Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Christianity 2.0?

On my free time I sometimes try to understand religion as best I can. Since I didn't grow up in a religious household, I knew little about religion until my 20s or so, and so now I'm playing catch up. Since there are so many interpretations of religions like Christianity, I wanted to comment on some of the more modern views of it. 

Dr. Francis Collins is a well known scientist and geneticist who in 2000 along with Craig Venture helped map the human genome. He was appointed in 2009 by Pres. Barack Obama to head the National Institution of Health. While he's clearly a very smart and talented man, he's also a devout Christian. His coming to the faith is famously told in a story that he was hiking in the Pacific Northwest one day and saw a three-columned frozen waterfall. Upon seeing this as representing the trinity, he fell to his knees and pledged his love for Christ.

As unmoving as this story is to those of us without religious faith, nevertheless I accept his belief as being sincere. Because of his impeccable scientific credentials, Dr. Collins subscribes to a different kind of Christianity than has been traditionally been observed. It is an interpretation much more compatible with modern scientific knowledge. Call it Christianity 2.0 if you will.

His understanding of god and the universe are described below that are taken from a lecture on science and belief that he gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.” 
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.” 
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” 
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.” 
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

If Christianity is going to survive well into the 21st century, it is going to more or less, have to adopt this view in order to stay relevant. This Christianity's god is a bit more deistic than the fundamentalist view, but nonetheless he is still especially concerned with the affairs of one of his evolved species whom he "gifted" a soul that can eternally perish if it makes the wrong moral choices. I suppose this will also be the version of Christianity we'll be seeing more of in the future on college campuses, in academia and the like.

While I'd much rather deal with this kind of Christianity than the absurdity of fundamentalism, on the issue of morality there is still room for argument. Under naturalism, our moral behavior is a product of our evolutionary history and behavior. Our morality is tuned to the biological nature of our species - if we hadn't evolved and some other species had evolved in our place with different characteristics, our morality wouldn't apply to them. Our moral codes of conduct would only exist in theory with no practical application. In order for our moral codes to have relevance, there needs to exist our species homo sapiens.

This doesn't mean that there is no wrong or right, good or evil. It just means that morality is relative to the species. Even the Christian wouldn't say that the 10 commandments apply to chimps and spider monkeys, because they understand they are only applicable to us. If that is so, there should be no problem accepting that our morality is only a code ethics for human beings. And if it sprung from the evolutionary process, it's inconsequential. 

Now I'm not going to settle this debate right here and now, but this disagreement is indicative that there will be challenges going forward for the Christian and atheist alike despite a future with a more scientifically compatible Christianity.


  1. I take issue with the assertions Collins makes in his slides.

    Also, Collins seems to have a rather impoverished view of non-theistic moral systems.

  2. Also, I'm not sure I understand what you're claiming about morality. Just because we evolved to have a moral sense, doesn't mean that morality is "merely" a result of evolution, or inconsequential - we could have evolved moral behaviour in tune with some Platonic Ideal of morality (not that I'm a moral platonist, just pointing it out) :-)

    1. What I meant was that since Collins thinks morality could not have come from evolution, but must have been breathed into us by god, the implication of morality having evolutionary sources means according to him, there is no right and wrong.

      I say that if it's source is evolutionary, it should be inconsequential for the theist. If it sprang from evolution it means our morals are for us humans only, they're not universal. But even Christians will acknowledge Christian morality only applies to us humans, despite their insistence that it's somehow universal with god's commandments.

      In other words, if another species evolved in our place, it wouldn't be us homo sapiens, and some other moral set would be applicable to that other species. Our morality is only right and wrong for us, other species have their own morality towards each other.

      But although the source of our morality is evolutionary and biological, I wouldn't say that that's all it is, certainly a great deal of morality requires philosophy.

      Anyhow Collins hasn't specifically made that argument that I know of, but a lot of theists make the case that unless our morality is universal, it means nothing. I say if it only applies to us human beings, it's not a problem.



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