December 29, 2004

Musings on the Fundamentals

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Before I even start, let me preface this by saying that I am not an atheist or anti-religion. I am an agnostic with leanings towards Deism, the idea that the universe was created by a being that does not intervene in its progression. These beliefs are founded upon the presumption of non-presumption, that I am fallible and that while I believe these things, I could be wrong (ergo the agnosticism), and on observation and use of reason rather than blind faith or the historic weight of certain scriptures beyond the value of the concepts introduced in said scriptures. I believe faith is a good thing when used selectively with judgment, but I believe that skepticism when used selectively with reason is just as important. People talk about our faith being tested by science, but these people seldom speak of our reason being tested by religion. I see faith and reason as being two complementary attributes of the mind, as religion and science are complementary. I get along fine with most people who call themselves "religious," it is that stubborn, outspoken minority called "fundamentalists" that I am almost always at odds with. And even then, only in the sense of how they apply their beliefs to others, not as much in the beliefs themselves or how they live with them. I may or may not agree with their beliefs or respect the reasons why they believe, but ultimately I respect their beliefs and their rights to hold them.

I am pretty Libertarian when it comes to religion. I see it as a personal prerogative, not "belonging" to any leader or church or nation; that it is purest in the heart and mind of the individual, and when congregated, it is most diffuse; I oppose central authority except where strictly asked for or desired by those under that authority. However, for that authority, whether on its own or in the name of its adherents, to attempt to impose its control on others who are unwilling to comply, to me is a cardinal sin--it is a direct abrogation of those people's religious freedom. You can persuade and preach religion, but thou shalt not force it down anyone's throats.

So you can begin to understand where fundamentalists and I might have problems. I live in a world where one is allowed to question, discover and believe and do what one feels right, where people of any religious stripe could be correct in their beliefs, an inclusive world where nothing is eliminated from the running. Fundamentalists, from my perspective, live, innocently or otherwise, in a world of arrogant presumption based upon the suspension of reason, a world which must be conquered by faith; where something is considered true not because it is observed, reasoned or real, but rather simply because someone of influence wrote it down before. I am sure that they would see me as someone without faith or the conviction of my beliefs, who refuses to allow the clearly apparent love of God into my heart and allows myself to be corrupted by the temptations of Satan, probably as one who is untouched by the Lord and destined to burn in Hell. And probably a lot more, and maybe I have the list of charges wrong, but likely something like that. Neither of these views need be disparaging, but rather only observations of states from the perspective of the observer.

I do not see these people as evil--on the contrary, the reason I respect them most is their sincerity and their actual concern for my mortal soul, and their willingness to work hard to save it. (That does not include the proudly arrogant ones who try to act superior and lord it over others.) It is important to realize that this concern is genuine and is the basis for much of what is being pressed in the public arena today: these people see themselves as being on a holy mission to bring light to the world. While of course there are bad or mean-hearted fundamentalists, I presume that the ones I deal with at any one time are sincere. My problem is where they cross the line of forced proselytization.

Under the fundamentalist creed, those whom they wish to convert must be converted or be doomed; and so to convert them to the Truth, one must somehow present them with the elements of conversion in the manner most likely to succeed. And proselytization works best if introduced young and if introduced as a publicly approved standard. But they also understand that there are certain structures in our society--in particular, the separation of church and state and the principles behind it--that prevent this from being done, and so certain strategies must be adopted in order to sugar-coat the pill, if you will. That is why we get things like school "meditation" or classroom "moments of silence." While superficially conforming to public rules of conduct on separation of church and state, proposals such as these are specifically designed to violate the spirit of said conduct, in other words, to indoctrinate, to proselytize. To introduce that religion as the public norm, the clear implication if it is introduced in public schools. Less subtle attempts at such indoctrination include the press to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms and schools as a cure-all for discipline problems. There is little more the fundamentalists would like than to convert public schools into Christian schools as a means of universalizing religion.

Intelligent design is one of the more subtle efforts. In public school science classes, what conforms to the principles of science is taught. The results of empirical observation and experimentation are presented. Everything that is presented is subject matter that has gone through a prolonged process of theory, testing and proof. If it cannot be proved as an absolute fact, it is presented as theory, that being an explanation for the facts discovered and understood so far, within a framework that stands up to questioning better than most or all other possible theories. The idea of intelligent design was crafted specifically to wedge Creationism into that rubric as well as possible, and then ram it through the rest of the way via public pressure.

