06/2/17

Myth of the Medieval Science Gap

© Sergey Ishkov | 123rf.com

Carl Sagan and others described the Middle Ages as a time when scientific progress was thwarted by religion, specifically Christianity.  In his book Cosmos, Sagan has a timeline of science and technology with a gap from around 500 AD to 1500 AD. At the bottom of the timeline he commented: “The millennium gap in the middle of the diagram represents a poignant lost opportunity for the human species.” But this portrayal of the Middle Ages is as false as saying Columbus discovered American and proved the earth wasn’t flat.

In a BioLogos article, “Carl Sagan and the Myth of the Medieval Gap,” Stephen Snobelen said it was axiomatic for those who perceive a conflict between religion and science to hold to this belief. Namely, that while “science” existed in ancient Greece, during medieval times it faded away until Christianity’s influence started to subside. Snobelen said only with some significant qualifications can we say: “science existed in Ancient Greece.” And this Greek period of “science” was already in decline before Christianity came to power.

“It is true that the first half of the Middle Ages did not enjoy the intellectual vibrancy of the second half.” But this can be explained by historical contingencies such as “the impact of Barbarian invasions and political dislocations.” By the end of the medieval period, “science and technology had reached a state of sophistication and refinement that far surpassed that of the Greeks.” And yet, the term “medieval” has become a sneering way of referring to something that someone thinks is backward.

Among the technological advances of the Middle Ages are the horse collar, the rudder, eye glasses, buttons, the fork, trousers, windmills, the mechanical escapement clock, and the printing press. The invention of the Cyrillic script, which is the basis of several alphabets, also occurred during the Middle Ages. The myth also ignores the innovations to the practice and theory of science that occurred during that time. Roger Bacon (1220-1292), a Franciscan, is known as the first modern scientist. William of Ockham (1285-1347) conceived of the parsimony principle—Ockham’s Razor.

But, if we play the correlation-equals-causation game (which is a fallacy to begin with), then this argument proves more than advocates of the Medieval Gap want. For instance, there is a common assumption that Europe in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period was a cultural monolith dominated by the Church. This can hardly be said of the first half of the Middle Ages. Yet, it was only when the Catholic Church had consolidated its power in the second half of the period that there was a relative flourishing of science and technology. More spectacularly, it was precisely the period when Europe was at its most Christian—the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—that science as we now know it emerged. (I am not saying that Christianity was in any simple way responsible for the emergence of modern science, only that the correlation argument can come back to bite its proponents)

In his essay on the myth “That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail, Michael Shank said the idea that the Middle Ages was a “millennium of stagnation” brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among Medieval scholars. “But it remains vigorous among popularizers of the history of science” who uncritically repeat these false assertions made of those who went before them. For example, John William Draper, asserted in 1874 (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science) that the Church of the Middle Ages “became a stumbling block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years.” Carl Sagan, in his 1980 book Cosmos said: “For a long time the human instinct to understand was thwarted by facile religious explanations.”

Another factor in the growth of science during the Middle Ages was the spontaneous development of universities around famous teachers in towns like Paris, Oxford, and Bologna. “By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe.” About 30 percent of their curriculum covered subjects and texts about the natural world. Hundreds of thousands of students were exposed to science “in the Greco-Arabic tradition.”

If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating—to say nothing of supporting—the university. . . . Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth. Even students who did not complete their degrees gained an elementary familiarity with natural philosophy and the mathematical sciences and imbibed the naturalism of these disciplines.

The majority of students at these universities did not study theology. Most were not priests or monks. “They remained in the faculties of arts, where they studied only nonreligious subjects, including logic, natural philosophy, and the mathematical sciences.” The most popular advanced study was law, which promised lucrative careers in the bureaucracies of both church and state.

In another BioLogos article, “The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today,” Stephen Snoblen said Carl Sagan isn’t the only modern author perpetuating the Myth of the Medieval Gap. He quoted the biologist Jerry Coyne who said Christianity was around for about 1,000 years without much science being done. “I maintain, though I can’t prove this, that had there been no Christianity, if after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world, science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now.”  In a debate, physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger asserted civilization went through a period of “Dark Ages” during which science was lost. Christianity was the alleged cause. “And when Christianity finally began to be chipped away … we got it back.”

David Mills, the author of Atheist Universe, thought that if it weren’t for the religious persecution and oppression of science, humankind could have landed on the moon by 650 AD. Cancer could have been eradicated by 800 AD, and heart disease might be unknown today. He claimed the Christian Church operated torture chambers throughout Europe for 1500 years and yearly tortured “tens of thousands of people. Including children as young as two years old” to death. Snoblen noted estimates for the number of witches put to death range from 7,000 to 100,000. If the rhetoric of Mills was accepted here, then 20,000 yearly deaths (tens of thousands) over 1500 years would add up to 30,000,000 killed by torture. Richard Dawkins referred to the Atheist Universe as “an admirable work” and Carl Sagan’s son wrote the foreword.

Snoblen said that as a historian of science, he despaired when reading such nonsense. It depressed him to see the promotion of such ignorance. But he frequently encountered it among some undergraduates. He worried about the effect such vitriol had on secular attitudes towards Christians and Christianity. “This sort of rhetoric and misuse of history promotes intolerance and is simply inexcusable. It is the duty of historians to expose this for the mythology it is.”

05/23/17

Medieval Myths of Religion & Science

image credit: theflatearthsociety.org

“When Columbus lived, people thought the earth was flat.” That was supposedly what everyone believed during the Middle Ages and what the brave Columbus disproved by sailing west from Spain to get to the East Indies. As the legend goes, Columbus was one of the few who believed the earth was round. The trailer for the 1992 Ridley Scott film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise,” illustrates the common belief that in a time of “rigid faith and restless doubt”, Columbus challenged the forces of fear and ignorance. Except it seems that saying the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat, is itself mythical.

Yet this myth has been a “truth” taught to American school children for over 100 years. Emma Miller Bolenius, who wrote several schoolbooks for American children, wrote the above quote in a 1919 text. She said people in Medieval times believed the Atlantic Ocean was full of monsters and fearful waterfalls that their ships would plunge over and be destroyed. “Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.” In reality, it was a biography of Columbus by Washington Irving, the American author of the famous short stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” who first introduced this idea to the world.

The Middle Ages was supposed to have been a time of ignorance and backwardness. People in these so-called “Dark Ages” were thought to be so ignorant (or deceived by Catholic priests) that they believed the earth was flat. To say something today is “medieval,” is to slur it as backward or ignorant. Belief in a flat earth is equated with willful ignorance, while an understanding that the earth was spherical, as with Columbus, was a sign of the beginning of modernity. This is an almost an axiomatic view that many people today take for granted.

But in her essay on the belief “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat,” Lesley Cormack said that early church fathers such as Augustine (d. 420), Jerome (d. 420) and Ambrose (d. 420) all agreed that the earth was a sphere. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Roger Bacon (d. 1294) and Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) also believed in a round, spherical earth. She said: “From the seventh century to the fourteenth, every important medieval thinker concerned about the natural world stated more or less explicitly that the world was a round globe.” Many of these even incorporated Ptolemy’s astronomy and Aristotle’s physics into their work.

Cormack said that in the nineteenth century, scholars who were interested in “promoting a new scientific and rational view of the world.” They claimed that medieval churchman suppressed the belief of the ancient Greeks and Romans that the world was round. One of these individuals was the American historian and scientist John William Draper, who believed that Columbus ushered in modernity by proving the earth was round.

Cormack began her essay with a quote from Draper’s 1874 book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. In chapter six of his book, Draper said the traditions and policy of Roman Catholic Church “forbade it to admit any other than the flat figure of the earth.” The belief in a flat earth continued until “the question of the shape of the earth was finally settled by three sailors, Columbus, De Gama, and, above all, by Ferdinand Magellan.”

In the Introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, Ronald Numbers pointed out how Draper focused much of his condemnation upon the Roman Catholic Church partly because it then composed the majority of Christendom, partly because its demands were the most pompous, and partly because it sought to enforce those demands by civil power. But there was a more personal reason that seems to have influenced Draper in his prejudicial view of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and scientific progress. Draper never mentioned it publically, and it only came to light after his death.

