Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Atheists have their creation myths too.

Twinned with the conflict model of the relationship between science and Christianity is the belief that the advance of science inexorably leads to the extinction of religion. Nick Spencer, writing in Politico magazine frames this belief nicely:
Once upon a time, so the story goes, people believed that the world was young and flat, that God made everything including people in a few, frantically busy days, and that earthquakes and thunderstorms were examples of his furious rage, which you ignored at your peril. Into this sorry state of affairs, emerged a thing called “science” and, despite the best efforts of ignorant, self-serving clerics who wished to keep the people in utmost darkness, “science” proved that none of the above was true. Gradually, wonderfully, the human race matured, with every confident scientific step forward pushing our infantile, crumbling ideas of the divine closer to oblivion. “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science, as the strangled snakes besides that of Hercules,” as Thomas Huxley, the English biologist known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” memorably put it.
Trouble is, as Spencer observes, the facts don't neatly align with this story, which relies more on plausibility and the anti-theistic prejudices of many who blindly swallow it,  for its persistence:
The problem with this particular creation myth is that whilst it is true enough to be believable, it is not true enough to be true. “Science”—if we can treat that collection of disparate disciplines as one single, coherent enterprise—did have something to do with the growth of atheism in the West, but very much less than most imagine. Those three great moments of scientific progress—the Copernican revolution in the 16th century, the scientific revolution in the 17th and the Darwinian in the 19th—were hardly atheistic at all. Copernicus was a priest; Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, devout; and Charles Darwin incredulous that anyone could imagine evolution demanded godlessness. “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist,” he wrote in 1879.
His comparison of the militant anti-theism of French intellectuals such as Diderot, d'Holbach, Meslier, La Mettrie, and HelvĂ©tius which he argues was a reaction against an oppressive political and theological regime which did not tolerate dissent and reacted violently against protest. Conversely, the UK, while hardly a freethinkers paradise, as the reaction against unitarian Joseph Priestly shows, provided a far more hospitable environment. As Spencer notes:
The result of all this was that British sceptics in the 18th century—and there were many—were not driven to atheism. Not only was there space to think new thoughts and embrace new ideas within the established churches, but there was a lot less to object to in their political activity. When David Hume, the greatest sceptic of his age, was charged with heresy he was defended by friends, including many clergymen. “These illustrious examples [of moderate clergy],” he subsequently wrote, “must make the infidel abashed of his vain cavails, and put a stop to that torrent of vice, profanities, and immorality, by which the age is so unhappily corrupted.”
Something analogous can be seen today in the US, where science education is directly affected by YEC / ID attempts to get special creationism taught in public schools. It is no coincidence that many of the most outspoken New Atheists are also scientists in areas such as biology, geology, and cosmology, three areas directly affected by the YEC campaign, which in an interesting parallel to pre-revolutionary France, owes much to the efforts of both religion and politics to sabotage science education.

The confounding factor here is of course the fact that the US is something of an outlier in the developed world in having a far higher level of religiosity than far more secular countries such as Australia, Sweden, and the UK. Having said that, outside of the US theological hothouse, one finds that the relationship between Christianity and science is far less fraught. The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who died last week at the age of 85, exemplifies this relationship, as can be seen by his perceptive comments on evolution and creation:
God as a Creator is working in His creation through His creatures. This doesn't distract from the immediacy of the relationship between the Creator and His creatures. God always used creatures to bring about other things.
Think of the function of the earth in the first part of Genesis. The earth is addressed by God to assist in His act of creation. First, the earth is addressed to bring about vegetation. So we may wonder, “How can the earth, an inorganic reality, bring about an organic reality, vegetation, and then bring about the self organization of organisms from inorganic materials?” Yet, this is the Christian creation story. 
The second address of the earth is even bolder than that! God addresses the earth to bring about animals. And the text means higher animals. Such boldness does not really characterize even Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin wouldn't have dreamed to have higher animals spring immediately from the earth, from inorganic matter. Darwin is much more moderate than that. In criticizing the doctrine of evolution, our creationist friends among Christian theologians should read their Bibles more closely.
Along with the conflict hypothesis, it is high time this atheist creation myth was put to sleep.