re•li•gion [ri-lij-uhn], noun: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the world, especially when considered as the creation of a god or gods.
The view that God should work according to natural laws rather than direct providence has always been attractive to religious believers. These believers prefer a more distant God for many reasons. For instance, is it not obvious that God would not have directly created such an evil world? Instead, God must have created the laws and went away. Like Aristotle’s Prime Mover, God is removed from the evil and not culpable. But there are several other theological traditions that argue just as strongly against divine intervention, and for creation by natural law. One is that the world, especially the lowly things of the world, are beneath God’s dignity.
In the era of modern science the infra dignitatem argument, or infra dig for short, traces at least back to the Cambridge Platonists in the seventeenth century. The idea was that God would not, as the Anglican botanist John Ray put it, “set his own hand as it were to every work, and immediately do all the meanest and trifling’st things himself drudgingly, without making use of any inferior or subordinate Minister.”
The subordinate minister or agent was Plastic Nature which, unlike the Creator, was not infallible or irresistible. Instead, Plastic Nature had to contend with the ineptitude of matter. The results were those “errors and bungles” of nature.
Such gnostic tendencies by no means ceased with the seventeenth century. Indeed, this view seemed to have a divine sanction. After all, to control the world exclusively through natural laws—God’s secondary causes—required an even greater God. In 1794 Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin wrote this Gnostic-sounding vision of how natural history should be viewed:
The world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution by the whole by the Almighty fiat. What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of the great architect! The Cause of Causes! Parent of Parents! Ens Entium! For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves.
A striking example of these gnostic tendencies in Darwin’s time arose when John Millais’ painting Christ in the house of his parents was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. In the painting, the boy Jesus had injured his hand in his father’s carpentry shop. Mother Mary attended to the boy while Joseph continued with his work. Outside the door sheep patiently awaited their future savior. The scene was both symbolic and realistic, with wood scraps lying all about and workers going about their duties.
But the Victorians emphasized God’s wisdom, power and transcendence. Could he really have bruised his hand in a messy carpenter’s shop? The Times complained that the painting was revolting, for its “attempt to associate the holy family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, even of disease, all finished with the same loathsome meticulousness, is disgusting.” Blackwood’s Magazine said “We can hardly imagine anything more ugly, graceless and unpleasant,” and Charles Dickens called the painting “mean, odious, revolting and repulsive.”
The gnostics could not believe God became a man for the same reasons they could not believe God directly created the world—they could not envision God involved in a world so fraught with misery. Similarly, just as the Victorians were troubled by Millais’ depiction of the human side of Jesus, they also would have trouble with the idea that God so lowered himself to create the messy and detailed biological world, so full of not only of useless bloodshed but of anomalies and particulars. It was all beneath God’s dignity.
A few years earlier the Reverend Baden Powell had insisted that physical and moral problems had completely separate foundations and should have nothing to do with one another. God’s works and God’s word were separate and moral and physical phenomena were completely independent. He wrote in 1838:
Scientific and revealed truth are of essentially different natures, and if we attempt to combine and unite them, we are attempting to unite things of a kind which cannot be consolidated, and shall infallibly injure both. In a word, in physical science we must keep strictly to physical induction and demonstration; in religious inquiry, to moral proof, but never confound the two together. When we follow observation and inductive reasoning, our inquiries lead us to science. When we obey the authority of the Divine Word, we are not led to science but to faith. The mistake consists in confounding these two distinct objects together; and imagining that we are pursuing science when we introduce the authority of revelation. They cannot be combined without losing the distinctive character of both.
The message here is that religion and science are to be kept separate. God is retained to supply the former, but it would never do to consider him in the latter. So it is not too surprising that in his 1844 book Vestiges, Robert Chambers reissued the infra dig argument:
How can we suppose an immediate exertion of this creative power at one time to produce the zoophytes, another time to add a few marine mollusks, another to bring in one or two crustacea, again to crustaceous fishes, again perfect fishes, and so on to the end. This would surely be to take a very mean view of the Creative Power.