Drawing from a biography of Draper by Donald Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science, Numbers related a conflict that arose between Draper and his sister Elizabeth, who had converted to Catholicism. For a time, she lived with the Drapers. When her eight-year-old nephew William, one of the Draper’s children, was dying, she hid one of his favorite books, a Protestant devotional, “which he cried for.” After William’s death, she laid the devotional on Draper’s breakfast plate. “He met this cool challenge by ordering her out of the house.” He never forgave her. Numbers concluded Draper blamed the Vatican “for her unChristian and dogmatic behavior.”

Another often repeated medieval myth is that the church of the Middle Ages prohibited human dissection. As Katherine Park related, the myth “That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection” had its classic statement in another nineteenth century church and science polemic by Andrew Dickinson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White said a serious stumbling block to the beginnings of modern medicine and surgery was a belief in “the unlawfulness of meddling with the bodies of the dead.” He said Augustine held anatomy in abhorrence, while it seems Augustine actually had a more nuanced opinion.

In The City of God Augustine discussed “The Blessings with Which the Creator has filled this life.” After discussing the blessing of the mind, by which the human soul becomes capable of knowledge and receiving instruction, he turned to the gift of the body. Augustine said while every part of the body had been created for utility, they also contributed something to its beauty. Reflecting then current medical knowledge, he said this would be all the more apparent if we could see beyond the surface. No one, Augustine thought, could discover that beauty and utility. “For as to what is covered up and hidden from our view, the intricate web of veins and nerves, the vital parts of all that lies under the skin, no one can discover it.”

Anatomists, who dissect bodies of the dead, and sometimes sick persons who die under their knives (surgery?) have “inhumanly pried into the secrets of the human body.” It seems Augustine objected to those who disregarded that the human body was part of the image of God in their pursuit of knowledge, treating it like the body of a beast. He questioned the wisdom of seeking to discover the utility of parts of the body like the web of veins and nerves, which he thought could never be done. He abhorred dissection when it treated the human body like that of an animal, disregarding its intimate connection to the soul in the image of God. Katherine Park suggested another possibility here: Augustine saw the fascination with dismembering corpses as an unhealthy curiosity about matters irrelevant to salvation.

In chapter nine where White discussed “The Scientific Struggle for Anatomy,” he acknowledged that there were pockets of medical science where dissection was permitted, particularly at the greater universities “which had become somewhat emancipated from ecclesiastical control.” White singled out Andreas Vesalius, often referred to as the father of modern human anatomy, as a particular hero in this war between science and religion. White said Vesalius was charged with dissecting a living man and directed by the Inquisition to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “as the great majority of authors assert,” to atone for his sin of doing such a dissection. He was shipwrecked and died on his return.

Modern biographers dismiss this as a myth; Vesalius was not on pilgrimage due to pressures of the Inquisition. The story originated with Hubert Lambert, a diplomat under Emperor Charles V and then under the Prince of Orange. Lambert claimed in 1565 that Vesalius had performed an autopsy on an aristocrat in Spain while the heart was still beating, which led to the Inquisition’s condemning him to death. Philip II had the sentence commuted to a pilgrimage. “The story re-surfaced several times over the next few years, living on until recent times.” See the Wikipedia entry on Andraes Vesalius for more information.

Park said human dissection was not practiced with any regularity before the end of the thirteenth century “in either pagan, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim cultures.” Greek and Roman avoidance of dissection seems to be due to the belief that corpses were ritually unclean. While early Christian culture rejected the idea of corpse pollution and did not prohibit its practice in the early Middle Ages, “there is no evidence for its practice.”  The above-discussed disapproval by Augustine may have played a role, but it was also influenced by the generally undeveloped state of medical learning “after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century.”

The myth of the medieval church prohibiting human dissection is as strong now as when it was first invented by John Dickinson White. The late U.S. Senator, Arlen Spector, referred to it as he spoke in favor of S. 2754, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2006. He cited a 1299 papal bull by Pope Boniface VII, wrongly saying it had banned the practice of cadaver dissection. “This stopped the practice for over 300 years and greatly slowed the accumulation of education regarding human anatomy.”

It seems that Mondino de’ Liuzzi didn’t get the memo, because he produced the first known anatomy textbook based on human dissection in 1316. It remained “a staple of university medical instruction through the early sixteenth century.” Dissection was confined to Italian universities and colleges for a time. But by the late fifteenth century it had spread to northern Europe, “and by the sixteenth century it was widely performed in universities and medical colleges in both Catholic and Protestant areas.”

The essays by Leslie Cormack and Katharine Park can be found in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers.

05/12/17

Einstein’s God

© Georgios Kollidas | 123rf.com

Albert Einstein had one of the most original scientific minds in human history.  Curiously, one his most famous quotes was, “God does not play dice.” This had led some to glibly assert: “He believed in God.” For example, in 2015 an auction-house in California put up 27 letters written by Einstein for auction claiming they revealed the personal side of his story—“how he advised his children, how he believed in God.” The founder of the auction house said the letters were on sale from $5,000 to $40,000 each. He thought the total take could be between $500,00 and $1 million. But exactly what did Einstein believe about God?

A brief article that appeared in The Washington Times, “Albert Einstein was no atheist, said the 27 letters up for auction showed ‘he believed in God.’” Hermant Mehta noted how this was a classic example of taking something out of context. In “Did Albert Einstein Believe in God or Not?” Mehta said that if Einstein had been alive today, he would likely seek to avoid religious labels. While he would reject being called a New Atheist, he wouldn’t spend time praying or thinking about God. Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God.

Einstein’s religion, if you have to put a label to it, is a sort of nebulous Deism: Maybe God played in role in creating the universe — because nature inspires such awe and the universe seems perfectly guided by mathematics — but that God has no direct affect on our lives today.

In The Ultimate Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice, Einstein said he could not conceive of a personal God “who would directly influence the actions of individuals.” Rather, he believed in Spinoza’s God, “Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”  His understanding of God came from “from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world.”

He said he often read the Bible, but its original text was beyond his reach. He wanted to know how God created this world. His religiosity consisted in “a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveal itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world.” The deeply emotional conviction of the “presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernable concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.

It was this sense of God and religion that Einstein brought to his understanding of the relationship between religion and science. And we get a clearer picture of that understanding in these three articles written by him: “Religion and Science,” “Science and Religion,” and “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?” All three are available here. See the link for information on where they were originally given or published.

In “Religion and Science,” originally published in 1930, Einstein described three stages to religious thought and belief. The initial, almost animistic stage was a religion of fear. “At this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend.” Securing favor from these beings was by actions and sacrifices, which led to the emergence of a priestly caste as a mediator between the people “and the being they fear.”

The second stage was one of moral religion, where social impulses crystallized another type. This was “the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards and punishes.” This god loved and cherished the life of the tribe or the human race; or even life itself. He comforted in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he preserved the souls of the dead. Einstein commented how the Jewish scriptures illustrated the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, which continued into the New Testament.

“The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions.” Although the development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step, Einstein urged caution. “The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.” A common factor in all these types is “the anthropomorphic character of god corresponding to it.”

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order, which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

Religious geniuses of all ages are known by this kind of religious feeling. It has no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image. “There can be no church whose central teachings are based on it.” Both heretics and saints of every age were “filled with this highest kind of religious feeling.” Without dogma or a church, this “cosmic religious feeling” is communicated from one person to another by art and science. “In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”

Seeing science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists is thus easy to see with this sense of religion and science, according to Einstein. The individual who takes the hypothesis of causality seriously, who is convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation, cannot entertain “the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events.” There is no room “for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.”

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

This mysterious “cosmic religious feeling” is completely separate from science, according to Einstein. And it is within this sense of religion and science that we can understand another quote of his found in Part II of his second article, “Science and Religion”:

For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation, which has been described.

The conflict between science and religion stems from the religious concept of a personal God. “The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.”

The aim of science is “to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space.” These rules or “laws of nature” require general validity; they are not proven to be so. The more a person is “imbued with the ordered regularity of all events,” the firmer becomes their conviction that there is no room left for causes other than this ordered regularity. Personal or divine will does not exist as an independent cause of natural events.

To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

The god of Einstein is not the God of Scripture. That God is clearly portrayed as a personal God, which Einstein consistently and repeatedly rejected. He did acknowledge the independence of science and religion, as well as the limits of what can be known through science. But his understanding of “God” fails to affirm the crucial Creator-creature distinction inherent in Christianity. His god is part of nature; it is more pantheistic than it is theistic. It has more in common with Ludwig Feuerbach, who believed that man’s God was man, “homo homini Deus est.”

