Thursday, 14 May 2009


Just back from another Christians in Science seminar. This time it was the molecular biologist Denis Alexander with the rather provocative title "Creation or Evolution - Do We Have To Choose?" I say "provocative" because the seminar was advertised with the imagery of a man and an ape, and with a description that stated "Can the concepts of Adam and Eve and the Fall be reconciled with evolutionary theory?"

Unsurprisingly, the "creation" claimed by Alexander had very little to do with creationism, and rather a lot to do with wordplay and the sophistry that's a hallmark of these seminars. From the start it was clear that Alexander was using the word "creation" in a fashion that allowed him to have his cake (or ice cream; as in his presentation's graphics) and eat it. He toed the rather conventional party line that emphasises "evolution as God's way", and tied in some fairly rarefied nonsense about "immanence". How exactly this ties in with the allegorical/literal split of material in the Bible, and what the less-than-benevolent nature of the universe says about an immanent deity, somehow missed being covered. Surprise, surprise.

Needless to say, the seminar included the traditional bashing-of-the-Dawkins that's a regular feature at these events. More than talking scientific sense until personal religious choice comes up, dodging big questions such as "why my religion is the right one", and talking as if agnosticism doesn't exist, this is the most recurrent theme in these seminars. And the most tired. Time after time his arguments are paraphrased as straw men or aggressive soundbites that practically will you on to deny them.

That said, this speaker didn't spend too much time on this perennial topic. Instead he drifted off on a rather directionless seminar that didn't make an especially strong case for anything. The strongest part, to me anyway, was the speaker's off-handed treatment of conventional creationism, which he essentially dismissed as scientific nonsense that he implied could be laid at the feet of modern, anti-religious scientism (though he didn't use those particular words). It would be interesting to know what a dyed-in-the-wool creationist made of this seminar. Not to mention the speaker's suggestion that creationists had more in common with Dawkins than with his rational, manifestly sane and completely obvious interpretation of Christianity.

Another idea that the speaker dispensed with early on through disingenuous wordplay was that of God's complexity. Dawkins and many others have argued that whatever God is, they must be pretty complex to have built and/or operate the universe in which we live, and thus beg the question about their own origins. Here the notion that God was "complex" was dismissed with some arm-waving that was tantamount to claiming that concepts like "complex" simply don't apply to the Good Lord. He (for it is a He; as C noted during the seminar) is of a qualitatively different order. Or something. As I said above, sophistry.

In passing, there were a few sidenotes that were of interest. Historical footnotes included some quotes from St. Augustine (354-430 CE) that denied a literal reading of the Bible; reference to a work by the 17th century chemist Robert Boyle that attacked the idea of "Mother Nature"; and remarks by 18th century theologian John Wesley that present a recognition of the "one tree of life" a century before Darwin. All very interesting.

There was also an interesting quote from the Bible (Isaiah 55:8-9) that paints a rather non-human or impersonal portrait of God. I find these sorts of bits interesting since they conjure a realistic image of a being that, unsurprisingly given their nature and power, is hard to reconcile with "in our image". Perhaps it's just because I read too much science fiction and am overly familiar with the notion of beings that far exceed us, but I've always thought that the idea that something omniscient would have a personal connection with us as rather odd. Maybe I'm just not being imaginative enough.

Still, on the plus side, this was another pro-science speaker who didn't stoop to the disreputable tricks of McGrath. My eyes rolled, but there was little danger of them falling out and bouncing down the lecture hall to the speaker.

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