Divine providence could engage in the noble activity of impressing laws upon matter, but not grovel in the muck of nature.
Alfred Wallace agreed. Evolution’s cofounder argued that the universe was self-regulating according to its general laws and in no need of continual supervision and rearrangement of details. “As a matter of feeling and religion,” concluded Wallace, “I hold this to be a far higher conception of the Creator of the Universe than that which may be called the ‘continual interference hypothesis’.”
Darwin, for his part, was keen to the implications of this modern gnosticism. If God was not intimately involved in the world, then was He involved at all? In a letter Darwin challenged his American friend Asa Gray to think this through:
I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? … If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed.
Many argue about whether Darwin believed in God, but Darwin certainly held strongly to the popular beliefs about God. It was reasonable for Darwin to argue that God would not be personally involved in the swallow’s attack on the gnat and then leverage his theological principle to conclude that all of biology arose on its own. Evolution is the right conclusion given a gnostic starting point. God and matter don’t mix, so life wasn’t created. If Archimedes needed only a place to stand to move the world, Darwin needed only a theological ledge.
Not surprisingly Darwin also used gnostic ideas to defend his theory against the problem of complexity. Darwin pointed out that while it is tempting to see God as the master engineer who crafted complex organs such as the eye, this would make God too much like man.
Darwin agreed that the perfection of the eye reminds us of the telescope which resulted from the highest of human intellect. Was it not right to conclude that the eye was also the product of a great intellect? This may seem the obvious answer but Darwin warned against it, for we should not “assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man.” Better to imagine the eye as the result of natural selection’s perfecting powers rather than having God too much involved in the world.
The Victorians could not believe that the boy Jesus actually labored in his earthly father’s carpentry shop. Likewise, it was reasonable for Darwin to argue that complex organs were not likely shaped by God because that would mean he works as man does.
These Gnostic tendencies remain with us today. Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, admiringly recounted the Darwin-Gray correspondences. The problem, according to Gould, is not the religious motivation in Darwin’s supposedly scientific theory, but rather that Darwin’s position can be depressing. Gould wrote a book on how we are supposed to understand this new gnosticism. He believed that science and religion do not overlap and are non-overlapping magisteria.
Likewise Niles Eldredge takes the position that “religion and science are two utterly different domains of human experience” and Bruce Alberts, writing for the National Academy of Sciences, informs us that:
Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.
Similarly Salman Khan at the Khan Academy explains that an all-powerful God would not design the particular. God, if there is one, would use simple laws to create a complex world. Khan concludes:
That to me is a better design.
And isn’t that all that matters?
These are just a few of the many examples of modern gnosticism within evolutionary thought. God must be disjoint from creation and any attempt to force-fit them together is bound to be awkward. Or again, how is it that God could create the universe but have nothing to do with science? The answer of course is that God did not create the world, at least not directly—the world evolved. The historian’s assessment of gnosticism could just as easily apply to evolution:
The cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and world … The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis … the world is the work of lowly powers. [Hans Jonas, quoted in: Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics, p. 16, Oxford University Press, 1987.]
The gnostic’s hope in “lowly powers” was fulfilled in evolution’s natural selection. And the acceptance of evolution, in turn, reinforced gnosticism in modern thought. Darwin gave form to the gnostic’s vision, but that brought with it a movement towards gnosticism. The influence of gnostic thought today is not often acknowledged or understood. It is, according to Harold Bloom, the most common thread of religious thought in America. He calls it the American Religion, and he finds it “pervasive and overwhelming, however it is masked, and even our secularists, indeed even our professed atheists, are more Gnostic than humanist in their ultimate presuppositions.”
It is perhaps one of the great enigmas in religious thought that one can profess to be an agnostic, skeptic, or even atheist regarding belief in God yet still hold strong opinions about God. Evolution may breed skepticism, but its adherents have continued to make religious proclamations. Indeed, those proclamations are really no different than those made by Darwin and his fellow Victorians.
Religion drives science, and it matters.