The problem is, Intelligent Design is not really a tested scientific theory--it is, as I just stated, a tailor-made form of Creationism designed to look like a scientific theory. At its center is the presumption that complexity cannot arise from random chance. This presumption has no proof whatsoever; it is not even a scientific postulate, rather a simple feeling, usually prejudiced by religious beliefs. What can't such complexity arise out of random chance? The theory is hobbled from the very beginning, and has not passed through strenuous review by the worldwide scientific community--nor could it.

What is frightening, however, is how the fundamentalist viewpoint, while in the small minority, is being presented by the press as mainstream. It is as if the media believes that only those who seek you out to speak or come out publicly to proselytize are of importance, and even a quiet majority can be ignored simply because they are quiet. The fundamentalist viewpoint that the Bible could not by any chance whatsoever be allegory in any way, and that every word in the current English translation of the favored version of the Bible is the literal absolute truth--this view is somehow the view, or at least the primary alternate view being offered these days by the media, and they represent that as the mainstream view.

There are other beliefs, however, held by a much greater majority of Americans (and likely Christians worldwide), that allow for allegory and a reasonable amount of human fallibility in the transmission of the message so that one does not have an old man with a long beard grabbing some clay and splat, there's man--but rather that the processes and evidence we have observed indicate the manner in which God chose to create us. That God created the universe with the Big Bang, that God shaped us by using evolution. A view which not only is true to scripture, but also jibes much more with what we see in the universe around us. The idea that God has to do it exactly as written today in the Bible or it must be impossible is, to me, completely unnecessary, and, since it contradicts what we find in our world, it seems nonsensical. How does it belittle the grace of God to presume that he took thirteen billion years rather than six days to make the universe as it is, that God used magnificent and unimaginably complex forces of evolution to make us into what we are instead of simply squishing some clay and breathing into it?

It seems to me that science discovers and displays to all of us the great and glorious creation which is the universe, and to presume the limited literal scope of what Genesis presents is what belittles that very creation. Genesis is limited to just us humans here on Earth. Did God create hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars and likely even more planets in each one, spanning the vastness of billions of light-years for no reason except to drop the Earth into it so that it practically disappears? Science has opened our eyes to far more of physical being of creation than the Bible ever could; it would be sad to think we were limited to the one book and miss everything else. And I don't think that such a thing is right.

We have done this all before, remember: the Ptolemaic view of the universe was embraced by the Church (though there was really little support for Ptolemy in the Bible, as I understand it), and as scientific views were therein bonded to religion, any attempt to dispute them or proffer a different theory was met with accusations of heresy. As a result, our science stagnated for perhaps a thousand years. Are we going to let our science be dictated by religion again?

Religion is not science, nor is it a replacement for it. By the same token, science is not religion, and is not a replacement for it, either. Whenever one has attempted to tread the ground of the other, trouble has always ensued. If you hear a scientist claim that science disproves God, they are being a poor scientist--such a claim is unsupportable, not to mention outside the field. But if you hear a 'religionist' claim that the Bible disproves science, they are being equally ridiculous. What are you going to believe, the words in this here book, or your lying eyes? Religion is our tool for discovering the soul, science is our tool for discovering the world. The Bible is a guide for the soul, not a science handbook.

Some say, "To be the Word of God, the Bible must be true." But there are questions as to what is meant by true, and in what sense. True in the literal sense, in terms of days and clays and serpents, or true in the philosophical and moral sense? Is the Bible false if God took 13 billion years and not seven days?

Rationale for accepting both the Bible and what science has uncovered is hardly difficult to see. The Bible was not penned by God, but by humans, and however holy and noble they may have been, they were limited by human fallibility and by the understandings and the mores of their times. Imagine that God told Moses the story of creation. And presume that God did use the Big Bang and evolution and everything else science has observed. But Moses did not understand hydrogen or light-years or DNA, and since God was not telling him the story for his own personal edification, but rather to spread the word to others, he could not just magically give Moses the understanding in any case. So he describes creating the universe to Moses, do you think he will explain the inner workings of the Big Bang, what happened in which microsecond? Of course not; he would simply say that he said, "let there be light." Moses does not have to understand anything else for these purposes. God would not speak to Moses of billions of years, because Moses would not understand numbers larger than the tens of thousands. Just as we allegorize to children when we need to get past some minor but complex point they would not understand, so would God when telling Moses, trying to get to the more important parts; hence, days, not eons. Or if you think that the Bible is a bit more literal than that, consider that the Hebrew word yôm can mean both "day" and "eon," but we prefer "day" now because that's the way the translator went when translating from Hebrew. Or you could go the other way and accept the entire tale as loose allegory, that the creation details were generated by the storyteller because they would have to be there, and we get to the important stuff later.

