David Barash has a capital-T Talk he gives college students every year. He tells about it in a NY Times op-ed, God, Darwin and My College Biology Class:
Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.
Barash is a biologist, a professor at the University of Washington. I’ve looked at his web page, and I find no indication of his being a philosopher, theologian, ethicist, or historian. Most of his op-ed—and apparently most of The Talk—is on these topics, not biology. Still he speaks as a professor, even in disciplines for which he has no professional qualifications.
As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God. The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.
Granted, evolutionary science has virtually demolished certain theistic arguments, though not (for example) any of the Thomistic arguments. This is hardly controversial. Even the Thomistic argument for design is broadly compatible with evolution, provided the evolutionist sticks to nature and resists unscientific forays into philosophical conclusions about causes behind evolution.
So suppose the “argument from complexity” (a term I hardly ever hear these days) has been totally demolished. Barash thinks so, and he thinks this has removed important “available space for religious faith.” He does not say, “As a biologist I see that evolution undermines Thomas Aquinas’s theistic arguments.” He dare not say it that blatantly: It would highlight just how far out of his expertise he has wandered.
(I could add more in the same vein about Intelligent Design, but I’m choosing to stick with what’s more obvious and less controversial.)
His Talk also includes,
Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.
He does not say, “As a biologist, I think we must draw the largely philosophical conclusion that ‘traceable historical connectedness’ precludes human exceptionalism.”
Neither does he say, “As a biologist, I believe it is theologically impossible for God to have superintended the processes of natural history to produce humans in his image.”
Nor does he say, “Having observed that humans are structurally and physiologically ‘indistinguishable from the rest of the living world,’ I feel qualified to draw the philosophical conclusion that our moral, rational, relational, and spiritual differences from animals are inconsequential.”
He dare not say any of those things so clearly, either; just think how much harm it would do to his professorial authority.
In his Talk, he also says,
Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering…. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
He does not say, “I have observed and reflected on animal pain and death as a biologist, so therefore I am qualified theologically to pronounce every explanation for the goodness of God to be inadequate.”
He dare not say that, either.
He does say that it requires “challenging mental gymnastic routines” to hold on to belief in religion, in light of evolutionary teaching. I wonder whether he thinks there’s something inherently wrong with exercising one’s mental capacities. Maybe (this is unlikely) he thinks biology requires no such mental exercise; or maybe (more likely, now) he thinks it’s all the mental exercise anyone need do, to understand reality.
Anyway, I have a suggestion for Dr. Barash. I would encourage him to feel free to give The Talk. He’s welcome to his opinion. He ought also, however, explain that most of it is outside his professional expertise. It’s also outside his parental expertise. (You didn’t think that title, “The Talk,” wasn’t meant to remind you of a paternal conversation, did you? He said it himself, after all.)
Beyond explaining how he’s speculating on matters outside his areas of expertise, he might consider giving his students a reading list of articles, both supportive and contrary, written by people who actually are qualified to write in those fields.
In other words, I suggest he make it clear when he’s speaking from a qualified professional stance and when he isn’t; and that he confine his professorial pronouncements to disciplines he knows.
Otherwise he is speaking with authority on subjects he knows next to nothing about.