The timing was perfect. Published on Christmas Day, Eric Metaxas Wall Street Journal column, "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God," was bound to be a blockbuster.
Secularism might be on the rise, but the United States remains among the most religious nations in the world, and certainly the most religious nation in the Western world. Yet America is also an incorrigibly modern nation — its people mobbing Best Buy and Apple stores at holiday time to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ by showering the latest technological fruits of science on each other, like manna from a digital heaven.
No wonder, then, that Metaxas' essay has been liked hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook. What's not to like? If Metaxas is right, there is abundant good news for believers. Not only can they confidently dismiss the New Atheist party poopers who prefer to treat science and religion as mortal enemies, forcing the faithful to choose one or the other. But they can also take comfort in the thought that science — that most authoritative of modern ways of knowing — is on the verge of confirming truths long preached by the churches.
There's just one problem: The column doesn't come close to establishing what Metaxas claims it does.
Metaxas' argument is quite simple. As recently as a few decades ago, physicists presumed that life had most likely emerged and evolved spontaneously on planets throughout the galaxy and universe, producing a cosmos veritably teeming with intelligent beings. But in more recent years, scientists have become far more circumspect, noting the enormous number of factors that must be present — on specific planets, in particular star systems, and in the universe as a whole — for life to emerge and evolve. These factors — sometimes called "anthropic coincidences" — are so numerous and involve such stupefyingly improbable outcomes that they point toward the existence of a cosmic designer who established the precise conditions for the emergence and evolution of life on Earth. And perhaps only on Earth.
Call it Intelligent Design 2.0.
Where the most compelling form of Intelligent Design 1.0 extrapolated from "irreducible complexity" in various organs or systems within organisms to a creator who serves as the only plausible explanation for how that complexity came to be, ID 2.0 seeks and finds God in the absolutely necessary conditions of the possibility of life as such — conditions that are exceedingly unlikely to have come about by chance.
I'll leave it to others to raise questions about Metaxas' mastery of the science, about whether it makes sense to base a probabilistic argument on a single data point (the existence of a universe that supports life), about whether he's escaped the many (scientific, philosophical, and theological) objections that have been raised against ID in all of its forms, and about whether Metaxas' version of it is compatible with the kind of classical theism so cogently expounded in theologian David B. Hart's recent book The Experience of God.
For the sake of argument, I'm willing to put all of those possible objections aside. Let's assume that Metaxas is right: The more we learn about the stunning dependency of life on seemingly contingent variables, the more reason we have to presume that some kind of divine force is likely to have played a decisive role in bringing it about.
The problem with this line of reasoning for Metaxas and, most likely, for many of the people who have "liked" the column, is that it's an example of natural theology — and natural theology doesn't demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible.
Plato and Aristotle were the first natural theologians. The pre-Socratic philosophers that preceded them rejected fanciful stories about the gods that formed the basis of Athenian civil religion and substituted various forms of atheism. But Plato and Aristotle held more nuanced views. Both philosophers followed their predecessors in denying the gods of popular piety, but they also developed theological views of their own. These were not based on divine revelation. They were a product of rational reflection on what any divine being must be like.
This philosophical divinity was nothing like the Olympian gods — or the revealed God of the Bible. It (not he) was austere and impersonal, taking no interest in the fate of human beings. It neither heard nor answered prayers. It played no providential role in individual or collective human lives. It didn't reward the righteous or punish the wicked. Above all, it resembled a philosopher whose quest for wisdom was complete. This "prime mover," or ultimate cause of all things, was pure mind or intellect — "thought thinking itself," to use Aristotle's famous formulation.
It should be obvious that this notion of divinity is light years away from the one revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The biblical God actively creates the universe and each specific form of life, with human beings created in his own image. He is a jealous, and sometimes angry, God. He regularly intervenes in human lives and history, even selecting the Jews to be his chosen people. He promises rewards and punishments (while often leaving the criterion of judgment mysterious). In two New Testament passages (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7), Jesus Christ claims that God cares about every hair on every single human head. The Christian theological tradition even goes so far as to propose that the creator of the universe became incarnate in human form, living and dying an excruciating death in a gratuitous act of love that makes possible the redemption of humanity.
What Metaxas is really showing in his column is a simplified form of natural theology, and not at all an example of theological reflection based on divine revelation.
That isn't a criticism. It's a statement of fact — a fact that severely complicates any attempt to treat his scientifically based speculations as providing evidence for the God that most Americans profess to believe in. Even if we consider it reasonable to speculate about the possible, mysterious role played by some form of divine intelligence on the origin of life, that provides not one ounce of support for the detailed, specific stories of divine revelation laid out in the pages of scripture.
The God of the philosophers (and the scientists) is not the God of the Bible. At least not obviously or inevitably. And no new piece of scientific evidence is likely to change that.
Which leaves us where we always are when it comes to such questions: with the contrary, sometimes overlapping, but often rivalrous claims of reason and revelation.