It is far from necessary to require that the Bible be absolute literal truth, as fundamentalists claim--in fact, it would be much harder to support, both in terms of reconciling contradictions within the Bible and in terms of reconciling scripture with the reality we observe around us.

Fundamentalists often zoom in on flaws in evolution, both ones pointed out by the scientific community and ones they come up with by themselves. And while there are flaws with the specifics of the theory, the basic foundation--that mutations and other factors have changed simpler life forms into more complex ones--still stands strong. Missing links have never been proof against evolution; if you find 750 pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle and fit them all together as well as you can, the fact that 250 are missing does not mean they never existed and the puzzle is therefore unreal. Indeed, the fact that you have found so much proves that the puzzle is actually there, not missing, and that the missing pieces are in fact that--missing--not nonexistent. The facts remain: the geological and paleontological records show that life began as simple, and that as time progressed, that life became more complex and evolved along many different lines.

So how is it disproved? It is not; it is simply that fundamentalists presume it is, and however much their arguments crumble, they maintain that they are somehow correct, simply by faith. But this is a confusing contradiction: fundamentalists are all about faith, but jump on any flimsy "proof" which comes along.

I once worked with a young woman who was (and likely still is) a fundamentalist. She once explained to me proudly how she knew science was wrong about the age of things. You see, in her high school science class, the teacher gave a lecture one day about radioactive dating techniques. He explained that the scientist first estimated the age of a found object (by clues such as where the object was found), and then tested the age of the object via radioactive dating. My friend was able to tell the whole thing was not viable by the simple fact that if the scientist used an estimate at the beginning, and that entered the ultimate equation, the estimate would determine the age found--so the result of carbon dating (the type she was quoting, and which most people equate with radioactive dating) is always the result of what scientists think the age of an object will be. This reasoning made her certain in her belief that the scientists were wrong and she was right.

I was mature enough at that point not to try to correct her. It seemed clear enough that she was not truly engaging in debate that she would call either way depending on the evidence--that her faith was sufficiently resolved that no matter what proofs came up that contradicted her faith, she would always find a way to disbelieve them and stay with her faith. If she were truly inquisitive, then she would have probably, at some point, realized that the reflections of one high school student after a summarized lecture by a high school science teacher were unlikely to uncover so flagrant a flaw in a scientific standard upon which the careers of tens of thousands (probably far more) of highly skilled and educated people based their entire life's works upon, without them noticing that flaw. Nor did she challenge the teacher with the information.

That processing was for only herself, and if I had presumed to lecture her, the end result would not have changed. In fact, there are a series of radioactive dating tests, with carbon dating simply being one of them. Carbon dating is most well-known because it dates the more recent objects. Each radioactive dating test works for a specific range of time--for example, the measurement of carbon-14 in an object is only accurate up to tens of thousand years; the older an object is, the larger the margin of error is because the amount of carbon-14 that remains is so limited that an accurate measurement is less reliable. But there are other tests (some radioactive, some not) beyond that which measure other ranges of time. So when the scientist makes that original estimate, it is not to plug it into the equation and determine the answer, but rather to determine which dating method is most likely to generate the final result. But if an object is a thousand years old and the scientist guesses a million, the guess will not change the results of any test. The test will tell the scientist that the estimate was way off, and you need to try another dating method. It is very much like a mechanic seeing a nut and reaching for the right-sized wrench; the mechanic will guess the size of the nut, but if the mechanic guesses wrong, it will not change the size of the nut. The wrench simply will not work, and the mechanic will know to reach for a different-sized wrench.

That would have made my friend think, perhaps, but there is little doubt about it altering her faith. She might be a bit more thorough in checking out the veracity of future claims, perhaps. But my mission was not to convert her to my belief, so I didn't try, and simply let it lie.

