Sunday, January 24, 2010

Not Success, but an Uneasy Marginalization

So years have past, and creationists have been unable to make any intellectual or scientific advances. In spite of the claims of the ID movement, no startling research is forthcoming, no new science at all has come from ID. And in the meantime, evolution continues to be a healthy and useful theory, generating new insights in a host of disciplines, while creationism is stuck repeating the same distortions and misrepresentations it has relied on for the past 30 years and more.

My fear is that what has changed is that a large segment of the population has become marginalized - pulled into home school movements, poisoned against science by their parents and pastors, where propaganda passes for education, and doctrine for academic freedom and inquiry. What becomes of these children, ghetto-ized in the name of God, and shielded from the stark reality of evolution and the complexities of the natural world?

Are we raising a generation of fundamentalist zealots, destined to turn to violence in the name of their vision of God? Does it matter if science and science education is proved right, if a whole segment of our society refuses to face the facts?

What is lacking is not a compelling scientific explanation of the world, but a compelling human vision of what it means to be in the world. Community, meaningful work, direction, quality of life - this is the "answer" to creationism - because folks hold onto creationism as a way of protecting their faith - and cognitive dissonance is a small price to pay (as they reckon), for the assurances of religion.

Evolution is true, and a fundamentalist view of faith is therefore not accurate. To live in the modern world, we have to face this fact. To successfully deny this, we have to revert back to magical thinking about the universe - ignorance. There are any number of folks who, out of mistaken piety or a desire for power, would be happy for us to return to a more pliable ignorance.

Much more is at stake here than a fundamentalist view of God and the afterlife - who controls our ideas, what we can know and how we can express ourselves, what we can discover and make, do and be are are intimately tied to this struggle. Fundamentalists are out to remake our culture in the image of their reading of scripture. It is not an accurate, just, peaceful vision - and it would be a poverty to be drug back to a time of magical thinking and rigid patriarchy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Expelled Exposed

You've got to check this site out. It meticulously documents that amazing fraud and distortion that appears in the movie "Expelled."

Expelled Exposed

You'd feel sorry for these folks, if they weren't doing so much damage, giving science-bashers the idea that there was actual evidence to support their mis-understanding of evolution and sense of persecution.

Friday, March 21, 2008

We Need to Believe

I heard an interesting quote today: "Fear is a poor counselor."

Many folks, perhaps reacting to fear (crime, the economy, terrorism), perhaps lacking a decent education, perhaps mislead by their religious leaders (many of them know better, but fear to speak out, while others buy the creationist lies) believe that a return to a traditional faith is the only hope for a moral society, and that any enemy of religion must be their enemy as well.

Science, especially in its articulation of evolution, confronts us with a much different cosmology than the spirit-driven mystery that is the world of faith. For those who hold a religious worldview, faith's bona fides are all about us - tornadoes are retribution, an earthquake is punishment, spring rain a numinous act of blessing - aimed directly at me and my community. Parking spaces are held open, synchonicities abound, everything happens for a reason.

Science has cracked open that perspective, and lays bare a series of natural processes. No storehouses of snow, no god striding the dome of heaven, hurling thunderbolts at the wicked. That the earth is simply following a process, is indifferent to us, has no conscious awareness of us, no message for us, no lesson to teach us - is not something people want to accept or bear.

People believe creationism because it is a lie they want to be true- and they'd rather accept that lie than face the implications of the universe we actually live in. They find the lie of creationism actually fits their experience of life better than the truth of evolution.

Given that science (which was embraced because folks understood it to offer a secular version of the Prosperity Gospel) has failed to offer a coherent narrative and ethic to replace religion, why should we be surprised that folks go back to faith? After all, we are literally evolved to embrace a supernatural view of the world, and if science steadfastly refuses to offer anything to believe in, then people will have to find their own beliefs (for we will believe). For some, this is traditional religion, but for others it is new age mysticism, UFO-ology, resurgent nationalism, paganism - something, anything, rather than nothing.

So I think that science does need to articulate a coherent story, and put it into terms that can be comprehended by our brains as they evolved, not as we might wish them to be.

There is design, just not an intelligent designer. Even the ID folks understand the distinction - which is why they did not simply call their idea Design Theory. They know things are designed - by evolution. They needed to go further and stipulate that world we see is the work of not just evolution, but as well, the occasional intervention of an Intelligent Designer. Our response ought to be to acknowledge the design, but also to demonstrate the power of evolution as a designer. And then go further, and demonstrate that the world-as-it-is-designed fits much better with the idea of evolution-as-designer than with an intelligent-being-as-designer.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Golden Rules in our Genes?

