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Published on: August 3, 2011
Christian Scientism

The Texas State Board of Education has been a recurring locale of what is conventionally understood as the battle between science and religion. The agency has the power to decide which textbooks are to be used in Texas public schools. Since Texas has a huge system of public education, and since it would be expensive […]

The Texas State Board of Education has been a recurring locale of what is conventionally understood as the battle between science and religion. The agency has the power to decide which textbooks are to be used in Texas public schools. Since Texas has a huge system of public education, and since it would be expensive to publish separate textbooks for Texas, publishers anxiously watch the decisions of this august agency. Consequently the latter influences, not only what kids learn about biology, history and other ideologically charged subjects in Dallas, but also kids in Delaware and the Dakotas. Protestant fundamentalists have long exerted great influence in the agency. In the latest skirmish they have suffered a setback of sorts. At issue was a biology lesson dealing with a comparison of human and chimpanzee skulls, thus once again threatening to infiltrate the nefarious doctrine of evolution into the innocent minds of Baptist schoolchildren. As the Associated Press reported on July 23, 2011, the board approved the chimpanzee item, but authorized the education commissioner to work out the details of the lesson with the textbook publisher. This rather feeble compromise was hailed as a great victory by Kathy Miller, president of the pro-evolution Texas Freedom Network: “We saw the far right’s stranglehold over the state board is finally loosening.” She may be celebrating prematurely.

The United States is exceptional among Western democracies in that it contains a large and politically vocal community of conservative Protestants, many of whom look upon the theory of evolution as an affront to their faith. The courts have been busy about this matter for a long time. For several decades progressive intellectuals had good reason to think that their side had achieved a conclusive triumph at the Scopes Trial in 1925, when Clarence Darrow buried William Jennings Bryan under an avalanche of withering sarcasm. Beginning in the 1970s, the eruption of a newly confident Evangelicalism onto American public life and politics opened a new era of what purports to be a war between science and religion. Being Americans, the two belligerents have something important in common: they love litigation. Presumably lawyers love them.

It is important to understand that not all Evangelicals are upset by evolution. Mostly it is those with a literal understanding of the Bible, including the creation narratives in the Book of Genesis. Their challenge to evolution came in two phases. First came so-called “creation science”, which directly challenges the empirical evidence for evolution.  It also goes under the linguistically charming name of “young earth theory”, purporting to show that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. The creationists want their “science” to be taught in public schools alongside evolution, claiming (rather disingenuously) that they are motivated by scientific rather than religious concerns. The courts have rejected this claim, deciding that the teaching of “creation science” violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Quite apart from its legal difficulties, an additional problem for creationism is that it is hardly plausible for anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with modern biology. There are just too many fossils to ignore.

I cannot resist the temptation to mention that at least some creationists have a sense of humor. I heard this creationist joke (in Texas, no less):  A Darwinist is talking with a creationist. The Darwinist: “My great-grand-grand-grandfather was a worm, who after a million years crawled onto the dry land”. The creationist re-plies: “My great-grand-grand-grandfather was called Adam. And he ought to have stepped on your great-grand-grand-grandfather.”

The second phase is the advent of “intelligent design”. Unlike creationism, it does not challenge the empirical evidence for evolution. Rather (though it also combs through the evidence) it proposes that this process could not have occurred by chance, but that it indicates a design that must necessarily be the product of an intelligent mind. This is a significant difference. Probably any religious believer would affirm that, in the perspective of faith, the awesome order of the universe (in William Blake’s phrase, its “fearful symmetry”) points to the hand of its creator. Speech asserting this perspective is certainly protected by the First Amendment. The problem with “intelligent design” is that, like creationism, it claims that its perspective is science, and as such should be taught in biology classes. That claim is spurious. If it were a genuine scientific theory, how could it be falsified? The courts, quite correctly, ended up rejecting the claim to scientific status and, therefore, that teaching “intelligent design” in public school is unconstitutional. This was decided in a landmark decision in 2005 by U.S. district court judge John E. Jones III in a Pennsylvania case, Kitzwiller v. Dover Area School District: “We have concluded that Intelligent Design is not science, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist and thus religious antecedents.”  I don’t see how Judge Jones could have ruled otherwise. But his ruling raises an interesting question:  How can a U.S. district court judge decide what is and what is not science?

