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No Escape from Theistic Evolution?

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

Theistic Evolution

Recent good news like Dennis Prager’s switch to a position as a Darwin skeptic raised a question for a friend and correspondent of mine. Before reading and interacting with Steve Meyer, Prager might well have been classified as a theistic evolutionist. He was and is a theist, certainly, but also was comfortable with evolution, or at least was “agnostic” about it. So on one hand, some thoughtful TE proponents can obviously be reasoned out of the position.

But others demonstrate a strange obduracy. As Brian Miller observed here the other day:

I have followed with particular interest the critiques from Christians who subscribe to various versions of theistic evolution and evolutionary creationism. I believe that most of these critics desire to fairly represent the evidence. Yet their absolute commitment to defending the materialist framework for science has resulted in a distortion in how they perceive reality.

A Hardened Position

An “absolute commitment” to a materialist understanding based on a distorted reality sounds like a pretty hardened position. My friend wonders about the usefulness of engaging with a certain class of theistic evolutionists. I’ve deleted some identifying information:

I wish I could believe that such an engagement would have some good outcome. But I’ve known [name deleted, a TE proponent, we’ll call him Bob] as a close friend since the summer of [snip]…. In the intervening…years, despite many detailed discussions with me about what I’ve argued were multiple lines of biological evidence for ID, [Bob] has not modified his core commitments in any way:

1. Design is God-of-the-gaps, and thus intrinsically anti-knowledge and poor theology, at best.

2. Evolutionary theory should be given every opportunity, into the indefinite future, to try to solve its long-standing problems, because the alternative is (see point 1).

3. “Evolutionary creation” differs from mainstream “dysteleological evolution,” because it is a theistically friendly theory; however, [Bob] can never say how his teleological version departs from the standard textbook theory.

4. The Bible teaches scientific falsehoods, yet we should still trust what it says theologically.

5. Adam, as traditionally understood in Jewish and Christian thought, never existed.

And so on. There is no reason to think [Bob] will change his views now…. Our friendship continues, but I long ago ceased to try to persuade [Bob] of anything.

…Some years ago, I noted that a familiar trajectory of shifting viewpoints, namely, YEC —> OEC / ID —> TE, runs in strictly one direction. As you probably know, that trajectory was [Bob’s] own: he began as YEC, …then moved to OEC, and finally, to his current TE position…. While I know many current YECs, OECs, or IDers who once espoused TE, having started out there…, I do not know of a single instance of someone having returned to ID, or any position other than TE, once that person has arrived at TE from another viewpoint.

TE thus represents a very deep sink or depression in the landscape of theological and scientific opinion, from which — once one has rolled into it — there is no escaping. For what it’s worth, my own explanation of this irreversibility turns on the simultaneous adoption of methodological naturalism (MN), almost by definition, by TEs, a philosophical move which renders any possible evidence for design as nothing more than another temporarily unsolved problem for naturalistic science. One can’t leave the TE sink, having arrived there, because, given MN, there just is no evidence for anything else.

This is surely noteworthy. Most of the active BioLogos staff arrived at their current opinions via first rejecting YEC, OEC, or ID. They now belong, irreversibly, to their TE convictions, and want to bring about that same conversion among other Christians. To use another metaphor, BioLogos sells only one product: TE. The organization has no interest in allowing for ID, in any form where ID might be seen as “scientific,” that is, empirical knowledge, and actively opposes ID, OEC, and YEC as bad for science and bad for Christians.

This is reality, and the reason I see little or no benefit in engaging with TEs in public debate. The return on the investment of time is nil.

A Two-Part Hypothesis

I know, however, some stories of TE folks who did escape. My correspondent offered an interesting distinction, based on the sociology of opinion:

Yes, I think a TE can escape IF one starts out there. Here’s my two-part hypothesis:

1. Those who start with TE generally haven’t given the question of origins much thought — they coast along with the “mainstream” view during their scientific education. But a view held unthinkingly isn’t really held securely.

2. More importantly, those who start with TE haven’t yet consciously surrendered or jettisoned anything. When pressed by new or previously unnoticed evidence, however, they find that (a) they do not agree with the methodological naturalism underlying TE, and (b) they find ID (for instance) much more promising/satisfying than their previously held unreflective TE opinion. 

Those who ARRIVE at TE from some other position, by contrast, usually have consciously or deliberately dumped as “unscientific” or “theologically naïve” any inferences to design, as a key aspect of their personal conversion. It’s that dimension of “I was once lost, but now am found” quasi-religious conversion experience that makes it impossible for them to go back to another viewpoint.

As a remarkably general rule, it seems humans are allowed one major conversion experience in their lives. For TEs who convert to that view, they can’t go back. It’s a one-way, or irreversible, passage.

A fascinating perspective, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily as bleak as that. But let’s grant the point for the sake of argument. Why continue to converse and debate with TE proponents? Because the number of hardcore TE folks is probably quite small, and limited to academics. Most others, as my correspondent notes, simply haven’t given the matter much thought. They are the audience that we can and should reach. The debate with TE is for them.

Photo credit: Skitterphoto, via Pixabay.