Posted by: paulgarner | March 27, 2012

Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist

Last night I had the opportunity to hear Robert Asher, Curator of Mammals in the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, give a lecture based on his new book, Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist (CUP, 2012).

His talk consisted of three main points:

    1) Biodiversity evolved by means of descent with modification. This, he said, is supported by a great deal of evidence including the consilience of phylogenetic trees constructed over the last 150 years using very different data sets and the high degree of age-clade congruence observed in the fossil record. He qualified these points somewhat by pointing out that not all parts of the tree of life have remained static (there have been major changes with respect to mammalian interrelationships, for instance) and that preservational factors can sometimes introduce “noise” to fossil sequences. However, overall, he asserted, evolution is well attested by these kinds of data.

    2) Evolution is not atheistic, though it is often portrayed as such. Both anti-theists such as Richard Dawkins and creationists conflate agency with cause when they assert that evolution necessarily excludes the existence of God. Asher argued that it is perfectly legitimate to see God as the agency behind natural processes, including evolution, just as Darwin himself did.

    3) Religion (but not superstition) and science are compatible. Asher stated that rationality and natural law testify to the existence of God and that the Bible contains many timeless truths. However, he also asserted that the Bible says other things that cannot be true given our current state of scientific knowledge. These he rejected as “superstitions”, among them the causal link between sin and death, Adam and Eve as progenitors of the entire human race, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ, and the miracle stories in the Gospels.

In the question time that followed the matter of death and suffering was raised a couple of times. When challenged to explain how belief in a benevolent deity could be reconciled with the amount of suffering necessitated by evolution, Asher’s responses were unconvincing. He could only suggest that death is necessary, that life without death equals cancer. That did not seem to satisfy the questioners and it doesn’t satisfy me either. It seems that this really is the Achilles heel of the theistic evolutionary position, at least for conservative evangelicals and probably for many atheists. Once we abandon the causal link between sin and death the necessity of Christ’s own sufferings to pay for sin becomes inexplicable.

In the end I think Asher was able to establish the compatibility of evolution with the existence of God, so long as that God works undetectably behind the scenes and doesn’t do very much. But what I want to know is whether evolution is compatible with the God of Holy Scripture and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Asher’s rejection of foundational biblical truths makes me wonder. Certainly, he left that case unmade.



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