Christian theology would see Einstein as deifying nature. Romans chapter one noted that the invisible attributes of the personal Creator God are clearly seen in the things that were made. Instead of knowing and honoring God, he affirmed the existence of a superior intelligence revealed in the knowable world. This “god” could be experienced through a mysterious “cosmic religious feeling.” There is no room for divine or personal will independent of the ordered regularity of natural events. Paul would say Einstein exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:18-23).

So what about Einstein’s quote about God not playing dice? Another famous physicist, Stephen Hawking (among others) observed in “Does God Play Dice?” that Einstein was unhappy about the apparent randomness in nature, which he succinctly stated in his famous phrase of God not playing dice. Einstein thought the uncertainty in nature was only provisional. There had to be an underlying reality, where particles had well defined positions and speeds, and would adhere to deterministic laws. “This reality might be known to God, but the quantum theory of light would prevent us from seeing it.”

Hawking then noted Einstein’s view would today be called a hidden variable theory. “But these hidden variable theories are wrong.” A British physicist named John Bell devised an experimental test that would distinguish hidden variable theories. But when it was carefully carried out, the results were inconsistent with hidden variables. Hawking remarked that it seems even God is bound by the Uncertainty Principle. “So God does play dice with the universe.”

05/2/17

Beyond the Risen Son

© hamsterman | 123rf.com

BioLogos published a series of articles that critiqued New Atheism and the movement’s use of flawed reasoning in its portrayal of religion and science. The series reviewed an essay by Stephen Snoblen, a historian of science, about New Atheist views of science and religion. One article in the series, “Science, Religion and New Atheism: Introduction,” made a distinction between the militant atheism of New Atheists and more moderate atheists. Snoblen said that many of the moderate atheists seek to distance themselves from the perceived excesses of the New Atheists. So what he asserted in his essay applied primarily to New Atheists. Snoblen thought some of the best, and most sympathetic, studies of the relationship between science and religion were written by individuals who would be moderate atheists, skeptics or agnostics.

The November 2006 issues for Wired magazine ran an article entitled, “The Church of the Non-Believers” which Snoblen said was important in canonizing the name and mission of what is called “New Atheism.” Not so coincidentally, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins had just been published the month before. By early December, it had reached number four on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list; it went on to sell millions of copies. There have been many others besides Dawkins articulating the central tenant of New Atheism, which Snoblen succinctly stated as: science is good and religion is evil. There is no afterlife; no heaven; no hell. “Religion must be abolished. The only thing that matters is science.”

While this is based upon views of “religion” and “science” that fit nicely with its atheistic worldview, it is not universally accepted as true. The New Atheist sense of religion is one that sees any acceptance of the supernatural as “religious.” And “science” is necessarily positivistic and materialistic. Within the above-linked article, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” Dawkins was quoted as saying the “big war” between science and religion is not between evolution and creationism. Rather, it is between naturalism and supernaturalism. “Sensible” religious people believe in supernaturalism; however “That puts me on the other side.”

This sense of religion is based upon the views of the founder of British anthropology, Edward Tylor, who theorized that all religions were based on animism. He defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings.” According to Tylor, animism had two components: a belief that the human soul survived bodily death, and a belief in other spirits, including deities. The belief in spirits and deities was an outgrowth of believing in souls. There was a progressive development from the veneration of objects within nature (animals, trees, etc.), to venerating specific spirits that were less attached to objects (gods, devils, fairies, angels). As these gods were associated with good and evil, or as “first causes” of creation, they were seen as highly powerful beings—and even as a Supreme Being. Tylor said: “Animism has its distinct and consistent outcome, and Polytheism its distinct and consistent completion, in the doctrine of a Supreme Deity.”

Another problem lies with a New Atheist sense of faith that further distorts religion. Famously articulated by Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he said faith “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” This is a definition that few religious believers would accept. It is unquestioning belief; faith as belief with a complete absence of evidence.  Snoblen said the New Atheist definition of faith was a straw man, applied to Christianity “with hostile intent.” The geneticist and former Head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, said this sense of faith was not the real thing.

[Dawkins’s definition] certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers throughout history, not of most of those in my personal acquaintance. While rational argument can never conclusively prove the existence of God, serious thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to C.S. Lewis have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible. It is no less plausible today. The caricature of faith that Dawkins presents is easy for him to attack, but it not the real thing. (Francis Collins, The Language of God, p. 164)

A better definition of faith suggested by Snobler would be “Faith is belief in the absence of complete evidence.” Conceive of faith as existing on a continuum. On the one side is blind faith; faith with no evidence. Snobler said he was not aware of any believer whose faith could be defined that way, but it was a logical possibility. At the other extreme would be positivism, which argues there can be no belief without evidence. “Somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes we could place ‘informed faith,’ belief with partial evidence.”

As Ian Barbour discussed in his book, Religion and Science, science is not as objective as positivists believe; and religion is not as subjective. He said positivists portray science as objective, meaning its theories are “validated by clear-cut criteria” and tested by their agreement with “indisputable theory-free data.” Both the criteria and the data are held to be “independent of the individual subject” and not affected by cultural influences. Religion, on the other hand is seen as subjective. But since the 1950s, these contrasts have been increasingly challenged. Science was no as objective as had been claimed by positivism.

Scientific data are theory-laden, not theory-free. Theoretical assumptions enter the selection, reporting, and interpretation of what are taken to be data. Moreover, theories do not rise from logical analysis of data but from acts of creative imagination in which analogies and models often play a role. Conceptual models help us to imagine what is not directly observable. (Religion and Science, p. 93)

Barbour said many of the same characteristics are present in religion. While religious beliefs are “not amenable to strict empirical testing,” they can be approached in a similar way. “The scientific criteria of coherence, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness have their parallels in religious thought.” Following the thought of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Barbour said religious traditions could be seen as “communities that share a common paradigm.” Kuhn’s book asserted that both theories and data in science were dependent upon the ruling paradigms of the scientific community.

In the choice between paradigms, there are no rules for applying scientific criteria. Their evaluation is an act of judgment by the scientific community. As established paradigm is resistant to falsification, since discrepancies between theory and data can be set aside as anomalies or reconciled by introducing ad hoc hypotheses.

In The Big Question, Alister McGrath said New Atheism was really an antiquated rationalism “which has failed to catch up with the philosophical revolution of the twentieth century” in the pivotal works of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hans-Georg Gadamer. McGrath said this was good news for both science and religion, which were both now free of the rationalist dogma “that human reason can lay down what the universe is like. It does not, and cannot.”

Reality is too complex to be comprehended by any form of intellectual tunnel vision. We need multiple windows on our complex world if we are to appreciate it to the full and act rightly and meaningfully within it. Now there is nothing wrong with seeing only part of the truth, so long as we realize that this is an incomplete vision. The problems begin if we think that reality is limited to what one tradition of investigation can disclose, and refuse to listen to any other voices than our own. (The Big Question, p. 205)

McGrath gave an interesting lecture at Lanier Theological Library on Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the meaning of life. Addressing the question of whether faith was reasonable, McGrath noted Dawkins thought we could only believe what can be proven by reason or science. His above quote on faith illustrated this. But Lewis believed most of the important things in life were beyond rational or scientific proof. He famously said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”

03/31/17

Agenda from a Dead Past

© creativehearts | 123rf.com

I first became aware of John William Draper and Andrew Dickinson White from reading Alister McGrath’s book, Science & Religion soon after it was published in 1999. McGrath said they played an instrumental role in establishing the commonly held view that there was a conflict or war between science and religion. Two significant books, one by each, played central roles in the development of this false dichotomy. Draper’s 1874 book was titled: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, and White’s 1896 book was: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Intriguingly, McGrath observed that this conflict model appears to have emerged from the rise of the “professional scientist” in Western culture.

Within nineteenth century English society there was a growing sense of competition between the two social groups: clergy and scientific professionals. “The clergy were widely regarded as an elite at the beginning of the century, with the ‘scientific parson’ a well-established social stereotype.” An emerging professional group of scientists sought to displace the entrenched position of the clergy. By the end of the 19th century, clergy were portrayed as enemies of science and social and intellectual progress. “As a result, there was much sympathy for a model of the interaction of the sciences and religion which portrayed religion and its representatives in uncomplimentary terms.”