But it did remind me of that point about fundamentalists that seems a bit odd: they seem to love finding 'evidence' and 'proof' that science and scientists are wrong. The question is, why? Especially when so much of the talking is aimed not at scientists but at the 'faithful.' If faith is all you need, then why all the time wasted on 'proof'? Especially when, in the end, it is impossible to prove any religion wrong. If you assume an all-powerful creator, anything is possible. I could posit that the universe was created twelve minutes ago by the all-powerful, one-and-only God Elmer, and everything we see around us was created to give us the illusion that the world had been around for quite a while longer than twelve minutes. You can't disprove it. And all-powerful god can do, literally, anything.

But fundamentalists also speak about something else: testing our faith. I have never understood this particular practice God apparently goes to such lengths to fulfill. God certainly doesn't need it--an omniscient god would know the status of your faith quite well. So the test must be for the individual. But let's reflect on what that test involves. For examples, the existence of the fossil record certainly begs an explanation. If you postulate that the world is 6,000 years old, then how did a T-Rex get buried under far more than 6,000 layers of sediment? Did Adam know and name the T-Rex? Did dinosaurs roam before the age of Noah? One would think that biblical people would have noted such creatures, yet they are absent. Even if you are one to believe that the Grand Canyon was carved by Noah's flood, its' kind of hard to explain everything that we've found. Not to mention that there are a lot of stars and galaxies much farther away from us than 6,000 light years, so if the universe was created that long ago, God had to have created the radiation from these objects streaming toward us as if they around for billions of years. Our world and the universe are full of things that are impossible should the universe be only 6,000 years old.

The answer we are given is that God is testing our faith--creating these anomalies to show us if our faith is strong enough to keep us grounded in the truth of scripture. But I don't buy it. I simply cannot accept that God would go to such incredible lengths to falsify the appearance of the world for that purpose, nor do I see it as a fair or accurate test. After all, what is being tested: the strength of a person's faith, or where they put that faith? And what is faith--would it be our ability to deny the evidence of the physical world and believe something we are simply told instead? Is that really a positive attribute? Am I to be condemned to an eternity of unimaginable suffering because though someone tells me the earth is 6000 years old, I see clear physical evidence contradicting that? Furthermore, is our faith supposed to lead us just to God or is it supposed to lead us to a specific God with a specific dogma? I have what you could call a belief in God, but it sure ain't what the fundamentalists say is God, not in the details at least. Is my faith lacking simply because I don't believe in their version of God? Will I suffer eternal pain because I don't get the details right? And if it is because God counterfeited the world to fake me out, did not the test encourage my failing it? Why not simply tell people the truth and let them acknowledge it? I could go on, but it seems abundantly clear that the whole "testing your faith" deal is a crock.

So it stuns me that the fundamentalists get as much respect as they do. Part of it is that they are not scientists, and therefore do not put their ideas through the strenuous process of verification that scientific ideas must survive. But it is also because they are religious, and despite their continuous wails of how awfully they are persecuted, their beliefs are given far more respect than would normally be granted. In this country, if you are a scientist, you can be lambasted and ridiculed and tarred and feathered. But if you are religious, you are given a respect and leeway to say and do things that you would not otherwise be able to do. Although the fundamentalists so often cry victim, they are anything but.

If fundamentalists want to believe these things, that's their option, and I respect their freedom and would work to protect it, however much I might disagree with it--as outlined above. But, as I also pointed out, their mission is not just to believe, it is to proselytize, to inject their world view into schools, into government, into the public view, and to tear down--not co-exist with--other beliefs.

So while I respect the right of fundamentalists to believe in intelligent design, I do not by any means respect their perceived right to force it on others. They do not have that right, to do so is an infringement against the rights of others, and it should not be tolerated. It is not as if there is any problem for fundamentalists to teach these things to their own children. Prayer, scripture and creationism is part of their belief system, not the school curriculum. If they choose to believe something that is contradicted by observed fact, it is incumbent upon them to 'protect' their children from the world, not to have the world change to their desire. These things also do not belong in any state-funded arena, nor in any venue where attendance by all is mandatory (such as public schools); you can find my reasoning for that here.

