Dr. Karl Giberson, a scholar of science and religion, a former co-president of the Biologos Foundation, and the best-selling author of ten books, including Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, has written a blurb for atheist John Loftus’ new book, How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist (Pitchstone Publishing, November 2015), in which he openly admits that it undercuts his own evolutionary theodicy. Dr. Giberson’s blurb reads as follows:
For years I have despaired about the sorry state of Christian apologetics, and even sorrier state of Christian apologists. If there be Christian truth, it lies beyond the reach of rational inquiry, and perhaps that is OK. In How to Defend the Christian Faith, John Loftus lays waste to a colosseum full of bad arguments, including my own tentative efforts at the problem of evil. (Loftus says I am “ignorant” but less ignorant than Ken Ham, which was a relief.) Believers should read Loftus’s engaging assault on their intellectual champions. They will be dismayed at how often they agree. I know I was.”
–Karl Giberson is Scholar-in-Residence in Science & Religion at Stonehill College, and author of Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World.
Giberson’s laudatory review was the subject of a recent post over at John Loftus’ blog, Debunking Christianity, titled, Karl Giberson’s Blurb For My New Book (August 12, 2015). As many readers will be aware, Giberson is a well-known critic of both creationism and Intelligent Design, who debated Dr. Stephen Meyer in 2014 (see here for Giberson’s thoughts on that debate).
It turns out, however, that the problems besetting Giberson’s theodicy stem precisely from his uncritical acceptance of Darwinian evolution, as I will proceed to show. Had he adopted a more conservative approach of acknowledging common descent while at the same time affirming a sharp distinction between humans and other animals, Giberson could have salvaged a theodicy which is both intellectually defensible and science-friendly.
Four major problems with Giberson’s evolutionary theodicy
1. It imputes “free will” to Nature, which is philosophically meaningless
Giberson’s blurb reveals that Loftus’ new book has caused him to question the tentative solution he formerly proposed to the “problem of evil,” since it rests on “bad arguments.” But Loftus is not the only person to have subjected Giberson’s theodicy to rigorous scrutiny. Christian apologist Joel Tay, in a 2014 review, provides an insightful summary of the key difficulties with Giberson’s view (emphases mine – VJT):
He appeals to the idea that man has free will. Free will, according to the authors, cannot be removed by God without humans losing their capacity to love. From there, they use the phrase “Free will” equivocability (sic), and impose “free will” in nature as the source of natural evil. Since God cannot interfere with the human “free will”, God is supposedly also unable to interfere with nature’s “free will”.
The authors, as William Dembski has pointed out, equivocally use the term “free will” very differently in humans and in nature. Nature does not have free will in the sense of human “free will”, nor can nature be conceived as having a mind, much less “choose” to do natural evil. Let Giberson’s and Collins’ “solution” depends upon this equivocal use of the term “free will”). God, according to these authors, is presented as not able to prevent natural evil.
In other words, Karl Giberson’s and Francis Collins’ presentation is nothing more than classical deism. It is not Christian to hold to a view of God who is unable to step into creation and prevent evil. Let us also not forget that Rom 8:20-21 explicitly says that it is God Himself, who subjected nature to the curse.
At bottom, the theodicy proposed by Giberson is at odds with Judaism and Christianity, because it reinstates Chaos as an explanation of the evil we see in the world: Nature, instead of being under God’s dominion, is fickle and has a will of its own, which not even God can control. Such a “solution” preserves God’s goodness, but at the cost of denying His omnipotence.
2. It fails to explain the apparent wastefulness of the evolutionary process
For his part, skeptic John Loftus has nothing but scorn for the theistic evolutionist view that the struggle for existence is simply God’s way of letting natural processes accomplish His ends. Loftus’ counter-argument is that a loving God would never have employed such a bloody mechanism as natural selection to realize His goals. In a recent post, Loftus gleefully reprinted a passage from agnostic Robert Ingersoll’s essay, “The Gods” (1878) which exposes the enormous wastefulness of Nature in devastating prose:
Would an infinitely wise, good and powerful God, intending to produce man, commence with the lowest possible forms of life; with the simplest organism that can be imagined, and during immeasurable periods of time, slowly and almost imperceptibly improve upon the rude beginning, until man was evolved? Would countless ages thus be wasted in the production of awkward forms, afterwards abandoned? Can the intelligence of man discover the least wisdom in covering the earth with crawling, creeping horrors, that live only upon the agonies and pangs of others? Can we see the propriety of so constructing the earth, that only an insignificant portion of its surface is capable of producing an intelligent man? Who can appreciate the mercy of so making the world that all animals devour animals; so that every mouth is a slaughter house, and every stomach a tomb? Is it possible to discover infinite intelligence and love in universal and eternal carnage?
