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God loves evolution

by William Cleary

My 15 minutes of fame was all used up recently when TIME published my letter to the editor.

Several weeks before, their last page had included a cartoon about religion and its controversy with science over "intelligent design."

Is evolution happening, is it a fact? Almost all scientists think the evidence of it is overwhelming. Far to the right of them are literal-minded Christians (called creationists) who still believe the Bible story about how God made Adam straight out of clay. In my TIME letter, I just tried to open some breathing space between them.

The letter said: "Your evolution cartoon missed one angle. I think God, to keep things interesting, pretends not to exist, leaving wiggle room for both atheists and believers. Evolution is both deniable and breathtaking (once you see it), and awe and humility result."

            How does God pretend not to exist?  Many ways. By being invisible, for instance. Beauty is visible? We usually think so, but science cannot really say that. It only knows measurements and behavior. Beauty is scientifically invisible.

A stink bug seems elegantly equipped to defend itself. Look how its odor offends its enemies! But strictly speaking science can't really speak of elegance or cleverness in the stink bug's design. Science can only testify to what it can measure and observe. To say more requires a philosopher or a theologian, or an ordinary person thinking things over. If you stick just with science and its rules, you will not find God, or beauty, or elegant design, or intelligent order (though it's there).

Why in the world would God pretend not to exist? So we will look?

The full explanation is almost surely beyond us, but one way to approach it is to say that perhaps God wants to "keep things interesting." I hope that is not flippant. It may be a ridiculous concept to some. To me it begins to express something about the mysteriousness of our world: so dark, so full of evil and contradiction, so little helpful enlightenment available. Perhaps the metaphysicians have it right who say we should not try to say anything very sensible about what is ultimate in the world. Plain "being" is the "ultimate," they say: it's our most common category for everything, and it tells us almost nothing.

            Religion helps, however. Einstein gave me the clue to this approach when he said that Science without religion is lame. Einstein uses the word religion but he means spirituality and faith and philosophy, aesthetics in particular. So science can describe a flower in great detail, but can't say it's lovely: that takes some philosophizing.

But then Einstein adds that religion without science is blind, meaning that believers need to be grounded in evidence and fact. Credulity - believing without evidence is blind like for instance beliefs that support suicide bombers, or the leap of credulity that claims the Bible is totally without error. (Some say the same of the Koran.)

            In my TIME letter, I say there is wiggle room for atheists in the world, but I would like to separate my atheist friends into true atheists and "non-theists." The non-theists almost never think about God, don't feel any need for God, never pray or speak to God, are even sometimes antithetical to God talk. But are they compassionate? Are they just? Do they live without isolation, self-righteousness, without violence and condescension? That is their spirituality and to my mind it is enough.

            Real atheists say they are sure there is no God, they pooh-pooh all spiritual belief and even campaign against religious people. Admittedly, they are right to think that religion can be dangerous and often toxic: but according to people like Einstein, it can also bring "light" and "sight" to science. It can help toward human fulfillment and wisdom. Without its help, science is blind, says history's greatest scientist.

            Poor old Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin who died in 1955 was one of the first people to occupy that wiggle room I'm writing about in the TIME letter. He both loved the phenomenon of evolution and believed in the God behind it all. He was forbidden by the Church to publish any of his writing during his lifetime but like Thomas Merton after him, he gave his work to friends, and once he had died, the books came out. Hooray for both men. Without them the Catholic world though crushed today with clergy scandals and a kind of trance of rigidity in high places -- would be a lot less interesting than it is.

(Prayers to an Evolutionary God is Cleary's latest book, published by SkyLight Paths.)

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