Modern Christian theism: survival of the fittest?

On last weekend’s Unbelievable? broadcast/podcast, Alister McGrath and Stephen Law discussed some key points of McGrath’s book, Why Won’t God Go Away? One of Stephen Law’s primary arguments is that in a universe pervaded by a mixture of good and evil, we have no more evidence for an omnimalevolent god than we have for an omnibenevolent one. In response to McGrath’s contention that there are various Christian ways to explain evil while maintaining omnibenevolence, Law dismissively agreed how clever and sophisticated theological arguments have indeed become over 2,000 years of development. McGrath responded,

And certainly, Stephen is right, there are various notions of God down the ages, and by a process of, if you like, Darwinian attrition some of these have simply been left dead on the seashore of life. But the key point is that this vision of God remains enormously influential because people find it resonates with their experience of the world and [it is] their own way of engaging their experience.

Bear in mind, McGrath is adamant that there should be no talk of “proving” any of this in any direction. But in the absence of anything resembling proof, one of the main reasons I remain a Christian is because it indeed “resonates with [my] experience of the world”. I found the implication that the Christian understanding of a good and loving God has survived, adapted, and grown in popularity because it has been deemed especially “fit” for making sense of the world to be a fascinating idea. If someone replied that “fittest” doesn’t mean “most accurate”, that would play somewhat into Plantinga’s (problematic) evolutionary argument against naturalism, wouldn’t it?

McGrath’s was a modest claim, not a “proof”, nor even much of a “pointer”. But I found it intriguing nonetheless. What do you think?

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  • Richard Goulette

    Steve, I think that the more honest and humble people are(and we’re talking smart people like McGrath)the more “reasonable” they are. Like Tom Honey in the TED link I’m attaching to this response, sometimes modesty or actually admitting not knowing why things happen the way they do (Why would God allow the Tsunami?)displays that hope that resonates with us in Hebrews 11:1 for instance, a confidence that we have, but without cold, empirical data. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wdkxdiOFJA

  • Slightly off topic, but what do you think about the evolutionary argument against naturalism? ISTM, that Chesterton utilized something akin to this argument in Orthodoxy:

    “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

    • I’m not that enthralled with it personally. Sure, in principle we could all
      be misled, and all the signs could be falsely pointing to our accurately
      apprehending the universe, but it must be admitted that they do so
      remarkably predictably. Our deductions and inductions work a bit too well
      for me not to depend upon their veracity. So in the end, while a clever
      argument, it strains my credulity.

  • The problem is a comfy western experience would tend to point to a God of blessing wouldn’t it? It’s when we look out past our borders and see wanton suffering that we wonder if either the deists or the atheists are right. The experience of many people may indeed confirm an indifferent or malevolent God. What do you do with that?

    • Yes. I don’t think that educated intellectuals from the first world have a right to engage in theodicy. If someone is going to defend God in light of human suffering, let it be a human who is actually suffering.

      • I see your point, but I disagree. Rather, I’d say that I don’t think that educated intellectuals from the first world have the ability to boldly assert the best universal explanation. We all have an equal right to make sense of things, and sometimes it is those who are removed from a situation who are in a better position to evaluate the situation (hence we can condemn the purported Canaanite conquest, which seemed justified enough to those involved). I’m not saying that “educated intellectuals from the first world” are in a better position, but we certainly have a “right” to believe that a benevolent God can make sense of more evils in the world than we have personally experienced.

    • Good question, but of course experience doesn’t prove anything, does it?
      We’re talking about the much more modest suggestion of the most compelling
      explanation. Consider that there are plenty of people in those suffering
      environments who nonetheless find that belief in a benevolent God is the
      preferable explanation. Here again, no proof, nor even “evidence”, but a way
      of looking at things.

  • Scott Gray

    Why would McGrath be adamant that there be no talk of proof in either argument? What value does he perceive in arguments without proof? It seems to me he’s grounding these ‘stories of resonance’ in the emic (lived experience) and deliberately avoiding, and hence by such omission discounting, the etic (facts and figures).

    In which case his conclusions feel good, but may or may not be true.

    Scott

    • The problem is that it’s all emic, isn’t it? How/if we approach and evaluate
      the facts and figures is dependent on the experiences that make up our
      existence. Conclusively determining what is “true” is simply not in the
      cards.