Elsewhere, in an online essay titled, Why I Am Not a Christian: A Summary of My Case Against Christianity (2008), Loftus explains why he regards the suffering in the world as a defeater for theism:
If God is perfectly good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then the issue of why there is so much suffering in the world requires an explanation. A perfectly good God would oppose it, an all-powerful God could eliminate it, and an all-knowing God would know what to do about it. For the theist, the extent of intense suffering in the world implies that either God is not powerful enough to eliminate it, God does not care enough to eliminate it, or God is just not smart enough to know what to do about it. If God exists, the reality of intense suffering is a stubborn fact indicating that something is wrong with God’s ability, goodness, or knowledge…
Stephen Wykstra argues that it’s possible that we cannot see the good reasons why an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God allows so much suffering. Because God is omniscient while our knowledge is limited, we are told, we can’t understand God’s purposes, and thus can’t begin to grasp why there is so much evil in the world if God exists. But if God is omniscient as claimed, then he should know how to create a better world, especially since we do have a good idea how God could’ve created differently. The most probable reason that we find so much apparently gratuitous suffering in the world is that there simply is no perfectly good, all-powerful, and omniscient God of Christian theology.
For my part, I would argue that instead of trying to get God “off the hook,” religious believers should squarely acknowledge that God, as the Author of Nature, is in some way responsible for animal suffering, even if (as many believers contend) He didn’t actually intend this suffering to occur. In his book, The End of Christianity (Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Publishing, 2009), Dr. William Dembski propounds his theory that the fall of Adam retroactively caused much of the suffering we see in Nature; nevertheless, he candidly admits that God is responsible for this suffering: “It is painful to accept that God bears at least some responsibility for natural evil and that he brings it about (whether actively or by permission) in response to human sin,” he writes (2009, p. 150).
The next question we need to ask is: supposing God to be all-good, what is the absolute minimum that we would expect Him to do, for creatures which are (a) capable of suffering and (b) morally significant in their own right? (I’m not going to discuss exactly which creatures qualify here: curious readers are welcome to peruse my recent post, The immateriality of animal consciousness: why I’m agnostic.) I would argue that at the very least, God should never allow any of these creatures to suffer irreparable harm – for there is no “higher end” that could justify any irreparable harm done to a creature that matters in its own right, morally speaking. What that means is that while God might allow His morally significant creatures to endure quite a lot of suffering, He will put it right in the end, for each and every one of them. And since creatures of all kinds appear to undergo irreparable harm in this life, my proposal would entail that all morally significant creatures must experience some kind of hereafter – a subject I’ll say more about below.
However, Loftus would argue that I have set the bar too low, and that a strong prima facie case can be made that God is obliged to prevent all instances of suffering in Nature. For if we would expect a bystander to come to the aid of someone in distress, assuming that they were able to do so without jeopardizing their safety, and that they knew what kind of assistance was required, how much more would we expect an omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient God to help those in distress? After all, God is no mere bystander: He is our Heavenly Father. Why, then, does He not do come to the aid of His creatures?
But Loftus’ argument proves too much: it would imply that He had no moral right to create me and you. Here’s why. Each and every sexually reproducing organism’s identity, as an individual, depends on its having had the parents it had, and their identity as individuals depends on their having had the parents they had. What this means is that if I had had a different father or mother or grandparents, or different ancestors, then I wouldn’t be “me” any more: I’d be someone else. But in that case, my identity is critically dependent on God’s allowing certain evils (both moral and natural) to occur. I (like most of my readers, I imagine) have Viking blood in my veins, which means that had their marauding acts of rape and pillage not been allowed to occur, I would not be here now. A God Who nipped every incipient evil in the bud would have prevented me from coming into being. Speaking for myself, I’m rather glad that God didn’t do that – a sentiment which most of my readers would heartily share, I’m sure.
