Losing Miller’s God

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August Berkshire, smiling.

On April 8, 2009, I went to the College of St. Catherine, a Roman Catholic university in St. Paul, to attend a presentation by evolutionary biologist Kenneth R. Miller. The lecture was entitled “Finding Darwin’s God,” after his book by the same name, which came out about ten years ago.

I remember reading Finding Darwin’s God awhile back. The first half of the book was an excellent defense of evolution and critique of creationism. The second half of the book was a poor defense of god belief. I remember thinking that if Miller had only applied the logic from the first half of his book to the second half, he would be an atheist.

Miller was one of the star witnesses on the side of science in the “intelligent design” case in Dover, Pennsylvania a couple years ago. He’s now come out with a new book, Only a Theory.

“Darwin’s God” that Miller refers to is evidently a supernatural creator that Darwin implies exists in the final sentence of Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Miller sees an overall god-intelligence in the universe, but not the day-to-day micromanaging of evolution that Intelligent Design advocates allege. This god is supposedly the First Cause and set nature’s laws in motion – including genetic mutation, natural selection, and heredity; in other words, evolution – and then stepped back and let the universe run itself. So, this god works through unguided evolution to create new species.

What Miller didn’t tell us during his talk was that by the end of his life Darwin had become an agnostic. In other words, Darwin himself had lost Darwin’s God.

One of the reasons Darwin abandoned the all-powerful, all-loving Christian god was because of the cruelty he saw in nature.

After Miller’s lecture I spoke with him and asked him how he, a Catholic, could reconcile the cruelty in nature with the idea of a loving god.

I first asked why God couldn’t have made all creatures vegetarians, so that some animals wouldn’t have to painfully and cruelly kill and eat others. Miller said that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion. (Evidently God avoids miracles these days.)

I then asked Miller about painful human birth defects where the child dies very young. Why couldn’t God have arranged it so that all genetic mutations were neutral or beneficial mutations? His answer was the same: that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion.

It seems that Miller understands the theological problem with a god who has to constantly intervene in his creation. He once stated “[I]f God purposely designed 30 horse species that later disappeared, then God’s primary attribute is incompetence. He can’t make it right the first time.” (“Educators debate ‘intelligent design’ ” by Richard N. Ostling, Star Tribune, March 23, 2002, p. B9.)

It seemed to me that this god wasn’t of much use. “So in other words,” I said, “this world operates exactly the way we would expect it to operate if there were no god.” Miller agreed, citing retired Vatican astronomer George Coyne who said that the universe doesn’t need God.

Again, I asked him how he was able to reconcile the problem of natural evil with a loving god. He said that he was able to do so, but he didn’t provide details as to how. I told him I have never been able to do it.

Other people were waiting to talk with Kenneth Miller, so we parted company, agreeing to disagree.

As I walked back to my car, I thought: Miller has all but admitted that there is no actual evidence for a god, and that certainly a god wasn’t involved in the daily process of evolution. And yet Miller believes in a god. This must mean that he believes on a basis other than evidence. In other words, on faith. Evidently the belief came first and the rationalizations second.

Miller was raised by Roman Catholic parents and is “coincidently” a Roman Catholic himself. Of all the varieties of god belief he could have chosen, he “just happened” to pick the one he was raised with. Indoctrination has trumped evidence. To me, this seems like a very unintelligent design.

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