Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Treading Into, Not On, New Waters

Today I want to offer a change of pace to my usual focus on foreign policy and the political contest du jour. I want to discuss a few aspects of the touchiest of subjects: religion. Specifically, I want to explore the often contentious relationship between religion and science that has produced a peculiarly resurgent debate in recent years, that of Darwinist theories of evolution vs. theistic creationism. I admit that I am far from an expert in this realm, so please feel free to point out any gaps or flaws in my reasoning. It is not my intention to disparage anyone's beliefs, and I do not mean to insult anyone by the content of this post.

The thrust of this piece was partially inspired by a series of posts appearing on Science and Politics
here, here and here, which discussed a recent decision made by the Serbian Education Minister, Ljiljana Colic, to order schools to stop teaching children the theory of evolution for this year, and to resume teaching it in future only if it shares equal billing with creationism. Much to the relief of the author of Science and Politics, the Serbian government reversed the order criticizing the Education Minister's boldness.

In a related sense, this post was inspired by a very thoughtful work detailing the pitfalls of rigidly dogmatic thinking, appearing on
metaBlogic. I encourage all to look it over and consider the honesty and introspection shown by the author. But I digress.

Public education in America is no stranger to the tug of war between Darwinism and Creationism that recently played out in Serbia, and contrary to popular belief prevalent in some Northeastern enclaves, the debate was not settled by the famous Scopes Trial that took place in Tennessee in 1925. Here is a
summary of recent developments regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools in the United States:

-1987: National: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot teach creationism in science classes.

-Late 1990's: State school boards in Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas and Nebraska have tried to either no longer mandate the teaching of evolution, or
de-emphasize the teaching of evolution.

-1998: North Carolina: The North Carolina House passed a bill which mandates that evolution be presented as a theory, not as a fact.

-1999: Kansas: The Kansas Board of Education abandoned the recommendations of their own science panel and established new state science standards. They announced that students would not be tested on their knowledge of evolution. "Studies of data regarding fossils, geologic tables, cosmological information are encouraged. But standards regarding origins are not mandated." This policy was overturned in 2001 after the election of a new board.

-1999: Kentucky: The Kentucky State Education Department substituted the term "change over time" for "evolution" in their curriculum.

-2000: Louisiana: The U.S. Supreme Court declared the Tangipahoa Parish school board's disclaimer to be unconstitutional. The board had required its teachers to announce that evolution was just "presented to inform students of the scientific concept and [was] not intended to influence or dissuade the biblical version of creation or any other concept..."

-2001: Hawaii: Denise Matsumoto, chair of the Regular Education Committee, of the Hawaii State Board of Education proposed that evolution and creation science be taught as competing theories in science class. It was unanimously rejected by the board.
In a centuries old refrain, religious leaders find themselves locked in combat with the purveyors of science. Just as Galileo was nearly executed by the Catholic Church for his controversial claim that the Sun was the center of the solar system, not the Earth (a fact later established by Copernicus and others), and just as the debate over the relative roundness and flatness of the Earth took on religious dimensions for the earliest proponents of the correct theory, so too has modern science faced the backlash of religious fundamentalists, adhering strictly to dogma, when discussing the origins of the species.

When pitted against religious myths and dogma, science almost always prevails. It is now an accepted empirical fact that the Sun is the center of the solar system, and that the Earth is round. Similarly, over 95% of scientists generally, and over 99% of scientists in the fields of biology and earth sciences, accept the theory of evolution. Furthermore, religions did not collapse or lose their meaning or significance because the Earth was deemed one of many planets orbiting the Sun, and an orb at that.

So why does religion continue to wage public battles with science when the outcomes almost invariably lessen the credibility of the religious authorities and in some cases make them appear foolishly wrongheaded, especially when the scientific principle does not threaten the perceived existence of God?

The answer can be found in the nature of dogma, and the tendency to cling to it no matter the stakes, or harms faced, and often contrary to overwhelming evidence. Too many religions get stuck in their respective texts and literal teachings and fail to, for lack of better term, evolve with the progress of thought. The power of religious institutions also plays a big role. Religions have long held themselves out as authorities on all things, especially those aspects of metaphysics that have defied explanation. In science, there is a potential rival to religion's expertise, but only if religious institutions are trying to exert temporal authority instead of pursuing spiritual endeavors. Science, alas, is limited too, and shall never be able to explain the very foundations of religion: the existence of the soul, and its perpetuation after death. So maybe the two should be content to be the masters of their respective domains, but instead they often seek to trespass into areas that exceed their mandate.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Accepting the role of science in describing the history of the planet Earth and its many inhabitants does necessitate certain modifications in textual interpretations, but none of them in and of themselves require a relinquishing of the belief in God. I have always thought of science as a divine endeavor: studying, observing and learning the methods, orders and many facets of God's creation. By detecting patterns, relationships and structure, one is not disproving God per se, just discovering that God works in a logical manner. Nothing inherently blasphemous about it.

