Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An early "Darwin Day" essay

On February 4, evangelist Ken Ham will debate television personality Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) on the subject of creationism, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.  It will be streamed live, and should attract considerable attention among those with an interest in the decline of modern civilization.

A public debate between non-experts is theater, not scholarship.  The debate is predicated on a critical misrepresentation, as if Creationism/Evolution mapped cleanly on to Religion/Science.  But it doesn’t.  Evolution is compatible with many theologies. 

Certainly creationism is religious, and evolution is scientific.  But aside from a bit of old revisionist  history, the judgment of modern historians and anthropologists alike is that science and religion can, and do, coexist peacefully for most people.  The reason is that science is a fairly narrow intellectual domain, consisting of a series of methods for establishing reliable knowledge about the natural world; while religion broadly encompasses social, experiential, and moral domains. 

Religion is so fundamentally an aspect of the human condition that, as scholars have realized for many decades, most people integrate religious beliefs and attitudes seamlessly into their daily lives.  The ancient Greeks had no word for it.  It’s not that they weren’t religious, it’s just that they didn’t separate and label it, as we do. 

Ritual behaviors extend beyond religion.  As football fans are well aware - with commercials for Bud Light invoking the old Stevie Wonder song “Superstition” – religious beliefs and attitudes hardly end at the outer side of the church door.  And as anyone who as ever shouted “stupid computer!” and smacked the side of their monitor knows, the attribution of sentient properties to inanimate objects – loosely called “animism” – is not limited to the formally demarcated religious domain.

Creationists today are a diverse lot.  Ken Ham represents “young-earth creationism”, rejecting not simply anthropology and biology, but geology and astrophysics as well.  That position existed back in 1925, when John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in Tennessee, and William Jennings Bryan held center stage as the nation’s leading spokesman for creationism.  But young-earth creationism was too dumb even for Bryan, who made it clear during the infamous trial that he accepted the great antiquity of the heavens and the earth.  He was an “old-earth” creationist.

A more recent version of creationism - “intelligent design”  - preaches neither an old cosmos nor a young cosmos, but presents simply a theology of negativity, whose adherents are united solely in their opposition to the naturalistic explanation of human origins provided by modern science.
But the modern conflict is complicated by two other factors. 

First, the cultural prominence of evangelical atheists, who would cast themselves not simply against creationism, but against religion more generally.  These people, however, imagine that religion is as narrow as science is – simply a set of alternative and false narratives about nature.  But these people do no favors for science, for its authority on natural matters does not extend to the cultural, ethical, spiritual, or esthetic domains.

Second, the mistake of lumping anti-vaccinators, climate-change deniers, and creationists into a single “anti-science” bin.  Nobody is “anti-science” – that person exists only in the mind of a paranoiac.  After all, Republican resistance to anthropogenic climate change is about business and money, not about theology.

Creationism is a poor representation of religion, whose basis is not merely an alternative narrative of our origins, but lies in the construction of a complex and very human social, emotional, and moral universe.  And atheism is a poor representation of science, whose methods were developed to study natural processes and make no sense when extended beyond nature – if indeed there is anything beyond nature, which science doesn’t, and can’t, know.

There are individual exceptions, of course, but Judaism holds that the Torah must be interpreted properly for every generation, and that only a poltroon would take it at face value.  The Catholic Church accepts the descent of the human species from earlier nonhuman species.  That leaves Biblical literalist creationism as a sectarian theological dispute within Protestantism.

It’s time to separate science from atheism, and religion from Biblical literalism.   The atheists and the literalists can slug it out, but the rest of us will continue trying to make decent intellectual sense of the things in our lives that science does explain and the things it doesn’t.