Tag Archives: Ken Ham

Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the right: “Cosmos,” Christians, and the battle for American science

The religious right has been freaking out about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” for what feels like an eternity. And, while the theological complaints seem laughable for their rancor and predictability, it’s time we thought harder about what they represent, because the Christian right’s “Cosmos” agita actually indicates a far deeper problem in religious conservatism — the selective acceptance of Enlightenment values. Religious conservatives have selectively adopted the legacy of liberal Enlightenment, from free speech to science, and jettisoned it when it does not suit their narrow ideological aims.

There is a nasty tendency for those arguing for their case to adopt a stance of enlightened empiricism on one issue to devolve into empirical nihilism on another. There is also the habit of shifting from a high praise of liberal values on one issue to utter contempt on another. Of course, our various liberal values will come into conflict frequently and must be weighed, but we must be disturbed at how quickly some, particularly on the religious right, are willing to twist these traditions for their own gain.

The odd conflict of science and religion has come to define modern religious fundamentalism. While most religious people happily accept scientific theories about gravity, claims about the age of Earth are subject to a strange scrutiny by those who believe that the literary creation narratives in the Bible describe actual events.

The scientific consensus about global warming must be untrue, because, as Dr. Innes writes in “Left, Right and Christ,” the world is “not a glass ornament that we might accidentally destroy … we are not capable of destroying it, whether by nuclear weapons or carbon emissions.” Young earth creationism is the ultimate attempt to both accept modern science, but also to deny it. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham argue that the world and laws we currently observe simply bear no resemblance to the past.

In truth, we cannot get fundamentalism without the scientific revolution. Fundamentalism does not exist independently, but rather defines itself in relationship to post-Enlightenment values. It is the odd melding of science and religion that creates fundamentalism — the belief that the Bible is ultimately both a scientific and religious text. Fundamentalists, like the conspiracy theorists they resemble, will build up reams of evidence creating the case for something that can be disproven with a simple logical proposition. Few thinkers have built such an impressive edifice of logic and evidence upon such a thin foundation of speculation.

Dinesh D’Souza, for instance, has taken to using science as proof of religion — he argues, rather absurdly, that the Bible’s explanation of the origins of the universe predates modern science. In his speech at Intelligence Squared, he claims:

When the discovery of the big bang came — this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science — so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning. Why? because, in a way, it wasn’t just that matter had a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. In other words, this was something that the ancient Hebrews had said thousands of years ago and without conducting a single scientific experiment. By the way, this is not the same as other cosmologies. Other ancient cosmologies posited the universe being fashioned by a kind of carpenter god who made it out of some preexisting stuff, but the ancient Hebrews said, “No, first there was nothing, and then there was a universe.”

But this rhetorical flourish is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the creation narrative, and religion in general. Religion, ultimately, aims at truths deeper than science and trying to apply religious reasoning to the natural world is absurd. Augustine warned as much, telling Christians in “De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim” to avoid, “talking nonsense on these topics.”

More worryingly, the idea that a rather tenuous reading of a literary work holds the same weight as centuries of scientific evidence is more than a little absurd. D’Souza is trying to selectively apply science, but without its foundation — empirical, testable, repeatable propositions.

We see here the fundamentalist flaw: a mass of rhetoric, reason and evidence built on the utterly insane proposition that the Old Testament is meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe.

The reason any somewhat knowledgeable Christian is frustrated by these debates is that they simply pit one fundamentalist against another. One tries to use science to disprove religion, the other to prove it — both apparently unaware that belief is something that cannot be “proven.” That’s the entire point! Too often, religious excursions into science resemble the thinking of the suicidal people described by Anne Sexton, “They ask only what tool, they never ask why build?” Fundamentalism at its core is the misunderstanding of the proper relationship between science and religion — one practiced just as frequently by atheists as Christians.

Another form of this trend is the co-option of liberal values. The religious right cannot generally be found decrying freedom of speech or freedom of religion, instead they make a selective application of these values — much the way they’ll talk science when you question nuclear power but deny a consensus about evolution or global warming on entirely spurious grounds.