Perhaps Loftus would respond that my argument is too ad hominem, and that I still haven’t explained in abstract terms why God is not obliged to prevent all natural evils. So here goes. Each and every morally significant individual is unique: there can never be another “you.” As such, each moral significant individual is an entity of irreplaceable value, and thus, fundamentally good (not morally good, but rather, good insofar as it is alive, sentient and/or sapient). I would contend that God has no obligation to prevent an evil in cases where doing so would prevent the coming-into-existence of a good of irreplaceable value. (That doesn’t mean God has to create as many of these irreplaceable entities as possible; all it implies is that He is morally entitled to do so, even if that means allowing certain evils to occur.) Since each of us is a good of irreplaceable value, and since each of us owes our existence (in part) to the fact that certain evils were allowed to occur in the past, it follows that God had no obligation to put a stop to any of those natural and moral evils whose non-occurrence would have entailed that some morally significant individual would never have come into existence. And as viewers of Back to the Future will know, the “butterfly effect” means that even isolated evils that seem to have no connection whatsoever to anyone’s coming-into-existence can nevertheless have significant ramifications in the future, as their “ripples” spread out through space and time. Thus it is virtually impossible, in practice, to point to a particular evil and say that God had no moral justification for allowing it. If the divine prevention of evil would entail that even one entity of irreplaceable value would not have come into being, then that fact alone is enough to release God from any obligation to relieve our suffering, here and now. There is no need to appeal to “Nature’s freedom,” as Giberson does, in order to explain why God allows evil.
Thus my response to Ingersoll’s objection regarding the wastefulness of evolution would be: “So what?” One could argue that if non-human animals are morally significant beings, then producing human beings via a long, gradual evolutionary process which spanned millions of years allowed countless millions of morally significant creatures to come into being, that never would have done so, had God made the Earth ready for human beings from the get-go, a few thousand years ago. Nor can it be said that extinctions are pointless: a recent study by Lehman and Miikkulainen (“Extinction Events Can Accelerate Evolution,” PLoS One, 2015 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132886) supports the idea that “mass extinctions actually speed up evolution by unleashing new creativity in adaptations.” Computer models indicate that the lineages of creatures that survived these mass extinctions were the ones that are the most capable of evolving, and which therefore had the greatest potential to generate novelty.
Finally, those inclined to scoff at the notion of human and/or animal immortality would do well to recall the words of freethinker Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason, Part I, Recapitulation):
I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body…
Let us humbly remember that it is, after all, God’s universe, not ours. We didn’t make it; and we don’t know its secrets. To assert that God cannot endow His own creatures with immortality, simply because we cannot conceive of what form this immortality might take is to commit the kind of fallacy which Richard Dawkins has labeled, “The Argument from Incredulity.” I sincerely hope that John Loftus would want to avoid doing that.
3. Giberson denies human uniqueness
From a Christian perspective, another major flaw in Giberson’s theodicy is that it denies that there is anything unique about human beings, as opposed to other animals. In his book, The End of Christianity, Dr. William Dembski draws attention to this flaw by quoting a passage from Giberson’s book, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (San Francisco: Harper One, 2008):
Once we accept the full evolutionary picture of human origins, we face the problem of human uniqueness. The picture of natural history disclosed by modern science reveals human beings evolving slowly and imperceptibly from earlier, simpler creatures. None of our attributes – intelligence, upright posture, opposable thumbs, language capacity – emerged suddenly. Every one of our remarkable capacities must have appeared gradually and been present in some partial anticipatory way…
In fact, there is good scientific evidence that at least one ability which characterizes human beings – language – must have appeared fairly suddenly. The following excerpt is taken from a Science Daily report titled, The rapid rise of human language (March 31, 2015):
In a new paper, an MIT linguist contends that human language likely developed quite rapidly into a sophisticated system: Instead of mumbles and grunts, people deployed syntax and structures resembling the ones we use today.
“The hierarchical complexity found in present-day language is likely to have been present in human language since its emergence,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor of Linguistics and the Kochi Prefecture-John Manjiro Professor in Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, and a co-author of the new paper on the subject.
To be clear, this is not a universally accepted claim: Many scholars believe that humans first started using a kind of “proto-language” — a rudimentary, primitive kind of communication with only a gradual development of words and syntax. But Miyagawa thinks this is not the case. Single words, he believes, bear traces of syntax showing that they must be descended from an older, syntax-laden system, rather than from simple, primal utterances.
“Since we can find syntax within words, there is no reason to consider them as ‘linguistic fossils’ of a prior, presyntax stage,” Miyagawa adds.
Miyagawa has an alternate hypothesis about what created human language: Humans alone, as he has asserted in papers published in recent years, have combined an “expressive” layer of language, as seen in birdsong, with a “lexical” layer, as seen in monkeys who utter isolated sounds with real-world meaning, such as alarm calls. Miyagawa’s “integration hypothesis” holds that whatever first caused them, these layers of language blended quickly and successfully.
For the benefit of readers who are interested, the study, authored by Vitor A. Nóbrega and Shigeru Miyagawa, is titled, The precedence of syntax in the rapid emergence of human language in evolution as defined by the integration hypothesis (Frontiers in Psychology, 18 March 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00271).
In my 2013 post, The Myth of the Continuum of Creatures: A Reply to John Jeremiah Sullivan (Part One), I present a wealth of detailed scientific evidence for human uniqueness. The evidence I cite is freely available online, and based on recent articles by qualified experts in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Sadly, Giberson appears to be completely unaware of this evidence.
Language is arguably the central characteristic which distinguishes humans from other animals. If this characteristic emerged suddenly, then by implication, so did human beings. In that case, Giberson’s supposition that man emerged by an imperceptibly gradual process (as Darwin proposed in his Descent of Man) no longer withstands scientific scrutiny. There could have been a first generation of human beings, after all. Giberson might reply that even if this were so, the original human population would still have had to have numbered several hundred individuals, if recent genetic studies are to be believed. Be that as it may, there could still have been an original Fall – even if it was one that involved hundreds of individuals. Science cannot demonstrate that such a scenario is improbable, let alone false.
4. Giberson’s view of the Fall and of sin is fundamentally at odds with Christianity
Giberson’s evangelical critics tend to focus on his denial of the historicity of Adam and Eve. Don Batten’s article, Karl Giberson unmasks himself (Creation.com, May 22, 2014) highlights this point:
Giberson rejects the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall, and as Dr Albert Mohler (former president of the Southern Baptist Convention) said in an open letter to Giberson,6
“You are straightforward in your celebration of evolution, and you utterly fail to demonstrate how an embrace of evolution can be reconciled with biblical Christianity. Your rejection of an historical Adam and Eve is one precise point at which the Gospel of Christ is undermined, and your proposed ‘new and better way to understand the origins of sin’ is incompatible with the Bible’s clear teaching.”
6. Mohler, A., On Darwin and Darwinism: A Letter to Professor Giberson, 25 August 2010.
However, Giberson’s denial of the existence of Adam and Eve is just the tip of the iceberg. In his book, The End of Christianity (2009), Dr. William Dembski highlights a much more severe problem with Giberson’s theodicy – namely, his flawed conception of sin:
Giberson, unfortunately, is not serious about preserving the Fall… Giberson rejects any traditional conception of the Fall.(15) Indeed, his understanding of sin is simplistic and heterodox. He sees the essence of sin as selfishness. And coincidentally, “selfishness,” for Giberson, “drives the evolutionary process.”(16) Simply put, we are selfish because evolution is selfish, and we are a product of evolution. Salvation, for him, is transcending our evolutionary past.
(2009, p. 162. The quote is taken from Giberson’s book, Saving Darwin, 2008, p. 12.)
However, it should be readily apparent, to anyone who takes even a moment to think about it, that the unreflective selfishness manifested by living organisms in their daily struggle for survival is altogether different in character from the calculated and deliberate acts of selfishness carried out by human beings, in their dealings with one another. Unlike other animals, humans are capable of acting for a reason, which they are capable of explaining in their own language. This is a clear-cut distinction which stares us in the face; yet Giberson is curiously blind to it. I would put it to my readers that it is Giberson’s slavish adherence to Darwinism which prevents him from seeing the obvious.
We have seen that Giberson’s theodicy fails on at least four counts, and that the failures are due, in a large degree, to the fact that Giberson is a convinced Darwinist. Darwinism is what causes Giberson to blur the distinction between Nature’s “free will,” as he calls it, and human free will. Darwinism is what causes Giberson to deny human uniqueness. And Darwinism is what causes Giberson to overlook the vital distinction between selfish behavior by living organisms, which has a cause but no reason, and the selfish acts of human beings, who do act for a reason (a bad one, of course). Giberson appears eager to save what he can of Christianity, but in attempting to save Christianity, he has moved well beyond it. What Christianity needs is not more Darwin, but less.
(H/t: Steve Hays, for drawing my attention to John Loftus’ blog post, which is titled, Karl Giberson’s Blurb For My New Book (August 12, 2015).)