It’s all science’s fault

The Dallas News has drawn in a group of theologians to discuss the thesis that science is responsible for literalist religion. At least they aren’t blaming atheism for creationism this time!

British theologian and Anglican cleric Keith Ward contends that the growing role of science in the world, where countries depend upon scientists and inventors to drive their economies, has led to a growing literalism.

Or so reports Michelle Boorstein on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog. Writes Boorstein;

“Keith Ward, a British philosopher who was for years the canon of Oxford’s cathedral, argued that the rise of science has led in the Judeo-Christian world to two things: literalism, because people no longer value things they can’t prove, and secularism, because critical thought can tend to shift people to look at the Bible like any other book.”

I like that last line…”because critical thought can tend to shift people to look at the Bible like any other book.” Why, yes, it does, and it should. The Bible is just another book; why should we view it as anything different from Shakespeare’s plays, the Aenid, or Harry Potter? These are people who are simply affronted that anyone dares question the privileged position of their holy book — especially since they can’t justify it.

But I want to take exception to the other part of the claim, that because of science, we no longer value things that we can’t prove. It’s utterly ridiculous, because science isn’t about proof, in the sense of acquiring absolute certainty. It’s about proving things in the old sense of the word, of testing claims — we don’t have proof that anything is true, we at best have evidence that a claim is false, or that a hypothesis is compatible with reality. That’s all. So what question does this column ask?

But does Ward have a point? Has science, with its emphasis on empiricism, led to a new literalism, where we value things we can prove more than things we cannot?

It’s hilarious. They start off with a false premise, and then 12 theologians cheerfully drive off the cliff to assert it is true. All you’ll learn from this is that professional god-botherers don’t know bugger all about science.

I’m not going to dissect them all — to be honest, I got bored with the whole mess after the first couple — so let’s just look at the first essay, by James Denison, Theologian-in-Residence and Texas Baptist Convention President. He’s an idiot. Right off the bat, he tosses one of the oldest canards in the book at us.

Alfred Lord Tennyson believed that nothing worth proving can be proven. Prove that your children love you. Prove that you love them.

I can’t, and I’ve never claimed to be able to. They could come sneaking back some dark night, and all three of them might pin me down in my bed and smother me with a pillow for their inheritance (the joke will be on them, ha ha!), and that would be pretty good evidence that they don’t love me. Otherwise, the fact that their parents made some sacrifices to get them to where they are, and that they aren’t estranged from us and still call now and then and come visit at Christmas, and that we all exhibit outward signs that we find pleasure in each other’s company, is good evidence that we do love each other. What more could you ask for?

I don’t take the love of another on faith. I don’t believe it because it’s written in a holy book, or because a god whispered in my ear that they really do. If I did, that would be creepy and psychopathic: I, like most psychologically normal human beings, make judgments about what someone else thinks about me on the basis of evidence.

Science is just common sense, in a lot of ways — a disciplined, organized process of looking before you leap.

To the degree that Ward is right, our culture is moving in the opposite direction from scientific progress. Advocates of Newtonian physics did indeed view the supernatural as unprovable and therefore irrelevant. But contemporary science has long since left this mechanistic worldview.

Say what? Don’t tell me he’s going to dredge up modern physics as validating his medieval theology…yes, he is.

Albert Einstein once noted, “The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. . . . His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

The poetical maunderings of Albert Einstein do not reflect the rigor of contemporary science. They are personal reflections. Just because it’s the only expression of science that Denison’s mind can grasp does not mean it is at all representative of good science.

A relationship with God is like any other relationship — we examine the evidence, then take a step that transcends it and becomes self-validating. If I had waited until I could prove that Janet and I should be married, I would still be single. If you needed proof that this essay was worth your time before reading it, you wouldn’t have gotten this far.

First of all, where is the evidence of this relationship? Where is the evidence that this invisible intangible being even exists? You don’t get to just assert evidence that you can’t show, and expect me to fall for it.

Secondly, what’s with this “transcending” evidence and self-validation? What does that even mean? Did James decide unilaterally that he should marry Janet, and he then sat and muddled over it until he had definitely decided that Janet should marry him, and then he threw a bag over her head, tied her up, dragged her into the basement, and had his invisible friend in the sky authorize consummation? Or did he ask, “Janet, will you marry me?”, followed by Janet providing confirmation by saying “Yes, James, I will.” The latter is what civilized, rational people would do, at any rate — they seek evidence that their assumptions are actually true.

As for his argument about getting this far, it wasn’t about proof. It was about evidence. I read that far to get evidence and make a decision about whether to continue with his essay and the series of 11 more that follow. I discovered that he’s actually not worth reading, and I stopped.

No celestial magic man was involved. All it took was a critical examination of his very own words.