One recent example of this illiberalism was the quickness with which Catholics decried a “Black Mass” at Harvard. The “Black Mass” is merely a satanic parody of the Catholic mass — which, while it may be offensive to some Catholics, is totally harmless in practice. Of course, the idea of Catholics demanding special privileges is not rare, but to be expected; one wonders if Satanist child abusers could claim that their church would deal with the matter internally.

Liberal values are not weighed in a vacuum, but this weighing appears to be something many religious conservatives are incapable of doing. During the Black Mass controversy, Father James Martin appeared on MSNBC and said, “I think to put it in perspective, we could say, how would we feel if they said, ‘we’re going to do a little cultural thing, we’re going to do something that’s anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, just as a cultural experiment, we’re going to set up the reenactment of a lynching …’” Father Martin claims to put the event in perspective, and then does the opposite, equating the merely offensive with an act of white supremacy.

Lynchings were intimately tied to white supremacy in the post-Civil War South — their intention was to establish white hegemony and create a permanent underclass. Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan and the burning of crosses were either overtly violent or symbolically violent. The reenactment of a lynching would not be acceptable at a liberal university because it would amount to the direct threat of violence to minorities on campus. It would be aimed at suppressing their rights to expression.

One wonders how Father Martin has lived his entire life in the United States and is still capable of making such an odious comparison. The distinction between the merely offensive and what amounts to group libel or defamation is hard to make, but the Supreme Court has endorsed the idea that some speech may be more than just offensive, and can therefore be regulated. As Clarence Thomas noted in his correct dissent in Virginia v. Black,“just as one cannot burn down someone’s house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point.” Father Martin seems to miss this distinction and believes that he should be protected from ever being criticized or offended.

Hobby Lobby provides another example of the selective use of the liberal tradition. One might find it ironic that Catholics aim to carve out an exception for themselves from laws of general applicability when denying other religions that privilege. But sadly, religious majorities have a long history of understanding the First Amendment diametrically wrong, as a protection of powerful religions rather than weak ones. It is the latter the Founders knew would need special protection (see: Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah), not the former.

To both of these claims — that many on the religious right have entirely abandoned the post-WWI liberal consensus of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment values — there are those who would like to say the same about the left. The Economist is quick to point to GMOs as the left’s version of anti-scientific inquiry. Such claims are entirely overblown. More recently, there have been claims that the left is showing the same illiberal tendencies as the right, most notably Michelle Goldberg of the NationShe argues we are “entering a new era of political correctness,” which she calls “left-wing anti-liberalism.”

While she cites some rather damning movements, they are all fringe movements that have produced pixels but will not bring about change. As Marx once wrote of Communism, “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.” We might note that the idea of illiberalism is something liberalism must countenance, even though it must be prevented from ever being existent.

And here the threat from the right is far stronger: We have seen free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and rights of due process come under scrutiny at all levels. Workers are being denied even the semblance of control over their labor and women over their bodies. Money is making a mockery of democracy.

What we see is an asymmetric illiberalism. The religious right and some portions of the conservative movement have hijacked Enlightenment values for selective use. A truly deep (almost dogmatic) commitment to free speech, say, that practiced by the ACLU, which will defend the right of neo-Nazis to protest, is not what we find in many conservative circles. Instead, we see an embrace of empiricism when it is good and a rejection when it is bad. We see an embrace of religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922:

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity.  I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist.  Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.

His words are still more important today. We live in an increasingly connected and multicultural world, and yet many major religions refuse to recognize marginal ones. We also live in a world threatened by global warming, and yet some Christians deny it, even though it has long been a tenet of religion to live in harmony with nature.

Originally published on Salon.

Creationists can’t be scientists

Creationism is back in the news, following the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate and the recently released HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” Many writers, including myself, have argued that creationism is neither religion nor science, but rather a thinly veiled political doctrine. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because scientists who espouse it can “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He recognizes its absurdity, but writes that, “You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” But creationism is part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism” Christian doctrine and federal law. To espouse it is to preclude practicing science.

