Religious Moderation vs. Religious Fanatisicm vs. Science

sistine-chapel-creation-of-adam

Over at io9, Mark Strauss has written a nice piece cataloging the brouhaha underway at Bryan College, a Christian school in Dayton, Tennessee. The dispute revolves around a change to the wording of the college charter. The previous version was plenty nonsensical, but apparently the board of trustees wanted to make their pro-hokum position a little more rigid. Consequently, a charter that once read:

“that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death;”

now carries the adendum:

“We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

Both phrases mean approximately the same thing, but the addition of the clarification concerning the historical veracity of Adam and Eve strikes a stricter bearing, eliminating all room for “Bible as metaphor” apologetics. As Strauss points out, the altered wording gets right to the heart of one of the primary hurdles preventing Christian fundamentalists from accepting biological evolution: if Adam and Eve are not the literal progenitors of all mankind, then there is no “original sin”, and – here is the critical point – if there is no original sin, there is no reason for God to send his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to learn carpentry and die for our sins. Of course, even in the absence of empirical contradictions, this story doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s not the point. To hardcore believers, the Biblical creation story is a literal recounting of actual events. For them, the story of Adam and Eve is the linchpin their religious beliefs.

Strauss’ take on the whole affair is thoughtful and lucidly written. According to Strauss, the change in wording and subsequent schism can be partially traced to the rise of genomics. New tools have increased the resolution and fidelity of genetic research, allowing researchers to both ask and answer important questions about human ancestry. Unsurprisingly, the resulting accumulation of evidence argues strongly for a human ancestry that is ancient and shared. More to the point, it argues strongly against a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. A recent study(published last year) conservatively estimated the minimum population size needed to account for the genetic diversity of modern humans is 2,250. Consequently, a hypothetical two person gene pool would fail to account for modern human genetic diversity by several orders of magnitude.

Despite the historical depth and philosophical breadth of Strauss’ analysis, he does eventually stumble. Everything you’ve read thus far is more or less a recapitulation of his take on a microcosm of the modern struggle between the forces of religious moderation and religious fanaticism. Now we get to the meat of things – what I really wanted to address. About two thirds of the way through his piece, Strauss tries to make a point by juxtaposing the opinion of David Coppedge, a former NASA JPL employee and paragon of cognitive dissonance, and Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and general advocate for reason. Coppedge is cast in the role of the raving religious fanatic, Coyne in that of the strident and dismissive scientific purist. Strauss writes:

Coyne is several magnitudes more rational than Coppedge. Yet, the underlying sentiment of both these statements bother me, in that they suggest a false dichotomy between faith and science—the idea that you can believe in the Bible or you can believe in evolution, but you can’t believe in both.

I think otherwise. Ever since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species, many theologians have reconciled evolution and scripture in ways that are not only elegant but that, in my view, have inspired new ways of thinking that enhance the tenets of existing belief systems for the better.

This is a nice sentiment. Unfortunately, as far as biological evolution is concerned, faith and science are fundamentally irreconcilable. This is true no matter how loosely one chooses to interpret the Bible. The problem is deeper than any question about whether or not a growing mountain of evidence renders a literal interpretation of the Bible untenable. This is because the Bible indisputably paints humanity as the ultimate object of God’s design. Consequently, even the most diplomatic form of theistic evolution construes biological change as a more or less teleological, goal-oriented process. Here, a liberal interpretation of the Bible allows room for evolution, with the caveat that evolution occurs for the express purpose of creating man.

That is simply not how evolution works.

Evolution is a blind process. It has no endgame in mind. In fact, it has no mind. It is a process of extreme contingency, unfolding according to the aggregate effects of the day-to-day exigences of the struggle to survive and reproduce. A person who thinks that belief in the Bible can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution has, somewhere along the line, stumbled into a profound misunderstanding about the meaning of the former or the consequences of the latter.

Humans are not the pinnacle of creation or the end point of the evolutionary process. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the Bible teaches, irrespective of how one chooses to spin it. Certainly one can believe in the Bible, on one hand, and evolution on the other. But the two views are not amenable to philosophical reconciliation. To espouse both the Bible and evolution is to simultaneous hold explicitly contradictory viewpoints. People can (and frequently do) have conflicting views. Which is perplexing, but fine. Far better that one accepts reality with a sprinkling of superfluous superstition that rejects reality altogether.  That said, to argue that scripture can be reconciled with the science of evolution (or geology, physics, astronomy, cosmology, archaeology, and so forth) is to adopt a extremely fragile conciliatory stance. It might sound smart to the ears of polite and sophisticated society – it certainly appeals to the lowest common denominator – but wait until the real wind blows.

In the end, the Bryan College story can be boiled down to a themes relating of ideological conflict – the stubborn traditionalists railing against the forces of progress and discovery. On the surface, it is about the conflict that results from the sort of ideological intransigence that leads one to reject science in favor of ancient superstition. However, there is also something deeper here, and that is the conflict implicit in the attempt to build institutions of higher learning where education is bound by the dictates of religious dogma. Bertrand Russell once wrote that…

“It may be said that an academic institution fulfills its proper function to the extent that it fosters independent habits of mind and a spirit of inquiry free from the bias and prejudices of the moments. In so far as a university fails in this task it sinks to the level of indoctrination.”

Wisdom of the West, 1959

How can a school like Bryan College possibly succeed in this regard? At a school like Bryan, the bounds of inquiry are strictly set. By purportedly divine fiat, there are places one cannot go, things one cannot think. This is made clear in the university charter: think like us or go elsewhere. Better still, the very doctrine of Christianity (as espoused by fundamentalists) can be roughly translated into “agree with us or burn in hell”. Such a philosophy is inimical to the very purpose of higher education. It is nothing short of crude indoctrination – the work of intensely insular minds grasping for company. In that sense, the Bryan College affair isn’t about whether it is best to interpret the Bible literally or metaphorically in light of scientific evidence. It is about an endeavor that is, by its very nature, doomed to fail: building an edifice of higher learning with built in limits on what is okay to learn.


edit: Billy Bryan pointed out that the Adam and Eve language is not replacing the previous passage. Having confirmed this, I’ve edited the blog to reflect that.

2 thoughts on “Religious Moderation vs. Religious Fanatisicm vs. Science

  1. That portion (item #4) of the statement of belief is not being replaced with the new text; the new text is being added with an asterisk as “clarification.”

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