Atheists seem to be generally convinced that religious people are either irrational, prejudiced, or indoctrinated. One of their most common assertions is that religious people uncritically accept what is neither intuitively obvious nor easily explained, and that such acceptance is clearly wrong. They’ll probe ever so slightly into a religious topic, show that some sort of difficulty seems to emerge, then suggest that religious people have clearly never thought about their beliefs. As the argument goes, If religious people did think about things, they would obviously stop being religious people.
Now, I’m entirely in favor of people thinking about their beliefs–I’m entirely in favor of people thinking in general, contrary to the “feel don’t think” movement–but I disagree with the claim that it’s clearly wrong if they don’t critically engage their beliefs. Even more, it doesn’t seem that atheists should really make that claim, since they don’t seem to agree with it either.
Atheists don’t object when people accept evolution without thinking, but it’s just as vulnerable to the kind of light probing they tend to use against theology. Thinking about it just a little bit yields a bunch of obvious difficulties. According to their own sort of reasoning, those difficulties ought to cause the average person to reject it. Let me illustrate what I mean.
First though, let me be clear that my point here is not to argue against evolution, but to show that evolution isn’t intuitively obvious or easily explained. It presents the same sort of obvious difficulties that can be produced by a cursory glance at theology. A deeper analysis might eliminate the trouble, but I’m inclined to think that a deeper analysis of theology tends to produce the same effect. My point is this, atheists should be more careful about attacking the uncritical acceptance of beliefs, since it’s an expedient that they themselves employ.
On Animals That Change Shape
I read an article recently about how polar bears are in the process of evolving into aquatic animals. It didn’t mean that 50 years from now they would be something like seals, but that some untold millions of years from now, there would be a species of aquatic things which were the great…great grandchildren of polar bears.
Scientists usually explain what might happen to the bears a bit like this. Certain animals are better adapted to living in the water already, so those animals are the ones that live longest and breed most. Their cubs inherit their strong traits and continue to pass them on. The process is refined further as minor but helpful traits have the chance to gain dominance over a large number of generations. None of this is determined by chance, it’s all the result of the best suited animal being the most successful.
On first blush this is just optimization though, a matter of emphasis. If two tall people get married and have kids, their kids will likely grow tall because they’re inheriting the tall example of the height gene. If those kids then marry tall people and have tall kids, who then repeat the process until short people no longer occur, it will be because the tall example of the height gene is all that’s left. It’s the same with the bears: the aquatic-ness of the bears is a manifestation of certain particular examples of bear genes. Successive generations bring out those examples because they’re helpful to the bears.
Interestingly though, the genetic building blocks of both the bears and the tall people are the same after all of those generations. They haven’t become a new sort of animal, they’ve just become a specific sort of people or bears. If anything actually, they’re genetically less diverse than when they started. All of the traits like shortness or non-aquatic-ness have become rare. If those traits were genetically dominant–that is to say that they would appear if present–then they must have been eliminated entirely.
What this seems to mean is pretty straightforward: unless they already had the genes to be water animals, the bears couldn’t become water animals. Worse still, if they could become water animals and did become water animals, it was probably bad for them; genetic diversity is a good thing for a species, so losing it is a bad thing.
This isn’t evolution in a broad sense though, because these animals aren’t developing into other animals over millennia, and they’re certainly not developing into complex things from simple things. They’re just changing shape as successive generations emphasize different and more helpful parts of their genetic code. They’re more like those famous toy robots that can change shape when required. If anything, this strengthens the exact problem evolution is supposed to solve: instead of wondering how a particular animal came about, we have to wonder how a species came about that could be so many different sorts of animal.
For evolution to make any sense, the actual genetic building blocks have to change too. This brings us to the next problem.
On Animals That Change Genes
If we want to imagine that the bears are actually going to become a different animal over millions of years, we have to imagine that their genetic code, their genome, is going to change. As the theory goes, there are two general ways that this could happen. The genome might develop through internal factors like mutation, or it might be influenced by external factors like hybridization with other species.