Saletan believes that a distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

But this distinction actually obfuscates the deeply political motives of the creation movement, expressed by Ham here:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

This statement shows the operative premise of the young-earth creationist, and from where such creationists draw their power: a literal interpretation of the Bible. Augustine warned of these charlatans, writing of men who, “try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case.” While Saletan thinks that creationism can be largely “compartmentalized” and that a young-earth creationist can still happily vaccinate his or her children, I am far more fearful than he that such an approach to science could easily bleed into the realm of something like vaccines or climate change (as it already has). Ken Ham argues in “Questioning Darwin” that to accept evolution is to abandon absolutes, which will bring a host of sins upon the world, (one wonders how war, rape and murder existed before Darwin).

What should make us terrified of the creationist movement is this political mobilization. The movement is deeply intertwined with right-wing fundamentalism. Among the terrors Ham worries about are abortion and gay marriage.  Across the country creationism has tried toforce itself into science curriculums, with political maneuvering and outright lies. But Saletan glosses over this concern, mentioning only briefly that seeing creationism as harmless “doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory.” I agree we shouldn’t, but the creationist movement is trying to do exactly that.

To believe that someone whose starting premise is profoundly unscientific will practice good science could well be dangerous. Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

But modern biology is based on evolution. Modern astronomy requires a scientist to understand that the universe is far more than 6,000 years old. In order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating. Paleontology is functionally impossible if you accept the disaster-based explanations that creationists offer. The fields of linguistics and psychology are intimately tied to evolution, as is the field of neuroscience.

“Questioning Darwin” makes clear the distinction between those, like Pastor Peter LaRuffa, who states, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2 =5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it” and Darwin, who says, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” One is the mindset of free inquiry, the other of dogmatic quackery. Science requires ambiguity. A scientist must weigh competing claims and she must understand complex systems. Creationism rejects all of this. In one telling quote, Angel Dague says, “I can’t even fathom coming from this little thing that crawled on the ground to apes, to being human, it just doesn’t, it sounds crazy to me.”

Consider the story of Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). Wise writes that in high school he dreamed of a Ph.D from Harvard.  He studied evolution intently but struggled to reconcile it with his literal reading of the Bible. Eventually he went through the entire Bible and cut out every verse that he felt could not be true if evolution were true. He concluded,

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture… With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

That is not someone who has compartmentalized his creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which he sees the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect), could holding onto these beliefs really be a small detail for scientists? I suspect very much the opposite. Saletan concludes that while “Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer” which threatens scientific institutions, in fact, “It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… Just don’t let it mess with your day job.” Given that creationists like Wise have agonizingly determined that this is not true, I think we should take them at their word. At the end of “Questioning Darwin,” the narrator says, “Darwin himself never stopped asking questions about his science and about God.” Creationists have, and that is why they cannot be scientists.

Originally published on Salon.

Ken Ham is a crazy-pants

In a much-hyped event live-streamed last night, “Science Guy” Bill Nye set out to defend evolution in a debate with Ken Ham, the CEO of Kentucky’s Creation Museum. But there was a fundamental problem: Ham’s young-earth creationism is not a religious belief, and it certainly is not scientific. To put it bluntly, it is quackery.

To understand Ham’s view, we need a brief history of how the Bible is interpreted, and where his radically new heuristic comes from. As Paul Fry notes, literary theory or the study of texts (hermeneutics) was originally developed to interpret the Bible. Interpretations have always been based on contemporary events and politics; for instance, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism were based on an attempt to placate the Roman empire. Biblical literalism as an interpretative method can be traced back to Martin Luther’s denunciation of the Catholic Church and his use of Scripture to undermine their authority. Martin Luther’s democratic mission later combined with the tenets of the scientific revolution and fundamentalist politics to produce biblical literalism, the idea that the Bible is a series of testable assertions that can be proven or disproven and that a layman can read and understand the meaning of Scripture.

Biblical literalism is absurd, but it is simple. The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

Because Ham’s claims are clearly unscientific (he denies radiometric dating, claims that the Earth is 6,000 years old based on incomplete genealogies and argues that the flood explains tectonic shifts) we must call them what they are: quackery. H.L. Mencken noted that human progress “tends to go too fast — that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable and incurious men.” Because of this, he worried that, “the average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly concludes that what lies beyond is simple nonsense.” This attitude was on display throughout the debate, when Bill Nye would accept ambiguity and Ken Ham simply substituted ambiguity for absolute and uncompromising and entirely unfounded certainty.