  • Scott Gray

    Steve–

    You’re spot on. What’s ‘true’ is simply not in the cards, certainly not for theological principles and beliefs. And yet almost everyone I speak to wants their principles to be rooted in truth, and wants me to agree with them that their principles are rooted in truth.

    Scott

  • Scott Gray

    Steve–

    I want to explain a bit more. Emic is full of strong feelings of joy, sorrow, grief, anger, and the like. It’s the source of a sense of rich living, rich connection, rich belonging.

    It’s also the source of an incredible number of fallacies, manipulations, and advantage takings. I play poker; there are an incredible number of people who sit at the table with me who fall prey probability fallacies, based on their experiences in the past (or their interpretations or memories of experieinces in the past). An etic explanation changes nothing, because for these folks it’s not richly connected to their poker playing. Decisions made in emic experiences, without etic considerations, may work or they may not.

    As regards theodicy issues, you may feel you are at the ugly end of a number of detrimental changes in your life, and yet still feel God is benevolent. But it isn’t reasonable. Reason says, if God is anthropopathic, omnipresent, omniscent, and benevolent, then bad things won’t happen to good people. Reason says that at least one of those attributes of God is not true.

    But there we are, again, trying to tangle what’s true with what’s intensely experienced.

    Life may be all about what’s emic, but if reason and truth are important, the etic has to come into play.

    Scott

    • My point is that our experiences, as imperfectly as you stress, drive not only our evaluation of but our very acquisition of (i.e. whether or not we ever actually encounter) the relevant facts. I’m sure you know that I’m not saying we shouldn’t use our reason to evaluate all the data we have available, but the issue is humility; we can only work with what we’ve got, while searching deeper for other possibilities, all the while coming up with the explanations that make the most sense of our emic and etic data and especially what helps us navigate through our world. The inference I drew from McGrath’s passing comment (which he may not even have fully intended) is that Christianity through the centuries has been culled to exclude the possibilities that discord most strongly with reason and experience, such that we have a still imperfect instrument that’s nonetheless been “tuned” by selective pressures. The important thing is to realize that we’re not done with the process yet, nor ever will be.

      And please don’t see this post as a wholesale endorsement of McGrath or his book; I generally find his arguments less odious than many apologists, but he is, after all, an apologist just the same. 😉

  • Scott Gray

    Steve—

    ‘Culling’ is about evolution; I think evolution comes in several flavors:

    In biology, it’s about filling niches. ‘Fitness’ for a particular species is about ‘finding’ (I’m trying to avoid too much anthropomorphic or teleological intent or motivation, but the verbs are tough) a niche where it can survive (and flourish, but again, that may be too anthropomorphic).

    In models, it’s about finding a closer description or explanation of truth and reality. Like physics and chemistry models of the atom, for instance.

    In community/society, it’s about moving toward an ideology, or standard, or pragmatic best fit of some sort, depending on which philosopher/ sociologist/economist you’re talking to.

    When you talk about Christianity evolving through culling so that experience and reason are less discordant, are we talking about a social principle standard that we are striving to reach? A model of reality that we are trying to make truer? Or an improvement of ‘Christianity-as-species’ fitness to a particular niche?

    It seems to me that this reason-oriented ‘culled’ Christianity has fitness for an emic niche of reconciling reason and experience, but other species of Christianity in other emic niches that don’t value reconciling reason and experience still survive and thrive. I’m not sure that this reason-oriented ‘culled’ version has any evolutionary primacy in Christian mutations and adaptations. It’s all about fitness to a niche.

    I like this Christian species in this particular niche, myself. And I would like to think there is primacy in it. I would like to think that embracing this understanding would improve the emic lives of everyone who does so. That’s why, regardless of my understanding of God, the Jesus teachings resonate with my experience—I think if we don’t embrace this set of teachings, that fewer people will experience prosperity, or shalom, or eudaimonia.

    But I’m not sure that this species of Christianity rooted in reconciling reason and experience is adaptable enough for a wide range of social niches. I think other species of Christianity do and will continue to hold a higher market share (even though I think they will be detrimental to human flourishing in the long run. But that’s from my emic experience…)

    Scott

    • Great comment, Scott. Not sure how I didn’t see this before now!

  • zarkoff45

    I have an argument against Plantinga’s argument on my YouTube channel:

    http://youtu.be/eU-wpNOyuas