I think that the sociology of knowledge provides an answer: every viable society must possess a body of knowledge that is taken for granted. The body of knowledge established by means of scientific evidence is taken for granted as valid in a modern society. This should not be surprising. The intellectual coherence of modern science is compelling. What is more, the immense practical achievements made possible by this science also compel its cognitive authority. An American judge cannot properly decide what is or is not valid religion. But the rules of scientific evidence are sufficiently clear for the judge to decide what is or is not science. Take an example that does not involve religion:  Suppose that an association of flat earth theorists sued an area school district for excluding its allegedly scientific theory from astronomy classes. I must confess that I have a lingering admiration for people who stick to a position in the teeth of overwhelming evidence (like, say, Marxists, or people who believe that racial quotas are a way to combat racism, or that every drop of new taxes will stop economic growth). But I would again agree that a judge banning flat earth theory from high school astronomy is on solid ground.

America is not a secular society. But, being a modern society, it has bestowed on science (which is a secular body of knowledge) a status of cognitive privilege. Achieving this status is obviously attractive. In the area of religion, our creationists and ID theorists stand in a line of apostolic succession going back, at least, to Mary Baker Eddy’s founding of Christian Science. Her seminal work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures was published in 1875. Around the turn of the twentieth century, parapsychology (aka psychic research) was founded in Britain and America as a supposedly rigorous scientific inquiry into supernatural phenomena. Various meditational techniques of Asian provenance, which invaded America in the wake of the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893, also claimed to be more compatible with modern science than the putatively superstitious beliefs of Protestant fundamentalism. Scientology is an interesting case. It originated in the early work of L. Ron Hubbard, who in 1950 published Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health, also claiming scientific status for his idiosyncratic approach to psychotherapy. Subsequently he founded the Church of Scientology, continuing and expanding this approach—but now claiming it to be a religion, entitled to protection under the First Amendment (a curious reversal of the claim by the aforementioned religious movements to be in fact scientific). Today we have the advent of “neurotheology” (aka “spiritual neuroscience”), which explains religion in terms of the latest scientific approaches to the brain. Religion now appears as a sort of brain disease. Ironically, some religious leaders, notably the Dalai Lama, have hailed this approach as a promising new marriage between religion and science. A popular presentation of the approach is a book published in 1994: Lawrence McKinney, Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century.

Scientism is the belief that science provides the only valid access to reality. Paradoxically, some of those who want to defend the validity of religious faith against this or that scientific discovery (such as evolution, or the historical origins of Biblical texts) inadvertently arrive at a scientism of their own. The worldview that is troubling the Texas State Board of Education is Christian scientism. It suffers from the mistake shared by all forms of fundamentalism, religious or secular: that there is only one, absolutely reliable way of apprehending reality. In fact there are several.

Science, to be sure, is an intellectually and practically fruitful method of grasping reality. Others are aesthetic, moral, religious. An astronomer can spend a lifetime peering at the night sky through his telescope without thereby arriving at the proposition that the panorama of heavenly bodies is beautiful. As a social scientist I can acquire extensive understanding of the structure and functioning of, say, a system of slavery, but this understanding will not make me conclude that this system is morally intolerable. Religious faith is a discrete way of perceiving the world. It does not follow logically from the insights of science, nor does it necessarily contradict them. The aforementioned astronomer may have acquired a scientifically supported view of the universe. He may also at times be overcome by its beauty. If he is a Christian, he may in addition agree with the words of a famous hymn, “the hand that made thee is divine”.

show comments
  • John Barker

    As more people take up mediation and related practices they may begin to experience states of mind like those reported by mystics throughout the ages. It is easy to downplay these events as merely a matter of brain chemistry,but if these states of mind lead to new and better ideas in the arts and sciences or social relations,that is another matter and merits more serious attention. Of course murder as been justified by people claiming to hear the voice of the divine too.