Creationism is a fraud. It is like witchcraft, the 9/11 conspiracy theory or homeopathy; it is a closed system, one that reason cannot penetrate. Nye’s decision to debate Ham and the decision to even air the debate was absurd. Bill Nye accepted the debate assuming he was debating about evolution; he was not. Rather he was debating a political issue. As Ken Ham has said elsewhere,  ”As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.” The Discovery Institute, which touts creationism with a different name (intelligent design), has espoused much the same opinions. Like all fundamentalist movements, they seek to explain all the world’s ills from one source. Barbara Forrest writes, “The ID movement developed out of the rejection of evolution by people who believe that the moral ills of the modern world have been caused by Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea.”

Both organizations (Ham’s Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute) are intimatelyintertwined with right-wing political causes. In the debate, Ham mentioned these ideas, noting that the biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman. The goal is not to defend the absurd idea of young-earth creationism, but rather biblical literalism, the ideology from which fundamentalists draw their strength. If evolution is true, if the Bible cannot be interpreted literally, then women can preach and seek abortion and gays can wed. Throughout its history, religious fundamentalism has been a force to mobilize and defend far-right causes — creationism is merely a “wedge” to expose children to fundamentalist beliefs.

Throughout the debate, Nye made the observation that Ham was essentially a cultish leader; he asked frequently why Ham’s followers would “believe him instead of what they could clearly see before his eyes.” Ham admitted that, “No one will ever convince me that the word of God is not true.” Unlike evolution, which would be easily falsifiable (As J.B.S. Haldane noted, all it would take to disprove evolution is “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era.”) Creationism is not falsifiable. Debating a creationist is like debating a 9/11 conspiracy theorist; one enters an alternate realm, one that is entirely self-reinforcing and impenetrable.

As Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922,

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

I have deep and profound disagreements with those who call themselves New Atheists. I worry with Rabindranath Tagore that, “material advantage … has tempted the modern man away from his inner realm of spiritual values,” and that these New Atheists, are the type of “precocious schoolboys of modern times, smart and superficially critical … driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbours’ houses on fire and are themselves enveloped by the flame.” But to degrade and exploit religion, as Ken Ham does, is appalling. It brings us no closer to an understanding of the deep questions that we struggle with. He and his ilk have no place in our intellectual life. I propose, with Stephen Jay Gould and the Catholic Church, that we recognize that religion and science are two entirely different realms.

As Martin Luther King Jr. argued, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”

Originally published on Salon.

An unedited, likely heretical and certainly underinformed answer to Mike MacRae

Mike MacRae asked me on Twitter:

First off, I don’t accept a literal reading of the New Testament, I also read the New Testament as a document influenced by the culture and politics of its time. The interpretation of the New Testament was further influenced by politics (see: Arianism and Constantine). I don’t really worry that much about the “historical Jesus,” nor do I worry about the “historical Plato.” All of these seem to me to be side discussions. I also try to be non-parochial about my approach to religion. My Christianity, as I’ve noted elsewhere has been influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Tagore, Confucius, Marx and Wilde (among others).

So, onto the question at hand. My definition of “quackery” is adapted from Mencken, who writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

So I’m referring to a specific thing – in modern society we have to trust experts to explain incredibly complex systems. Quacks are people who just throw this all out of the window. They say, global warming? Nah man, that’s just the sun! Evolution? Nah man, that’s just God. That’s what I think is dumb and quacky and needs to be condemned. Okay Sean, but what about people who accept evolution by natural selection and say God guided the process. Why? We know about Mendelian genetics. We know about how natural selection and the environment produces gradual changes. Is our God so small he has to tinker with mundane things (Oh shit! I have to go make some minor adjustments so a giraffe can eat). I see no reason to add this belief other than to make God banal.