This is all why I roll my eyes and sigh tiredly when I see stories such as this one, which seem to be cropping up more and more nowadays. It is as if we are swinging towards a more religion-infused state of society, and by the time things swing back, the fundamentalists may have wedged yet another icon of God into the public domain, like they did with "in God we trust" on money, "under God" in the pledge, and "so help me God" in oaths--none of which were originally part of American life, but got stuck in at times such as this.

So what will it be this time?

Posted by Luis at December 29, 2004 06:01 PM

May Elmer one day forgive you for invoking His blessed name as though He were nothing more than an absurd, hypothetical concept rather than the all-powerful, all-loving Creator which he has been for, oh, at least two hours now.

All Hail Elmer!

Posted by: Tito at December 30, 2004 01:07 AM

Beautifully thought and written commentary. As someone who has more or less dedicated a chunk of my personal life to resisting what I consider a real effort to turn America into a theocracy of sorts, I wish to give you a cheer and many thanks and a Happy New Year on top :)


Posted by: Churlant at January 2, 2005 06:38 AM

We read a good book in our religious studies class this semester called "Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World" (Ammerman). Needless to say it was a fascinating read. The "suspension of reason" you spoke of is largely a backlash against what fundamentalists see as "chaos" in the world around them. Their faith in the absolute rightness and infallibility of the Bible (not interpreted as literally as you might think) provides the black-and-white rules they don't want to live without. One metaphor that fundamentalist churches would be an intricately woven tapestry which through examination God's intent and plans can be understood. For example, one couple in the book said that "Christ saved our marriage" (paraphrased) because they were always disagreeing and scripture taught them the "proper role" of a wife (you can guess what that was). Essentially, it's more important to note that the questions themselves are vanquished, not just the answers they don't like.

Our professor said it's not always accurate to call someone a fundamentalist if they don't call themselves that (many do), but partially defined it as a group of people that believe they hold absolute truth, unchanged from the "beginning-time." For example, Protestants who say they live like the first Christians. The problem with this is that Pentacostals could be labeled such--they claim to have "recovered" the holy spirit in their worship and hence live more like the first Christians--but they focus more on personal spiritual experience and therefore tend to be much more flexible in their doctrines (allowing women to hold positions, for example).

The mixing of democratic politics and religious doctrine is worrying to me as well. However, I think that perhaps some kind of negative consequence will ultimately be necessary to wake people up; to "reschool" them in why the firewall between church and state is necessary. For example, down the road when we get a President-elect that wants to infuse his/her "faith" into government like Bush--but has views different from the Christian right--they may well become the next generation of establishment clause champions. Likewise it may take a century of blatant U.S. imperialism to re-teach us the lessons of that particular folly. That probably sounds cynical, and raises questions about the ends justifying the means, but at least I can look back and say I fervently opposed all this crap.

Aside: Here, Fritz Stern points out just what that an unofficial church-state marriage can mean:

Posted by: Justin Faulkner at January 7, 2005 01:56 PM

The mistake made by fundementalist is that science tries to prove something, and thus proves Genisis wrong.

Science merely explains what empirically arrived at data has told us so far. Science changes its explanations as more data is arrived at. But it doesn't prove anything.

The problem with fundementalist goes back to the reformation. To justify a break with Rome, as the intermediary between man and God, in a canon law sense, some protestants felt like they could go directly to scripture, and thus not need Rome or and intermediary. By logical extension, and in rhetorical defense, some protestants were claiming the bible to be the litteral word of God, never mind that it was written by men, and as truth.

This all quite silly of course. A religion does not need to justify itself according to canon law of the middle ages. Men and science are not about to destroy the creator of all things no matter how wayward their science takes them. The bible may contains God's words, but they also contain human's words. And as it stands fundementalist pick and choose words they want to hear anyway: many prefering the old testaments words of exclussion over Jesus' new testement words of inclussion. And somehow the god of the new testament makes use of parables but the God of the old testament tells literal truth. Why couldn't Genisis creation story be a parable? And don't forget seperation of church and state.

When you think of it, the idea that the bible is the literal word of god, and unmitigated truth is dangerously close to idle worship. Science can't destroy God. But imperical data could from time to time undermine the bible, and maybe difinitely. If the Bible is your God, then you do have something to worry about. Infact you have a lot to worry about. If the bible is your inspiration, but not your God, then you have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Move along now, there is no there there.

Posted by: Tim Kane at January 11, 2005 12:23 AM