Thursday, July 07, 2005

Being Reasonable

It's a rare moment when I find myself in agreement with the Vatican.

The New York Times today carried an Op-Ed by Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, detailing the Catholic Church's present thoughts on evolution. I was ecstatic to read it.

Religious fundamentalists have done the integrity of Christianity a tremendous disservice by insisting on the intrinsic inerrancy of the collection of writings we call "The Bible." Their repeated assertions that everything in the Bible is literally and constantly true reveal their own ignorance of Scripture, because they choose to deny, ignore or disingenuously explain away the Bible's internal contradictions.

For a fine example, see my satirical and unintentionally timely "letter" to Moses in the post below. Genesis Chapter 1 says birds and fish were created on Day 5, and that land animals and man were created on Day 6. Chapter 2 does not mention a 7-day timeframe, but makes clear that God created man first, and then created all land animals and birds in order to provide him with a companion. Now, this is perhaps a fairly minor inconsistency, but there it is, nonetheless.

Fundamental hysteria over the literal veracity of the Bible, and the current prominence of evangelicals in our media and government, has the unfortunate effect of promoting the belief that religious faith is by definition in opposition to science. The irrational behavior of fundamentalists comforts non-believers, who feel that atheism is somehow an enlightened position. In fact, what you have are two groups who refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Atheism isn't enlightened, it's ideological radicalism. Creationists aren't faithful, they're willfully blind.

A friend of mine insists he belives in "reason," not religion, as if they are mutually exclusive, but Cardinal Schönborn smartly rebuts in his editorial, "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."

So what is the Catholic position on evolution?

"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not."

No atheist has ever successfully explained to me how an utterly random, purposeless, causeless series of events resulted in the astounding world in which we exist. In fact, that is a far more unreasonable ideology than accepting the obvious order and structure of life and the universe and concluding that there has been a guiding hand in the process.

Pope John Paul II wrote, "To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems."

Schönborn concludes, "Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence."


Mike B. said...

Wow. Andy,

Mike B. said...

To elaborate, I agree with your point about there being a difference between belief in the precise (and implausible, and sometimes contradictory) details of one religious text and belief in the presence of a supernatural force. The nature of the universe is so completely beyond human comprehension that I think divine intervention is a completely reasonable hypothesis.

But a hypothesis it is. The fact that it seems more likely to you means little to me. And frankly, you've spent so much time talking about the folly of ignorance that you haven't taken the time to justify your position to me. As it stands, I can poke too many holes in theories of creation to take them seriously.

jwc said...

the core of science, its essence, and how it works in the abstract is to explain nature using nature. To start small and use things we can prove, like billiard balls on a pool table, and extrapolate that to larger ideas which we can't prove through direct experimentation. What's exciting is when the results of these experiments show that what we believe is a lie. We now know that nature isn't billiard balls on a pool table, but something far more complicated - that follows its own predictable rules.

This is the basis of the theory of evolution. Taking things we can prove (children sometimes vary randomly from their parents) and extrapolating - correcting for when we're proven wrong (to my mind, this is the very definition of capital R "Reason," which is why it's incompatible with religion). However, there is nothing at all we can prove from religion. Religion is a belief without proof, and science just can't work that way. This is why intelligent design has no business in a classroom - it uses things outside of nature to explain nature. It doesn't reduce to anything (like all the sciences reduce to physics).

Where I'm willing to agree science and religion converge is what happened before the big bang: both science and religion provide unappealing responses. Science's is "I don't know," and Religion's is "I know, but i can't prove it." Blah.

Andy said...

Mike: Well, I think I was endorsing intelligent design, not "creation theory," and there is a significant difference.

What would you like in terms of justification?

Atheists think they're just being "rational." But the sum total of their analysis consists of, "I can't see God; therefore, He does not exist." That's hardly a well thought-out position.

Really, my only aim is to get secularists to admit that they also belong to a faith of sorts, that their beliefs, or lack thereof, are likewise impossible to prove, and therefore, not in any remote way superior.

Anonymous said...

Mike, Andy has a point here...

Courtney said...

I think perhaps you're selling (some) atheists short with the simplification of "I can't see God; therefore, (s)he does not exist." I myself came to my atheism through a long and winding path from total belief in God to a rejection of organized religion -- it's really hard being a feminist and endorsing, say, my childhood experience with Catholicism -- to a final settlement that even the vague concept of God does not answer questions for me.

Simply assuming that God isn't there without first examining your belief is about as logical and reasonable as simply assuming the Bible is literal truth and never questioning it for yourself. The local UU church advertises on the radio here, and their little catchphrase is, "Faith is a journey and thinking is required." The same could be said for a lack of faith.

So I guess I agree with your last paragraph, rather than your first, on that comment.

Andy said...

JWC, you truly are a fabulous jackass, I love you. I wish all of you could read the subsequent conversation we had on this.

I think we reached mutual understanding, that he is, by his own admission, exclusively interested in "how," and I am more interested in "why."

Andy said...

Oof, my brain exploded. Brilliant comments, all.

Anonymous said...

christian's are stupid

Mike B. said...

Honest and rational atheists (a subset to which I like to think I belong) are open to being convinced of the existence of God. Our position isn't "I don't see God, therefore he does not exist," but "it's not necessary to posit the existence of God to explain anything, and in the absence of convincing evidence, I'll continue to assume that he does not exist."

I don't think you can get away with sloppy thinking just by changing the name from "creationism" to "intelligent design," although with the latter you don't have to commit to the specifics of the Old Testament. You're still vulnerable to two key problems: (1) Who designed the Creator, whose systems must be far more complex than ours? and (2) If humans were designed from scratch, why were we built so inefficiently?

Andy said...

Mike, if convincing evidence of divine majesty doesn't leap out at you at every turn, then I really don't know what to say. To me, the constant presence of God at work in the world is as obvious as anything. I'm thunderstruck that you think the human body is inefficient. Inefficient compared to what?

And if you think that the difference between "creationism" and "intelligent design" is one of nomenclature, then you don't understand the debate. Creationism is unscientific, to the point of being anti-science. Intelligent design accepts scientific processes, research and evidence. Intelligent design accepts that life on earth has evolved and changed; creation "theory" says that life on earth now is as it ever was. The debate is not over "evolution," but over "natural selection," which posits that such mutations are random. There is no evidence for that. Intelligent Design, while not testable in a laboratory sense, draws upon the overwhelming complexity and interconnectedness of life and, indeed, the entire universe and posits, albeit unscientifically but based on scientific evidence, that this is divine work.

Andy said...

PS, you also don't really understand the point or concept of "faith." If the existence of God could be proven, then faith would be irrelevant. What credit does it do you to believe in something tangible? Faith is the bargain God makes with us, but it's a really pretty good deal.

Andy said...

Oh, and PS to Mr. Anonymous: some Christians might not be very bright, but at least this one knows when to use an apostrophe.

Here are some other Christians who were total morons: Martin Luther King, Jr., Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, CS Lewis, Desmond Tutu.