The Boundaries of Faith

Recently I read an attack on Darwin’s evolutionary theory. (“The Deniable Darwin”, by David Berlinski. Commentary, Vol. 101, June 1966, No. 6). The author based his criticism largely on the failure of the Darwinians to come up with a continuous stream of fossil evidence demonstrating that natural selection had been responsible for the evolution of life on this planet. There were big gaps, and unless those gaps were filled, nothing conclusive could be said about the nature of the processes that produced life as we know it. Indeed, Berlinski asserted, the evidence for the evolutionists was so flawed that a reasonable person would have to assume that evolution had occurred by design rather than from the random, purposeless process of natural selection.

I woke up one morning thinking about that point, and recalled my tour with our Embassy in Syria in the early 1950’s. Much of central Syria is arid now, but was less so in Roman times and supported a larger population. And the Romans, being Romans, built a lot of roads, nice straight ribbons built out of huge limestone blocks that ran between the central places of the time. I drove around a lot in those days, soaking up as many impressions of the land and people, past and present, as my job allowed. I actually saw several of those roads, or at least what remained of them. In fact, as I remember I once left the modern highway and was able to get my little Fiat up onto one of them and drive along it for a piece.

The Roman roads I saw were only visible at or near the tops of hills. Where the country was gently rolling, you could see a stretch of perhaps a couple of hundred yards of the road up top, but nothing at all was to be seen at lower levels. I presumed that in the course of the past two millenia, dirt had washed down the slopes in sufficient quantities to submerge those portions of road that had existed at lower levels. And that was the explanation in my guide books.

There were some places where I could observe visually that two or more portions of the road lined up with each other. Some of my more detailed maps showed that if you connected several of these portions with a straight line, and extended it at both ends, they connected with archeological sites dating back at least to the Roman period. I presumed that the portions of the road that I couldn’t see existed, or at least had existed in Roman times. I never actually got out a pick and shovel and dug down to see for myself. You could say that I accepted on faith the theory that these isolated remnants were part of a larger system. But what kind of faith? Was my leap of faith equivalent to the leap of faith that makes the true believer, whether Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu believe in whatever religion he follows? Was it the same sort of thing? Surely not.

And yet, as I debate the issue of creationism vs. evolution with the creationists, I come up against the argument that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “has not been proved”. What constitutes proof? Do I have to get a bulldozer and excavate half the Syrian hinterland to establish the presumption that those roads were continuous?

There is by now a great deal of evidence to support Darwinian evolution, the concept that life on this planet evolved randomly, not from guidance by some overarching intelligence. Admittedly there are gaps, huge periods of time during which we have little or no fossil evidence. Nevertheless, there is a plausible continuity, persuasive enough so that the basic principles of evolution have been accepted by the great majority of people who are at least generally aware of the evidence that exists. Much of the current criticism of Darwin goes more to the question of how it has worked in practice than whether it is a valid theory to begin with.

There is no comparable body of objective, verifiable evidence to support the assertion, say, that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to the infant Jesus. (In fact, there is now some evidence that the concept of virgin birth appeared only several centuries after the event, and resulted from a mistaken translation).

An assumption based on a series of scientifically validated and verified data points only constitutes a leap of faith to the extent that a reasonable observer would consider the data points so few and far between that you cannot establish a pattern on their basis alone.There has to be a rule of reason here. Of course that begs the question of what criteria should be considered reasonable. I can only fall back here on my notion of common sense. Go out into the street, present the evidence, and ask people if it is reasonable to assume that in Roman times there was a road back there leading out of Apameia. Ask them, then, if it is equally probable that Mary was indeed a virgin when Jesus was conceived. In this modern age the results of your second poll may differ significantly from the other one.

Berlinski’s conclusion is revealing: “… Darwin’s theory of evolution and biblical accounts of creation play similar roles in the human economy of belief…”. In other words, I have my faith and you have yours and the evidence is inconclusive so we are on a level playing field. This is the creationist’s fallback position, when he or she is unable to convince a modern person to accept the creationist view.

Whether you believe Mary was a virgin or not, let us at least agree that there are gray areas when we come to distinguish between what we know and what we accept as a matter of faith. Draw the line where you will. But please don’t tell me that my belief that those old bits of road were once connected equates with the true believer’s acceptance of all the mythology that goes with whatever ancient religion he was brought up to believe.

Carl Coon 4/98

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