Anyhow, why is the Resurrection not quackery? My understanding is that it is a metaphysical one-off. Now, if some scientist developed a way to bring people back to life, and a bunch of Christians said, no, you aren’t bringing people back to life, God is doing that they would be quacks. I think religion concerns itself with metaphysical, not physical claims. So if you want to say that the Son of God, a metaphysical being, came back to life, that is fine. If you want to claim that he is what causes volcanoes to explode, you are a quack (this is my NOMA coming out). The Catholic Church says we have souls. I can’t disprove that with science. Ken Ham claims the Earth is 6,000 years old. I can disprove that with science (that’s why he relies on this weird historical science bullshit). Some (most) Christians say a divine being walked among us, was killed and was raised from the dead. Well, I think we can say that a human couldn’t do that. But Christians don’t claim a human did it. I don’t think you can prove it happened, and you can certainly use a Humian logic to say it’s pretty unlikely, but I don’t think you can disprove it. You can accept the scientific method and believe the resurrection. You can’t accept the scientific method and accept creation.

Biblical literalism is quackery because it does exactly what Mencken warns us about, it “reduc[es] the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.” The Biblical literalist says anyone can open the Bible and read it and instantly understand it without any work or training or thinking. I worry that this way of reading the Bible is primarily concerned with what I call “weaponizing Christianity.” At the risk of vulgarizing my own position, I read the Bible to begin an investigation of deeper truths, not end one.That’s what separates me from Ham. Can I make the claim that this “true Christianity”? As Nietzsche remarked, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” I gave an example of how you weaponize Christianity in the Salon piece:

The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

So, two answers. I think people who really wrestle with these questions deserve praise, it’s very clear Ham doesn’t. Ham and these guys read the Bible as a series of true or false, entirely testable propositions. I see the Bible as the beginning of deeper investigation into what it means to be human. I see religion as a humanism (As Bacon noted, ‘”If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”) I also think you can entirely accept science and the scientific method and believe in the Resurrection, because it’s not a claim about the natural world that is testable and repeatable. But if someone were to say, hey, we should ignore medicine because God can raise people from the dead. I would say that is quackery. That’s what Ham is asking us to do; he wants us to throw out biology because of the creation narrative.  But maybe I’m a quack.

 

Augustine literally predicted Ken Ham

I had this Augustine quote in my first draft, it got cut for being to verbose,

Reckless and presumptuous expounders of Scripture bring about much harm when they are caught in their mischievous false opinions by those not bound by our sacred texts. And even more so when they then try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case ‘without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance.’ (1 Timothy 1:7)

He might as well have added, “I’m looking at you Ken.”

 

Ken Ham and Bill Nye should not debate tonight

Co-written with Abigail Salvatore.

Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be debating creationism on Feb. 4, and it’s a bad idea for both scientists and Christians. Ham’s young-earth creationism represents the distinct tendency of American Christian fundamentalists to reject science and use their religion to defend economic ideas, environmental degradation and anti-science extremism. But these views aren’t actually inherent in Christianity — they’ve been imposed on the biblical text by politically motivated and theologically inept readers. The solution is not anti-theism but better theological and scientific awareness.

The vast majority of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are evangelicals, followers of an offshoot of Protestantism. Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.

Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” perfectly summarizes the American distaste for intellectualism and how egalitarian sentiments became intertwined with religion. He and Walter Lippmann point to the first wave of opposition to Darwinian evolution theory, led by William Jennings Bryan, as the quintessential example of the convergence of anti-intellectualism, the egalitarian spirit and religion. Bryan worried about the conflation of Darwinian evolution theory and capitalist economics that allowed elites to declare themselves superior to lower classes. He felt that the teaching of evolution challenged popular democracy: “What right have the evolutionists — a relatively small percentage of the population — to teach at public expense a so-called scientific interpretation of the Bible when orthodox Christians are not permitted to teach an orthodox interpretation of the Bible?” He notes further, “The one beauty of the word of God, is that it does not take an expert to understand it.”

