Sunday, November 20, 2005

CS Lewis on Intelligent Design and Evolution

Just a quick note since I'm busy with end-of-semester projects. You might think the subject of this post curious, because CS Lewis died the same day as President Kennedy in 1963, but the term "Intelligent Design" wasn't invented until the early 1990s.

Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -- because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. ... A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

This quotation is from Lewis' modern classic, Mere Christianity, which is a thoughtful exposition and interpretation of a certain core of Christian belief, leaving debates about details on the fringes to the theologians and historians.

Fundamentalist Christians (along with other Christians) accept Jesus Christ's godhood on the basis of the authority of the apostles who wrote about him, or on the essential trustworthiness of their books about Jesus and the action of Holy Spirit in the early church (collected in the New Testament). That's what "for the Bible tells me so" means. But they don't accept Darwinian evolution even though the scientists have been saying it with one voice for decades in peer-reviewed journals. Seriously, disbelieving evolution is like disbelieving global warming: all you have to do is ignore the people who know something about it, and listen to the cranks.

CS Lewis, at least, is not on their side. This is not an isolated quotation in his work. At every conflict Lewis is on the side of a kind of conventional wisdom; not the kind that is constructed out of clouds of jello by our all-spinning mass media, but the kind of wisdom that sensible people have all agreed upon over the years. An Experiment in Criticism thinks about the wisdom of common people in regard to reading books, Mere Christianity considers the main thrust of Christianity as believed by the great mass of Christians down the centuries, The Abolition of Man considers the morality that is common to people of all religions and cultures. The Narnia books are, in the main, stories of ordinary, even weak people thrust into extraordinary situations, who triumph over the rich and powerful of their age by common virtues. I could go on.

I'm not on their side either. As a journeyman scientist, I cringe to think of what the fundamentalists will make of ever-stronger AI, and what they will make of me as a scientist who tries to explain it to them.

I had a conversation with a friend several years ago, before I dreamed of becoming a computer scientist, where I said, in effect, that I didn't know how somebody doing computers could be as good a Christian as someone doing ministry work. Needless to say, he was doing computers at the time, and I was volunteering a lot of my time to a university Christian group. I've since apologized to him, but I understand how easy it is to let "ministry" assume an undeserved primacy in your religion.

There is a reason why religious figures like Robertson and Falwell and Dobson dominate the public religious conversation. It is an undercurrent in Protestantism, that people who have given up their lives to listen to God and do what he wants are more qualified to speak for Christians than people like me. They are the truly sold-out.

I am wishy-washy. I am too secular, which is only a step or two from idolatrous to the minister-pushers. They think I am building silicon sand-castles. They regard the world as the Titanic, and me as a microchip-polisher.

CS Lewis's main job was as a lecturer and writer at Oxford, the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature. He excelled at his job, writing a permanent volume in the Oxford History of English Literature, on the 16th century (excluding drama).

What I've learned in the years since I talked to my friend is that good work glorifies God. I only wish the Intelligent Design agitators would learn it too.

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