Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins: Part two: Creation/Evolution, Science and Anti-intellectualism

For the sake of length, attention span, and aesthetics, I moved my summary of Richard Dawkins' explanation of darwinism/origins here. If you want more background, read up! If you think you can go it without, read on!

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. Background for the next essay. The next essay.

"Jesus" by Velvet Underground -- one of my favourite VU songs.

A name came into my mind as I was thinking about this whole Creation/Evolution thing. See, Darwin is not the first scientist whose theory flew in the face of conventional theology. Let's think for a moment about Galileo:

In 1633 Galileo Galilei was imprisoned for publishing his theory that the earth rotated around the sun, rather than vice versa. This idea didn't fit with the way the church understood scripture at the time. However, the inquisition found it easier to throw one guy up against the wall than to re-think the arrangement of the heavens. For them, putting Galileo in the wrong through sheer force of "because I said so," was easier than going through all that thinking.

If we look at this with a little perspective, I’m sorry folks, but the creationist lobby flying in the face of all the cumulative scientific evidence just doesn't wash any better than those priests arguing to Galileo, “That can’t be! The bible says. . . “. Arguing for the six-day, young earth creation in the face of all the evidence to the contrary is a losing battle, and the more bitterly creationists fight it, the sillier all Christians ultimately look.

Now, we shake our heads and snicker at how short-sighted and self-serving Pope Urban VIII and Robert Cardinal Bellarmine were when they released the hounds on Galileo; we tut-tut that they should have been open-minded enough not to impede the march of science, we intone that such blatantly obvious truths, based on growing volumes of observable evidence, should have been given more weight. . .

And three hundred years from now, I have very little doubt that people will sniff and snort in the same way at George W. Bush and James Dobson and the Kansas School Board and whoever else is trying to get Intelligent Design on the science curriculum. (Heck, the Kansas School Board is already being mercilessly mocked, and it isn't even a decade!)

How is this any different, really? It's the same dilemma: it's less work to dismiss a new idea than to factor it into a new, workable framework, but folks, citing scripture to disprove Darwin only further undermines the intellectual credibility of all faith, and undermining our own credibility, in a world with a multitude of voices competing for attention, is the very, very last thing we want to do!

Just as the church, after Galileo, had to reinterpret and retool the way they understood the bible's account of Earth's place in the universe, the burden lies on us to be intellectually responsible and re-examine our approach to Genesis creation story. Falsely setting up faith and intelligence as mutually exclusive sets religion on a path toward total irrelevance, so a tactical retreat is in order: we are wasting energy and credibility on losing battles, and it would suit us better to get back to the areas where the church still CAN have influence in the world: feed hungry, clothe naked, help prisoners, defend the defenseless, fight for justice, so that even if people can't agree that the bible (or any other holy book) is scientific, they can agree that Christians (or any other believers), through tireless effort, are certainly making the world a better place.

And you know what else, folks? Faith SURVIVED Galileo. Big G's publications weren't an attack, and they only damaged the church exactly as much as the church leaders proved themselves ignorant and dogmatic in response to Galileo's attempt to learn more about God's Creation. Faith CAN survive Darwin too, if we're willing to re-think this whole origin thing with open minds.

I am afraid that, if fundamentalism runs unchecked (both here and in the Muslim world), religion will come to be seen as a politicized, rallying point for dogmatism, a point from which one guards against new ideas, rather than one vantage point from which one can survey all the various fields of knowledge in the world God (presumably) created. If this drawing-lines-in-the-sand, belief-over-evidence trend continues, religiousity will slowly become marginalized, viewed as anti-intellectual and (next after that) outright superstitious, and then (eventually) anachronistic, a leftover of “those dark, old superstitious days of the bloody religious wars." Richard Dawkins will be proven a prophet!

There has to be another way.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. Background for the next essay. The next essay.


Rebecca said...

Hi Rob,
Not to disappoint you, but we've watched quite a few movies about Darwin lately, and his "science" takes almost as much faith to believe in as God. Maybe more. Which "imaginary" being would you rather believe in, God or the Missing Link? There is lots of room for scientific inquiry in understanding how God created; in fact, one movie even featured a scientist who was converted to Christianity by the Big Bang Theory. (It proves there was a beginning.) Galileo wasn't trying to do away with God, that is the problem with (much) science these days.
Keep thinking, I want to write more but later.

Roboseyo said...

I've also read people who say that the scientific method is an article of faith just as much as the apostles creed. . . in fact, I enjoyed reading this article that Tamie cited in my Dawkins post #1, and recommend it. I'm still trying to decide what I think about that argument; my main thought is "does it have to be mutually exclusive? Isn't there some integral way of viewing the universe, where we don't have to pick a side?"

I've also heard stories of scientists who find God in their awe at seeing the universe's wonders/mysteries, and consider that a very legitimate experience, (and frankly, I think it's a better way to find god than to blindly accept what the pastor told me) and I can't think of anything more awe-inspiring than creation, galaxies and quarks and leaf-vein-patterns that follow fibanocci's sequence perfectly.

I've also done a lot of thinking about whether the "religious sphere" can be thought of as separate from the "scientific sphere" (one writer argues that science deals with "how" and religion deals with "why" - but dawkins pokes holes in that guy, too)

this is the article tamie mentioned; I recommend it.

(don't forget: disproving Darwin doesn't automatically prove the Creator God, either -- the burden of proof remains, for whatever theory comes next if Darwin is discredited)

I'm not finished the series yet, but basically this post was meant in part as a call for those who believe in a creator God to come up with a more flexible view of how the universe came to be, because (as Galileo's case shows us) blinding ourselves to the reams of evidence there ARE is irresponsible, especially in this day and age, when education and information are so readily accessible.

Just as Christendom (after a while, when it was impossible to continue arguing) found a way to believe earth is important to God, despite the fact WE rotate around the SUN, and not vice versa, the best Christian minds of today need to find a way that we can look at the scientific evidence and findings and come up with a cohesive, credible way of seeing the universe as god's creation without being dogmatic or anti-intellectual. Embracing the faith/science dichotomy leads to an anti-intellectualism that will eventually crowd faith into irrelevance, and rejecting Darwin without offering an alternative explanation for all the evidence won't impress anyone except the choir.

That's another thing: back in Galileo's day, science WAS part of faith -- it was another method for exploring God's creation. Galileo was trying to learn more about God's earth; so, presumably, were Davinci and such. Gregor Mendel -- the father of genetic science -- was a monk, for goodness sake! Once the inquisition started flexing its power rather than flexing its mind, that awful, frustrating dichotomy (faith/science) began to polarize, and now we are reaping the consequences. There NEEDS to be a way to re-integrate: I think it's a false dichotomy. . . but we've sure got our work cut out for us now, with dawkins and guys like that leveling their big guns at theists.

anyway, I recommend "finding Darwin's God" by Kenneth Miller as an example of the idea it IS possible to believe in god and darwin at the same time.

melissa v. said...

I've never truly understood why evolution and creation have to be mutually exclusive...I DO think we as people accept 'scientific theory' as 'fact' far too quickly, but I have to agree that Darwin cannot be argued with via scripture. Scripture means nothing to those who are not believers. I don't think Darwin really needs to be argued with much at all; though he needs to be presented as more of a 'theory with room for other ideas' and less of a 'fact' particularly in schools.
And that list you put at the end of your post, of what we will become in the eyes of the world if we keep it up? We already are. Irrelevant. Superstitious. Anti intellectual. Etc, etc. I don't like being put in that camp. At all. But I won't sacrifice my beliefs for the sake of that perception. Instead, i try to think.