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At the University of Washington, Ratio Christi Responds to David Barash's Article, "God, Darwin, and My Biology Class"


Many ENV readers will recall that last year University of Washington evolutionary psychologist David Barash wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled "God, Darwin, and My Biology Class." It was about how he uses his science classroom, in a state university, as a platform to attack religion. Each year, as he boasts, Dr. Barash gives a presentation to his students informing them that evolution has refuted the idea of God. He calls it "The Talk." I'm not aware of any repercussions from the university's administration, though you can be sure that a professor preaching in favor of religion in the same context would be censured.

In any case, we published several responses to Barash's piece, including a great podcast with Paul Nelson. We also noted the predictable absence of concern about Barash's repeated violation of the First Amendment from groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Now there's another very appropriate response to Barash from Timothy Foutz, the Ratio Christi chapter director at the University of Washington.

Foutz points out Barash's failure to define "evolution" and explain exactly why it conflicts with religion:

[Barash's] first tenet: Evolution and religion don't get along. It would be critical at this point to identify what these terms mean. Dr. Barash doesn't really define these broad terms, but he does at one point refer to religion as a "belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God." Other than that he remains mostly silent about the specifics of religious belief. As to evolution, he refers to an "an entirely natural and undirected process," which he also refers to as "natural selection." But this definition is too vague. Jonathan Wells says that, strictly speaking, evolution is defined as "change over time," or "descent with modification."

As a rule, few Christians would have a problem with change over time. We see adaption all around us. Darwin's finch beak is a good example of that. But there is a huge difference between the idea that species can adapt and the belief that change over time can explain the origins of all life forms, much less the emergence of life itself. So, we wonder what Dr. Barash is "talking" about to his students. It is even more confusing when he appears to be speaking on behalf of "science." In addressing this idea, C. John Collins says: "When we are faced with statements that begin with 'Science says,' we should immediately ask 'Which science?' And then we can move on to see that 'a science' doesn't say anything; scientists do. Then we can ask, 'Which scientists? And have they reasoned so well that I should believe them?'" Precisely. If someone has the temerity to speak about another person's religious faith, it would be wise to say exactly what they mean.

Foutz shows that, despite what Barash says, science has not demolished "the argument from complexity" which points to the activity of an intelligent designer:
Dr. Barash believes that the reason why the available space for religious faith has narrowed is that science has "demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith" namely, what he calls "the argument from complexity" and "the illusion of centrality." We will look at each of these individually.

In addressing the argument from complexity, Dr. Barash makes reference to William Paley's famous watchmaker analogy: "Just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness." But I think he misunderstands the argument. Neither Paley nor modern adherents of intelligent design are saying: "Look how complex things are! Only God could create that kind of complexity."

The point of this argument isn't the degree of complexity we find in organisms, but that the complexity shows the presence of design. Perhaps no one addresses this better than William Dembski: "The world contains events, objects, and structures that exhaust the explanatory resources of undirected natural causes and that can be adequately explained only by recourse to intelligent causes." Dr. Dembski coined the phrase "specified complexity." By this he means that complexity by itself is not telling, but when something forms a recognizable pattern we will want to look toward design.

For example, let's say you came into a room and found a set of Scrabble pieces spread out on a table. The pieces have a high degree of complexity, but they're not specified. But if we came into a room and saw that some Scrabble pieces spelled out "when you wish upon a star" we would know right away that an intelligent person arranged those letters. The complexity in the first instance is actually much greater than the second, but when we observe the specified complexity of the second scenario we conclude it was by design. An undirected process could never produce that kind of specificity.

There is another problem with Professor Barash's conclusion about complexity. "Extraordinary levels of non-randomness" cannot answer any questions about the origin of life. John Lennox, quoting Michael Denton, says: "the break between the nonliving and the living world represents the most dramatic and fundamental of the discontinuities of nature." Dr. Lennox offers quote after quote from well-known scientists who have no explanation for origins. Sir Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA and an atheist, says: "The origin of life seems almost to be a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going." The problem isn't just the huge gap between nonlife and life, there is also the question of information. DNA is one of the most highly complex forms of information in the universe and yet how did it originate? All information-rich systems -- computer code for example, or the Book of Kells, or the song "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" -- are attributed to intelligence. Why would DNA be any different?

Foutz has a lot more to say in reply to Barash, and I encourage ENV readers to check out the whole response. Administrators may turn a blind eye to a professor using a state classroom to proselytize for atheism, but at least students can read an effective rebuttal from a thoughtful community member near the campus.

Image: University of Washington, by Joe Mabel (Photo by Joe Mabel) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.