Timothy Larsen observed in his essay “War is Over, if You Want It: Beyond the Conflict between Faith and Science,” that in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a scientific profession. There were “men of science” just there were “men of letters,” referring more to the pursuits of gentlemen of leisure rather than what someone did for a living. In order to hold a teaching position at Oxford or Cambridge for much of the nineteenth century you had to be ordained within the Church of England. The biologist Thomas Huxley, famous as a champion of Darwinism, could not become a university professor at either Oxford or Cambridge because of his agnosticism.

Huxley and others who aspired to turn scientific pursuits into a profession, therefore, “needed” a war between science and religion. The purpose of the war was to discredit clergymen as suitable figures to undertake scientific work in order that the new breed of professionals would have an opportunity to fill in the gap for such work created by eliminating the current men of science. It was thus tendentiously asserted that the religious convictions of clergymen disqualified them from pursuing their scientific inquiries objectively.

One of the first encounters between Huxley and the English clergy was the so-called Huxley-Wilberforce debate. John William Draper was one of the scheduled speakers for the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The organizers had to move his talk to a larger room, as they were expecting a crowd of over 500. The crowd was not really there to hear Draper, but because of the rumor that Bishop Wilberforce planned to use the occasion to critique Darwin’s recently published book, On the Origin of the Species. It was during the time for comments after Draper’s lecture that the infamous exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce occurred. While Draper’s long and reportedly boring lecture has become a historical footnote to that occasion, the importance of the moment was not lost on Draper himself.

Draper was an English-American scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer. He was the first person to produce a clear photograph of a woman and the first one to compose a detailed photo of the moon in 1840. He has several important scientific discoveries to his credit and was a professor of chemistry and the president of New York University at the time of his lecture before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

His 1860 lecture, “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law,” preceded his 1862 book, The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe. He also wrote a three-volume history of the American Civil War, and famously, History of Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The conflict thesis between religion and science takes its name from Draper’s book, which rejected the idea there could be harmony between religion and science. It went through fifty printings in the U.S. and was translated into ten languages. Read more about Draper here.

In his Preface, Draper said there was a great and rapidly-increasing departure from public religious faith. So widespread and powerful was this secession, that it could not be stopped. Ecclesiastical spirit no longer inspired the policy of the world. The antagonism witnessed between Religion and Science was said by Draper to be a continuation of a struggle that started when Christianity began to attain political power. Divine revelation was necessarily intolerant of contradiction; and it viewed with distain all improvement in itself that arose from “the progressive intellectual development of man.” Yet human opinions on every subject are continually liable to modification “from the irresistible advance of human knowledge.”

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other. No one has hitherto treated the subject from this point of view. Yet from this point it presents itself to us as a living issue—in fact, as the most important of all living issues.

Darwinians claimed the gauntlet in the conflict between religion and science was first thrown at the so-called Huxley-Wilberforce “debate.” But some historians have recognized how that view was imputed onto the incident twenty to forty years after it happened by Darwin’s supporters. Draper’s book fails to mention Darwin, Huxley or Wilberforce.  But he seems to be one with Huxley in seeking to incite war or conflict between science and religion. Given his presence at the exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce and his early attempt to apply Darwin’s thought to social and political issues, it seems reasonable to see Draper’s book as one of the major “battles” of the so-called war between science and religion. See “A ‘Debate’ About Origins” for more on Huxley and Wilberforce.

John Dickinson White was the first president and a cofounder of Cornell University in 1865. According to Larsen, Cornell’s secular stance was used as a way to set it apart from the older Ivy League schools that still had mandatory chapel attendance. White said Cornell was established as an institution for advanced instruction and research where science would have an equal place with literature. He and Ezra Cornell wanted their university to be free from the “various useless trammels and vicious methods” which hampered many, if not most of the American universities and colleges at that time. They saw the sectarian character of other colleges and universities as a reason for “the poverty of advanced instruction” given in so many of them.

McGrath said many of the established denominational schools (Harvard, Yale and Princeton?) felt threatened by the new university and encouraged attacks on the new school. Both White and Cornell were accused of atheism. Angered by the accusations, White delivered a lecture in New York on December 18, 1869 entitled “The Battle Fields of Science.” An expanded version was published in 1876 as The Warfare of Science. Between 1885 and 1892, he published a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly, “New Chapters in the Warfare of Science.”  The two-volume 1896 book, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, was essentially a combination of these writings.

In his Introduction, White said while Draper saw the struggle as one between Science and Religion, he saw it as one between Science and Dogmatic Religion. While he admired Draper’s treatment of the questions involved, “More and more I saw that it was the conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought—the theological and the scientific.” It never entered his mind that he was doing something irreligious or unchristian by establishing Cornell as a secular institution. Far from trying to injure Christianity, he and Ezra Cornell were trying to promote it by not confounding religion and sectarianism.

McGrath observed that while perhaps White did not see religion and science as enemies, that was the impression he created by his work. “The crystallization of the ‘warfare’ metaphor in the popular mind was unquestionably catalyzed by White’s vigorously polemical writing.” For example:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good both of religion and science.

McGrath pointed out how the story of warfare between science and religion is alive and well within the writings of New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as well as the Christian fundamentalists who are determined to confront secular culture wherever possible. He said this propensity towards confrontation inevitably leads to a reinforcement of a warfare model of religion and society. The natural sciences (and supremely the theory of biological evolution) are then seen “as the advance guard of the secularizing trend within society as a whole.”

In The Big Question, McGrath proposed that we move on from a narrative of a conflict between science and religion. He said that narrative is locked into the agenda of a dead past. Instead, he suggested developing a narrative of enrichment between the two—one that accepts the empirical sciences, but rejects their claim of finality. “[It] is in conflict with the scientism that has become so characteristic of the New Atheism, but it is not in conflict with science, which has always been willing to recognize its limits.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) made a series of short films available to spark discussion on several different topics related to science and religion. Here is a link to their video on the Draper-White Conflict Thesis discussed above.

03/21/17

A “Debate” About Origins

© creativehearts | 123rf.com

Winston Churchill’s famous saying, “History is written by the victors,” is certainly true with regard to the so-called “Huxley-Wilberforce Debate.” It has been regularly portrayed as a classic example of the war between science and religion. According to the popular version of the meeting, Thomas Huxley, a young biologist and defender of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, responded to an insulting question by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, in a way that exposed both the bishop’s ignorance of science and his ungentlemanly behavior. But, as Jonathan Smith said in his essay on the event, “There was no such thing as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate.”

The exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce took place on June 30, 1860 at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. According to the popular version of the meeting, as Wilberforce completed a 30-minute critique of Darwin and his recently published book, he turned and asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from apes. Huxley is to have responded that he would rather have an ape as an ancestor than a bishop who distorted the truth. You can watch a four-minute excerpt from a PBS documentary, “Evolution” that portrays the Huxley-Wilberforce exchange. A two-hour section of that documentary titled “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” is available here.

But recent historical scholarship concluded that wasn’t really how it actually happened. In The Big Question, Alister McGrath said: “The popular image of Huxley’s triumphant defeat of a reactionary religious opponent of evolution is now generally seen as a myth created by the opponents of organized religion in the 1890s.”

This revisionist account of the meeting does not deny its historical factuality. The new research of the meeting calls into question overblown and inaccurate accounts of its significance and offers an informed reconstruction of the debate, which accounts better for the historical evidence at our disposal.

As McGrath related the events, the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting moved from city to city throughout Britain at the time in order to promote the pursuit of science. In 1860, the Association’s meeting was scheduled to meet in Oxford. Some of the meetings were open to the public, as it seems this one was. This also was the first meeting of the society since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, had been published the previous year. Darwin was not able to come because of heath reasons, so Huxley was invited in his place.

Wilberforce was not there as a representative of the Church of England. He was invited to speak at the meeting because he was a past vice president of the Association and because he was familiar with Darwin’s writings. He had just written a review of On the Origin of the Species that was to appear in The Quarterly Review soon after the June 30th meeting. McGrath commented:

 It is quite clear from Wilberforce’s careful and insightful published review of Darwin’s Origin of the Species that religious issues did not feature prominently in his mind; the issue was the scientific case for evolution, not its religious implications or complications. The fact that Wilberforce was Bishop of Oxford has clearly led many to conclude that religion was at the forefront of the debate and that Wilberforce opposed Darwin on religious grounds. The evidence dose not support this interpretation of events. . . . Darwin himself remarked, after reading Wilberforce’s review of his work, that it was “uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties.”