  • Kris

    As an aside: I am a scientist and strongly support the teaching of evolution in schools, but the more I learn about the Scopes Trial, the more disgusted I get at the behavior of the “good guys”.

  • WigWag

    Around the turn of the twentieth century, parapsychology (aka psychic research) was founded in Britain and America as a supposedly rigorous scientific inquiry into supernatural phenomena. Various meditational techniques of Asian provenance, which invaded America in the wake of the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893, also claimed to be more compatible with modern science than the putatively superstitious beliefs of Protestant fundamentalism. (Peter Berger)

    The idea that science and magic are diametrically opposed to each other is actually a modern phenomenon. Two of the most consequential scientists in the history of the world, Isaac Newton and Sigmund Freud were followers of the Hermetic Tradition; Newton was practically obsessed with alchemy and Freud was fascinated by the occult.

    It’s hard to conceive of a scientist who did more to change the world than Isaac Newton; Newtonian physics is still as important today as it was during the 18th century. Nevertheless, Newton spent a great deal of time thinking about the development of the “philosopher’s stone,” he tried to divine the future by studying the layout of the Temple of Solomon and he wrote extensively about his interpretations of the Book of Revelations. Newton even predicted that based on his study of the last book of the Christian bible, the world would end no later than 2060.

    John Maynard Keynes spent quite alot of time and effort studying Newton’s life and collected many of Newton’s writings (many of Newton’s documents on the occult can now be found in, of all places, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem). Keynes famously said of Newton,

    “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.”

    Freud’s fascination with the occult was well documented; in fact, Freud and Jung had an extensive exchange of letters about occult matters and many of the letters between the two men still exist.

    One of Freud’s most famous biographers, Ernest Jones, said that Freud’s interest in the occult proved, “that highly developed critical powers may co-exist in the same person with an unexpected fund of credulity.”

    Jones goes on to say that Freud’s view of the occult was an “exquisite oscillation between skepticism and credulity.”

    Freud published extensively about telepathy and he was highly superstitious. I’ve read (but I’m not sure it’s true)that at the age of 43 Freud consulted a mystic who informed him that he would die at the age of 62; for most of his life Freud believed what the mystic told him (he actually died at the age of 83.)

    These are but two examples; there are many others, including Benjamin Franklin.

    While Professor Berger’s post is about the intersection between religion/superstition/supernatural powers and science, the turn of the 20th century also brought a reinvigorated interest in the Hermetic Tradition by poets and novelists. James Joyce, whose Catholicism was suspect was fascinated by the supernatural. Another great example is provided by another Irishman, William Butler Yates.

    Yates maintained his status as a Roman Catholic in good standing out of deference to his mother, but he had a lifelong interest in magic and the occult. Two of his greatest (and most famous) poems, “The Second Coming” and Byzantium have religious themes and a “Hermetic” tint.

    I commend them both to Professor Berger and to his readers.

    Here’s “The Second Coming”

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    Here’s Sailing to Byzantium (Yeats actually wrote two versions; this version is the first)

    THAT is no country for old men. The young
    In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
    – Those dying generations – at their song,
    The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
    Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
    Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
    Caught in that sensual music all neglect
    Monuments of unageing intellect.

    An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress,
    Nor is there singing school but studying
    Monuments of its own magnificence;
    And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
    To the holy city of Byzantium.

    O sages standing in God’s holy fire
    As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
    Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
    And be the singing-masters of my soul.
    Consume my heart away; sick with desire
    And fastened to a dying animal
    It knows not what it is; and gather me
    Into the artifice of eternity.

    Once out of nature I shall never take
    My bodily form from any natural thing,
    But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
    Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
    To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
    Or set upon a golden bough to sing
    To lords and ladies of Byzantium
    Of what is past, or passing, or to come

  • Fred

    As an evangelical protestant Christian with a strong scientific background, I have had this argument many a time.

    The best moment came when my sister-in-law handed me a book that began with the ‘doctrine of apparent age’ — that is, if God creates a tree ex nihilo, then that tree is going to look like it’s 50 years old.

    In precisely the same way, when God creates a planet ex nihilo, that planet will look like it’s 10 billion years old. No difference, really — the question becomes, simply, what are you going to believe? The Bible, or your lyin’ eyes?

