Robert Asher – Evolution and Belief [Feature Review]

June 22, 2012


Robert Asher - Evolution and BeliefTacking Religious Beliefs on to Darwin.

A Feature Review of

Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist.

Robert Asher.

Hardback: Cambridge UP, 2012.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Todd Edmondson

As hot button issues go, ongoing debates about evolution, creationism, and Intelligent Design, situated at the point where religion, science, and politics collide, are among the most contentious. Thankfully, a number of Christian scholars and leaders of the church like Rowan Williams, Alister McGrath, and Peter Enns have stepped into the fray, endeavoring to work toward some measure of reconciliation between the tenets of orthodox Christianity and the findings of modern science. There is still, however, much work to be done. If Christians are ever going to be at peace with the findings of modern biology – in a way that involves neither stubborn resistance nor passive silence – a weighty theological task lies ahead. Fruitful conversation between what are often perceived to be competing orthodoxies will require humility, prayer, and rigorous scholarship. At the close of his excellent work The Evolution of Adam, Enns presents this concluding thesis: “A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theories.” To put it another way, one cannot merely take a scientific theory and tack a religious belief onto it, without committing an injustice against both.

As one who agrees with Enns on this point, I picked up Robert Asher’s recent work Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist hopeful that Asher would take another step toward integrating faith and science, this time from the scientific side of the perceived rift. However, as if to confirm the old adage about judging a book by its cover, the promise of this book’s title goes largely unfulfilled. I should state up front that there is much that this book does well. Asher is not only a respected paleontologist; he is also a very good writer. The prose here is excellent and highly readable, so that even the passages that tend more toward hard science are not lost on a layperson like myself. Throughout the book, Asher guides readers through a number of debates and questions surrounding the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution. As someone thoroughly unenlightened on many significant aspects of natural selection–common descent, the fossil record, the development of animals both familiar (the platypus and elephant) and obscure (the tenrec), and molecular biology – I appreciated Asher’s exposition and analysis of these points.

Another point where Asher excels is in his discussion of some of the salient philosophical issues that often lead the evolution and religion conversation straight into an impasse. Early in the book, he alleges that those on both sides of the perceived religion/science divide are often confused on two points: the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism; and perhaps even more basic, the distinction between agency and cause. Regarding the former, Asher seeks to interrogate the assumption held by creationists and scientific atheists alike that the exercise of methodological naturalism–defined as “a rule of science that says one should not use supernatural phenomena to explain causation in the natural world”–automatically leads to a position of philosophical naturalism–which would embrace “the scientist’s assumption of dealing only with observable nature” not only as a methodology, but as a worldview. Philosophical naturalism in this vein argues that what cannot be rationally perceived does not exist; therefore, it effectively eliminates the possibility of the supernatural.  Asher argues that avoiding the step from one form of naturalism to the other is ultimately what separates religious scientists (like himself) from atheist scientists and anti-scientific religious people alike.

The second distinction – that between agency and cause – is equally significant to Asher; he argues repeatedly that a proper recognition of this distinction is crucial to understanding how natural selection as described by Darwin and Alfred Wallace is not a theory about how life began, or what caused life to begin, but rather a theory about what happened afterward–that is, how life developed after its beginnings. For a religious scientist, it is possible to see some form of God as the agent who initiated the mechanism of natural selection, while still asserting, with Darwin and Wallace, that the mechanism described by their theory is what causes the evident diversity on the Tree of Life. To confuse agency and cause here, Asher asserts, is on par with assuming that because there is a materialist, naturalistic cause behind the illumination of a light bulb, then Thomas Edison, the inventor of the bulb, must be a myth. This point, like the earlier one about naturalism, is clearly articulated and persuasively argued.

Sadly, however, the greatest lack that this book suffers is the one that will likely matter the most to many of its readers. There is very little in the way of theological integration between anything like an orthodox Christianity and modern science. In fact, there is very little in the way of Christian reflection at all, beyond vague ideas about concepts like “religion” and “God”. To be fair, Asher doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that his notion of religion might not be satisfactorily robust to many of Darwin’s Christian skeptics. The very first paragraph of the book’s prologue paints a fairly modest picture of the author’s faith commitment: “I believe in God; therefore, I’m religious.” He goes on to state, “I often attend the Anglican church services (or ‘Evensong’) at the various colleges within my university, and the music is excellent.” And later, “for all of its human-caused mistakes, I believe the Bible has a lot going for it.”

Granted, most readers will likely not expect the author to be a self-described fundamentalist or an evangelical Christian, and will certainly not hold against him the level of caution that characterizes his approach to the scriptures. However, it was a bit disappointing to find that, in evading any serious grappling with the biblical text, Asher has apparently also done away with some measure of Christian orthodoxy. This may at times simply be due to a lack of precision in Asher’s writing about matters of faith. Throughout the book, his vision of what he means by “God” is somewhat fluid, so that at times he seems to be speaking of God as first cause, and at other times, his language seems to describe a God that is actually a part of “nature”. Then there is the issue of the miraculous. Despite Asher’s rejection of philosophical naturalism as a worldview, his convictions about the integrity of the natural world do not allow him to accept miracles, at least in the traditional sense. “Do I believe in miracles?” he asks, “If by miracle, you mean the spontaneous failure of a natural law due to the contrary influence of some supernatural agency, then no. I don’t believe that such things happen–not now, not 2000 years ago.” He goes on to say that this does not exclude belief in a “Christian sort” of God, referring to C.S. Lewis’ statement from God in the Dock about God turning water to wine every season through the processes of the vineyard. However, it is one thing to say that the natural order of things is in some sense miraculous; it is another to argue that God, as understood in Christianity, can never act in a manner contrary to that order if that would achieve God’s purposes. It is the latter that seems to be Asher’s position. He applies it explicitly to the question of the virgin birth, stating that “Female humans do not give birth unless they have been inseminated.” He (perhaps wisely) avoids expressing his own thoughts on bodily resurrection altogether.

I mention these examples not to hold up a belief in the virgin birth or other miracles as some kind of litmus test for true Christianity. Rather, it helps to demonstrate why Asher is not particularly invested in the kind of theological integration that this book could have otherwise offered. Instead, beyond the first chapter, the book – for all its strong points – primarily reads as an apologetic on behalf of natural selection and a polemic against those Christian scientists who still refuse to embrace that particular mechanism – written by someone who, several chapters earlier, assured his readers rather falteringly that he is religious. Thus, the book suffers from an imbalance, in that Asher is not nearly as enthusiastic writing about religious faith (his or anyone else’s) as he is writing about the findings of Darwin and his followers. This is not necessarily something for which he should apologize; after all, he is a highly skilled paleontologist and a self-described amateur theologian. However, the effect that this imbalance has on this particular book rather feels like the inverse of what Enns warned against. Rather than taking Christianity and tacking on evolution, Robert Asher has to some extent merely taken Darwin’s mechanism and tacked on religion, with less than inspiring results.

Todd Edmondson is the Senior Pastor at First Christian Church, Erwin, Tennessee, and an adjunct professor at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He lives with his wife and two children in Erwin, a great small town surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest.

One response to Robert Asher – Evolution and Belief [Feature Review]

  1. Cool – thanks!