Last summer as my wife and I left Pike’s Peak, we met two men hitching a ride down the mountain after hiking up it. On the drive we learned that one of them had been addicted to drugs and alcohol, and had been in and out of jail. He was estranged from his family and trying to get back in touch with his son. He was finally clean and on a positive path. In his own telling, he was able to improve his life only because he found God through Jesus.
That story came to mind as I read Damon Linker’s recent essay ‘Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion.” Linker reflects on science’s inability to explain both selfless sacrifice and how we respond to it. He relates the harrowing story of Thomas Vander Woude, who held his breath under the surface of a cesspool while holding his Down Syndrome son above the waste. The son survived. Vander Woude did not. Linker believes secular theories cannot explain this behavior:
Rational choice and other economically based accounts hold that people act to benefit themselves in everything they do. From that standpoint, Vander Woude — like the self-sacrificing soldier or firefighter — was a fool who incomprehensibly placed the good of another ahead of his own.
Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.
But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude’s son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude’s sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.
Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father’s sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son’s genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.
Only believers, in Linker’s account, can make sense of Vander Woulde’s noble sacrifice.
Perhaps. But what if tomorrow some genius biologist explains altruism in purely naturalistic terms? What then happens to Linker’s thesis? Wouldn’t he have to accept that secular theories have the upper hand?
The problem is using explanation as the metric to adjudicate this alleged contest between science and religion. It’s a strange choice. Most people already admit science explains the natural world much better than religion. Even if radical sacrifice is the one counterexample, an honest accounting must concede that science does in fact have the “upper hand.” You can’t use a single data point as a trump card. Scoring one goal when your team is getting blown out doesn’t make your case.
A better approach would be to realize there is more to life than explanation. People also value hope, meaning, and community, none of which science provides. For almost everyone on Earth, science is simply a tool. When’s the last time someone exalted that evolution saved them? Who gathers every week to sing praise to Darwin? How many junkies come clean after learning natural selection? Has there even been one?
As I’ve gotten to know more Christians, I’ve realized that stories like I heard on Pike’s Peak are actually quite common. You can read countless testimonials about people whose faith gave them strength to conquer their demons. Whether or not God exists and whether or not Jesus was his son doesn’t change the brutal fact that believing so has changed lives for the better.
When Neil deGrasse Tyson meditates on science conquering fear, and Jerry Coyne describes evolution as one of the “great wonders of nature”, and Richard Dawkins goes on about unweaving rainbows, it’s partly the realization that science doesn’t always give people what they crave. It’s an attempt to help people find hope and meaning in science. Most never will.
As vague and meaningless it is to compare “science” and “religion”, I’m comfortable saying science is not like religion. The crazy thing is that in some very important ways, scientists like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins want it to be.
Happy Easter everyone.