact I expect he’d hold it up as a tour de force for god.

  36. DangerMouse
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I have always wondered why for some people of faith, there is no intellectual respect given to the fact that other people examine life and science and their own experience and just simply and thoughtfully disagree.

    but as a person of faith who does not reject science, I find it equally concerning that there seems to be no intellectual respect given to the fact that people through their own full experience of life might still thoughtfully accept God as a matter of faith. Both sides have this scorched earth policy that is simply disrespectful.

    I do not believe that faith has any role in scientific inquiry for that is not its domain. Faith by its very nature to me is unquantifiable. It is only ones faith, however you may define it (believer, non believer, atheist, etc) that decides whether or not it needs to be scientific and quantifiable to be relevant. For me I can equally accept that evolution scientifically explains the origin and development of our species and keep my relationship with God as a fabric of my interpretation of my surroundings and interactions. In my earnest quest to understand my life and role on this earth I have never found the two in direct conflict.

    I only wish that both communities could, while perhaps disagreeing on certain aspects of the universe and their place in it… acknowledge and respect the genuine and valid thoughts and opinions of those who hold opinions contrary to their own.

    The very definition of faith is that it is based not on proof. I wish that people everywhere could respect that faith does not therefor have a scientific legitimacy, but that also does not mean that it holds no legitimacy at all or legitimacy or relevance in a different way – any more than art or poetry are subjective pursuits and cannot be categorically quantified – it doesn’t make the pursuit of them “wrong”

    There is room for both scientific thought and the pursuit of faith, I only wish people pursuing either front with vigor could do so with both the honesty and respect to note that people might view the same substance and arrive at different conclusions.

    • Cafeeine
      Posted December 5, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      “The very definition of faith is that it is based not on proof. I wish that people everywhere could respect that faith does not therefor have a scientific legitimacy, but that also does not mean that it holds no legitimacy at all or legitimacy or relevance in a different way”

      Dangermouse, you would find that if it weren’t for the multitude who DO wish to have scientific legitimacy for their faith-based ideas, atheists would likely not be as vocal as we are. And in comparison with art, the only conflicts I can remember having to do with art, were the various iconoclasms, based on religious convictions. Neither I, nor I suspect Jerry, has ever come up to the doorstep of any dangermouse, to tell them “nyah nyah, your god is a fake!” unlike many believers.

      As for respect, I do respect you as a person, I can respect that certain beliefs you hold are comforting for you, but when you tell me that certain beliefs are true in some unspecified sense, in spite of any evidence. I can’t respect that. I respect people too much not to tell them straight up when I think they are talking rubbish.

      If someone comes up to me and tells me they respect the science of medicine and all of its achievements, but will rather pray for god to cure their child instead of taking it to a doctor, I will have no semblance of respect for their different conclusions, and I will not apologize for that.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    In the paragraph right above this one, Haught sees God as an “incomprehensible mystery.” How, then, does he know that God is a “God of infinite love”?

    Indeed. To cast this in a form that I can know about ;-), it isn’t a problem to hypothesize that gods are “of infinite love”. But as there is no way of testing this claim if one also claim that the observations of “the random mutations, the extinctions, the pain, the waste” as not testing “love” (so it is a weird and immoral “love”, a love in name only), “infinite love” isn’t knowable in any operative sense of the world.

    A set of great jokesters are more believable.

  38. Posted December 8, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I find it interesting that in your clueless rant against Haught you managed to quote one of his statements directly (in which he uses the words “aroused, though not coercively driven, by a God of infinite love”) and then focused on the “infinite love” part without paying any attention whatsoever to the “aroused, though not coercively driven” part. I say this because you certainly went off half cocked, claiming that Haught’s theology argues that “God is just a big playwright, directing a big script that none of us will ever be able to see to its end (or even comprehend), but whose working out surely amuses Him.” In fact, he clearly believes nothing of the sort.

    For what it’s worth, although Haught denies being a process theologian, his theology is clearly very strongly influenced by it, and that fact that you leaped to the conclusion that Haught believes that God is an omnipotent “playwright” who has somehow “scripted” the universe shows more about how you as an ex-evangelical are so influenced by your preconceptions about all of theology that even when you somehow at some level almost seem to grasp that theologians like Haught don’t conform to those preconceptions, you end up betraying the fact that you really don’t get that at all and you end up arguing against your preconceptions rather than against anything that Haught actually has to say.

    Old habits die hard, and ingrained presuppositions like those you cling to from your evangelical background probably explain both your inability to grasp what Haught believes and the vitriol with which you attack beliefs you don’t comprehend.

    • Posted December 8, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      I should correct myself–you are obviously not an ex-evangelical. What I should say is that your make assumptions about religion and about what theologians belief as if you were an ex-evangical.

  39. Wes
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    As a philosopher, I can say unequivocally that I find theologians hijacking philosophy to be extremely annoying.

    But what’s more annoying is the inability to distinguish between a metaphor and a literal truth. The universe does not have a “narrative”. A novel only exists as a narrative created by the author. This is not true of the universe. It exists independently of ourselves, and it’s arrogant to suggest otherwise.

  40. H.H.
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Seneca also said “but I ain’t getting my hopes up.”

  41. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Well, if the are “hijacking” philosophy (and it seems to me they do), then philosophy has a problem (and it seems to me it has).

    If they are merely shrouding themselves with it like the naked emperor is doing with science, it is extremely annoying indeed.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Coyne goes on to demolish John Haught’s Washington Post article about how evolution was part of his deity’s plan. [...]

  2. [...] Ein Artikel über die populäre Religionsapologetin Karen Armstrong und eine Kritik der „aufgeklärten“ Theologie von John Haught durch den Biologen Jerry Coyne. Haught versucht sich ebenfalls daran, Gott mit der [...]

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