Tuesday, 14 April 2015

How special creationism has damaged the evangelical (and Christadelphian) mind

Evangelical historian of science Mark Noll's landmark book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind sought to find the reason why evangelical Christianity had ceded the arts and science to the secular world and completely neglected to cultivate a life of the mind. Noll noted that one of the main problems that had lobotomised the evangelical world was creation science. 

The parallels between the Evangelical community and ours on this subject are clear and disturbing, and can be readily seen when we look at the degeneration of our community from the high-water mark of the early 20th century, when C.C. Walker freely acknowledged that if science confirmed the reality of large-scale morphological change in the fossil record, we would need to alter our understanding of Genesis, to the present, when YEC nonsense graces the front cover of The Christadelphian.

Noll observes:

Creation science has damaged evangelicalism by making it much more difficult to think clearly about human origins, the age of the earth, and mechanisms of geological or biological change. But it has done more profound damage by undermining the ability to look at the world God has made and to understand what we see when we do look. Fundamentalist habits of mind have been more destructive than individual creationist conclusions. Because those habits of mind are compounded of unreflective aspects of nineteenth-century procedure alongside tendentious aspects of fundamentalist ideology, they have done serious damage to Christian thinking.

A first problem is the indulgence of Manichaean attitudes toward knowledge about the natural world. If creationists are justified in attacking pretentious claims for science, their own strategies confuse the ongoing discussions at the intersection of Christianity (which has always made important claims about the reality of empirically observable events) and empirical science (which has always proceeded within the context of religious-like assumptions about the world). In Western history, negotiations between religion and science have always been convoluted, complicated, and sometimes ironic. But these negotiations have rarely led to outright intellectual warfare. Creationists, however, push religious-science negotiations toward the brink of battle.

By so doing, creationists add their weight to the politicizing of science that has been going on with a vengeance at least since the age when “Darwin’s bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, used his master’s scientific conclusions as a weapon to replace an old guard of clerical naturalists with a new wave of professional, academic scientists. By their all-or-nothing attitudes, creationists make it harder, rather than easier, to isolate the critical issues at the intersection of religion and science. The roar of battle between “creationists” and their “scientific” opponents drowns out more patient, more careful voices. Both those who want actually to look at nature as a way of understanding nature and those who want actually to look at themselves as a way of understanding how cosmological explanations are formed get shouted down. One great tragedy of modern creationism is that its noisy alarums have made it much more difficult to hear careful Christian thinkers—like many in the American Scientific Affiliation or like Phillip E. Johnson in his attacks on the philosophical pretensions of grand-scale Darwinistic theories—whose work could carry evangelicals beyond the sterile impasse of earlier decades.

Even more damaging, an odd combination of creationist profession and creationist practice actually fosters a stunted ability to perceive the world of nature. The profession is to be Baconian in intellectual procedure; the practice is to misapply Baconianism with respect to Scripture and to abandon it with respect to nature. Creationists regularly reaffirm the principles of Baconian science: no speculation without direct empirical proof, no deductions from speculative principles, no science without extensive empirical evidence. The tragedy is that creationists preserve a misguided Baconianism for the Bible and abandon a healthy Baconianism for science.

Evangelicals make much of their ability to read the Bible in a “simple,” “literal,” or “natural” fashion—that is, in a Baconian way. In actual fact, evangelical hermeneutics, as illustrated in creationism, is dictated by very specific assumptions that dominated Western intellectual life from roughly 1650 to 1850 (and in North America for a few decades more). Before and after that time, many Christians and other thinkers have recognized that no observations are “simple” and no texts yield to uncritically “literal” readings.