    The deeper theological point is that the creationists’ God is a trickster God, who manipulates the Universe to make it more difficult to believe in Him, when it is, after all, quite difficult enough already.

  • WigWag

    Yeats of course, not Yates. My apologies to the ghost of the poet.

  • Bpoid

    Yeat’s family was the Church Of Ireland, part of the Anglican communion. He was not in any way affiliated with thr Church of Rome. thyis is just to be factual like the spelling of his name.

  • stuff

    What do you do when your morality contradicts science? What if your morality says there can be no differences in the average IQ of different races of mankind, and science says there are differences in the average IQ of different races?

  • http://www.heavensmydestination.blogspot.com Nicodemus

    “Quite apart from its legal difficulties, an additional problem for creationism is that it is hardly plausible for anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with modern biology. There are just too many fossils to ignore.”

    Am interesting read as is usually the case with Monsieur Berger but as I read these words above in particular I suddenly lost interest at the quality of this deductive reasoning; the must be false therefore conclusion here- really!

    Still as a lawyer and one who has been one for a long time I fully accept creationism and do so proudly and intellectually.

    Talking generally now, the difficulty for many of those proferring the apparently compelling perspective on macro evolution is that they just do not often enough bring to the table a deep enough command of the philosophical pre-suppositions that they have and have too often insufficient humility to accept their own leaps of faith.

    Still, it becomes an exchange of the deaf before too long so I won’t go on.

  • Creid

    Nicodemus, doesn’t it strike you as funny that no scientific institution anywhere in the world denies evolution (macro and micro, if you prefer your own unscientific terms) as scientifically grounded? Not biology, not neuroscience, not psychology, not computer science, not any field that would reasonably gain from challenging and revamping the theory to fit reality?

    If all of these fields are merely lacking “philosophical depth”, why is it that modern philosophy also doesn’t seem to have any real contention with the concept of evolution, either?

    Could it be… that your theology is what allows you, a lawyer by trade (according to yourself), to overlook the extremely apparent evidence?

    This is the value of science. It overlooks the opinions and quirks of even brilliant men. Newton loved alchemy. Tycho Brahe lived in a world he filled with magical properties. Scientists have been superstitious or sub-rational, just as all people can be at any given point. But science depends on independent verification.

  • Otavio Lima

    re: (wig wag) “…he wrote extensively about his interpretations of the Book of Revelations.” Book of Revelation – there is only one, book and revelation, that is. The title is an editorial invention, as are many titles! It comes from the first word of the book in Greek, “apocalupsis”. It comes from joining the word “apo” (from) to the name “Calypso”, the Nymph who first imprisoned, then aided Ulysses in his journey. Hence ” Apo Calypso”! The only copy of Newton’s writings on the Book of Revelation I have found comes from a copy found in the Library of Thomas Jefferson.

  • Irenaeus

    I’m a Catholic, not a fundamentalist, but when Berger asks of ID, “If it were a genuine scientific theory, how could it be falsified?”, I would ask, “How could you falsify the theory of evolution?” Neither is repeatable and thus falsifiable. (If I’m wrong, let me know.)

    ID has severe problems, to be sure, *especially* from the perspective of Christian theology. But it’s not merely the wolf of old school creationism in sheep’s clothing. If anything, it’s a response to Darwinism as a philosophy, as an ideology about the nature of the universe and humankind within. Some folks use Darwinism to say science disproves God and meaning and metaphysics, moving beyond the realm of science (“falsifiable”) proper. ID folks, I think, are simply saying, Look, if in science classes people are going to get into philosophy based on their read of natural and geological history and find no purpose, here’s another way to read the evidence and find purpose.

  • me

    “How could you falsify the theory of evolution?”

    Evolution is shift in allele frequencies over time in a breeding population.

    One falsifies evolution by demonstrating the existence of a breeding population in which there is no shift in allele frequencies over time.

    Q.E.D.

  • R.C.