One of the "culture war" slogans is that God provides the only basis for morality. In the US at least, God is used to justify some pretty selfish choices. Because the focus of most conservative Christianity is on individual salvation / personal responsibility, there hasn't been very much mainstream work done on community (not none, its just not ... mainstream).

Freedom has to be constrained by accountability, rights with responsibilities, capitalism with respect for the commons (air, land, water ..) and the poor, the minorities, the disenfranchised. This is what it means to live in a community. Isolated individuals are not very good at dealing with freeloaders and others who will abuse the system for their own advantage, but communities can easily do just that. However, it requires mature, robust, inclusive communities - not rigid and judgmental ones.

Religions do provide abundant material from which to construct a caring global community - the issue is a matter of focus. The selfish, individualistic focus of many churches, for example, are a reflection of the culture we live in. The solution is to transform our culture by changing what we value.

How is such a thing done? It starts with a dissatisfaction with how things are now. Concern for the trajectory of our culture. Perhaps even fear for a future weighted down by ecological collapse and torn apart by fundamentalist religious strife. This last part is important, because it suggests that the solution is not a return to "old time religion."

The difficulties we face are tied up with the failure of world religion to adapt to the remarkable advances of our understanding about the natural world. Had scientific discoveries confirmed the sacred texts of one or more religions, religion would have a much more dominant role in the West. As it is, multiple religions compete with various naturalistic and "new age" worldviews to define how best to live.

Through it all, an unprecedented rise of personal wealth has all-but-obliterated the need for sacrifice, discipline and hard work for hundreds of millions of people. This has created a large leisure class, and an even larger class of people who can live fairly comfortable lives (especially by global and historical standards) without exhibiting any particular drive, discipline or even skill.

Though there is no unifying voice pointing to a solution (cultures, religions, institutions offer a multitude of options, but they are often contradictory, and there is no obvious way to select from among them), these scientific observations ay offer a way forward. While retaining your cultural / religious / socioeconomic framework, begin to form, value and maintain healthy community. Create affinity and affiliation with as broad a conception of community as possible. Most cultures affirm the idea of treating others in the way you would like to be treated. Perhaps this is all we really need - genuine community, where we strengthen and encourage one another, and band together against the freeloader, the oppressor, the abuser.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Science: Collateral Damage in the Culture War

The world is a scary place, mostly because of some of the people who inhabit it. Then there is accident, famine, sickness and natural disaster.

The world is a fabulous place, full of grandeur, amazing and intricate beauty, love, friendship, simple delights and heart-breaking sorrow. The future defies our every attempt to understand or predict it, and the simplest experiences can be interpreted widely differently, even by folks with similar backgrounds and viewpoints.

There are any number of systems that attempt to make sense of this life we find ourselves in. Many, perhaps most of them ascribe the mystery and chaos of the life we live to unseen forces. We don't understand because we don't see the "big picture." We don't understand because unseen players are introducing cause and effect that we know nothing about.

This conjecture forms a working hypothesis about how the world works. Some explanations involve one God, others many. Some have spirits animating everyday objects, others hosts of angels and devils constantly at work on unseen, unfathomable tasks. In some systems, we are working towards the embodiment of moral principles in life after life. For most of human history, one conjecture was as good as another, and there was no real way to tell which system was right, and which system was not.

Along comes the the scientific method, with its assumption of methodological naturalism. Actually, implicit in this approach to science is a hypothesis: the natural world can be explained without reference to supernatural causes or teleological assumptions. Several hundred years later, this hypothesis has been borne out over and over.

Though the results of science have generally been welcomed (even if all the technology that has come of it has been a mixed bag), it has necessitated a sea-change in how we view the world. Rather than an mysterious interplay of benign and malign unseen supernatural forces, the world is a chaotic interplay of natural forces.

This is seen as a direct affront to those who take a literally a spiritual tradition that ascribes events in this world (private and public, intimate and cosmic) to the action of unseen spiritual forces. Even though the evidence is pretty clear, that our early conjectures about the supernatural world is wrong, we are still act as if the old explanations (soul, spirit, gods, angels) are accurate, and the evidence before us (the fruit of science) is somehow wrong, or irrelevant.