In fact, there is a movement known as theistic evolution which takes this approach. Instead of standing in opposition to the inevitability of the acceptance of evolution, the religious proponents of theistic evolution merely point out that evolution is the means by which God operates, and that there is an order to the process and an intentional outcome: humans, among other things. Some variations of this theory hold that God specially created the human soul to differentiate humans from other animals, including evolutionary ancestors, but such a distinction is not necessary to all religious permutations.

There is no other realistic way. Abandoning evolution in favor of creationism would uproot the foundations, and tear apart the fabric of the inter-relationships between many sciences (geology, biology, astronomy, nuclear science, etc.). Such regression is unlikely and for good reason - it would set our society back considerably.

The real tension lies in the actual religious texts of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim tradition, specifically the book of Genesis, which stated that the world was created as a finished project in a matter of days; and how this narrative relates to Christ as the savior. The acceptance of evolution as fact would require a re-interpretation of Genesis as symbolic myth, not a literal recounting of the origins of the universe. This should not diminish the stories themselves however. The power of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim myths supersede the materialistic realm. They are not meant to be literal. Just because Noah didn't actually build an Ark and put two of every species on board does not undermine the significance of the flood as an archetype with meaning and significance.

In fact, abandonment of the literal interpretation could foster a discussion and examination of the true meaning of important myths and parables, reinvigorating them with a perpetual relevance and resonance. For example, in The Last Temptation of Christ, author Nikos Kazantzakis discussed the Ark as a metaphor for the heart, itself a metaphor for love and compassion for all humanity. Under Kazantzakis' take, those who do not reside in their own personal "Arks" will not survive the flood that surrounds us all. Sometimes metaphor and myth is more powerful and meaningful than literalism.

However, there is one problem that is a bit tricky for
conservative Christians:

The creation stories are closely tied to the fall of man and to original sin. The latter are two key beliefs among most conservative Christians. If Genesis were interpreted as symbolic, as a myth, fable or fantasy, then the entire role of Jesus would have to be reinterpreted. Without original sin, there is no obvious need for a savior. Jews do not have this problem, although they share Genesis with Christians they never developed the concept of original sin. Liberal Christians also have no problem; most have already concluded that Genesis is a myth. But the rejection of original sin would shake conservative Christianity to its knees.
Assuming that the concept of "original sin" is something worth clinging to, I do not see this as insurmountable. Is original sin as a concept inextricably linked to the actual events and actors described in Genesis? Could not the stories of Adam and Eve and the fall of man itself be myths that convey an underlying truth. Though not literal, those metaphors describe an actual spiritual crisis inherent in humanity - namely the "original sin" of the soul born into flesh. Thus, Jesus is still relevant as the savior since humanity is born into original sin, even if it didn't technically occur in a Garden of Eden with a serpent, an apple and the two original humans (one made out of the rib of the other). It makes perfect sense to use myths and metaphors to convey concepts that are difficult to grasp or express in linguistic means, but the problem arises when the myths and metaphors become more important than the underlying message.

Human beings crave certainty above all else. Ambiguity and uncertainty are frightening to most, but they are inextricably linked to a temporal existence in which so much remains unexplained and will forever be so. Into that vacuum, religion has stepped, and in so doing religion has offered certainty to those who crave it. In this vein, religions have, at times, been reluctant to acknowledge the uncertainty and fluidity of spiritual endeavors themselves, such as the fact that metaphors are not to be taken literally. Subjects open to interpretation threaten their monopoly on spiritual authority. In its quest to offer certainty, religious institutions have often been willing to sacrifice truth and progress for the appearance of authority and consistency.

Humanity has also shown a propensity for totemism; that is the tendency to form in groups of insiders differentiated from groups of outsiders. These groups often develop narratives of being "saved," or "good," or "divinely endowed," while the other, the outsider is "damned," "evil," "godless." This is true of more than just religion, it extends to political affiliation as well as cultural trends like art movements, sports affiliations, and philosophical schools of thought, to name a few. All of us have fallen victim to such urges at one point or another, and most of us remain so today. Dogmatic thinking reinforces the feelings of certainty that are so desired in an existential sense and creates a series of firm principles that enable the definition of a totem group.

It is this rigid dogmatic thinking, however, that interferes with progress, resolution, and unity, and creates so much strife and conflict in the world. Hopefully by examining our propensity to engage in these habits, we can learn to avoid the pitfalls, and some of these intellectual blinders can follow the path of the flat Earth society marching onward into obsolescence.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?