Lets look at mutation first and imagine that one of our bears has developed a helpful genetic mutation, like slightly better webbed feet or somewhat thicker blubber. This is probably going to give the aspiring water-bear an advantage over its fellows, the sort of which evolution is comprised. Unfortunately, we’re left with the awkward problem of spreading that mutation across the species.
Future cubs can only possibly inherit that trait from our single mutant bear and our mutant bear’s descendants. Most obviously, this is a move away from diversity again. Not only do all of the bears in our future species all come from the same family–a phenomenon called pedigree collapse–they all have to have the single mutant trait. If the mutation isn’t successfully passed to the entire species, it isn’t really changing the genome of the species. If the genome doesn’t change, we’re back to shape-changing animals. In short, mutation can only help if it removes diversity, and removing diversity is generally bad.
Events like hybridization don’t fare much better. Another article I read talked about how the cross-breeding of species is a normal part of evolution, unfortunately it didn’t explain how the result was helpful. The example it gave was the interbreeding of coyotes and wolves to create a thing sometimes called a coywolf, so lets talk about them. (And here we’re going to completely ignore the most obvious flaw with this approach, which is that the animals have to be similar in order to create hybrids at all, so this isn’t a particularly useful way of creating species change.)
There are three possibilities: the coywolf might be better fitted for survival than one or both of its parents, it might be equally fitted for survival, or it might be less fitted for survival. If it’s less fitted for survival though, it seems obvious that it’s production isn’t aiding the survival of the fittest, so lets ignore that third option.
The second option–the coywolf being equally fitted for survival–becomes largely meaningless pretty quickly. If the coywolf exclusively breeds with other coywolfs, then the process has certainly created a new and equally viable species–that sounds diverse–but the two original species remain genetically unchanged, so the hybridization hasn’t actually helped our evolutionary problem with regard to wolves and coyotes. At best it’s created a third species for which we now have an evolutionary problem.
On the other hand, if the coywolf instead breeds with a member of one of its parent species–this is what usually happens, it seems–then the coyote genome might become slightly more wolfish or the wolf genome slightly more coyote-ish, nudging the two species together slowly over time. The effect here would be roughly equivalent to that produced by the final hybrid possibility: the hybrid that’s more fit than its parents.
Whether the hybrid is more fit than its parents or is simply the inevitable consequence of repeated interbreeding, the result is one species where there used to be two. That species might in fact have more genetic diversity, but at the cost of broader ecological diversity. This might explain how one species develops, but it does so at the cost of explaining how any other species develop. Rather than allowing for a move from simple to complex, from common to diverse, it goes the other direction.
On Experts Who Change Discussions
Now, I readily expect that scientists could refute all of that. Like I said before, my goal wasn’t actually to argue against evolution. My goal was simply to point out that it wasn’t intuitively obvious, wasn’t easily explained, and was susceptible to critique if examined by an average sort of person.
Scientists and experts of all kinds may be able to explain away all of the troubles I just mentioned and do it easily, but the average adherent to evolution probably can’t. Even more, the fact that the average adherent probably can’t isn’t seen as much of a problem by most atheists. They’re more than willing to accept uncritical belief in evolution because the average adherent is trusting someone with expertise.
There’s a parallel though. The average Christian may not be able to answer all of the critiques that atheists level against theology, but it ought to be just as acceptable for that person though to appeal to an expert, in this case a trained theologian. Reliance on a trusted authority isn’t inherently bad. Any blanket attack on uncritical acceptance has to impugn the average atheist as well as the average Christian.
There is of course one additional point I’d like to make. Since the majority of people don’t have the time and resources to become experts about these things, it seems reasonable that the majority of people have the right to rely on authority. The crucial business becomes the choice of authority. I think, according to almost every standard, the average person has more reasons to trust Christian authorities than atheist ones.
Not only have Christian authorities been around significantly longer (by thousands of years), been trusted by more people (on the order of billions), and produced more global good (like an end to slavery), they generally have better and more obvious arguments that explain more experiences more effectively.
I suspect that last statement could use some unpacking, but I also suspect that I’ve talked quite long enough. I’m not running away though: if you want to talk about Christian apologetics, feel free to leave a comment or write an e-mail. Likely better than talking to me however, you could also read someone like G. K. Chesterton or talk to priest or pastor.