Why? Because we are built to find significance. Because we experience coincidence (and intermittent re-enforcement is a powerful teacher). Because we want to believe that we matter, that what we do matters, that we are right and others are wrong. Don't get me wrong. I think that we are significant, that we do matter, and that there is a way to live (loosely speaking) that is better than others. And I believe that, in most of the world's religions, we have recapitulated that truth. But I also believe that most religions reflect these facts, rather than form the basis for moral and ethical action, community and purpose.

So the experience comes first, then the rejection of science. A person who holds that God personally intervenes in the day-to-day life of the believer, when faced with the fact that this is just not the way the world works, is forced to suspend belief in science (at least while they are acting as a person of faith). This is a small price to pay for certainty and a feeling of personal significance, they think.

I think they are wrong. It turns out to be a huge price to pay - and we see it in the religious and sectarian strife, the racial hatred, the destruction of our planet's atmosphere, the way we ignore authentic community and focus on purely personal issues of behavior.

The world is a chaotic system of natural cause and effect. This is evidently the way God made it, or God did not make it - there is not a third viable option. Just like we have had to give up the notion of sickness as caused by our neighbor's curse, or an eclipse as a struggle between good and evil, we need to base the way we view our search for significance and right action on the world as it is - not the world as we wish it were.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Not Your Old Time Religion

Though some Christians may pretend that conservative religious faith has remained somewhat constant through the centuries, what even the most conservative literalist believes today varies in significant ways from the world view of the early church. As late as the 1500s, it was assumed that angels and demons controlled the most mundane aspects of life. The vast territory that we now call the natural world did not exist in the minds of most people until very recently. Christian Europe believed that demonic forces directly and regularly caused things like illness, death, wasting of crops, barrenness, etc. that are now understood to have more "natural" causes.

This mindset lives on today. As quoted in the Times of India, "
Officials at Nepal's state-run airline have sacrificed two goats to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god, following technical problems with one of its Boeing 757 aircraft, the carrier said on Tuesday."

This is not to say that religion is unimportant. One of the themes I have been trying to develop on this blog is that we need to come to new understandings about the interplay of science and religion. Belief is bound up in what it means to be human, it would seem. Faith is an integral part of how we go about our lives. At the same time, much of our traditional religious frameworks are bound up in cosmologies and understandings of cause and effect that we no longer share with our spiritual fore bearers. We have a largely naturalistic view of the world, but our spiritual framework is defined by people who saw even the most mundane occurrences as fraught with supernatural agency.

Rather than argue that faith requires us to believe absurd things, we need to work out how to maintain faith in light of the massive shift in worldview that has overtaken us as the result of our study of the natural world.

Friday, December 14, 2007

We've Already Moved Past Biblical Literalism

If you believe the earth rotates the sun, then you believe things that science has discovered that contradicts the bible. Do you extend your faith to a flat earth and a sun that moves across the sky?

In fact, you have changed the way you read the Bible such that you don't even think the Bible teaches that. The fact that Martin Luther thought that it did shows that it our interpretation that has changed, and not the Bible's teaching.

Science assumes naturalism because that is all it can study. It is like the old joke about a drunk looking under a streetlight for his car keys because the light is better there. Science assumes naturalism, not as a commitment to atheism, but because it won't work when the answer is "God did it."

This is where the gaps of the "God in the Gaps" theology comes from. When science can't find an answer, you can assume that we'll never figure it out, we might figure it out, or that God did it. Progress is only made in science when you assume that we might be able to fougre it out. Unexpectedly perhaps, this assumption has been so successful, there has been no reason to question it.

The big bang did happen. This is not speculation, it is based on evidence, and confirmed by experiment. The earth is not 6,000 years old - this is based on evidence, and confirmed by experiment. So it is hardly fair or accurate to say that these are two competeing views of the how we got here. A fair and balanced treatment of evolution would say that evolution is the only theory that explains the facts. Full stop.

The idea of the Big Bang is weird, no doubt. And you can believe that God did it, no doubt. But what God did not do is create the earth 6,000 years ago. What God did not do is create species from the mud, just as they are (or even mostly as they are) today. Just like a flat earth and a sun that is drug across the sky, modern discoveries give us challenges in reading the Bible. These are real challenges, but they should not be papered over by denying the age of the earth and the actions of evolution.