Thursday, March 29, 2018

Richard Dawkins, appearance of design, and the Bible

In the opening paragraphs of "The Blind Watchmaker" (1986), Richard Dawkins states that 
"Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" 
and then goes on to explain that the appearance is misleading, there is no particular designed purpose, and that no designer is required to explain the observed complexity.

Christian apologists and others have given him a hard time over this statement ever since. For the apologists, ID proponents and other evolution sceptics, the apparent face value completely trumps the hidden and complex set of processes which need to be explained to provide the evolutionary story.

So what has this got to do with the bible?

Well, I was thinking about this the other day and I realised that there are several things in the bible which appear to be something at face value, but theologians and apologists have to do a lot of wriggling around to provide complex explanations of why the face value is not the truth.

For example: The literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, a.k.a. the Synoptic Problem. At face value, it looks as though one or more of the gospel writers was copying from the others. These are not independent stories, told by eyewitnesses, these are stories copied from one source to another and edited to fit the agenda of the author. And yet many apologists will totally dispute this, providing complex but 'plausible' sequences of events that could maybe explain how these supposedly independent gospels could have come to look so similar.

Or, for example: The authorship of the Pauline Epistles. Once I read Romans and Ephesians more or less back to back. While the theology of both epistles is broadly similar (as far as I can tell), the writing style is completely different. If you look at it objectively - at face value - the epistle to the Ephesians looks to have a completely different author to the epistle to the Romans. Indeed, even within the epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11 seem to be written by someone with a different style to the writer of the other chapters. The face value appearance, based on writing style, is that if Paul wrote most of the epistle to the Romans (Ch 1-8 and 12-16) then he did not write chapters 9-11, or Ephesians, or Colossians, or the Pastorals, etc. And yet apologists will bend over backwards to provide convoluted theories about how people can change their writing style over time, and what we are seeing here is the difference between young Paul and older Paul. But, as far as I can tell (I'm no expert here), there is little evidence from secular scholars of writing style to support such a radical shift in someone's writing style as they get older. Face value suggests multiple authors, some of whom must be pretending to be Paul.

The thing is, sometimes things are what they appear to be at face value, and sometimes they are not. You can't simply dismiss face value, but then again, you have to take complex and convoluted explanations seriously, because sometimes they might be the way things are. Life isn't simple. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't. And that - in itself - is a complex issue to resolve.