The evangelical Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, for example, has argued that in order to interpret the early chapters of Genesis adequately, it is necessary to make use of thorough historical study of the ancient world, carefully nuanced exegesis, and wide familiarity with scientific procedures and results. His own conclusion, based on such study, is that Genesis 1:1–2:3 is in some sense “myth” (not in the sense of a fairy tale, but in the sense of a story explaining how God works among humans), that (by modern standards) it both is and is not “history,” that (again by modern definitions) it is not primarily “science,” and that it is “theology” in substance but not in style. Waltke may or may not be correct in his conclusions, but his painstaking chain of reasoning demonstrates that it is anything but a simple matter to move from the central meaning of early Genesis (that God is to be worshiped as the source of matter, life, and human civilization) to detailed explanations of how God brought about the creation.

When evangelicals rely on a naive Baconianism, they align themselves with the worst features of the naive positivism that lingers among some of those who worship at the shrine of modern science. Thus, under the illusion of fostering a Baconian approach to Scripture, creationists seek to convince their audience that they are merely contemplating simple conclusions from the Bible, when they are really contemplating conclusions from the Bible shaped by their preunderstandings of how the Bible should be read.

This misguided Baconianism toward the Bible has led to the practical abandonment of Baconianism toward nature. In an effort to avoid the godless conclusions to which some scientists put their results, creationists abandoned the practice of empirical openness to what their senses told them for the practice of deductive dogmatism. In these terms, creationism is the extrapolation of a particular preunderstanding of how the Bible should be read onto the natural world and into the metaphysical issues posed by modern theories of evolution. Actually looking at the earth or actually carrying out experiments has been relatively unimportant for creationists. Research does take place, and experiments occur, but usually because creationists are checking out something they discovered in scientific literature that seems to pose problems for large-scale evolutionary theories. Creationism, at root, is religion. It has become politics because of the overweening metaphysical pretensions of elitist pundits exploiting the prestige of “science.” But it is only marginally a way of studying the world. In their enthusiasm for reading the world in light of Scripture, evangelicals forget the proposition that the Western world’s early modern scientists had so successfully taken to heart as a product of their own deep Christian convictions—to understand something, one must look at that something.

The result is a twofold tragedy. First, millions of evangelicals think they are defending the Bible by defending creation science, but in reality they are giving ultimate authority to the merely temporal, situated, and contextualized interpretations of the Bible that arose from the mania for science of the early nineteenth century. Second, with that predisposition, evangelicals lost the ability to look at nature as it was and so lost out on the opportunity to understand more about nature as it is. By holding on so determinedly to our beliefs concerning how we concluded God had made nature, we evangelicals forfeited the opportunity to glorify God for the way he had made nature. In a mirror reaction to the zealous secularists of the twentieth century, evangelicals have gone back to thinking that we must shut up one of God’s books if we want to read the other one.

Stephen Toulmin, a modern historian of science, has commented on the peril of linking any religion to any scientific scheme as securely as evangelicals did to Baconianism:
Twice already, Christian theologians have committed themselves enthusiastically to the detailed ideas of particular systems of scientific theory. This happened, firstly, when the medieval church naturalized Aristotle, and gave his views about nature an authority beyond their true strength: secondly, when, from the 1680s up to the late nineteenth century, Protestant thinkers (especially in Britain) based a new religious cosmology on mechanical ideas about nature borrowed from Descartes and Newton, as interpreted by an edifying reading of the argument from design. In both cases, the results were unfortunate. Having plunged too deep in their original scientific commitments, the theologians concerned failed to foresee the possibility that Aristotle’s or Newton’s principles might not forever be the last word; and, when radical changes took place in the natural sciences, they were unprepared to deal with them.
An even more chilling commentary on evangelical practice comes from Benjamin Farrington, who summarizes the case that Francis Bacon made in the seventeenth century against the Christians in his age who proclaimed that they were doing science the way that the church had done it successfully for hundreds of years: “What, then, precisely was the nature of the sin which had rendered Aristotelianism and so much else of Greek philosophy fruitless for good? It was the sin of intellectual pride, manifested in the presumptuous endeavor to conjure the knowledge of the nature of things out of one’s own head instead of seeking it patiently in the Book of Nature.”

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994. p 196-200