McGrath thought the real debate seems to have been between two visions of science and not between science and religion. One view was defined by “naturalist” assumptions, while the other was more open to theistic beliefs. Jonathan Smith also thought that Wilberforce’s case against Darwin was made primarily on scientific and philosophical grounds, not religious ones.

Verbatim quotes of Wilberforce’s question and Huxley’s reply are uncertain. The most detailed journalistic account of their exchange, in the Athenaeum, mentioned neither one. One of the few journalistic accounts ironically said the event was “a sign of toleration, not hostility between science and religion.” And some of those who were at the conference thought that Joseph Hooker (another friend and ally of Darwin’s) gave a more effective defense of evolution at the meeting than Huxley.

Having recently completed his soon-to-be published review of Darwin’s book, Wilberforce repeated many of the observations he made there in his remarks at the Association’s meeting. In his opening comments for the review, Wilberforce said the Origin of the Species was a most readable book, full of facts in natural history. He acknowledged that it had some clear import not only for scientists, “but to every one who is interested in the history of man and of the relations of nature around him to the history and plan of creation.” Towards the end of his review Wilberforce commented that his readers should have noticed that he had objected to Darwin’s views purely on scientific grounds.

We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.

So where did the legendary account of Huxley vanquishing his arrogant, sneering, scientifically ignorant foe come from? Jonathan Smith said that account was formed by Darwinians and their allies in the 1880s and 1890s. Darwin’s son, Francis, and Huxley’s son, Leonard, gathered reports overwhelmingly from Darwin’s partisans. Most of them were recollections made twenty to forty years after the fact.

The story told by Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley was, not surprisingly, the story the Darwinians had long told amongst themselves, in which they were the clear victors and natural science stood up to religious ignorance and obscurantism. Once ensconced in the three Life and Letters, this version became the established account, repeated and recycled, often with additional embellishments.

Alister McGrath pointed to a particular recollection by Mrs. Isabella Sidgewick that appeared in the October 1898 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article entitled “A Grandmother’s tales.” He said her account was idiosyncratic and inconsistent with most of the accounts in circulation or published closer to the time of the meeting of the Association. Another article by J. R. Lucas, “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter,” made the same point. Lucas also gave the following quote of Mrs. Sidgewick’s recollection from the article:

I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr. Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. There were so many of us that were eager to hear that we had to adjourn to the great library of the Museum. I can still hear the American accents of Dr Draper’s opening address, when he asked `Air we a fortuitous concourse of atoms?’ and his discourse I seem to remember [was] somewhat dry. Then the Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr. Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words – words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they were spoken, for their meaning took away our breath, though it left us in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out: I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr Daubeney’s, every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day. I remember that some naive person wished it could come over again; and Mr. Huxley, with the look on his face of the victor who feels the cost of victory, put us aside saying, `Once in a life-time is enough, if not too much.’

Jonathan Smith described how the context of the conference contributed to the exchange between Huxley and Wilberforce. The meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science had already met for two days. In the discussion following a previous presentation, Huxley had affirmed the substantial and significant similarities between humans and apes. Human dignity and privilege were not imperiled by such a connection. Even clergy “had nothing to fear … should it be shown that apes were their ancestors.”

The talk given by John William Draper drew a large crowd because of a rumor that Wilberforce would use the occasion to critique Darwin’s theory. The organizers of the conference had to move it to a larger room because of the size of the audience. Huxley was going to skip the presentation, but was persuaded to attend by Robert Chambers, who said by leaving he would be deserting the evolutionary cause. Draper’s address was followed by a number of comments. Wilberforce’s comments reflected those he made in his article for the Quarterly Review. He said Darwin’s theory was speculative rather than a valid induction from established facts. It also lacked an observational or experimental basis.

In his closing remarks, Wilberforce, who was well known for both his humor and rhetorical skills, played off of Huxley’s remarks two days before, where he had said human privilege and moral responsibility would not be endangered by sharing a genealogy with apes. Wilberforce turned to Huxley and asked him where apes were located in the Huxley family tree. The exact wording is uncertain, but it seems Wilberforce asked Huxley “whether he would prefer a monkey for his grandfather or his grandmother?” This corresponded to what Huxley said in a letter two months after the event, where he said the question was concerning “my personal predilections in the matter of ancestry.”

Huxley stood and said he had heard nothing new in what Wilberforce said, except for the question about his ancestry. Although it was a topic he would not have introduced, he would reply. Smith said Huxley’s report of what he said two months later in a letter was probably fairly accurate:

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means & influence & yet who employs those faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

Although Huxley’s rejoinder drew cheers and laughter, it certainly didn’t silence the critics or settle the issue. “Significantly, both at the time and many years later, Huxley took pains to deny the widely circulated claim that he had said he would rather be an ape than a bishop or had in any way insulted Wilberforce in his reply.” Several others spoke afterward, a number of who rejected evolution. Joseph Hooker spoke last and it was he who gave the most extensive defense of Darwin’s theory, and the most direct critique of what Wilberforce had said. Opinions at the time as to who “won” the debate were divided. Some thought Huxley had, others thought it was Wilberforce; still others thought it was a draw.

Wilberforce told a correspondent that he had “thoroughly beat” Huxley. Huxley and Hooker were confident the supporters of Darwin had prevailed. Darwin himself thought the exchange was momentous; that it marked a turning point for Darwinism within the scientific community and for its struggle for independence from religious authority.

Smith said it was not surprising that a generation later, when Francis Darwin and Leonard Huxley, drew on the correspondence of their fathers and the recollections of their fathers’ friends and allies, the story of the events on June 30, 1860 were told in that way. Even Leonard Huxley admitted the encounter could not be described as “an immediate and complete triumph for evolutionary doctrine.” However, its importance lay “in the open resistance that was made to authority, at a moment when even a drawn battle was hardly less effectual than acknowledged victory. Instead of being crushed under ridicule, the new theories secured a hearing.”

So the “debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce did not happen the way it is widely presented and understood today. The “received” account was codified when Darwinian thought was in its ascendency some twenty to forty years later. J. R. Lucas astutely observed, “The quarrel between religion and science came about not because of what Wilberforce said, but because it was what Huxley wanted; and as Darwin’s theory gained supporters, they took over his view of the incident.”

Alister McGrath pointed to another facet of the 1860 Oxford conference of the Association that was often overlooked. “On Sunday July 1, the day after the confrontation between Wilberforce and Huxley, the conference delegates heard a sermon preached on the theme of ‘The Present Relations of Science to Religion.’” Its significance lies in highlighting the harmony possible between the scientific investigation of nature within general revelation and the special revelation of God in Scripture. The minister who gave that sermon, Fredrick Temple, would go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He asked if science and the Bible were foes. And if not foes, were they so distinct as to have no point of contact?  “Not so.” The harmony between them would not be found in the “petty details of fact,” but rather in the “deep identity of tone, character, and spirit which pervade both” the book of Nature and the book of Revelation. “The more the Bible is studied, and the more nature is studied, the deeper will be found the harmony between them in character, the more assured the certainty that whomever inspired the one also made the other.”

02/28/17

“Conflict” Between Science and Religion

© Michail Panagiotidis | 123rf.com

The watershed event for the perceived conflict between science and religion in American culture was the Scopes Trial. After William Jennings Bryan’s speech opposing the admission of expert testimony on evolution in the trial, the lead defense lawyer, Dudley Malone, said he defied anyone “to believe that this is not a religious question.” Malone went on to say: “We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence.” In his closing remarks, the chief prosecutor, Tom Stewart said: “They say it is a battle between religion and science. If it is, I want to serve notice now, in the name of the great God, that I am on the side of religion.” So the premise there was conflict between of science and religion was present within the Scopes Trial from the very beginning.

That battle continues today, notably by individuals like the biologist Richard Dawkins, who said: “I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that it’s harmless.” But is this conflict model the way scientists today see science and religion? Recently, Elaine Howard Ecklund and a team of researchers completed a survey of over 22,500 scientists from around the world. They investigated the scientists’ perceptions of the interface of science and religion, as well as the personal religiosity of the scientists. Their study, “Religion Among Scientists in International Context,” can be found here.

