Beyond Debate: Science, Religion, and Fear

Recently there was a debate at the Creation Museum in Kentucky between its founder, Ken Ham, and Bill Nye, the “Science Guy”. If anything resembling scientific evidence mattered to people watching it, they would have been persuaded easily by the Science Guy’s arguments. But even Nye implicitly understood that, for many in the audience, the debate wasn’t about facts.

One of Ham’s power point slides showed a tower with morality as the stone at the top and the Bible as the stone at the bottom. It showed the Bible crumbling and civilization tumbling down around it. If you weren’t already a fundamentalist Christian, and his flimsy evidence-based objections to natural selection didn’t hold water for you, surely you’d be persuaded by the threat of social chaos resulting from acceptance of the theory of evolution.

Bill Nye closed many of his turns to speak by repeating that if Americans don’t take science seriously, we’ll lose the competition with other nations for technological leadership and fall behind economically. Over and over, he played the patriotism card: creationism is bad for America.

The debate, in the end, was not about science. It was about fear. What’s scarier? Rampant crime, cultural confusion, and moral relativism? Or having to rely on scientists from godless Europe to develop the latest medicines? Ken Ham offered a more viscerally compelling argument against evolution as a threat to social order than Bill Nye did for creationism as a threat to the American economy. For the supporters of the Creation Museum, Ham surely won the debate.

The Creation Museum isn’t so much about six-day biblical creation as it is to affirm a self-contained, simplistic, all-encompassing world-view that makes frightened people feel better. Until promoters of real science and practitioners of progressive faith understand this, they’ll continue to have trouble defending sound science education in schools and getting adequate funding for university research. First we have to practice the divine love that casts out fear at the level of our whole society. We have to establish economic justice in America so that people aren’t afraid of going bankrupt over medical bills, of starving if they lose their jobs, or of violence erupting in their children’s schools. Then we can do what Michael Dowd does in his book: Thank God for Evolution.

The scientific problem with creationism has nothing to do with God. You can believe in one or another kind of God while being part of the scientific quest. You just have to keep asking how God creates life and the cosmos, and you have to subject your answers to the tests of evidence. Creationists say God made the world in six days, but offer no explanation of how God did it. Thus they have walled themselves outside the realm of science. Their dogma stands in the way of the curiosity that drives us to make sense of our world. Creationism is predicated on a doctrine that won’t subject itself to the test of evidence, and meanwhile the evidence in favor of evolution is overwhelming. I wished that Bill Nye had said something to this effect, but he was too busy debating the undebatable.

Our office at USC cosponsored a Veritas Forum event on our campus recently. It was a dialogue between an evangelical Christian mathematician from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Satyan Devadoss, and Nick Warner, a non-religious professor of physics at USC. Veritas is an evangelical group aimed at engaging faith and the academy on campuses around the US. The events tend to be about “apologetics” – the attempt to defend evangelical orthodoxy against its intellectual detractors. Devadoss apparently holds the perspective of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who believed that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”, realms of learning that don’t intersect. When asked by my boss, Varun Soni, the moderator of the dialogue, how math informed or was informed by his faith, Devadoss said that they were two separate parts of his life. Apparently he was unaware of the long tradition in Christianity of the overlapping magisteria of math and theology. (This deep connection was expressed richly, for example, in the work of the 15th century bishop, Nicolas of Cusa. ) Devadoss used metaphors, in the manner of C. S. Lewis, to defend evangelical orthodoxy’s basis in fact. But nowhere did he offer any logical or scientific arguments in his “apology” for his belief in a literal resurrection and a supernatural God. Meanwhile, Warner, a charming Brit whose accent gives him the aura of at least twenty extra IQ points, danced circles around Devadoss with reasons why God is irrelevant to the pursuit of science. Elegantly he explained why Christian dogma is unnecessary for the human experiences of awe, wonder, and love.

Missing entirely from the dialogue was a third option: Christianity that curiously seeks God’s divine process of cosmic creativity through science. Christianity that subjects its doctrines to the tests of spiritual experience, empirical evidence, and compassion, and drops the doctrines that fail the tests. Religion that celebrates its myths and its poetry without trivializing them by claiming that they are factual. Too few “science guys” have been exposed to progressive Christianity, so they don’t even know they have allies in the realm of religion. Let’s get beyond debate and beyond fear, so that science and religion can act in each others’ service.

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