I wasn’t aware until recently that Oxford University Press published, in 2010, a short (93-page) back-and-forth argument between philosopher Dan Dennett and theologian Alvin Plantinga, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? I’ve just polished off the whole thing, and, once again, I was profoundly unimpressed by the quality of modern “sophisticated” theology—at least as espoused by Plantinga.
Dennett is too well known here to need introduction, but Plantinga is in fact a well known and highly respected Christian theologian, as well as a professor at Notre Dame. He was president of the western division of the American Philosophical Society, has six honorary degrees, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wikipedia lists twelve books among his “selected works.” Nobody with those qualifications could be regarded as unsophisticated.
Yet in the book Plantinga argues strongly that evolution was guided directly by God to result in humans (who were of course made in his own image), asserts that “random” mutations could actually have been created by God to lead to humans, and approves of the idea of intelligent design as espoused by Michael Behe. He also holds the view, shared by William Lane Craig, that the existence of the human rational faculty, and our ability to find out truth about the universe, cannot be explained by evolution but must instead be a result of God’s largesse. I won’t go into that dumb argument since I’ve discussed it earlier, as has P. Z. Myers.
I just want to mention briefly how Plantinga uses theology to rationalize the suffering and waste that accompanies evolution via natural selection. Since he sees natural selection as being pretty heavily directed by God, he can’t simply fob this misery off on God’s having just jump-started the process and gone to lunch. But Plantinga does recognize the problem, quoting Philip Kitcher: “When we envisage a human analogue presiding over a miniaturized version of the arrangement—it’s hard to equip the face with a kindly expression.”
Plantiga sees the suffering of humans and animals under natural selection as part of the “so-called problem of evil.” How does he rationalize this, since God’s pulling the strings here? Thusly:
My own favorite response is the “O Felix Culpa” response, according to which all the really good possible worlds involved divine incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement. But then all the best possible worlds also involve a great deal of sin and as a consequence a great deal of suffering. Some of this suffering is on the part of nonhuman creatures. Christians think of suffering, both human and nonhuman, as due in one way or another to sin, although not necessarily to human sin; there are also Satan and his minions, who may, as C. S. Lewis suggests, be involved in one way or another in the evolution of the nonhuman living world.
Shades of Voltaire! The best possible world involves sin, suffering, and atonement. But why is that? Wouldn’t a better world not have suffering and atonement?
Now animals presumably suffer because of the Fall—even though they didn’t do anything wrong!—and the evils produced by non-human causes (tsunamis, infectious organisms that kill children) are also the result of human sin. But the worst part is Plantinga’s invocation of Satan; it’s almost as bad as his invocation of C. S. Lewis. Presumably, then, some “sophisticated” theologians (as well as nearly 70% of the American public) believe that Satan is real. “Sophisticated” theology appears in this respect to be resemble “folk theology”.