Ecklund et al. acknowledged that globally, science and religion have an “uncertain” relationship. Richard Dawkins sees conflict; but Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), sees compatibility. And the debates resulting from this uncertain relationship have been occurring outside the U.S. For example, there was an uproar among faculty at the University of Hong Kong when Hong Kong’s Education Bureau proposed guidelines to teach intelligent design in the public school system. Debates about science and religion are taking place around the globe and scientists are taking part in the discussions.

Do scientists from national contexts with very different approaches to religion still think the rationalism and supposed secularity of science will overtake the truth claims of religion? Or are they—especially when it comes to matters of personal religious identity—more similar to those in their local national contexts? Is a global science taking over the world of religion? Or are there even ways that religious communities and scientific communities can work together for the common good around the globe?

The Religion Among Scientists in International Context (RASIC) study assessed biologists and physicists from eight regional areas—France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the US.  RASIC looked at how scientists understood religion, how their religiosity compared to that of their local population, and the implications of their findings for different views on the connection between science and secularity.

In four of the regions, Italy, India, Turkey and Taiwan, over 50% of scientists had a religious affiliation. The highest percentage was in India, where 94% of scientists reported religious affiliations of some sort. The three regions with the lowest reported religious affiliations were France (16%), the United Kingdom (27%) and the United States (30%). In all regions except Hong Kong and Taiwan, a higher proportion of scientists indentified with a religion when they were 16 than they do now. Belief in God among scientists ranged widely from Turkey with the highest (61%) to France with the lowest (5%). The UK and the US, which are at the heart of the global scientific infrastructure, reported proportions consistent with earlier surveys of belief among so-called elite scientists.

Ecklund et al. said that from their data on religious beliefs, practices or identities, it was difficult to conclude that science and religion were in conflict. See “Scientist, What do You Believe?” for more information on the earlier surveys. Also see the table below, taken from the Ecklund et al. report of the RASIC study.

However, when scientists are compared to their local religious populations, there was evidence of lower religiosity among scientists. In France, the UK and the US, the proportion of the general population who attends religious services once a week or more were at least two time larger than the scientists from the same region. The gap was widest in the US, where 33% of the population reported at least weekly attendance, compared to 11% of scientists. “The majority of scientists in the US (60 percent), UK (66 percent), and France (81 percent) are nonattenders.” The proportion of scientists who have a religious identification was lower than the general population in every region but Hong Kong and Taiwan. See Figures 1 and 2 in the Ecklund et al. report for more information on these issues.

The views of scientists on the science-faith interface were counter-intuitive if you believed the conflict narrative. “A substantial majority of physicists and biologists in the eight regional contexts studied do not adhere to this view.” The conflict narrative would also presume most scientists would see the science-religion relationship as one of conflict, and then take the side of science. But only in the UK and the US did those percentages approach or exceed 30%.

The prevailing view among scientists is that science and religion are independent of one another. France, Italy, Taiwan and the US had 50% or more of their scientists seeing religion and science as independent of one another, while all other regions had at least 35%. Ecklund et al suggested that Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisterial” was helpful here. The concept refers to science and religion as nonoverlapping spheres, with science dealing with the empirical observation of the natural world and religion dealing with meaning.

Another surprising finding for the conflict view was with how scientists thought their exposure to science influenced their views on religion. No more than 22% of scientists in the US thought their exposure to science made them less religious; and the US was the region with the highest percentage. See Table 3 taken from the Ecklund et al. report of the RASIC study for more information on these topics.

In her review of the study for BioLogos, Sarah Lane Ritchie gleaned “five surprising facts” from the study, repeating several of those noted above. Significantly for evangelical Christians, she thought the study went a long way in dispelling the myth that scientists themselves are hostile towards religion or not at all religious. When the public discourse surrounding science and religion consistently depicts “evolution-affirming scientists as being at war with evolution-denying religious individuals or groups … it is easy for public perception to become skewed in a way that does not reflect the facts.”

She concluded that not only were many scientists religious, but even those who were not religious generally held an independence view, rather than a conflict view, of how science and religion were related. “This research undermines both the conflict narrative surrounding science and religion, and the assumption that scientists themselves are not religious.” So the conflict model of the relationship between science and religion is not the dominant view of most scientists, but it seems to be deeply influential at the popular level, especially among evangelical Christians in the US. To a certain extent, this influence dates back to the Scopes Trial.

Alister McGrath, who holds advanced degrees in both science and theology, remarked in Science and Religion how the Scopes Trial was a public relations disaster for conservative, fundamentalist Christians. He noted how William Jennings Bryan had unwisely framed the trial as a “duel to the death” between Christianity and atheism. Clarence Darrow, a well-known attorney—and agnostic—on the Scopes defense team, was able discredit Bryan by simply calling him as a witness for the defense.

The legal move was as simple as it was brilliant: Bryan was called to the stand as a witness for the defense, and interrogated concerning his views on evolution. Bryan was forced to admit that he had no knowledge of geology, comparative religions or ancient civilizations, and showed himself to have hopelessly naïve religious views. The “monkey trial” (as it is widely known) came to be seen as a symbol of reactionary religious thinking in the face of scientific progress.

Several scholars consider the Scopes Trial to be a key event in the restructuring of American religion. One of those, Edward Larson, said it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Scopes Trial had in transforming Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. Afterwards elite American society stopped taking it seriously. The trial’s setting stamped the entire movement with an irrevocable image of the rural, small town South. The national media stopped covering its normal activities. Conservative Christians rapidly lost power within the mainline denominations. And most significantly, a string of defeats occurred for antievolution legislation in the northern states. While fundamentalists responded by withdrawing from political and cultural encounters for several decades, the Scopes Trial came to embody the “conflict” between science and religion.

The quotes in the introductory paragraph were taken from Edward Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book on the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods.

02/7/17

No Contest; No Victory

photo of the Scopes Trial; Clarence Darrow and the defense team.

A few years ago Rachael Gross wrote an article for Slate entitled: “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” She noted how few issues have divided Americans as bitterly as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. She thought it was “woeful” that “the majority of people in Europe and in many other parts of the world accept evolution,” while 4 in 10 adult Americans believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Evolutionary theory does not exist in a vacuum, she said. It is supported by findings in geology, paleontology, biomedicine, and other fields. “If we want to be a nation of politically and scientifically literate and informed people, then we have to teach good science—and that starts with evolution.”

But we need to ask what kind of evolution and what kind of creationism she means. Is it evolution that occurred entirely through natural processes or did a supreme being use evolution to bring about and develop nature? There also should be a consistent distinction between individuals who hold that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning (PFB) from those who believe in evolution guided by a supreme being (ESB), and those who affirm humans evolved by natural processes (ENP). Gross also cited two polls in her discussion. Although each poll used a different construct to describe what they meant by “creationism,” she did not point out the differences between them.

One poll was by Gallup and one was by the Pew Research Center. When Gross discussed changes since 2009 in the Pew surveys, the 2009 data can be found here. The Pew 2014 poll looking at evolution did not break down all the age groups by the three categories on origins. But it did report that US adults overall were as follows: 31% said humans existed in their present form from the beginning (PFB); 24% believed their evolution was guided by a supreme being (ESB); and 35% believed evolution occurred from a natural process (ENP). When looking at individuals between the ages of 18-29 in 2009 and 2014 from the Pew polls, on their views of human origins, we get the following data.

So there is evidence suggesting younger American adults are adjusting their position on human origins to the secular evolution position. But when Gross said that 73% of US adults under 30 believe in some kind of evolution, she combined believers in evolution through natural processes, or secular evolution, with those who believed in evolution through a supreme being. There is a significant philosophical gap between the action of a supreme being creating human beings, either through evolution or as fully formed individuals, and humans evolving through an entirely natural process without the action of a supreme being. See “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution” on this website for more on this difference.

Within the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 73% of individuals between the ages of 18-29 were fairly certain or absolutely certain there was a God; another 8% believed in God, but were not too certain of that belief; and 19% did not believe in God or did not know if they believed in God. So there would seem to be a large portion of 18 to 29 year old individuals (perhaps 32%) who believed in God and who also believed in natural evolution. I don’t think they should be referred to as necessarily gravitating towards secular evolution. If their belief in God holds, a category like deistic evolution would seem to better describe them.  The category of individuals who believe God created through evolution, ESB, also has the potential to grow larger as views on human origins shift. It is not an inevitable transition to an entirely secular sense of evolution as the older group of people believing humans existed in their present form from the beginning die off.