This American distrust of experts isn’t confined to religion. It explains the popularity of books like “Wrong” by David Freedman (a book that purports  to show “why experts are wrong”) that take those snobbish “experts” down a peg.  The delightfully cynical H.L. Mencken writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

Thus, an American need not understand economics to challenge Keynes, nor possess a PhD to question climate change, nor to have read Darwin to declare his entire book a fraud. One need not read journals, for Gladwell suffices, and Jenny McCarthy’s personal anecdotes trump the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences.

The irony of modern American Christian right-wing fundamentalism is that, for all its talk of tradition, it is a radically new way to read the Bible. The strict constructionist, or literal fundamentalist, biblical method of interpretation was invented in the 19th century. America at this time experienced rapid social change that played a key role in creating the fundamentalism that now lies at the core of the religious right. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the idea that technological progress is the way forward. American Protestants worried that all this science would encroach on their religious beliefs, so they turned to the Bible as the source of all knowledge — scientific and spiritual. During a time when Darwin’s followers were trying to explain everything in terms of evolutionary theory, American Protestants refused to look for truth outside their interpretation of Scripture.

In “Fundamentalism and American Culture,” George Marsden describes fundamentalism as “essentially the extreme and agonized defense of a dying way of life.” The American Protestant response to the Industrial Revolution was engendered by the fear that a small cabal of experts would dictate to Americans how to live their lives and that science would somehow replace their religion. In truth, the Christian tradition provides little support for the fundamentalist doctrines that arose during this period. Augustine believed that science and religion need not be in competition, and the Catholic Church has long held that evolution does not contradict the Church’s teachings. Fundamentalists who deny climate change and evolution have simply read their simplistic understanding of science into biblical texts.

Because the “fundamentalist problem” is not rooted in religion, the answer can’t be found in anti-theism, the preferred response of commentators like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Rather, American Protestants must learn to read the Bible as a religious text rather than a series of logical premises to be proven. The irony of debates like the one between Bill Nye and Ken Ham is that they pit two fundamentalist readers against each other. The fundamentalist Christian and the atheist both read the Bible as a series of falsifiable propositions — what Terry Eagleton calls the “Yeti” theory of belief. Disproving the creation narrative should strike any theologian as absurd — the way a literature professor would react if a student claimed to have “disproven” “Sons and Lovers.”

Religious conflicts can serve to obfuscate base political or economic motives. Christianity was used to justify slavery in the South, but it’s doubtful that without the Bible, Southerners would have freed their slaves (it may be worth noting that science was also used to justify racism, most famously documented in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man”).

In the same way that racism was read into the Bible, modern American Protestant positions, like climate change denialism and anti-evolutionary thinking, are being imposed on Scripture. The religious justification for denying climate change is tenuous, while the economic justification, for someone worried about keeping their job or filling up their tank, is not. Americans whose economic interests rely heavily on fossil-fuel-intensive industries aren’t keen to lower their standard of living by abandoning coal.

The upcoming Nye/Ham debate, and other debates like it, are merely reiterations of the classic debates between Adams and Jackson, Burke and Paine, Lippmann and Chomsky: the philosopher-king vs. the democrat. By singling out religion as the genesis of these anti-intellectual outbursts, the New Atheist movement only takes us away from the solution: divorcing religion and science. By claiming that religion needs to be abolished, the New Atheist movement justifies the worst fears of the religious. When a religious person makes a political assertion or an economic argument or a claim about science, it is exactly that: a disprovable assertion. Within religious circles, fundamentalists must be challenged (with appropriate love) for manipulating true religion.

The religious right’s stance on climate change, economics and evolution is not informed by their religious beliefs. Rather, these political and economic views are imposed on Scripture, which is often read without theological rigor. It is not religion that is the problem, but rather the use of religion as an ideological weapon. But to respond by using science as a weapon is equally problematic.

The best way to address the problem is to confront the underlying political and economic concerns that are obscured by religious dogma, rather than attacking the religion directly. Our problems require an entirely new political and economic paradigm, one that rests on understanding and empathetic action between people of all faiths. Religious reformers, concerned environmentalists, scientists and economists must work together toward a more sustainable future. Bill Nye is intensely concerned about climate change and evolution, as are we. He should therefore ally himself with sane religious leaders, rather than debate fundamentalists.

Originally published on Salon.