    1. Conservative Christian Bible Scholars, on examining the original intent of the author of the Genesis creation stories (in terms of what that author intended them to signify to their audiences), regularly find that Theistic Evolution is as good a fit, or a better fit, than the young earth hypothesis. Respectful treatment of the text does not require the young earth hypothesis at all, and may prohibit it.

    2. That a respectful treatment of the early chapters of Genesis does not require a young earth hypothesis is not a MODERN or a LIBERAL re-interpretation. St. Augustine was already preaching it in the year 400 AD, and in rabbinical tradition it’s even earlier.

    So, 1600 years later, the question is not whether Christians are allowed to view “yom” as something other than a 24 hour day; the question is whether it isn’t, by this time, a kind of willful anachronism, or even modernist liberalism, to confine “yom” to a 24 hour day!

    3. Evolution is not repeatable through testing in the laboratory sense; but,

    4. The evidence of fossils and the genome requires us, if we are to believe in young-earth special creation, to believe in a sort of “trickster god” who easily *could* have produced each species without creating the illusion of their being near-relatives, but chose instead to go quite far out of his way to produce the illusion of evolution. This, if true, would be incompatible with the character of the Christian God, and would falsify Christianity.

    5. Therefore, a Christian who is aware of all the relevant facts is obligated to think that Theistic Evolution the best fit for the Bible and a perfect match for the Science. In a perfect world, the discussion would end there.

    6. It is, however, not a perfect world. It is unfortunately a fallen world. Wackiness is guaranteed to ensue….

    7. Unfortunately, less than 1% of Christians are aware of all the above facts. This is no great shame on them: It’s a very rare thing to both (a.) be a trained geneticist with hobbyist interest in the fossil record, and (b.) read Hebrew in the original and have a PhD in ancient Semitic cultures.

    It might be objected that a person doesn’t have to be Bible Scholar and Scientist himself; he need only listen to what Bible Scholars tell him about the Bible and what Science teachers tell him about Science. But that leads to the next problem….

    8. Persons who teach evolution as fact often go on to attach philosophical positions to evolution which are illogical and/or unnecessary (e.g. the nonexistence of God). Recent statements by Steven Hawking have been particularly hilarious for anyone with a semblance of philosophical training: But Hawking, a perfectly intelligent man, was such a philosophical amateur that he could say them unsmilingly.

    9. Scientists aren’t the only philosophical amateurs; Christians often are, too. So instead of pointing out the philosophical errors and laughing at these silly accretions as they ought, many Christians really believe and trust what the atheists say (that evolution and theism are logically incompatible).

    10. As a consequence, Christians are simultaneously withdrawing from science as a field, and being chased out by a self-selecting academia who consciously avoid hiring Christian candidates.

    11. This sets up a “perfect storm” for any young Christian who enters, say, the genomics field. Eventually he encounters the evidence, finds that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming beyond any shadow of a doubt, and has a crisis of faith.

    12. The sad thing is that the crisis of faith is utterly unnecessary. It only happens because he doesn’t know enough about the Bible to distinguish good scholarship from bad, and doesn’t know enough about philosophy to distinguish bad philosophy from science.

  • Volpiano

    It’s a common mistake to lump Christian Science together with Scientology and other closed systems of pseudo-religious thought which have expropriated the superficial vocabulary of science while not using its methods of hypothesis, experiment and demonstration. What Mary Baker Eddy developed was a theory about how Jesus performed healings. She hypothesized that the motive-force for these healings was in consciousness (not through rites, incantations or “blind faith”) and offered the equivalent of guidelines for how they could be done today.

    Walk into any Christian Science Reading Room and you’ll find in the back of issues of bound periodicals, going back more than 100 years, thousands of accounts of healings performed by Christian Scientists in the intervening years. It’s far too big a body of evidence to dismiss out of hand.

    Real science is catching up with Eddy’s hypothesis. In a recent cover article in “New Scientist,” substantial evidence was presented that human decisionmaking seems unexplainable except by reference to the mathematical language of quantum theory. If consciousness is not bounded by time or space, and if the faculties of human consciousness are not yet fully developed, what seemed to be “miracles” two thousand years ago might eventually become commonplace. Yesterday’s preposterous hypotheses are today’s routine experience in all manner of human endeavor.

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