The Gallup poll Rachel Gross mentioned added a further distinction to the humans created in their present form by adding that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. This position on human origins would be consistent with a group of Christian believers known as young earth creationists (YEC), which hold that all things were created within the 10,000-year timeframe. However, there is a necessary distinction between YEC and PFB—humans existed in their present form since the beginning—if the beginning of the heavens and earth was billions of years ago, and the creation of beginning of humans was significantly longer than 10,000 years ago. This position is what Denis Lamoureux and others have referred to as progressive creationism. See his web lectures in “Beyond the ‘Evolution’ vs. ‘Creation’ Debate,” particularly “Views on the Origin of Universe & Life.”

But an option consistent with a progressive creationist position of human origins was not offered in the Gallup poll—or in any other poll on human origins that I am aware of. The Gallup poll has been asking the same three-part question about human origins, given as follows, since 1982:

Which of the following statements comes closest to you views on the origin and development of human beings? 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but god guided this process. 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God has no part in this process. 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

The Gallup and the Pew polls implicitly include the evolution—creation dichotomy in the structure of their questions. In both surveys there are two evolutionary positions and one creationist position. The Pew questions more accurately focused on the flash point issue of human evolution, while the Gallup poll collapses the age of the earth variable—held only by young earth creationists—into their creationist position. Not surprisingly, the percentages between the two polls show some differences. The following Gallup chart illustrates the results on the issue dating back to 1982.

As a result, a creation-evolution dichotomy is perpetuated. Arguing that Christians need to choose between science and religion has become entrenched in the dispute since the Scopes Trial. And “fundamentalists” are as much to blame as those holding to a secular or godless sense of evolution. Ironically, William Jennings Bryan held and publicly affirmed a human origins position consistent with what I’ve identified here as progressive creation. He saw Darwinism as a dangerous idea because he thought people would lose their consciousness of God’s presence in their daily lives.

In a speech he first gave in 1904, “Prince of Peace,” Bryan said he had a right to assume a Creator back of the creation. “And no matter how long you draw out the process of creation, so long as God stands back of it you cannot shake my faith in Jehovah.” In Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson commented how this allowed for an extended geologic history and even for a kind of theistic evolution. But Bryan “dug in his heels” regarding the supernatural creation of humans. He saw it as “one of the test questions of the Christian.”

I do not carry the doctrine of evolution as far as some do; I am not yet convinced that man is a lineal descendent of the lower animals. I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory; all I mean to say is that while you may trace your ancestry back to the monkey if you find pleasure or pride in doing so, you shall not connect me with your family tree without more evidence than has yet been produced.

He concluded his speech by saying that one of the reasons he objected to the theory of evolution was because if man was linked to the monkey, it became an important question whether humanity was going towards the monkey or coming away from him. “I do not know of any argument that may be used to prove man is an improved monkey that may not be used just as well to prove that the monkey is a degenerate man, and the latter theory is more plausible than the former.” You can listen to a vocal dramatization of his speech here on YouTube; there is a text only copy here. There are content differences between the two because Bryan gave the speech repeatedly over the years. The given quotes are from the text of the oral YouTube version of “Prince of Peace.”

The Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate in 2014 had neither the historical significance nor the drama of the Scopes Trial. But it does illustrate how times have changed and how, rightly or wrongly, the young earth creationist position on human origins, represented by Ken Ham, has become identified as the default view of biblical Christians. You can watch a video on the debate here.

An NPR article, “Who ‘Won’ the Creation vs. Evolution Debate?,” noted the live online debate drew 500,000 viewers at one point. By the middle of November in 2016, the YouTube video had over 5,700,000 views. Britain’s Christian Today website took a poll on who “won” the debate and had 42,567 responses. Ninety two percent thought Bill Nye won, while only 8 percent thought Ken Ham won. Michael Schulson, writing for The Daily Beast, thought Nye’s willingness to engage Ham in a debate threatened to reduce substantive issues to mere spectacle.

The televangelist Pat Robertson thought Ken Ham made a mockery out of Christians. Quoted in The Christian Post, Robertson said he was able to find his faith in the evolutionary process itself. “I don’t believe in so-called evolution as non-theistic. I believe that God started it all and he’s in charge of all of it. The fact that you have progressive evolution under his control. That doesn’t hurt my faith at all.” You can watch a short video of Robertson’s views on The Christian Post link. Robertson further said: “Let’s be real; let’s not make a joke of ourselves.”

A little over a month after the Scopes Trial concluded, Clarence Darrow wrote to H. L. Mencken, one of the reporters who covered the Scopes Trial: “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he [Bryan] was and I succeeded.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Christians believing in creation are still seen and portrayed as ignoramuses. The Memphis paper, the Commercial Appeal made the following comment about the infamous exchange between Darrow and Bryan in the Scopes Trial:

It was not a contest. Consequently there was no victory. Darrow succeeded in showing that Bryan knows little about the science of the world. Bryan succeeded in bearing witness bravely to the faith which he believes transcends all the learning of men.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.

11/25/16

Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution

Editorial cartoon of Darwin as an ape (1871)

Editorial cartoon of Darwin as an ape (1871)

In the mid 1990s I had the opportunity to attend a local community play in the Rhea County Courthouse located in Dayton Tennessee. This courthouse was where one of the most famous trials of the twentieth century took place, the Scopes Trial. The New York Times described what took place there as “one of the most colorful and briefly riveting of the trials of the century that seemed to be especially abundant in the sensation-loving 1920s.” Every July local residents put on the play in the second floor courtroom, which has been restored to look the way it did during the July 1925 trial. In front of the courthouse is a plaque commemorating the place where John Scopes was convicted of violating a state law by teaching that humans descended from a lower order of animals.

In the basement of the courthouse is a museum, which contains memorabilia like the actual microphone used to broadcast the trial. When the annual play is put on, some of the museum pieces are used as props in the trial. The play’s dialogue is taken primarily from the transcript of the trial itself. The audience sits in chairs facing the judge’s bench. Members of the audience are selected to portray the jury, whose only task was to sit in the jury box and then leave the courtroom several times during the play when the real jury was excused.

Scopes was found guilty and he was fined $100, the minimum penalty. His attorney appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which threw out his conviction on a technicality. He went on to study geology at the University of Chicago (on a scholarship by his supporters) and became a petroleum engineer. But almost 100 years later, his trial still represents one of the seminal times in American history where there was a clash between science and religion. Clarence Darrow, the famous defense lawyer who was one of the lawyers on the defense team for Scopes, said in his closing remarks:

 I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft . . . We have done our best to turn the tide . . . of testing every fact in science by a religious doctrine.

That sentiment is still alive today, as is the perceived conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious doctrine of creation. The public portrayal of the so-called evolution-creation “debate” has misconceptions similar to those evident in Darrow’s statement. One example of thie misconception is an article Rachael Gross wrote for Slate a couple of years ago, celebrating how “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” A key factor in her analysis was pointing to how “a majority of young people endorse the scientific explanation of how humans evolved.” By scientific she means a purely secular evolution—something not directed by any divine power.

Her hope is there will be a continual shrinkage of those who oppose evolution. One way this would occur is through individuals “converting” to evolution, regardless of their political and religious beliefs. “For the movement behind evolution to triumph, younger Americans who have been raised to believe in creationism need to be open to changing their minds.” Another way is by “generational momentum,” meaning that the switch will happen as older adults who believe in creationism die off. This is not really simply a crass hope based on waiting for old people to die or that young people will switch their views with regard to the “doctrine” of evolution.

It also reflects the thought of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this seminal work on the history and philosophy of science, Kuhn said that normal science referred to research firmly based on one or more past scientific achievements that a particular scientific community “acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.” The process of normal science takes place within a scientific paradigm—where research occurs within the context of a scientific community committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. “That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science.” Kuhn acknowledged that the notion of his term ‘paradigm’ is intrinsically circular: “A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men [and women] who share a paradigm.”

Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently, and their ability to make the transition is facilitated by two circumstances that are not common to most other members of their profession. Invariably, their attention has been intensely concentrated upon the crisis-provoking problems; usually, in addition, they are men [or women] so young or so new to the crisis-ridden field that practice has committed them less deeply than most of their contemporaries to the world view and rules determined by the old paradigm. How are they able, what must they do, to convert the entire profession or the relevant professional subgroup to their way of seeing science and the world? What causes the group to abandon one tradition of normal research in favor of another?

In answering these questions, Kuhn went on to observe that the proponents of competing paradigm are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. “Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case.” While each may hope to “convert” the other to his or her way of seeing science and its problems, the dispute is not one “that can be resolved by proofs.” Kuhn quoted the theoretical physicist Max Planck who said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Kuhn went on to say:

The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is more like a conversion experience that cannot be forced. Lifelong resistance, particularly from those whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science, is not a violation of scientific standards but an index to the nature of scientific research itself.

Darwin’s theory now exists as a foundational paradigm for a secular understanding of human origins. Within this context, Rachael Gross hopes for a completed paradigm shift within evolution that denies the possibility of any intervention from outside of the natural order. Young adult believers in creation need to convert fully to a belief in secular evolution. There is no room in her sense of evolution for theistic evolution/evolutionary creation. At most, it exists as a way station on the journey to secular evolution.

From this perspective, evolutionary creation unscientifically combines religious belief and evolution. Its needs to be jettisoned within a sincere scientific conversion experience to evolutionary belief. Older adults who are committed to the unscientific tradition of creation need to die off. Gross is carrying the banner once waved by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Trial: “We have done our best to turn the tide . . . of testing every fact in science by a religious doctrine.” The evolutionary revolution marches on.

Darrow and Bryan

Darrow and Bryan

However, there is an unacknowledged assumption with regard to the philosophy of science when Gross equates secular evolution with “science.” Basic philosophical assumptions necessary for science include that nature is uniform; and that observable patterns in nature provide clues to help us understand the unobservable patterns and processes in nature. Our knowledge of the processes and patterns in nature is limited since we have not yet examined all there is to see in nature, nor have we observed it throughout it entire existence. This uniformity in nature is then necessarily assumed to hold universally. We assume the uniformity of natural causes in creation, in nature, but cannot prove it is true scientifically.

Francis Schaeffer pointed out that while early scientists like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton believed in the uniformity of natural causes, they did not believe this natural uniformity existed in a closed system. He said this little phrase constituted the difference between natural science and a science rooted in naturalistic philosophy. It was the difference between what he called modern science and modern, modern science. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer said: “It is important to notice that this is not a failing of science as science; rather the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system has become the dominant philosophy among scientists.”

Secular evolution would then be the product of what Schaeffer called modern, modern science. It rejects the possibility of a god or transcendent power outside of nature utilizing the natural process of evolution to develop life on earth. From this perspective, the Scopes Trial was fundamentally a dispute over two different systems of scientific philosophy with regard to evolution. The ridicule of literalist biblical belief and interpretation, embodied in the exchange between Darrow and Bryan, was collateral damage in the exchange. The underlying structure of the dispute over evolution is over the philosophical basis on which science can be done.

Pitting religion and science against one another as Darrow, Bryan and others have done, not only sets up a false dichotomy between them, it gives a distorted view of what the evolution revolution is all about.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “No Contest; No Victory.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.

02/20/15

Did God Make You?

© : Cosmin-Constantin Sava 123RF.com

© : Cosmin-Constantin Sava 123RF.com

At the beginning of December in 2014, a BioLogos-funded study of the beliefs in human origins was publically released.  Jonathan Hill, a sociology professor at Calvin College, conducted the study: The National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO). The survey had two primary purposes. The first was to “disaggregate” (separate into component parts) the typical survey questions used in the past to assess beliefs on human origins. The second purpose was to look at the influence of social context on these beliefs. The result may surprise you.

Gallup polls on evolution have been asking Americans which of three statements come closest to their beliefs on the origin and development of human beings for a number of years. Those positions and the percentages of Americans identified within the 2014 Gallup poll are as follows. First, human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process (31%). Second, human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process (19%). And third, God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so (42%).

As Jonathan Hill pointed out, if we categorize these results into “pro” and “anti” evolution camps, “it appears that nearly half the nation affirms evolution and nearly half denies it.” These statistics have then been used by a variety of sources for commentaries on evolution and creationism. But if such a large percentage of Americans continue to deny evolution, “then why do Americans score near the top on international comparisons of science literacy?”

He suggested that a better picture of beliefs about evolution was needed. So the NSRHO included separate questions on human evolution, God’s involvement, the way God created, the existence of a historical Adam and Eve, belief in literal 24-hour days of creation, and the geological timeframe for the emergence or creation of humans. Respondents could also say they were not sure about any particular question. And after each question they were asked to rate their level of certainty.

When a position affirming the main points of young earth creationism is assessed, namely that: a) that humans did not evolve from other species, b) that God was involved in the creation of humans, c) that God created directly and miraculously, d) that Adam and Eve were historical figures, e) that the days of creation were literal twenty-four hour day, and f) that humans came into existence within the last 10,000 years, only 8% of respondents agreed with all the main points of young earth creationism. Note how this contrasts with the Gallup “young earth” creationist category claiming 42% of Americans held that belief.

Taking a broad sense of theistic evolution, namely that respondents believed in human evolution and that God (or an intelligent force) was somehow involved in the creation of humans, only 16% of the population could be placed in that category. Additionally, only half of that group (8%) was very or absolutely certain of both of these beliefs. When a stricter definition is used, only 5% of the population claimed that a) humans evolved, b) God was involved, c) the days of creation were not literal, and d) humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago.  If certainty on all these points was required, the percentage dropped to only 2% of the population. The Gallup poll category suggested 31% of Americans were “theistic evolutionists.”

Atheistic evolutionists, respondents who believed that humans evolved and God was not involved in the process, were around 9% of the population. Like theistic evolutionists, this group was about half the size of the comparable category from the Gallup poll. If a measure of certainty is included, only 6% of the population said they were very or absolutely certain that humans evolved and God was not involved in the process. The way that the NSRHO defined “atheistic evolutionist,” meant that someone could believe in God or an Intelligent force in the universe, but still hold to the two core beliefs of atheistic evolution.

By separating the beliefs in this way, much smaller proportions of the population were found to hold to the dominant positions on human origins. Many others were uncertain about what they believed or held uncommon beliefs (i.e., humans did not evolve from earlier species, and God had nothing to do with the emergence of humans).

Using the most generous definitions, the NSRHO finds that 37 percent of the population can be considered creationists, 16 percent can be considered theistic evolutionists, and nine percent can be considered atheistic evolutionists. This leaves 39 percent of the population as unsure or holding uncommon views . . . . If we adopt more restrictive definitions, these numbers begin to shrink further.

These results gave a more nuanced sense to the typical polls on American beliefs in evolution. In “The Recipe for Creationism,” a BioLogos article introducing the NSRHO study, Jonathan Hill described some of the factors that seemed be important for influencing a convinced creationist. These factors were: a) belonging to an evangelical Protestant denomination, b) believing that the Bible contained no errors, c) praying frequently and d) saying that faith was very or extremely important in day-to-day life. Some factors of social context were also important for convinced creationists. They were: a) belonging to a congregation that rejected human evolution and b) anticipating that changing beliefs about human origins could cause tension with religious leaders and other church members.

You can review the NSRHO for more information on the influence of social context on the various positions. But the most important takeaway, according to Hill, is that individual beliefs practices and identities are important, “but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities.” They are not mashed together from the free-floating ideas put together after considering all the alternatives. Rather, “they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).”

I had an opportunity about twenty years ago to see a play put on by a local theater company in Dayton Tennessee, where the Scopes Monkey Trail was held. They performed it in the very same courtroom where the original trial was held. They also used several artifacts from the original trial as props for the play. The dialogue in the script for the play was overwhelmingly taken from the transcript from the trial. It was a special experience, feeling a bit like being able to be present at an important time in history.

It saddens me to see the perpetuation of fanaticism on both extremes of the evolution-creation debate. Particularly when Christians who are trying to honor their faith get caught up in spewing vitriol about positions that disagree with theirs. So I’d like to end this look at the BioLogos survey with a quotation of Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the defense attorney for Scopes at the trial.

Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind. (Clarence Darrow, July 13, 1925)