The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts
It’s been said that one of science’s greatest virtues is that it’s not dictated by a tyranny of the majority or guided by irrational human whims. After all, science is the search for the true nature of reality, and reality isn’t decided by our preferences. No matter how many people prefer an experiment to turn out one way, it may in fact turn out another, and the scientific community will just have to accept that result. There’s certainly much truth to this.
But of course, in another sense, scientific debates are settled by majority vote, because science is done by humans, and how else can a community of humans conduct business other than by consensus? When the evidence is unclear or lacking, we have no choice but to rely on the judgment of experts. The theory that wins the majority’s support, by definition, will attract the most research, the most funding, and the most talent.
There’s truth in both these views, but the reality is that they usually converge. Science works – it discovers verifiable truth about the world – and the implication is that, in any given dispute, the theory which attracts the most support from the majority of practicing, credentialed scientists is more likely than its competitors to be true. This is even more true of ideas that have survived decades of rigorous experimental tests. I don’t know of a single case where a scientific theory that reigned for so long was utterly falsified and overthrown. Far more often, we just discover that although the old theory holds true in most cases, there are special circumstances where it doesn’t; and it then becomes an approximation of its more precise successor.
The reason for this whole digression is that, in The Case for a Creator‘s appendix, Strobel offers a summary of his apologetics work in The Case for Christ. He summarizes one chapter as follows:
“Gregory Boyd… offered a devastating critique of the Jesus Seminar, a group that questions whether Jesus aid or did most of what’s attributed to him. He identified the Seminar as ‘an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking.’” [p.295]
This is extremely perilous ground for Strobel to tread on. If some group’s belonging to the “radical fringe” is a reason to reject their ideas, doesn’t that apply all the more to the ideas presented in this book?
After all, the theory of evolution has the support of the overwhelming majority of the scientific community: state, national, and international scientific societies and academies; the biology faculties of dozens of accredited colleges and universities; and, of course, over a thousand scientists named Steve. By contrast, the intelligent-design movement is sorely lacking in intellectual firepower. As I’ve pointed out, the intellectual well of creationism is so shallow that Strobel was forced to pad out a ten-chapter book with theologians, philosophers and professional Christian debaters, and even then, he had to interview one of his subjects twice!
This lack of depth speaks to the true nature of the creationist movement: not a robust academic community doing real scientific research, but a small number of pundits, lawyers and religious evangelists underwritten by right-wing Christian groups for ideological and propaganda reasons. The difference between them is the difference between an ocean and a puddle. Given Strobel’s dismissive description of the Jesus Seminar, wouldn’t it also be appropriate to identify the Discovery Institute as “an extremely small number of radical-fringe creationists, most of whom are on the far, far right wing of religious thinking, and – to top it off – most of whom lack credentials in any scientific field related to evolution”? (This is in contrast to the the Jesus Seminar, whose members, no matter how bitterly Strobel denigrates them, have legitimate credentials in textual criticism, ancient languages, and biblical studies.) Strobel relies on the argument from authority when it’s convenient, but disregards it when it’s not convenient.
Granted, a Christian apologist might think to make this argument cut both ways – how can we atheists reject the Bible when so many prominent biblical scholars believe it’s true? – but there are obstacles to doing so.
First of all, many of the theologians who express belief in biblical historicity and inerrancy work not for secular universities where the expression of diverse views is protected by tenure, but by religious schools and seminaries which force their members to affirm a statement of faith and cast out those who express unorthodox thoughts. This artificial barrier, which has no equivalent in the scientific community, makes it much more difficult for anyone who dissents in any significant way to express an opinion. (That said, there’s a lot more diversity of opinion in the biblical studies community than most lay believers realize, and there’s certainly no widespread agreement on the tenets of fundamentalism. The Jesus Seminar is just the most visible expression of methods and conclusions that have been established in the field for decades.)
Second, even disregarding the dogma and doctrinal vows, the mission of a religious college is fundamentally different. Science rewards people whose discoveries bring us closer to the truth of the world, even if those discoveries overturn established wisdom. But the purpose of religious groups is to maintain continuity – to defend orthodoxy, defend the creed, defend the beliefs that have always been held. There’s no reward for those who challenge conventional wisdom. In religion, unlike in science, you can build a career on nothing but reiterating the thoughts of your predecessors. The absence of any method of self-correction means that in religion, unlike in science, we’d be well advised to listen to the so-called radical fringe. They’re most likely to be the people who are on to something.
Other posts in this series: